Return of the Western? Movies reviewed: The Magnificent Seven, Brimstone #TIFF16

Posted in Action, Cultural Mining, Feminism, Movies, Western by CulturalMining.com on September 30, 2016

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Is the Hollywood Western dead? Or is it back from the dead? As a genre, I thought old-fashioned westerns faded away in the 1960s and 70s, despite a few last-gasp efforts to revive it.

So imagine my surprise when the first public screening I saw at TIFF — as well as the last one — were Westerns. They were superficially similar, but very different in substance. So this week I’m looking at those two westerns: a multi-ethnic reboot about a shoot’em-up posse, and a feminist rewrite about a fire-and-brimstone preacher.

magnificentseven_01_mustuseThe Magnificent Seven

Dir: Antoine Fuqua

Rose Creek is a god-fearing mining town in the old west, complete with sheriff, church, and saloon. One day a church meeting is interrupted by frightening incident. A bad man – accompanied mean by gunmen – declares the town now belongs to a robber barren named Pogue. They have one week to hand it all over or leave town. And to drive his point home, he unceremoniously shoots anyone who objects.

The people are in despair until a lawman arrives on horseback. Chisolm (Denzel Washington) says he can put together a team that will defend the town for its rightful owners. He just needs to be paid. They agree, and he sets out to find his Denzel Washington;Chris Prattsoldiers. And what a colourful group they are. First is Faraday, a card shark (Chris Pratt) already in town. He’s a smooth-talking swindler but quick on the trigger. Vasquez is a criminal on the run. Goodnight Robichaud (Ethan Hawke) is a sharpshooter from the confederate army with PTSD. He works the rodeo circuit with Billy, a Korean knife thrower. They’re joined by Jack, a bearlike bounty hunter who lives in a log cabin, and Red Harvest, a warrior armed with bow, arrow and spear, but far from his people. Together they are the “Magnificent Seven”.

Denzel WashingtonTo counter them, robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Saarsgard) recruits a hundred heavily armed men, complete with horses, rifles, and a Gatling gun. They line up on a hillside waiting for the attack. Can seven men defeat 100 bad guys and save the town? And which of them will survive this battle royale?

The Magnificent Seven is a remake of a remake – the 1960 spaghetti western based on Kurusawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954) – and it shows its age. There were very few surprises in this movie and it had a mechanical feel. Here’s the shoot out, Denzel Washington;Chris Prattthere’s the recruiting scenes, and here comes the big battle. I like the multiracial cast – diversity on the screen is always a good thing– but aside from their looks and their weapons their background never really enters the storyline.  (Apparently the director considers women an ethnic group, too, so there’s one token woman shooting alongside the rest.) The movie has an all-star cast, but you can tell they’re doing it for the fun of it (and the money) not to stretch their acting chops. Neither does director Antoine Fuqua – known for films like Training Day. This one does not measure up.

Even so, I can enjoy a movies for its good shootouts, explosions and mayhem. Take it for what it is – an entertaining, though instantly forgettable, western. It’s OK, but nothing special.

brimstoneBrimstone

Wri/Dir: Martin Koolhoven

Elizabeth (Dakota Fanning) is a young woman who lives in a small California town in the old west, complete with sheriff, church and saloon.

She’s a respected midwife, but mute, so her 5-year-old daughter serves as her translator, her tiny voice conveying her mom’s very adult messages. But things go wrong when a fire-and-brimstone preacher enters town. The Reverend (Guy Pierce) says there are sinners among us, and they will be punished. Soon after, Elizabeth is forced to deliver a premature infant right in brimstonefront of the pulpit. To save the mother’s life she is forced to abort the male baby. This sparks a furor in the town: with an angry man carrying the torch, goaded on by the preacher’s words. How dare she save the life of a woman over that of a baby boy? That’s God’s decision, not hers.

But it soon becomes clear that this is a small battle in a much bigger fight. The preacher is out to get Elizabeth, and only the two of them know why. The preacher is willing to torture — or even murder — anyone who gets gets in his way. She refuses to give in and proves a powerful opponent. What is their connection, their history? Why is she mute? What brought her to this town? And what secrets do they hide?

brimstone_04Brimstone is told in an unusual way, in a series of biblical chapters, like Revelations and Exodus. Each successive chapter takes place before the previous one, so you only understand the meaning of the last scene until you see the next one. The story follows her homelife as a girl with a strict father and an abused mother (Carice van Houten). She learns the facts of life from two wounded gunslingers she keeps hidden in her barn. We also find about her life as a young woman in another town’s cathouse, and how and why she left there.

Dakota Fanning plays the lead as teenager, young woman and mother, and she’s completely brimstone_07believable in all three.  Guy Pearce is chilling as the horribly malevalent preacher. The movie is a scathing indictment of the treatment of women in America, by religion, by society, and by men in general.

Brimstone is troubling, disturbing and shocking, especially for a western. It doesn’t shy away from hard-to-handle issues. I had to turn my head from the screen, it was so horrific in a few scenes. It is violent in a way the Magnificent Seven isn’t, even though Seven has a huge amount of killing, while death is rarer in Brimstone. I don’t want to give the details away, since it depends on the revelations of the story, but let me just say it is not for the faint of heart. Brimstone is a fantastic, heart-wrenching drama with a lot to say.

The Magnificent Seven is playing now, check you local listings; and hopefully Brimstone will be released later this year. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Not Safe at Home. Movies Reviewed: Home Again, Olympus Has Fallen

Posted in Action, Canada, Crime, Cultural Mining, Disaster, Drama, drugs, Jamaica, Korea, Movies, Politics, Poverty, Terrorism, Uncategorized, US, violence by CulturalMining.com on March 23, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

OHF_04104.NEFFestival season is gearing up now, with Hot Docs, Images, and Cinefranco announcing this year’s line-up – fantastic stuff to come. But in the meantime, here are some non-festival releases. Today I’m looking at an action/thriller about one man inside a big house who wants to save the world; and a drama about three people stranded on an island who just want to survive.

Olympus Has Fallen

Dir: Antoine Fuqua

Mike Banning (played by perpetually gruff and surly Scot, Gerard Butler) was once a big man in the Secret Service. But when the First Lady is killed in an accident, he loses his status as a presidential guard. So he’s not at the White House when strange things start happening one morning. An errant gunner pilot flies a plane over the mall in Washington DC, mowing down random tourists, and knocking down OHF_09772.NEFAmerica’s most famous penis, the Washington monument. Then, a group of tubby but ruthless terrorists manage to capture the White House, including the president and hold him captive. The American Empire is teetering on the brink…

Who are these bad guys? Al Qaeda? Al Shabab? Iraq? Iran? No! It’s the Zeppo of Bush’s “Axis of Evil” – the North Koreans!

The other Secret Service agents all look like part-time tenors in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. (Boy are they white!) But only tough-as-nails Mike is qualified for disasters like this. He gets to the White House on his own and OHF_13131.NEFopens up communication with his boss (Angela Bassett) and the grumpy, southern Speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman).

The chief bad guy, Kang (Rick Yune), holds all the cards. He is determined to learn the Cerberus defence code (known only to a few top officials). And he demands the DMZ be taken down and the Korean peninsula unified. With his crack team of super-shooters (inexplicably wearing silly Gilligan hats and bandanas over their faces) and computer experts, along with some American traitors, he’s unbeatable. Or is he?

It’s up to Banning to single-handedly beat all the bad guys, rescue the President (Aaron Eckhardt who is much more a Romney than an Obama), his young son, Connor, and the feisty Secretary of State (Melissa Leo). And, while he’s at it, free the White House, and save the world from an imminent disaster. He accomplishes this with old fashioned American know-how, brutal fighting skills, and brutish come-back lines. (Best line: “Kang, let’sOHF_10923.NEF play a round of f*ck off — you go first.”) He improvises, like Bruce Willis in Die Hard, using things he finds on the way. Like smashing in a terrorist’s head using a marble bust of Lincoln. As a Secret Service agent Banning knows every cubbyhole, every secret passageway in the White House.

Antoine Fuqua made the very good movie Training Day, but this is absolutely nothing like that one in style or plot. None of the movie is even vaguely plausible, but it doesn’t need a deep read to understand it. It’s hilariously awful at times, but tense and exciting at others. It’s a classic action movie, complete with explosions, shoot-outs and a virtually unwatchable close-up fight scene with a hand-held camera jiggly enough to make you lose your chili nachos in the lap of the guy in the next seat.

Watch it, laugh at it, and then forget it.

0134_lqxemynyGoing Home

Dir: Sudz Sutherland

Due to a change of laws, the US, Canada and the UK are now in the habit of deporting people — landed immigrants who moved to these countries as small children – back to their birthplaces after being convicted even of relatively minor crimes. This drama follows the different paths the three of them take as they are unceremoniously dumped in Jamaica with just a suitcase.

Dunstan (Canadian actor Lyric Bent) is a likeable, big guy from New York. His cousin helps set him up as security at a meth lab in Greenwich Farms, (a tough part of Kingston). He’s working for The Don, a hairy-eyeball young gangster who operates like a high court judge in his neighbourhood, punishing or helping the people there, as he sees fit. Soon he meets the pretty but stand-offish Cherry C. (pop star Fefe Dobson) and likes her a lot. Wants to get to know her much better. But she wants nothing to do with a Deportee.

0024_vysosif1Everton (played by Torontonian Stephan James) is a clean-cut and naïve, upper-middle-class student from London. He arrives in Kingston like a fish just waiting to be caught. His uncle Sam, who he’s supposed to meet in Trenchtown, isn’t there. He meets up with a cute high school girl, but things just get worse and worse. He soon finds himself homeless and penniless waiting for his mother to rescue him. But she’s a continent away and he can only reach her by long distant phone calls.

And finally Marva from Toronto (Tatyana Ali) was separated from her two young children when she was deported. She can’t find work because no one will trust a deportee. Forced to live with her relatives — a cruel aunt and a skeezy uncle (very well played by Paul Campbell) — Marva feels trapped in an untenable situation. If she can somehow get her kids to join her in Jamaica things will get better.

Will Everton be able to pull himself together and return to England once his court appeal goes through? Can Home Again. Tatyana AliDunston earn enough to buy a forged passport and get back to his little brother in NY? And can Marva get together again with her kids?

The three deportees have their own separate sub-plots with only minimal contact among them. But they are all set in a very real-looking, fascinating Caribbean city (it was shot in Trinidad), with its colourful scenes and dancehalls, marketplaces and homes. And the movie takes place during a growing gang war affecting all of their lives.

I thought there were enough sub plots and sub-sub plots to fill a miniseries, with dozens of different side characters and twists — too much stuff going on for one movie. But by the end it all starts to coalesce, and you really feel for the characters. Great soundtrack – reggae mixed with dance. The acting is also great – especially Tatyana Ali, but also all the small roles, and there are many — and most of the (subtitled Jamaican) dialogue was fun too. As movies go, it’s a depressing plot, one I wouldn’t normally want to rush to see, and Canadian movies are prone to the overly earnest. But this didn’t happen: I liked it! It gives you lots to think about. Home Again is a good, plot-heavy drama that never leaves you bored.

Olympus has Fallen, and Home Again both open today, as does the film Yossi: check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com .

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