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Movie Reviews
Movie Review: The Magnificent Seven (2016)


The Magnificent Seven is a revisionist Western remake of a classic Western, which was based on a Japanese film called The Seven Samurai. The story of heroes vs. cowards, little man vs. big man, defending your fortress and fighting for freedom from tyranny and persecution has remained timeless. The altruism at the heart of The Seven Samurai is part of the reason this film has been immortalised and still holds up today. The heroic seven are an inspiration to audiences, who feel powerless in a system that only seems to make the rich richer and the powerful, invincible.

Perhaps this is what makes the remake of The Magnificent Seven a timely affair, demonstrating the power of a few in their capacity to mobilise and arm the downtrodden in an effort to overcome unreasonable tyranny by force. While this The Magnificent Seven doesn't reinvent the basic story of a few guns-for-hire defending a helpless village, it does redress it, bringing a diverse cast of characters together as a ragtag team of strays who unite to defend the common man. Several Wild West minority groups are represented by The Magnificent Seven and each of them have their reasons, whether motivated by destiny, revenge, money, justice or the wind of change and it's refreshing to see Denzel Washington charging on a stallion as team leader, Sam Chisolm.

Following in the wake of The Hateful Eight, it's probably not as novel having a black actor taking the lead in a classic Western, but Washington does good as a bounty hunter and "peace-maker" partnering with Antoine Fuqua in a film that stands its ground. He's supported by Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke and Vincent D'Onofrio as part of his posse, opposing Peter Sarsgaard as the despicable mining tycoon, Bart Bogue. Pratt isn't quite as charming and cheeky as he was in Guardians of the Galaxy, but adds some extra firepower. Hawke seems to enjoy himself as the tarnished legend, Goodnight while D'Onofrio gets to grips with a part-bear-part-man in Jack.

The Magnificent Seven Movie

"I suppose you're wondering why I called this meeting?"

The film works mostly thanks to its book ends, starting with an intense church scene that recalls There Will Be Blood, and moving onto a high body count showdown to cap things off. The Magnificent Seven would have done well to stay in the channel of There Will Be Blood as they tap into the idea of big business enslaving a town and buying the very soul of justice from the Sheriff and his men. However, this cinematic opening gives way to a more generic rounding up the men middle as Chisolm gathers the usual suspects with one or two surprises.

The third act is all gunpowder and bravado as the town prepare for onslaught and Bogue's men muster on the scene. Having influenced many Westerns over the years and already broken in the concept, much of the film has a dull familiarity tipping the hat to the original while bowing to genre cliches. It was to be expected and you'd be foolish to go in expecting a complete reinvention. What does work is the gunpowder and star power, slowly building to an explosive and violent massacre, and using some big name stars to get us there.

This Western could have done with more camaraderie. While the actors create an easy-going chemistry, it's not in danger of dislodging Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Chris Pratt looks like he's enjoying himself in all the mayhem, but sometimes you wonder if his character isn't just psychotic that way. Washington and Hawke do add some class, but it's always good and rarely great. The grit of The Revenant may have spoiled things a bit for this Western, but then again they're more concerned with popcorn thrills than breathtaking cinematography.

It's a wild and entertaining ride that has enough quality to serve as a solid remake, but this film realises its place within the broader context. The diversity and representation makes this underdog tale sizzle below the surface and the stellar cast helps overcome the cracks in what is otherwise a fairly routine film. You may already know the drill, but there's enough twinkle, some epic landscape shots and plenty of shoot 'em up spirit to get the job done.

The bottom line: Enjoyable


 
Movie Review: Blair Witch


Blair Witch is comparable with Evil Dead 2 in as much as it's delivering what the first one did, with less novelty and more finesse. The original The Blair Witch Project was one of the first found footage horror films to emerge and while the hype exceeded delivery, managed to carve out a new genre of cinema, signalling a cross-over between high-end and commercially available video recording.

While the low budget horror was something of a shaky-cam pioneer, it received favourable reviews, tipping the hat to its mock-doc style shooting, genuine creepiness and the way it leveraged our imagination with an "invisible" villain. Since then, the reality camcorder genre has blossomed and it just seemed like a good time to introduce a new generation to one of the founders with a modern skin.

Blair Witch is a terrifying ordeal and a strong redux. The new version is cleverly refreshed and supplanted in the original with an X-Files style "missing sister" device. Instead of Mulder, we have James, who still believes his sister Heather is out there... in the woods. After another video surfaces of what he believes to show she's alive, he assembles a brave expedition party, including two strange locals.

Blair Witch has been updated to include contemporary technology with over-the-ear cameras and I loved the introduction of the untrustworthy guides. The filmmakers could have done so much more with the evil locals to the tune of Funny Games, but keep us guessing with their odd behaviour and off-balance with rising group tensions.

Blair Witch Movie

"Damn."

The cast is good, with James Allen McCune starring in a similar mold to Nicolas Hoult as James. He's the calm and steady hero, leaning on Callie Hernandez as Lisa with Corbin Reid and Brandon Scott playing fellow campers, Ashley and Peter. Wes Robinson is probably the most memorable act from Blair Witch as Lane, whose cold blue eyes make him seem almost possessed with the film-makers obscuring us from him and his partner, Talia, played by Valorie Curry.

Adam Wingard maintains this uneasiness by playing on a multitude of fears from claustrophobia to nyctophobia (dark), xenophobia (unknown) and even acrophobia (heights). Switching from one perspective to another and given access to multiple cameras, including a drone, gives him more options as a film-maker. He doesn't add polish or finesse, but keeps the spirit of The Blair Witch Project with shaky cam shooting, creepy situational dynamics and using what-goes-bump-in-the-night scare tactics.

Instead of going play-for-play, Wingard takes it up a notch by creating a hellish environment for his characters and audience, where being lost in the woods suddenly takes on a whole new dimension of terror. Blair Witch is a solid remake but also serves as a tribute to the genre, incorporating elements from all the best reality horror thrillers, including: REC and Paranormal Activity.

It probably would've been better, if Blair Witch had teased out the suspicion on the "guides" longer. As with most of these low budget found footage thrillers, the loose ends contribute to the uncertainty and fear, while the jerky camera motion is a strength and a weakness. It's not going to change the world, but it will immerse you in the pitch black nightmare just long enough to be utterly relieved to see the light of day again.

The bottom line: Terrifying


 
Movie Review: Ben-Hur


The Ben-Hur of 1959 starring Charlton Heston is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. A remake of a silent movie, the production took six months to film and six months of postproduction to complete at a cost of just under $15 million. Massive sets, thousands of costumes and long days, it was a colossal undertaking, inspired by The Ten Commandments. Originally, Marlon Brando was set to star but the iconic role eventually found its way to Charlton Heston with the film generating 10 times its budget in returns at the box office.

The story, penned by Lew Wallace, follows a prince falsely accused of treason who returns to his homeland after years at sea to take revenge on the adopted brother, who betrayed him. The new Ben-Hur of 2016 isn't as grandiose as its predecessor, making some drastic changes to the story. The central revenge plot between Judah Ben-Hur and Masala, played by Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell, is still a primary focus, however it seems that the film makers have made more room for Ilderim and Jesus Christ, played by Morgan Freeman and Rodrigo Santoro respectively. The effort seems divided between four characters, when it's really Ben Hur's film.

Jack Huston isn't your typical leading man and seems pretty ordinary when you contrast him with Charlton Heston. Huston pushes off Kebbell as their paths diverge and for a moment you're not too sure who is playing the lead. Huston is likable and goes through a number of transitions in terms of his appearance much like The Count of Monte Cristo. Kebbell has more of an embattled sneer and comparable with Joseph Fiennes's role as Clavius in Risen, a film which makes an interesting contrast in terms of production values and themes.

Ben-Hur 2016 Movie Review

"I feel the need... the need for speed."

The new Ben-Hur tries to elevate itself into the realm of Ben-Hur, Spartacus and Gladiator, which is such a strong influence that it almost becomes an undercurrent. However, it's a lesser film – leaning on CGI to create dazzling effects but failing to capture the same injustice, turmoil and sprawling majesty. Perhaps a stronger lead would have helped raise this historical adventure drama's profile, which seems more in line with the Orlando Bloom film, Kingdom of Heaven.

Timur Bekmambetov is a director best known for Night Watch, Day Watch, Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. These dark fantasy films make it seem strange that he was elected for the remake of Ben-Hur. Although when you look at Darren Aronofsky's Noah, it may help explain the decision. Bekmambetov excels in the darker moments, most particularly his vision of the hellish sea battles. He's also paid special attention to the chariot race, a scene which has left an indelible mark on Hollywood history. While he doesn't trump the original, it still functions as the film's climactic highlight.

Ben-Hur certainly doesn't have the same magic and power as the golden era films its trying to mimic, but it's still entertaining as we journey with a wrongfully accused man on a path to redemption. The quality of the production ranks alongside Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, yet it's restrained by its decision to try and parallel the story of Christ. Ben Hur did have some interactions with Jesus Christ, but the timing of both stories just seem implausible and convoluted rather than coincidental. The ending while touching is cheapened by Ben-Hur's hollow victory and change of heart. This heavy-handed approach just makes this mediocre... at best promising, biblical epic seem a bit cheesy.

The bottom line: So-so


 
Movie Review: Sully


Chelsey "Sully" Sullenberger will be remembered for his heroic efforts in making an emergency landing on the Hudson River in New York after his Airbus A320 lost the use of its engines following a bird strike shortly after take-off. The pilot's quick thinking saved many lives and planted a much-needed aviation miracle in the hearts and minds of the people of New York after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The amazing true story captured the world's imagination as reports flooded in with the good news. There aren't many happy emergency landing stories and this one took our breath away, creating a national hero and testing the mettle of New York's finest policemen, firefighters and rescue teams who responded immediately.

This story was bound to be adapted to film and who better to direct and star than American treasures, Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks. Eastwood's directing credits include war films, sporting triumphs and generally involve some flag-waving patriotism, whether it be the star-spangled banner in American Sniper or South Africa's national flag in Invictus. He's become known for directing stories that inspire and unfurling the tales of everyday heroes.

Sully Movie 2016

"Cabin crew, please stop doing your cross-checks..."

Having a solid, accomplished and patriotic director on-board was half the job done and with Tom Hanks playing Sullenberger, almost making the film sturdy enough to recommend blindly. He played Captain Phillips in a role lauded as something of a comeback and there's a wonderful synergy. Both films involve self-sacrificing captains subjected to a difficult and unusual situation, in which they're forced to make immediate life-threatening decisions, which could impact their passengers and crew.

While Captain Phillips was action-intensive, taut and relentless, Sully is unassuming and reflective when we're not experiencing the rush of emergency. We start in the aftermath of the near-disaster where the media can't get enough of America's new hero. True to Sullenberger's surname, Hanks is playing a character who is somewhat sullen. Solemn might be a better word, downplaying the gravity of the dire situation and the instant fame he's achieved. It's a restrained performance as Hanks balances the emotions of a man overwhelmed and yet determinedly calm in his circumstances, much like his emergency landing.

He's supported by earnest turns by Aaron Eckhart as his second-in-command and Laura Linney as his wife. Eckhart is solid, literally playing his wing man, and sporting an impressive moustache that makes you think pilots wear them because they look like wings. Linney anchors the man's home life, something that remains a bit of a mystery since he's almost never out of uniform.

We get a glimpse into Sullenberger's life, a long-serving pilot turned aviation safety official, who after delivering more than a million passengers to their destinations safely is faced with his greatest challenge yet. Flashbacks to his aviation career underscore a decent and committed man as phone calls between him and his wife remind us of the deep sacrifice he's made.

Sully recreates the emergency landing without much embellishment. It seems like an accurate and authentic rendition of the events, carefully creating the on-board environment with a depiction of aviation that enthusiasts will probably admire. It goes even deeper than simply dramatising the miracle landing, going behind-the-scenes to the legal ramifications of choosing to land on the Hudson instead of turning back to the airport. It also serves as a tribute to the level-headed hero and the scores of emergency personnel who work tirelessly in the name of safety.

The salute to New York's servicemen does seem like an important aspect of the film, an issue that Sullenberger would probably want to highlight, downplaying his own heroics. Despite Hanks's solid performance and firm direction from Eastwood, you're left wanting more from this quietly confident biographical drama. However, it's touching to: see people coming together, watch a man of great integrity stand by his word and witness the events unfold gracefully and without question.

The bottom line: Unassuming

 
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