The Magnificent Seven – Film Review

The greatest moments of “The Magnificent Seven” aren’t the scenes where all the magnificent’s are sitting around, talking about their magnificent adventures. Movies should show, not tell, and I agree. But if you aren’t willing to show a characters journey, their past, their present state in the world, then you’ve got to try to tell us a little bit about them.

Cowboys talk in gravely, deep-voiced mumbles, I understand. But not all of them. Josh Faraday, the alcoholic magician played by Chris Pratt (or is it just Chris Pratt played by Chris Pratt?), has a lot to say. The quiet one, Chisolm, played by Denzel Washington, talks and acts as if he were living in an entirely different cinematic universe, a slow-burn, darkly-lit drama photographed by Roger Deakins.

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Luckily for Chisolm, he isn’t required to interact a whole lot with this ensemble, other than the obligatory assembling and introductions of the squad. We’ve got 7 here? One, two, three…I count six. Never mind, the seventh is standing over there, as Pratt’s character says in the beginning of the film, “Oh, good, we’ve got a Mexican!”

On-screen diversity is a hot topic in Hollywood and they’ve responded, if not in any dramatic way. They’re learning that people don’t just want diverse characters, they want actual characters. You know, a person with a motive other than revenge or a skill unrelated to their culture.

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The Chinese cowboy, Billy Rocks, played by Lee Byung-hun, is very skilled at throwing all sorts of sharp, metallic weapons, even his own hair-pin. It’s typical to cast a Chinese man as the prototypical knife-thrower (with a twist, albeit), but at least his stereotype isn’t dull. Billy actually rocks. He’s a quiet character but arguably the most entertaining of them all.

The second most engaging character arc would have to be Ethan Hawke as Goodnight Robicheaux, a PTSD-ridden sharpshooter who uses Billy as a circus entertainer for the locals, splitting the dividends between them. Their relationship seems very complex: Billy feels bad for Goodnight’s war-torn suffering, while Goodnight takes advantage of a foreign mans abilities for his own gain.

The film doesn’t come close to replecating the greatness of the original film, or even close to The Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s original telling of the tale. But beyond the sketchy, loosely-plotted characters, there is a thirty-minute plus action sequence that’s very entertaining. If anything, you can be assured that director Antoine Fuqua hasn’t lost his interest or his touch in direction large scale, dynamite-driven action sequences.

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Iron Man 3 (2013) – Film Review

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The first thing I thought walking out of the theater is that this movie is either innovative or disrespectful; there is no hiding the fact that liberties have been taken with the entire genre in the new Tony Stark vehicle.

Without giving away any spoilers, if you look at the one liberty (and those who’ve seen it know exactly what it is),  and judge it solely on it’s merit and the merit it had in the comics, you’re going to call it disrespectful to the origins. But if you look at how it fits into the whole plot and schema of the movie, it’s a very clever device.

The movie is about identity and accountability, and of all the character flaws shining through Tony Stark, no-one can deny he’s not afraid of being known and being accountable.  Indeed, that was the whole moral conundrum that resulted in him de-weaponizing his whole company in Jon Favreau’s first Iron Man movie.  And then he goes and makes a public statement to a terrorist, even blurting out his home address (though it’s surprising that by now everyone doesn’t know where the great Tony Stark lives, especially an international terrorist).

The new Iron Man does have a boat load of humor, courtesy of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” director Shane Black. But don’t let these cover-up the depth that aches beneath the surface. Tony Stark is living anxiously after the events of the Avengers. The anxiety-attacks could have been a little better written, maybe with hallucination or more of his pain shown alongside visuals.

Robert Downey Jr. looks wide-eyed and breathes heavily throughout the film. And although he’s a great actor, there’s just not enough built-in or earned emotion for us to feel a whole lot of sympathy; and just imagine how difficult it might be for a viewer who hasn’t seen the events of the The Avengers.

Some of the greatest scenes in the movie come in the form of a young boy Tony finds in a small-town.  Their personalities are very similar and it results in a lot of spark on-screen. They quip, talk about fathers, and help each other out in a charming, big brother sort of way.

The remote-controlled armor is an odd duality. The movie’s premise promotes the idea that Tony is Iron Man, Iron Man is not Tony.  It’s an inciting moment for Tony’s third-act epiphany; he has gone too far.  He builds a boat load of armor, his technology commanding a bit too much of his attention.

The movie is an interesting exploration of the old theme of man-or-machine, even if the climax may be a bit overlong. The explosions never really end in the climax and the lack of quiet moments spliced in between the chaos creates a numbing affect. The repetition of the action sequences simply normalizes the barrage of fireworks. It goes off the rails, falling into the default mode of a standard superhero showdown.

Dredd 3D (2012)

I was happy to be able to see Dredd not only in 3D, but also at a multiplex specializing in I MAX. It was a truly exciting film: from the beginning scenes spanning across the outer region of Mega City One, with towering buildings scattered across the land, to a zooming motorcycle hosting a well-equipped Judge: In this case, Judge Dredd. Played by Karl Urban, who seemed at first a little too much of a character actor, he puts on the boots and shows he’s got the muscle for the job. Wearing a mask that covers him from the nose up, he has the huge task of working with minimal gesture, and not making it look campy and forced, like Sylvester Stallone did in the original movie.

The plot is fairly simple and objective: a veteran judge is forced to take a rookie along, only to end up imprisoned in a tower swamped with gun-men and drug hounds. This rookie, though, is not the normal wanna-be judge. She is a very powerful psychic: she can twist the mind and predict the future based on the thoughts surrounding her. Quite the asset for a police raid, yes. The special drug involved is called ‘Slo-mo’, a substance that causes the user to slow down in time, seeing action and motion at a very low speed. This is used conceptually to great effect: when two men are thrown off a building, we understand why they are forced to take this drug. And we pity, unlike Judge Dredd.

The character of Dredd is not very complex: It seemed that in the original film, they tried more to pry into the skin behind the helmet, and the poor execution caused that to fail. But here they don’t seem to be trying to pry at all. It seems more attention has gone towards the action and intensity, which are both top-notch, while Dredd says little besides one-liners, some stronger than others. The one-location premise, though, is sometimes a bore: It’s hard to imagine the unpredictable when you know the location is static; it’s one of those movies where you wonder how it could go on and where it’s going to be headed next, which isn’t always a good thing.

The lighting and set-design for Dredd matches it’s tone perfectly: It’s dark shadows and gritty decor are a reflection of the corruption and abuse ongoing in Mega City One. Essentially, Dredd holds the same plot foundation as The Raid: Redemption from 2011, though the style is undoubtedly different. In The Raid, swat-teams are designated to take down a drug building: in Dredd, only two armored Judges are sent out.

Premium Rush (2012)

Premium Rush, a movie that brands itself as a thunderous, fast-paced thrill ride, is a bit of a disappointment. It features some excellent performances, most notably from Michael Shannon, but places them like simple pawns on the city streets, en route a formulaic plot and an unsatisfying, predictable pay-off. There are enjoyable parts in the film where we are amused and intrigued by the characters, their actions and situations, but not enough to sustain a feature-length film.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Wilee, an enigmatic bike messenger who rides inexhaustibly throughout the streets of New York. The decisions made by the messengers have to be decisive and smart: there cannot be any indecision when looking for a way through traffic, and that’s why Wilee doesn’t have any brakes, period. This is the macho line that sets Wilee aside from the other hardcore messengers, though when we’re talking about bicycles, it seems like mentioning testosterone and competitiveness is a joke in itself. The slow-motion cinematography, implemented during times when Wilee is trying to calculate the best route in, around, and between speeding, dangerous boxes of rationally-assembled metal; arrows appear on the screen, a borderline lazy cinematic technique that could have easily been replaced with some urgent editing; anybody remember “Limitless”, with Bradley Cooper? A cinematographer can express distance miles ahead of where a person stands, and the viewer will understand the message, the size-able amount of land to conquer.

The rule is that once you get the package, you don’t trade or hand it off to anyone except the final destination, the recipient, ot explain who it’s intended for, or where it originated from. Wilee isn’t ready to break that rule, his job principles remaining firm.  He takes an envelope from a Chinese college student in intention of delivering it, and is encountered by a nosy man, Bobby Monday, who says nothing of credentials, and for a specifically implicit reason. The story that follows becomes a cat-and-mouse game between Wilee and Officer Monday after Wilee finds out Monday’s occupation while reporting him to his own station. A cop on a bike who doesn’t seem to have been trained along the lines of Mr. Livestrong, adds an ‘aw shucks’ comic-relief, always close to and in pursuit of Wilee but never actually capturing him.

The reasons behind Wilee being a daredevil bike messenger are not revealed through any sort of character development: instead, it is said that he simply does it because he doesn’t want to wear a suit and sit in an office, an explanation reminiscent  of the voice-over in Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting”, a wholly different story, but with the same sort of social futility. The difference, though, is the rebel personalities in Trainspotting have been built up, their every word having an emotional impact. Wilee, for all we know, could just be a lazy, greedy maniac frantically spinning his bike wheels. He’s constantly talking from the blue-tooth device plugged into his ear as he rides, often times trying to repair mistakes while swerving through cars sweeping past him, a 8-bit arcade game brought to life. What a life.

It’s an enjoyable movie at face-value, even for people who shy away from prototypical ‘action movies’; maybe even more for them, as it isn’t any sort of martial-arts or gun wielding spectacle. The acting is solidly consistent and there are some engaging scenes that momentarily hold ones attention–but it’s little more than what the title suggests: a fast-paced pump of adrenaline to the gut, missing anything substantive or interesting for the viewer to keep track of.

The Bourne Legacy (2012)

The Bourne Legacy is not as urgent as the Ultimatum and Supremacy of the past, but it is a strong surge of paranoia and angst. The movie begins in a disorienting manner, like an old Bond film, with Jeremy Renner staked out in frosty mountains amongst the wolves. It’s not quite a homerun, a new re-amp that improves on the original, but such a feat cannot be expected. It takes an actor who was not quite a star and lifts him up to that level. And if in the long-run that’s all it accomplishes, fine, because Renner is an actor with true potential, though he recently said he will be taking a break from acting. No matter what they say about his size and physique, his energy is there–and if Tom Cruise can be short, so can Renner.

The plot is basically an aftermath ‘gathering-of-wits’ from the Bourne case, featuring Pamela Anderson in trouble with the law after assisting Bourne’s escape. It used to be called treason, one of the CIA operatives says. There is no cameo from Matt Damon as one would assume, besides the CIA files containing his twenty-something profile.

Next to Renner stars Rachel Weisz, a biochemical scientist working on the operatives ‘KEMS’, a programmable drug that enhances IQ and physique for Aaron Cross and other agents. Once he runs out, he is desperate for more–or else he will be incapable to do the hit em’ up tactics, and our movie would be over, or just plain unexciting. Edward Norton takes the place as CIA director–and he is my main criticism of the film, a man with no motivation besides duty, boring and meant only to give and direct orders. All other directors had some underlying reason behind there actions, whether out of malice or assisting the ‘enemy’. Maybe in the next film, since this one ends with the complete hope of a sequel to this sequel, a bit of a series overkill if you ask me.

The movie never drags on and will definitely please the average action-junkie. It has a cast of versatile stars, and fails only to punctuate in it’s own ‘after-the-fact’ story premise: It’s the wagging tail of a long-gone series. Directed by Tony Gilroy, a writer for the earlier series, he showed promise for this movie after directing ‘Michael Clayton’, a very intelligent political thriller. And he does fulfill the promise, at least partially: The Bourne Legacy is an entertaining and adrenaline-fueled adventure.

The Raid: Redemption (2011)

This Sundance punch is a gritty, neo-violent mess of a movie, featuring a cast of SWAT-team members dropping the guns and bringing out classic but hyper-realized hand-to-hand combat. It slides story to the side, deciding to instead focus primarily on the kinetic fight sequences and over-the-top kills. A SWAT team is raiding a drug lords building complex, an untouchable resort filled with only a handful of innocent residents; most are criminals or drug addicts. The objective is to silently rise to the top and remove the drug lord: Except, after being flanked by the maniacally violent, meth-head henchman, the officers realize that it’s not going to be that easy. And in fact probably even a challenge to stay alive.

The voices in The Raid are synced with English voice dubbing. It worked fine for me, especially since there is such minimal dialogue, most of its running time filled with maximum violence. The only thing that I thought could have made a difference is having the voice-overs recorded by Japanese-English actors, instead of straight American voices. The scene transitions are well-done and there are some moments of sheer tension: A blade, cut through the wall that covers the covert officer, positioned directly onto his cheek. The next slash is in his head.

The noirish atmosphere fits well with the dark mood of the tale. Residents are shown lighting and smoking foil-crinkled pieces sprinkled with crystal. There is one guardsmen in the building that is torn between loyalties, a fresh dynamic to insert into an otherwise straight-forward tale. Like the grind house movies of the 60s and Tarantino, this movie strives on imagining the most creatively possible deaths. Smashing a head into a splintered door, using peripheral objects as convenient stakes of death; It’s like a piranha movie with the piranhas replaced with sweaty, knife-bearing psychopaths. Chaos on each floor, and a heightening sense hopelessness, no end in sight.

The movie is very impressive in its editing techniques. Dark-lit halls reveal a mob of gun-wielding henchman; and then pounding, vibrating music as the bullets soar through the air. The filmmakers make use of slow motion, and an insanely intense shootout brilliantly constructed with a shaky cam to match the chaos of it all. At times, though, it cuts to so many places that appear so similar to the last that it becomes hard to keep track of who’s who. With the characters being introduced very briefly at the beginning, the impressions aren’t very long-lasting, but the magnificently choreographed fight skills shine through and clear. It’s definitely not a movie for everyone, but such a thing doesn’t and shouldn’t exist: If you like skillfully designed action sequences and over-the-top violence, it’s safe to assume that you’ll thoroughly enjoy The Raid.

Contraband (2012)

Mark Wahlberg and Kate Beckinsale star in this flashily shot heist thriller with somewhat of a pulse, but yet in the end adds up to a genre exercise that doesn’t really exercise much at all, other than Wahlberg’s biceps. It’s character driven and has plenty of pans swooping over city-lit buildings with picturesque, faded yellow lights that would look like Michael Mann’s Instagram if he had one. There aren’t very many moments of grave suspense, and in fact most of the subplot conclusions are extremely predictable. Though it may be generic, one shouldn’t discredit the movies impressive qualities, especially its intriguingly grainy, darkly-colored photography.