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Blair Witch

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They nailed it. And anyone who simply dismisses it, I have to label as either lazy, not paying attention–or both. Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett paid attention…boy, did they ever! Their update/reboot of, perhaps, the most influential horror film of the last two decades, is fresh, sharp, and very, very scary. Against all odds, they’ve recaptured the mojo of the 1999 original film, and yet found a way to update things just enough for the 21st century millennials and their offspring. It’s a smashing achievement, that even managed to rekindle that same fear I felt pre-2000. Just when you thought it was safe to re-enter the woods…

James Donahue (well-cast James Allen McCune) is the brother of the Heather character from the original film (yeah, if you haven’t seen “The Blair Witch Project”, you’re already behind). Haunted by her disappearance, and even hoping against hope that somehow she is still alive after 20 years missing, James fronts a new expedition into the Burkittsville, Maryland woods. It’s here, along with friends Peter (Brandon Scott), Ashley (Corbin Reid), and film student Lisa (Callie Hernandez), that James hopes to shoot down the superstition involving the “witch”, while also attempting to find some answers regarding his long-lost sibling. Armed with a variety of updated camera equipment–and even a drone–the quartet meets up with the two young locals (Wes Robinson as Lane, and Valorie Curry as Talia) who located the “lost” film of Heather, Mike and Josh, from two decades prior. Almost immediately, things begin to happen.

“Blair Witch” works beautifully. Done in the same found-footage style as its predecessor, you’d be totally within your rights to ask if that premise can work again. It does. When “The Blair Witch Project” hit like a shock wave in the summer of 1999, there were still a number of naysayers. “The camera is too shaky”, “the dialogue is mundane”, and “you never get to see the witch”, were all heard more than once. I instantly dismiss the first two, plus I always lauded the brilliance of the last. Do they show the witch this time? Well, yes…and no. It’s incredibly well thought out. You see something…but you’re never quite certain what. And it’s more than once. It’s spooky and titillating. In fact, “Blair Witch” pretty much outdoes your wildest expectations. Non-believers can go stand facing the corner.

Grade:  A-

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Burton bounce?

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It’s the 18th feature for Tim Burton, and I’ve always been a big fan. Not so much lately though, with what I consider sub-par work like “Big Eyes”, “Dark Shadows”, and “Alice in Wonderland”. Is Burton all done, or can he bounce back? I’m starting to believe that he peaked in 2007, with his marvelous adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”. But, in fairness, his follow-up, 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland”, was a HUGE (over one billion dollars worldwide) international hit–although it didn’t fare so well with critics. Hey, I don’t despise any of his recent work. In fact, I’m kind of fond of 2012’s “Frankenweenie” recharge. But the pre-2007 Burton was certainly more consistently wonderful. His cast for “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is filling me with expectation though. How could it not, with names like Judi Dench, Samuel L. Jackson, Rupert Everett, Allison Janney, Chris O’Dowd, and Terence Stamp. Oh…and EVA GREEN. Do I have to yell from the rafters again, how I am consistently enchanted by the gorgeous, beguiling, seductive, mega-talented Eva Green? Okay, I will. Eva Green ALONE could be worth the price of admission. Burton and Green head our way on September 30th.

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The Fits

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I experienced a fascinating and unique little (72 minutes!) film the other day called “The Fits”. I’d love it if some of you would watch it and comment on your interpretation, but I realize that most won’t see it. That being said, I’m also reticent to recommend it to the mainstream crowd (they don’t always realize that they are the mainstream crowd, for one thing, because I don’t feel like hearing how much they hate it. The movie certainly asks more questions than it answers, but that’s part of what’s so fascinating about it. Anna Rose Holmer has made an astonishing feature writing and directing debut.

Toni (Royalty Hightower…terrific) is an 11-year-old boxing tomboy, who works out at a large YWCA-like facility, on Cincinnati’s West End. One day, she witnesses an energetic group of female dancers called “The Lionesses”, who perform their wildly gyrating routines in another space in the building. Toni begins doing drills and routines with the dance troupe, and she starts exhibiting a different level of empowerment than she did in the ring. Before long, she is piercing her ears, and painting her nails. But then some of the dancers begin falling victim to odd fainting spells, or spasmodic fits. Why? Adults and the media supply a variety of answers. But are they accurate?

“The Fits” made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and was picked up by the avant-garde Oscilloscope Laboratories, and given a limited run in late spring. Chock full of metaphors and symbolism, but hardly glaring–and in the most subtle ways possible in most instances. Okay–the final shot isn’t exactly subtle. But it’s a stunner. It’s a nifty little puzzle box of a movie, that cuts right to the chase, and knows exactly when to stop. It’s daring. And true film lovers shouldn’t miss it. Alexis Neblett, Makyla Burnam, and Da’Sean Minor are part of the ebullient cast.

Grade: A-

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Hell or High Water

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Welcome back, Mr. Bridges. I feel like you’ve been gone so long. 2009 FINALLY delivered you that long overdue acting Oscar (for “Crazy Heart”), and then you followed that up with your smashing, Oscar-nominated Rooster Cogburn in 2010’s Coen Brothers remake of “True Grit” (I would’ve switched the winning years, btw…but, whatever). Where have you been since? I mean, you didn’t want me to watch those lousy sci-fi movies, did you? Because they looked like crap. Sorry. Oh, I heard you in “The Little Prince” a few weeks back. That was pretty good. Other than that, it’s been a long six years. I’ve missed you!

The Howard brothers are robbing banks, all around a dust-blown Texan landscape. These small, dirt-water towns seem to be places that time forgot. But the big banks are there…and they occasionally scoop up people’s land. Divorced father Toby (Chris Pine…his best work?) is the “clean” one. He doesn’t want violence, he just wants the money to retrieve his family’s foreclosed property. Tanner Howard (Ben Foster…smack dab in his comfort zone) is the live wire ex-con, and we quickly learn to not know what to expect from him. Soon-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Mr. Bridges…astonishing) is tracking their pattern though. He’s crusty, old school, learned, and sharp. And although he peppers his Native American partner (Gil Birmingham…solid as Alberto Parker) with racist barbs, we’re certain his heart is in the right place, and that he’ll have more than one opportunity to show it. Especially when bloodshed and tragedy strike.

Mr. Bridges has one late film gesture ALONE, that had me wanting to simply hand him the Academy Award. What follows THAT is the most intense and emotional revenge sequence, since Chingachgook tracked down Magua, in 1992’s “The Last of the Mohicans”. Read that as overwhelming praise. Listen, when he’s at the top of his game, Jeff Bridges is still one of the finest film actors on the planet. David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water” is crackling entertainment. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay is one of finest of the year. Okay, at times the film is just a bit too easy and familiar (“No Country for Old Men”, anyone?). Plus, there’s a major plot point soft pedaled, and the finale is a bit too pat. But whenever Mr. Bridges is on-screen, it’s difficult to NOT forgive any minor missteps. He’s THAT good. Maybe statue #2 good, come February 26th.

Grade:  A-

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“The Magnificent Seven” ride?

 

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So, what do you think? Is it going to fly, or not? Oh, I’m not talking about the critics…the better ones will probably rip it to shreds (some already have). But will audiences check it out? To some degree…I bet yes. I mean, look at that cast! Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio…that quartet alone, is deep. Plus, director Antoine Fuqua has this bizarre recent track record. “Southpaw”, “The Equalizer”, “Olympus Has Fallen”: mediocre reviews, half-way decent box office…and consistent A minuses from audience polling. It appears to be the same muscle-bound, testosterone-fueled formula, over and over again. But to some degree…it sorta works. At least, for mainstream audiences.

And what about these old-school, remake-lamenting ramblings I keep hearing? It’s been FIFTY-SIX years since “The Magnificent Seven”. Heck, they’ve remade “Spider-Man” THREE times in the past SIXTEEN years. So, give me a break. And, of course, what even my film theory degree neighbor friend let slip his mind, when discussing this recently with me. 1960’s “The Magnificent Seven” is a darn remake! 1954’s “Seven Samurai”, from the legendary Akira Kurosawa, provided the inspiration. Plus, the 1960 version was a critical and financial disappointment upon release! Memories fade, and legends grow.

Of course, 2001’s “Training Day” received mostly high marks from critics, plus its box office was solid. That’s the bar I’m holding this against. For one thing, the team of Oscar-winning Washington, and Oscar-nominated Hawke, is being reunited with Fuqua here. Nothing to sneeze at. Also, the trailers have been expertly crafted, and the film appears to be quite audience-pleasing. Yeah, I’m betting 2016’s “The Magnificent Seven” will be a hit at the multiplexes. At least a moderate one. The upcoming opening weekend take will be the big indicator. The film opens wide on Friday, September 23rd.

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Sunset Song

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There is really a lot of gorgeous, lyrical, period flavor here–so I certainly want this review to read as a recommendation. If not for an abrupt tonal shift for the last act, I may have considered this amongst the year’s very best. It’s still a rapturous work, from the masterful Terence Davies, who wowed me with his 2000 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth”, as well as 2012’s astonishingly controlled “The Deep Blue Sea”. And “Sunset Song” stars Agyness Deyn, an English fashion model, who has been featured on the cover of Vogue, but has a very short, and relatively undistinguished film career. That should change. She’s astonishing here. It’s an incredible, star-making performance.

“Sunset Song”, based on the novel of the same name by Lewis Grassic Gibbons, tells the story of Chrissie Guthrie (Ms. Deyn), the young adult daughter of a farming family in Scotland, during the early 20th century. Working as a maid, but studying to be a teacher, young Chris feels somewhat trapped by her rural life, while under the rule of her domineering father (Peter Mullan…exceptional). Her father drives her poor brother away (Jack Greenlees), while her mother (Daniela Nardini) struggles to fend off her husband’s sexual advances, in hopes of not adding to their lot of four children. When Chrissie’s mother dies suddenly (and in a ghastly way, along with others), and her father suffers a stroke, she is left in a quandary concerning her life’s direction. Soon, she enters into a relationship with handsome Ewan Tavendale (a very effective Kevin Guthrie). But before long, World War I bluntly enters all of their lives.

Terence Davies penned the screenplay for “Sunset Song” as well, and I admire his patient, unhurried, epic approach to the material. Not that his male performers ever desert him, but his success with his female leads is of particular note. That includes Gillian Anderson in “The House of Mirth”, Rachel Weisz in “The Deep Blue Sea”, and now Ms. Deyn. Talk about mining the depths of emotion and fortitude. Davies also exhibits the brutality of this harsh, Scottish landscape, and that among the population at hand. It feels achingly authentic, while also poetic in its narrative and narration. That eventual shift in the story is not fatal…but it’s jarring. However, the lilting songs, and the visceral feel, along with the breathtaking cinematography from Michael McDonough, more than makes up for the lapse.

Grade:  B+

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KUBRICK @Feature #10: 1975’s Barry Lyndon

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So, here we go. I chuckled when I rolled my little paper balls of thirteen titles out of a cup, and the winner came out “Barry Lyndon”, for my first focus in this new series. Why? I had just recently received the Blu-ray of it from my Netflix queue, so it was kind of ironic that my roll of chance landed on that. Good, I thought…let’s get Stanley’s 2nd longest feature right out-of-the-way (1960’s “Spartacus” gets the blue ribbon). I remember how I first experienced “Barry Lyndon”, if not exactly when. It was on a rented VHS, from one of those now defunct chain video stores. Blockbuster, West Coast Video…one of them. That big bulky box stared at me from the shelf quite a few times. It looked so epic and large. This had to be in the late 1980’s, when I was still in my twenties. I was a full-fledged Kubrick nut by then, so I had to tackle “Barry Lyndon”. And I enjoyed that first look, and felt triumphant when I returned that unwieldy two-tape behemoth. Yay me!

Fast forward a quarter-of-a-century, or so. I’m fifty now, but this would only be my 2nd go round with “Barry Lyndon”. So, I was really looking forward to it. And, of course, like almost all of Stanley’s films, it’s aged extremely well. It’s 41 years old, but as beautiful and stately as ever. No wonder cinematographer John Alcott grabbed the Oscar (“Barry Lyndon” won four total, in the production categories). It was nominated for 7 Academy Awards total, when you add Kubrick’s trifecta: Director, Adapted Screenplay, Picture…he would lose all three to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Talk about bad luck of the draw! The other picture nominees from ’75 were “Nashville”, “Jaws”, and “Dog Day Afternoon”. Not a weak link in the chain. I mean, the previous year, “The Towering Inferno” was up! Sheesh. Also, this was Stanley’s fourth, and final, shot at Best Director–to no avail. Let that sink in for a moment. Ron Howard has a Director Oscar, but Kubrick doesn’t. Freaking Opie!

I admire Ryan O’Neal’s work as Redmond Barry Lyndon. Do you realize he later named one of his kids Redmond? I just found that out. It was never my inclination to think too much of him as a performer, but here he undoubtedly shines bright. And “Barry Lyndon” was smack dab right in the middle of his commercial and artistic prime, between 1970’s “Love Story” smash, and the very successful “The Main Event” from 1979. Ryan plays a boxer in that last one, plus he was a Golden Gloves fighter himself once in real life. I seem to recall Muhammad Ali saying in an interview that O’Neal was one of the few actors that actually looked like he knew what he was doing when he laced on the gloves. Ryan has a nifty bare knuckle fight scene in “Barry Lyndon” too, plus more than one pistol duel, as well as some fervent sword play. O’Neal touched me when he weeps at the loss of his friend Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley) in “Barry Lyndon”, and once again when his young son Bryan (David Morley) is killed as a result of a riding accident (keep the kids off those horses, folks–see “GWTW”). Kubrick truly worked wonders with O’Neal. It appears Ryan was guided perfectly.

Kubrick based his screenplay on 1844’s “The Luck of Barry Lyndon” by William Makepeace Thackery. My re watch has me itching to read the original source novel–my bet is that that will enhance the viewing experience even more. No less than Martin Scorsese has proclaimed “Barry Lyndon” his favorite Stanley Kubrick film. The movie’s critical reputation is quite strong now, in fact–after a mixed reception in 1975. I like it very much, and I’m currently right on the verge of loving it. It would be wonderful to see it, and hear it, on a giant screen in a huge auditorium. It is loooong (185 minutes), which isn’t necessarily a criticism, as much as an observation. It was intended to have an intermission, and it does fade to black and display an “Intermission” card at about the one-hour and forty minute mark. Act II of “Barry Lyndon” begins after what I imagine would’ve been a 15 minute break, or so, if in an actual theater in 1975. I like to think that watching it that way would enhance it even more.

Other observations: Marisa Berenson is stunning, and Shakespearean acting titan Michael Hordern’s narration is infectious. Hey–there’s a young Steven Berkoff as Lord Ludd! You’ll probably recall him (if you are of a certain age) from a string of 1980s villain roles in movies like “Beverly Hills Cop”, “Rambo: First Blood Part II”, and Prince’s “Under the Cherry Moon” (well, at least remember him from that last one). The costumes in “Barry Lyndon” are exquisite (another Oscar), the classical music arrangement is superb (Oscar again). Apparently, Kubrick wanted to make a film about “Napoleon” at one point, so, I guess, this is the next best thing. Also, Gay Hamilton made quite an impression on me with her physical presence as Nora Brady, and Marie Kean was overstuffed with patience and gravitas (that’s a compliment) as Belle, Barry’s mother. I’m going to hedge, just a bit, with my final grade for Kubrick’s 10th feature, but I’m betting it will fully blossom by the time I visit it again. For now, “Barry Lyndon” veers awfully close to perfection.

Grade:  A-

KUBRICK coming in October: the roll of twelve has occurred…and it will be his first feature, 1953’s “Fear and Desire”