Monday, September 26, 2016

"SEVEN" MEDIOCRE

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
Starring Denzel Washington,
Chris Pratt,
Ethan Hawke,
Vincent D'Onofrio,
Byung-hun Lee,
Manuel Garcia Rulfo,
Martin Sensmeier,
Haley Bennett,
Peter Sarsgaard
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Written by Richard Wenk, Nic Pizzolatto
Based on the screenplay by Akira Kurosawa,
Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Runtime 133 minutes
Rated PG-13




         
Should have re-released the 1960 original. Better still, re-release Seven Samurai.


         
The latter, directed by Akira Kurosawa, is one of the greatest films ever. And this re-make of the re-make is even further off the mark than the first.


         
Fundamentally, Seven Samurai is a post-WWII picture. To equate the gun with the sword is to completely misunderstand the movie. The anonymity of the bullet is the same as that of the bomb. Between the skill, the bravery, the character of the samurai with his sword, and the ability to merely pull a trigger or drop a bomb, there is simply no comparison.


         
So when Hollywood turned a samurai movie into a Western with The Magnificent Seven, in spite of an amazing cast and a rousing score, it was a flawed idea from the start. A classic, but flawed.


         
Now, in keeping with the children's game "telephone," the original communication is all but completely lost. Nor does this new version offer improvement. Actually, the reverse. Too often it's just flat out stupid.


         
Instead of bandits planning to rob a small village, this time it's a gold mining company headed by one Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard). To stop the crook from taking over, a stalwart young widow (Bennett) determines to procure aid from a bounty hunter (Washington) who in turn needs to enlist all the help he can get. That would be a half dozen other guys.


         
The real version has Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn--big names. Plus Eli Wallach, textbook bastard, as the main bad guy. Plus great music. One of the most recognizable movie themes ever.


         
This fake version has nothing to compare with any of that. Looks like the filmmakers figured on bringing in older audiences curious to see how bad this gets screwed up, plus younger audiences based on it being a new release at a time with no competition.


         
Instead they should have come up with an original idea.


         
The villain is weak, and the casting comically inauthentic. As a Western it deserves a place right alongside Sharon Stone as a gunslinger in The Quick and the Dead.


         
To the good, it does have Vincent D'Onofrio as one of the seven, proving that even with this material his acting stands out. His squeaky-voiced old trapper-type dude is the best part of the movie, not counting the original's Elmer Bernstein music during the end credits.


         
As standard forgettable two-star fare, this is the sort of movie that would be fine for gelling in front of on free TV. Not worth paying to see in a theater, though.



Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"FEARLESS" HITS BULL'S-EYE





The Pumping Iron of PBR.
         
Part "The American Experience" and part "Wide World of Sports," this 6-part documentary series released last month on Netflix follows professional bull riders from Brazil to the Las Vegas championships.
         
With commentating from the best in the business--J.B. Mauney calls bull riding the "worst drug in the world"--Fearless features action-packed photography equally appealing to fans of the sport and those new to it.
         
Called by Sports Illustrated "the most dangerous sport," bull riding's dangers include a 140-lb man being hit by the horns of a 1,900-lb bull, getting stomped on by the hooves, tossed like a ragdoll, and all of the above.
         
According to Sean Gleason, PBR's CEO, the riders aren't necessarily insane. "They just grew up with that desire to conquer that animal for eight seconds."
         
A fascinating document of both the sport and the culture of bull riding, Fearless lets us get to know and become emotionally invested in the riders as we see them advance through (and get cut from) the circuit.
         
Because for the past several years the world's best bull riders come from Brazil, much of the show contains subtitles for viewers unacquainted with the Portuguese language. In the words of 3-time champion Adriano Moraes, the first Brazilian to dominate the sport, "It's not a fight, it's a ballet."
         
He's talking about the ability to anticipate the bull's moves. Yet in other ways, bull riding isn't like ballet at all. Dr. Tandy Freeman, the medical director of PBR, assures viewers that bull riding, with its frequently incumbent concussions and spinal damages, often results in "the same sorts of injuries you see in motor vehicle trauma."
         
For PBR champ Renato Nunes, the high risks hit home: In 1995 his brother was head-butted by a bull and went into a coma for seventeen days. When he woke up, he couldn't remember who anyone was for two years, and never fully regained walking ability.
         
Half of the 100 judged points possible in a ride are based on how well the bull jumps and spins, so because the bull can be every bit as important as the rider, cowboys want bulls that fit their style. Either way, on the circuit they ride the best bulls every weekend.
         
In some sports--boxing, notably--former champs still itch to return. Not legendary cowboy Ty Murray, though. The PBR co-founder flatly states he hasn't wanted to do it at any moment since retiring. To him, the young guys "look like candles in the wind."


SILENT BUT DEADLY: CONRAD VEIDT











His influence permeates pop culture, even though his name does not. From the fixed grin of Batman's arch-enemy the Joker, to the dark and lanky tousle-haired heroes of Tim Burton, everywhere we look, there's Conrad Veidt.
         
In Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), considered the first true horror film, Veidt plays Cesare, the Somnambulist. This hypnotized sleepwalker is revealed in a coffin-like box at a carnival in Germany by the film's title character who claims that Cesare can see the future.
         
The highly stylized angular and surreal sets, high-contrast lighting, and distorted shadows, mark Caligari as a prime example of German Expressionism in film. Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands in the Tim Burton film closely resembles Veidt's characterization; indeed, Burton built his career paying homage to the visual style.
         
The Hands of Orlac (1924), re-made in the US a decade later as Mad Love (a film which in turn inspired Orson Welles when making Citizen Kane), stars Veidt as a concert pianist who loses his hands in an accident and has the hands of a criminal grafted onto his wrists. This influential film is exceeded, however, by The Man Who Laughs (1928), which features Veidt in a role originally slated for Lon Chaney.
         
It was intended as a follow-up to the success of another Victor Hugo story, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), also starring Mary Philbin, who plays Christine in Chaney's greatest film, The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Yet at the last minute, Chaney withdrew from the picture and the role of Gwynplaine, The Laughing Man, went to Veidt.
         
Mutilated by Gypsies as a boy with a smile surgically cut into his living flesh, Gwynplaine entertains crowds at carnivals with an outer appearance which belies his feelings. This is the face that inspired Bob Kane when he created the Joker, the face of Comedy masking Tragedy. As Ray Bradbury noted, the film still works because it speaks to the shadows inside of us: "You are the person in agony, you are the person with the permanent smile."
         
Transitioning from silent films into talkies proved successful for Veidt because he used his voice as distinctively as he used his appearance. Nor did his distinctions stop there. Forced to leave Germany after he refused to play parts in Nazi propaganda films, Veidt made financial contributions to British war relief and starred in such movies as The Wandering Jew.
         
Born January 22, 1893 in Berlin, Veidt's first film of the 118 in his career, Der Weg des Todes, was released in 1916. He played Lucifer, Ivan the Terrible, Rasputin--all the best people. Veidt liked thunderstorms, but did not like pudding. His third wife, Lili, was the love of his life.
         
Ever seen the Disney movie Aladdin? That's a re-make of The Thief of Bagdad (1940). Not that Disney ever advertises the fact. They didn't even bother to change the names of most of the characters. Veidt plays the evil wizard Jaffar, and is much more effective than the character in the cartoon.
         
Released the day after he turned fifty, Casablanca (1943) includes Veidt as Major Strasser, the Nazi commander sent to capture Victor Laszlo. By this time, German Expressionism had morphed into film noir. Yet the influence of the style can be seen in the striking use of shadows and silhouettes by director Michael Curtiz.
         
Only a couple of months later, Veidt died of a heart attack while playing golf in Hollywood.
         
To re-live the Golden Age of the Silver Screen, freely explore online.


"BOLDEST HOAX" WORTH INVESTIGATING







Over a century ago, someone made monkeys out of the British scientific establishment. Jaw-dropping bone fragments found in Piltdown seemed to pre-date all other known proto-human finds. For forty years, mainstream science thought the first person was an Englishman. Eventually the evidence was properly tested and found to be completely bogus. To this day, we still don't know who falsified the Piltdown Man fossils.
         
In the PBS documentary "The Boldest Hoax," Nova digs into the case and finds suggestions of a cover-up at Britain's Natural History Museum.
         
The year was 1912. Even fifty-three years after Darwin published Origin of Species, evolution was a mystery to most. Tiny incremental changes resulting from random genetic mutations passed on to offspring--genetic fitness being defined by the act of reproduction--proved insufficient for minds seeking a so-called "missing link" between apes and humans. The fact that we did not descend from apes, but rather share distant common ancestors, was too hard to grasp for those wishing to ape finds in Germany, France, and Spain.
         
According to Andy Currant, of the NHM, stooping to fake the pieces of Piltdown Man skull "really was a horrible, nasty, vicious piece of work" because it deeply affected so many lives.
         
While speculation on the identity of the hoaxer abounds, the most sensational suspect is none other than the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had both the motivation and the opportunity.
         
An ardent spiritualist who attended séances and believed in mediums (in spite of his friend Harry Houdini exposing them as frauds), when Doyle presented "spirit photographs" to the science community as evidence of ghosts, he smarted at the rebuke because he didn't want to accept that these were merely double-exposures. He lived near Piltdown and regularly visited the site. Indeed, in his 1912 novel The Lost World, Doyle states, "If you know your business, a bone can be as easily faked as a photograph."
         
A more likely culprit, however, was the man who supposedly found the bones and presented them to the NHM. Charles Dawson had even more motivation and opportunity than Doyle, and was, according to the documentary, "a cheat and a swindler" responsible for dozens of known forgeries.
         
A fascinating story of egotism and ambition, "The Boldest Hoax" exposes the all-too-human trait of seeing what we want to believe at the expense of the evidence.
         
This skullduggery for all to dig is easily discovered online.



BEASTS WITH BREASTS: FILM'S FEMALE MONSTERS


From Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein's monster, to Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger, the faces of horror are inescapably male. Why is that? Are there even any exceptions? Where are the female monsters in film?

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN comes to mind, though it shouldn't. Elsa Lanchester appears only briefly at the end and never does anything to anybody. The scariest thing she almost does is get married. But if that gives people nightmares, it's not because of her.

Based on male monster success, lesser female versions sometimes appear by default, a last ditch attempt at cashing in. DRACULA'S DAUGHTER and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS, for example.

Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, the Invisible Man, and the Fly exemplify the mad scientist, the brilliant man who probes too far. But we never see that with women. A woman can be a monster if there is overt humor. In PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, Large Marge is a ghostly truck driver. DEAD ALIVE, Peter Jackson's early-career "splatter cartoon," features a hilariously grotesque mom-ster.

More often, women are relegated to four primary monster-type roles: the bad mom, the jilted lover, the bad daughter, and the helper to a more evil man. Interesting though these roles often prove, none are legitimate monsters. Mostly because we never see them as Halloween masks.

Joan Crawford inspired a bad mom two-fer: Faye Dunaway plays her in MOMMIE DEAREST, and she was the visual inspiration for Snow White's Evil Queen stepmother.

Glenn Close makes a great jilted lover in FATAL ATTRACTION, which bears close comparison to PLAY MISTY FOR ME; in both cases, the spurned woman, seeking tit for tat, is ready for the booby hatch. For her evil deeds in BASIC INSTINCT, Sharon Stone deserves a dishonorable mention. Not exactly a horror character, though.

Ultimately, the super-sexy bad woman is a cinematic cheat because emphasis on titillation simply undermines. ATTACK OF THE 50FT. WOMAN, with its voluptuously beautiful star, wasn't made for scaring.

For bad daughter movies, nothing beats THE BAD SEED. THE GOOD SON, an inferior re-make, flat out fails at ripping it off. In theory, Elizabeth Montgomery as the hatchet-wielding murderer in 1975's made-for-TV THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN should have worked. But doesn't. In a class by itself, CARRIE. Sissy Spacek makes a painfully sympathetic daughter pushed over the edge by conniving peers and a hellishly controlling mother. It's a powerful story, but she's not the monster.

In the evil helper role, no one does better than Ruth Gordon in ROSEMARY'S BABY. Compared to her, Lady MacBeth is a rank amateur. Still, not a proper monster.

Stanley Kubrick's depiction of both the woman in the bathtub and the hand-holding twins in THE SHINING would be the Holy Grail of female monsters in film if they were the stars of the show. In the case of FRIDAY THE 13th, sort of a reverse version of PSYCHO, the monster is a woman--and who can even remember? For all the rest of the many sequels, even though Jason Voorhees died as a little boy, the bad guy is inexplicably a guy.

Keeping that little trick in mind, it's amazing we haven't seen umpteen sequels to MISERY with some dude replacing Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes. On account she makes the Creature From the Black Lagoon look like Charlie the Tuna. Even so, we rarely see kids at Halloween all decked out for a hobbling.

In ancient times and faraway places, it's a lot less difficult to find legitimate female monsters. Winged harpies, frenzied maenads. Grendel's chunky, ticked off mother. Most recognizable of all, Medusa, the Gorgon.

When a movie monster is a man, we have no problem with that. It simply seems perfectly normal. Not so, however, when the monster is a woman.

Evidently, that just hits too close to home.





NOTE TO REGULAR READERS OF THIS BLOG:

The reason I haven't been posting for about a month is because I've been busy reconstructing my life. New residence, new employment, new everything. When the time is right, all shall be revealed. Faithful readers will be rewarded with juicy, nutrient-packed stories. Never doubt. Never fear. Sometimes I must wander off to conduct my mystical ways. But I'll be back. Oh yes. I will return.



Thursday, August 18, 2016

WHY I WRITE RANDOM REVIEWS

When I started writing weekly movie reviews for The Indie in 2002, there was a theater near me almost always playing something new. Here and now, there isn't anything new at all. We used to have Garberville Theater running fairly new movies pretty regularly. For a couple years now though, this hasn't been the case, and the nearest theater is in Fortuna. Consequently, for the last year-plus, I've expanded my movie reviews to suit the real world by including the online world. Freely available on YouTube are words I often write because it's true, and we should avail ourselves of the knowledge at our fingertips. My job is to write an interesting read, informing with detail. In these instances wherein my fascination prompts, everybody wins. From post-WWII cargo cults in the South Pacific to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, from the etchings of M.C. Escher to the professional boxing championship rivalry between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran, the array of astounding documentaries I've reviewed for The Independent abounds. Indeed, extending even back into the earliest years, once in a while there wouldn't be a new movie at the theater, and in these cases I usually wrote music reviews. So once in a while I still like pursuing that, as well. And because I've been writing published articles every week for the last fourteen and a half years, I'm looking into syndicating.

Got a publication? Looking to pay a reliable contributor who will rock--yes ROCK--your world? 
Drop a message for me here. Or Google+, or Twitter, all so easy. Pick the message method of your choice (hey, comin' around full-circle here)...at random.




In addition to my weekly column, I work for the paper in other ways, too. Part of the deal includes that I get this juicy ad space most of the time, and so I go through spells of making the most of it to various purposes.



I used to have a band. I was given one, and named us CrowMag, after a guy heard me at a library book reading, bought my book, and read it. Having never had anything to do with music in my life, I wrote and sang a bunch of songs, even getting us a couple songs on the radio.


One of my favorite accomplishments: getting paid for the serialization of a story!







I've hosted quite a bit of radio, usually reading stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Roald Dahl, or Lewis Carroll. On several occasions, I've pre-recorded my movie reviews and KMUD has played those. So far, my crowning achievement in radio is LOST COASTER, the 7-part half-hour radio show of the same novella partially serialized.



These and other experiences helped me teach Creative Writing for College of the Redwoods multiple times.





First of the three print books.

I created a genre, Redwoodpunk.

Weird tales set in Northern California's Humbaba County.


My favorite of the three print books so far is this one, THE MESMERIZER.




Thanks for checkin' in. Stroll around the blog and peruse the stories and articles much as you like.