Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Magnificent Seven Ride Again

One of my favorite films to watch during my younger days was the 1960 western The Magnificent Seven. This remake of Akira Kurosawa’s epic Seven Samurai has gone on to become a classic in its own right, and the story of a group of gunfighters defending a small town against villainous bandits has been remade & re-worked many times over the years. It’s hard to top this movie, with its powerhouse cast, including Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn & Charles Bronson, and the rousing, iconic Elmer Bernstein score that’s become familiar even to those who haven’t seen the film. There’s also great onscreen chemistry between the stars, quotable dialogue and some excellent action set pieces; in many ways, it’s a forerunner of the modern big budget action-adventure movie. Several sequels to the film were produced, and there was even a pretty decent TV series version, which aired on CBS from 1998-2000.

Now director Antoine (Training Day) Fuqua has made a new adaptation of the tale starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt. This time out, the villain is Bartholomew Pogue, a corrupt landowner who wants to drive out the residents of a place called Rose Creek. He’s trying to force the townspeople to sign over their land to him at a fraction of what its worth, so he can mine for gold in the area. Emma Cullen, whose husband is killed by Pogue, hires bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Washington) to gather a group of gunfighters to take on Pogue. Chisolm assembles a team including gambler Josh Faraday, sharpshooter Midnight Robicheaux and eccentric tracker Jack Horne. This motley crew of heroes must learn how to get along with each other, as well as train the people of Rose Creek to defend themselves, in order to take down Pogue and his army of men.

Screenwriters Nic (True Detective) Pizzolato & Richard Wenk try to make the “seven” more politically correct, adding an Asian & a Comanche warrior to the team this time out. It’s nice to see these “modern” touches added to the story, but even though Emma (nicely played by Haley Bennett) hires the crew, the screenplay stops short of making her a full member of the crew, though she does contribute during the climactic battle. As you'd expect, Washington & Pratt (who are both good in their roles) get the lion’s share of screen time, though the supporting characters all get some small moments to shine, including Ethan Hawke as Robicheaux and Vincent D’Onofrio as Horne. Peter Sarsgaard is appropriately hiss-able as the villainous Pogue. But the Chisolm character’s motivation for going after Pogue is a little too predictable, and it's an unnecessary addition to his backstory. While this is a watchable, well-executed version of the story, it doesn't quite live up to the Kurosawa original or the beloved (by fans) Brynner/McQueen version.

The movie is nicely directed by Fuqua, and beautifully shot by cinematographer Mauro Fiore, who gives it that classic widescreen Western feel. The action sequences are exciting, and the cast gives it their all. There are also several call-backs to the original film for fans, both visually and especially, in dialogue. It’s an enjoyable movie but it stops short of being a classic. Still, it’s nice to see an old-fashioned Western adventure (with a few new twists) on the big screen again. If you like the genre or are a fan of the actors involved, you’ll have a good time watching the movie. It’s an entertaining, well-made popcorn film, but it’s not especially memorable. The Magnificent Seven is currently in theaters. Here’s a link to the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-RBA0xoaWU/

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Investigating Hackman's "Night Moves"

I first saw director Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) back in the early 80s. It had been a sleepless night for me & the film was airing in one of those late night timeslots where it was interrupted every ten or twelve minutes by those awful used car dealer & mattress outlet commercials. It probably wasn’t the best way to see this complex, noir-ish thriller, but since I was a fan of star Gene Hackman, I thought I’d give the movie a try. I found the movie interesting & well-acted, but lack of sleep & the constant commercial interruptions probably contributed to me filing the title away to see again at some point. Fast forward to 2016, and I got to watch the film with no commercials, as part of Turner Classic Movies month long salute to Hackman (one of my favorite actors) in September. I now think it’s one of Hackman’s best performances, and one of the more under-rated films of the 1970s.

Gene Hackman in Night Moves
Hackman stars as Harry Moseby, a former football player who's working as a low end private investigator working in Los Angeles. His wife Ellen (well played by Susan Clark) keeps pestering him to join a large investigative agency so he can make more money & take on better paying work, but he likes doing things on his own. Harry & Ellen’s relationship has hit a crossroads, and he discovers Ellen is having an affair. At a friend’s suggestion, he takes on a new case: locating the missing child of Arlene Iverson, a faded movie star. Her teenage daughter, Delly, has run off & was last seen on a film set in New Mexico. It seems Delly (Melanie Griffith, in an early role) is something of a wild child, and has been flirting & toying with several men on the film set, including mechanic Quentin & stunt pilot Marv Ellman. By the time Harry gets there, she’s already left.

Harry finds her in the Florida Keys. She’s staying with her stepfather Tom, but Delly doesn’t want to go back. She thinks her mother is only interested in her trust fund, which Arlene will inherit if anything happens to Delly. Harry stays overnight, and tries to convince Delly to return. Meanwhile, he forms a bond & shares an attraction with Paula, a woman who works for Tom. While on a boat ride with Harry & Paula, Delly goes swimming & finds the wreckage of a small plane, with the pilot’s body inside. Paula marks the spot with a buoy & the trio returns to shore. A visibly upset Delly asks Harry to take her home. He brings her back to Los Angeles, but a short time later, he hears Delly has been killed in an accident while filming a stunt on a movie set. That’s the springboard for what will become the movie’s final third. Harry, who’s been trying to salvage his relationship with Ellen, is drawn back into the case. Lies are uncovered, secrets are revealed, and in classic film noir style, things do not end well for everyone.

Night Moves is a dark, almost bleak movie, with characters like Harry & Paula stuck in places they don’t want to be, but powerless to change. In many ways, Harry is the opposite of the typical film noir hero, as he isn’t the tough guy who punches his way through things & people to solve the mystery. He hasn’t figured out the truth of the case, or his own truth. Hackman is superb in the role, subtly conveying Harry’s anguish under the surface. There’s a fine supporting cast of familiar faces, including Harris Yulin, John Crawford, Edward Binns, a young James Woods as Quentin, and the amazing Jennifer Warren, who is excellent as Paula. Arthur Penn’s solid direction, Alan Sharp’s well-honed script  & cinematographer Bruce Surtees moody color palette all contribute to the movies’s success. The film is the second of three collaborations between director Penn & star Hackman, the other two being 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde and 1985’s Target. Night Moves is not a typical thriller, but it is a rewarding viewing experience, and it couldn’t have been made in a more appropriate decade than the 1970s. It’s truly worth watching. The film is available on DVD. Here’s a link to the film’s (somewhat misleading) trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdlLWziBggM.a .

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Star Trek Goes "Beyond" 50 Years

Since this month marks the 50th anniversary of premiere of the original Star Trek, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about the series, and take a look at the latest big screen adventure of the Enterprise crew, Star Trek: Beyond. I first saw the first TV incarnation of Trek when it late in its original run & then when it entered syndication in the 70s. Like many others, I was entranced by the intelligence, charm and humor of the series, and the solid chemistry among the cast. Of course, it didn’t hurt that there were space battles, fistfights, aliens both friendly & hostile, and those beautiful women for the stalwart Captain Kirk to romance.  But through it all, creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a unified future where people of all races & creeds get along, and band together to explore new worlds, touched a chord with me, and a legion of fans. That philosophy has remained a significant part of most of the subsequent television series, movies & spinoffs (books, comics, etc.) throughout the years. I've continued to be a fan, and have continued to enjoy Trek in its many incarnations over the years.

Star Trek: Beyond is the third chapter in the rebooted film series begun in 2009 by producer/director J.J. Abrams. This time out, he turns the director’s chair over to Justin Lin, best known for helming several entries in the Fast & Furious franchise. It’s several years into the Enterprise’s mission, and Captain Kirk & the crew are a bit bored. The thrill of exploring strange new worlds has lost its charm for them, and everyone’s a bit…edgy. Kirk (Chris Pine) is thinking of accepting a promotion and taking a desk job, and Spock (Zachary Quinto) is considering leaving Starfleet, and changing his career path as well. But while the ship is docked at a starbase, a distress call is received by an alien woman who says her ship was attacked & her crew was taken hostage. She begs Starfleet for assistance and who's assigned to help her? The stalwart crew of the Enterprise.

Our crew races off to investigate, but of course, it’s a trap! An alien named Krall attacks & cripples the Enterprise, and our heroes are forced to evacuate & head to a nearby planet. Once there, our crew is separated into smaller groups who must figure out what Krall is up to & find a way to escape. Lin keeps the action moving along at a brisk pace and there are quite a few callbacks to the original series (both visual & in dialogue) for fans. It’s a well-mounted, exciting film, but Krall’s ultimate plan & origin (though very classic Trek in nature) is revealed a bit too late in the film to register the proper impact. But the cast is excellent, and there are some great moments in the movie, especially in the bickering banter and love-hate friendship between Quinto’s Spock & Karl Urban’s Dr. McCoy. The on again, off again romance between Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Spock is also explored, and Scotty (once again played by Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the script) gets a few choice moments.

If you’re a Trek fan, you’ll find much to enjoy here: Star Trek: Beyond is entertaining & exciting. Director Lin provides some pulse-pounding action set pieces, including a rescue sequence that lets Chris Pine's Kirk ride a vintage motorcycle. Idris Elba is effectively villainous as Krall, and Sofia Boutella is excellent as an alien warrior who assists the crew. The only thing that’s a bit lacking is the sense of wonder & philosophical elements that permeated many of the original series best episodes. Still, after 50 years the Trek saga shows no signs of ending, as Pine and the rest of the "Abrams-verse" crew are signed for more sequels, and a new TV series, Star Trek: Discovery, premieres on CBS next year. The film is currently finishing its run in theaters, but a streaming & home video release date should be announced in the near future. Here’s a link to the trailer for Star Trek: Beyond: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bzD8H6o1awQ.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Who Is "That Guy Dick Miller?"

Dick Miller is one of the most recognizable character actors of the last 50 years. Even if you don’t recall his name, you definitely know his face. He played the curmudgeonly Mr. Futterman in Gremlins & the gun shop clerk in The Terminator, among his many other scene-stealing supporting roles. If you’re a fan of 1950s and 60s sci-fi & horror films, I’m sure you remember him from his many appearances in the movies of writer-director Roger Corman, including It Conquered The World, Not Of This Earth & the original Little Shop of Horrors. The 2014 documentary That Guy Dick Miller is an enjoyable look at the life & career of this talented performer. The film features interviews with Miller, his wife Lainie and a host of fans, friends & collaborators, including Corman, film critic Leonard Maltin, actors Robert Forster, Jonathan Haze, Mary Woronov, and director Joe Dante.

It’s an engaging documentary, and it covers Millers journey from his days as a member of Corman’s stock company to being one of the most in demand character actors of the 70s & 80s. The portion of the film that recalls his early work is fascinating. It’s an affectionate look at how B-movie casts & crews quickly and efficiently made low budget movies back in the 50s & 60s. No one thought these films would be remembered & celebrated so many years later. But an entire generation of young filmmakers were influenced by these sci-fi & horror movies, including Dante, Francis Ford Coppola, Allan Arkush & Martin Scorsese. All of these artists worked for Corman in their younger days, and later cast Miller in their own films; in fact Joe Dante has featured Miller in all of his movies, and is one of his biggest fans & supporters.

The movie is filled with clips of Miller’s stellar work, including his lead role as Walter Paisley in Corman’s A Bucket Of Blood. It’s one of Miller’s best-known parts & he’s used the character name in other films over the years, including the bookstore owner in Dante’s The Howling. There’s even a glimpse of a deleted scene from Pulp Fiction featuring Miller & Harvey Keitel, and a clip of Miller with Robert DeNiro from Scorsese’s New York, New York. All of Miller’s colleagues, family & friends obviously have great affection for him, and the interplay between Miller & his wife in their interview segments is a lot of fun. Miller is an appealing guy, and he's clearly thankful for his success, though he feels a great deal of it came from "being in the right place, at the right time."

Miller’s wife acted as a producer on the film, and it was written & directed by Elijah Drenner. This is a marvelous look at the career of a wonderful actor who’s given us a lot of memorable performances over the years. Whether the film he's acting in is good, bad or mediocre, Miller is always excellent. I think you’ll really enjoy this well produced, loving tribute to this iconic actor. That Guy Dick Miller is available for online viewing at Amazon, and the movie can also be purchased online at the film's website: http://www.thatguydickmiller.com. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSKTIe-HRG8.