Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
by Philip Price
If this second ‘Jack Reacher’ movie is good for anything it's to prove that Tom Cruise is indeed just as much a movie star as he's ever been. Cruise, who has been on something of a roll lately when it comes to action spectacles, has taken some time off from being Ethan Hunt and those impossible missions he tends to embark upon in order to return to the simpler, more straightforward drifter that is Jack Reacher. There's nothing wrong with this choice, nothing at all-in fact, the 2012 “Jack Reacher” film that was based on the long-running Lee Childs book series was a hard boiled, no frills, balls to the wall action romp that felt practical and logical in every fiber of its being. There was an authenticity to the action and crunch to the violence that made it all feel rather congenital to who this stoic titular character really was. We didn't get much past the solid facade, but the movie itself would give us plenty of mood and attitude in order to fill in the gaps. That Christopher McQuarrie film would take Cruise away from the extraordinary stunts and instead forced him to keep his feet on the ground and running in the vein that we've come to affectionately endure Tom Cruise running in. “Jack Reacher” never tried to be anything it wasn't and while this sentiment could be echoed for ‘Never Go Back’ in all honesty the sequel doesn't try to be much of anything at all. “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is so middle of the road predictable that by the time an action scene is loaded and ready to play out there is such a disassociation between the story and Cruise simply strutting around doing his thing that it's hard to care about or invest in either. Not only does ‘Never Go Back’ feel rather pedestrian in its story and acting though, but the execution couldn't feel more lazy or uninspired either. Helmed by Edward Zwick, who previously directed Cruise in the sweeping and rather stunning “The Last Samurai,” I expected more from the duo when it came to delivering simple goods that could be smoldered down into basic formula with only a dose of skill and ingenuity thrown in when it came time for Reacher to dispatch with a few bad guys. Instead, what Zwick and Cruise deliver this time around is the epitome of "just good enough" with that only being more of a disappointment when considering the talent and thus the potential involved. It may be that I watched this on a large format screen, but there are certain action sequences and, even worse, standard dialogue scenes that look as if they belong on an old tube TV. In fact, sans the cell phones, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” very much feels like an action thriller that was produced in 1994 with no higher ambition other than being considered for the long flight home.
If you've seen the trailers you can probably guess how ‘Never Go Back’ begins. Much like that well-cut preview the film opens with Cruise's Reacher sitting alone at a small town diner as a handful of men lay bruised and battered on the ground outside. The purpose is to immediately establish the overwhelming badassery of Reacher while at the same time developing a connection between the titular Reacher and Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders) who Reacher has assisted in capturing a dirty Sheriff who was trafficking illegals through his town for a profit on military property. In an immediately striking and very odd twist the film decides to develop the entire (continually deepening) relationship between Reacher and Turner throughout the opening credits as the two have a handful of innocent telephone conversations that build to Reacher asking Turner out to dinner. When the film finally settles into its main course of action we discover that Major Turner has been arrested for espionage and based on little more than intuition Reacher is ready to defend her as he insists she is being framed. The interim officer in Turner's place, Col. Morgan (Holt McCallany), is seemingly up to no good from the moment Reacher steps into his office to discover it is no longer held by Turner. This gives way to both something that is a mess of a plot while ultimately turning out to be a rather straightforward affair. In other words, the film makes things more complicated than need be. Were it not for the film attempting to make things more complex than they appear ‘Never Go Back’ might have taken on some of the more streamlined aspects of the original, but as it is the script for ‘Never Go Back’ (written by Zwick along with Marshall Herskovitz and Richard Wenk) piles on one too many talking head/gun for hire antagonists for there to be any single one that measures up to Werner Herzog's mysterious The Zec from the original as well as adding an unnecessary subplot about Reacher possibly having a daughter (Danika Yarosh) that only ends up adding value due to the dynamic Yarosh brings to the stilted chemistry between Cruise and Smulders. The same could be said for Aldis Hodge's character as the actor gets a few nice scenes to play that at least spice up the slog of a routine the movie largely is.
The thing is-the standard storyline of whodunit mixed with ass-kicking is expected of a narrative of this nature. No one looks to a second-rate Tom Cruise franchise for excellent storytelling or even compelling stories, but what Never Go Back should have at least provided was more than remnants of the first film and less of the obvious fact this sequel was something of a risk for Cruise and Paramount in the first place. And while ‘Never Go Back’ is probably more or less what most people will be looking for if they venture out to fill their late afternoon with the film I couldn't help but be frequently reminded of how out of place this thing felt on the big screen. For starters, there is a glaring piece of product placement courtesy of IHOP within the first 20 or so minutes that is so distracting it may as well have been a commercial break only to be followed by strange choice after strange choice. Strange choices as far as directorial choices go. For instance, there is a scene where Cruise's Reacher and Smulders' Turner run into a restaurant and clear out the kitchen staff so that they may have the element of surprise when the man trailing them finally catches up. When this occurs and things go from zero to sixty in a matter of seconds one would think the camera might remain trained on the action and those participating in it, but instead Zwick makes the odd choice to place an insert shot of waiters trying to get in through the kitchen door despite guns clearly going off from within. There would seem no reason for innocent civilians to run towards the gunfire and yet Zwick makes the choice to show this for seemingly no other reason than to give Smulders something to do during the action as she forces them back and towards another exit. This happens several other times as far as just showing the characters doing things, small acts, that aren't necessary in any seeming capacity and have no bearing on the story or their development. Rather, we're just supposed to buy into the fact that Major Turner enjoys lounging around in a bath robe as she tends to do that...a lot. Why does she even have such an opportunity outside of a single scene in a movie like “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back”? Who knows, but just like iHop secured product placement throughout it would appear Smulders only agreed to appear were she allowed to spend half her time in a bath robe and the other half in awkward-looking military garb.
Such issues no doubt sound nitpicky from the outside looking in, but there is a constant nagging that there is something incomplete or incongruent about the whole affair. Even the look of the film, which makes many of the actor's faces look either glossed over or smeared makes it feel as if the make-up department and those fixing the skin tones and wrinkles in post couldn't agree on the color of the skin tone they wanted to use on certain actors. In short, the film feels cheap. At the same budget of $60 million as the original it just doesn't seem possible that Never Go Back could have looked and felt like the very serious, hard edged cop drama that came before it that knew it wasn’t breaking any boundaries but did what was expected of it really well. ‘Never Go Back’ doesn't even seem to try and execute its well-worn beats in any kind of exciting way, but is instead so by the numbers it becomes little more than background noise-especially by the time the third act action climax takes hold and all we hear is a barrage of bullets and fight sound effects. Even the fights themselves feeling lazily choreographed and even more sloppily captured on camera. And yet, despite some seriously hammy dialogue that is oftentimes delivered really badly, Tom Cruise is still a movie star and still possesses enough charisma to carry even a stinker like ‘Never Go Back’ across the finish line. Cruise still plays Reacher as a man who very much operates by his own set of rules which naturally goes against the military code that never allowed him to do what he wanted when he wanted. The film never bothers to take a more insightful look at the soldiers in which it uses as pawns in its plot either-utilizing ex-seals and security members who are either now junkies strayed from their families or stone cold killers who can't shake the feeling they still belong on the battlefield- ‘Never Go Back’ takes advantage of each of these types for the sake of its story, but it never does so much as to invest any time in the psychology of these men who enlist for more than just defending freedom, but who put their sound states of mind and sanity on the line. As I've said countless times now though, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” isn't a film that cares to dig too deep into anything, but more is just happy to skate by on the appeal of its star and the familiarity of its well-worn story model.
by Philip Price
The best thing one can say about “Masterminds” is that it seemingly accomplishes what it sets out to do and be. Of course, that's a pretty solid compliment if you're going for a certain type of quirky/oddball comedy that not everyone will understand or even care to understand. It has always felt as if director Jared Hess (“Napoleon Dynamite”) has marched to the beat of a slightly different drum than any other comedy director and that continues to show in his feature films as he documents characters that are interesting or strange because of the inherent state of their personality rather than documenting the actions of fairly average individuals who are put into extraordinary circumstances. That isn't to say the ensemble cast of “Masterminds” don't find themselves in the middle of some pretty spectacular circumstances because they do, but this is due to the fact they voluntarily sign up for crazy expeditions rather than them being thrust upon them. Now, this isn't original to Hess' films of course; plenty of comedies find humor in the eccentric and the zany, but Hess notches it up a few levels-making his films feel as if they are operating not in the real world, but from the perspective of these bizarre minds that allow us to see the world how they see it: in unconventional and bizarre ways. This is especially glaring in “Masterminds” as it reminds us time and time again that what is happening is based on a true story that occurred in 1997 and at the time, was the second-largest all-cash robbery in U.S. history. As with most "based on a true story" movies the film version of these events takes the real life events and paints them in broad strokes though it at least seems that writers Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer and Emily Spivey have kept the general facts of the case intact enough while interpreting those actions to inform character decisions that give way to the more outlandish tone the film sports. Of course, how are we to know that what we're treated to in “Masterminds” isn't exactly how the real David Ghantt perceived things to be during these time in his life? The point is-it doesn't matter. Whether they were or not I can appreciate that Hess takes on a certain singular style and approach and applies it to every scene making what was already a fascinating story that much more enjoyable...if you enjoy Hess' particular brand of nonsense, that is.
Zach Galifianakis is one of the rare comedians that is almost guaranteed to make me laugh any time he tries out a bit. It's as if he can't help but to be humorous about anything and everything or with anyone he encounters. As Ghantt, Galifianakis is a simple southern man who doesn't have many aspirations in life, but seems tired of such a lack in ambition. At the time Ghantt decided to participate in the heist of his employer, Loomis Fargo, in real life he was a married man who told his wife nothing of his plan to steal the money and flee to Mexico, but in the film version Bowman, Palmer, and Spivey use this supporting character to reinforce just how pathetic a point Ghantt had reached in his life. Engaged to Jandice (an appropriately peculiar Kate McKinnon) for reasons that you think you might see coming when the joke starts, but are twisted enough to make even the most cynical among your friends crack a smirk we are given more than enough reason as to why Ghantt feels the need to escape his current surroundings and is willing to go to the lengths he does to make such change happen. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Ghantt has something of a crush of his former co-worker, Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig), and that it is on the promise that Campbell will eventually join him in Mexico that Ghantt ultimately decides to go through with the plan to rob Loomis. What Ghantt isn't so sure about is the man behind the scenes pulling the strings who calls himself “Geppetto” for those very reasons. We come to know Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson) as something of a low-rent mob boss whose henchmen consist of Runny (Devin Ratray) and Eric (Ross Kimball) and whose wife (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) and kids (Karsten Friske and Dallas Edwards) are perfectly Hess-like. Both of the children look as if they could grow up to be either Napoleon or Nacho and as Chambers makes his home base out of an elevated double-wide one can imagine the depths of his scheme. It is after Chambers coaxes Campbell into convincing Ghantt to rob Loomis Fargo and Ghantt somehow pulling it off (somewhat) successfully that the real hijinks begin as Ghantt waits patiently for his new love to join him while Chambers decides it best to cut Ghantt out of the equation by hiring hit man McKinney (Jason Sudeikis) to take him out.
Though “Masterminds” won't exactly register as memorable one can see how, with repeated viewings, it stands the chance of becoming something of a favorite among cult comedies. It has the right amount of goofiness in each of the individual characters while being paired with a genuinely creative visual sense that allows for nearly every frame to pop. From the set decoration down to the wardrobe everything feels insanely specific to not only serve as something of a sight gag, but to also reiterate aspects of characters that don't need to be conveyed through dialogue when a facial hair or interior design choice tells us all we need to know. And it should be noted that the sight gags are something else in this movie as Hess funnels more of them through Galifianakis' Ghantt than anyone else. Whether it be the comedian dressed in sweatpants and a wife beater sporting a long blonde wig and cat-eye contacts that make him look like Jesus and an Exotic Persian feline had a baby or loud island shirts with a curly, stark black wig where he resembles Gene Shalit there are countless ways in which Hess and his leading man mean to elicit just as many laughs from the visual prowess of this world as seen through the eyes of David Ghantt as they do the one-liners provided by Bowman, Palmer and Spivey. To be fair, there are plenty of solid one-liners as well and while many such instances that made me take to jotting in my notepad a favorite joke, insult, or attempt at charm might have been improvised it is the writers who come to get a fair amount of credit here as crafting a cohesive narrative from true life events that include factors likely influenced by things that have no reason to belong in a 90-minute feature is a difficult task, but Bowman, Palmer and Spivey as well as editors Keith Brachmann and David Rennie (who also worked together on the upcoming Keeping Up with the Joneses also starring Galifianakis) do a fine job of keeping a throughline in theme, tone, and character arcs throughout. That isn't to say there is anything fantastic or necessarily exceptional about what is going on within ”Masterminds,” but it is a capable comedy that is both consistent with its laughs and creative in its approach to the material it has to work with. In short, while it may not have the immediate air of "cool" that comedies typically need to enlist the re-watchability factor it is just bizarre enough to keep curious viewers from staying away too long.
Much will be made out of the fact “Masterminds” was delayed over a year due to its studio, Relativity, filing for bankruptcy and this being its second release since emerging from said bankruptcy. While there was clearly an effort from the studio to promote and sell this all-star comedy with a dream roster of comedic talent things ultimately were too little too late. Personally, I hate that studio issues and delays that have nothing to do with budget/production issues or the general quality of the picture will have an effect on the perceived quality of the film, but it can't help but seem that because of these things “Masterminds” was largely dismissed before it was ever screened. Given the fact Hess hasn't had much success critically or commercially for a decade certainly doesn't help prospects either, but when it comes down to purely evaluating the product and not considering any outside influences this is a fine enough comedy that, while not necessarily being distinctive enough to stand out in my memory for longer than a week or so, is at its core-pretty funny. I wish that result were different as Hess certainly still has the potential to craft something truly unique with his odd comedic tendencies and specific style that meshes the visual flairs of Wes Anderson with the energy of a Looney Tunes cartoon, but “Masterminds” (the first film the director has made where he didn't also write the script) isn't his magnum opus.
All of that taken into consideration, there is plenty to enjoy with “Masterminds” as the cast is more than game and each bring something worth laughing at to the table. Galifianakis smothers on the southern accent to make his David Ghantt just enough of an oddball to be completely endearing. We like David despite his misguided efforts to get the girl by robbing a bank and we root for him largely due to the fact Galifianakis makes him so damn humble if not somewhat ignorant to the actual dangers of the situations he puts himself in. As the girl who baits Ghantt into the crime Wiig is as sexed up as she's ever been, but given the silliness of the tone Wiig is able to expertly balance her daffier persona with that of the genuine emotional arc her character has to take. And while Sudeikis and McKinnon aren't hardly given enough to do considering what they can bring to the table this might be Wilson's most invested performance in some time. In a scene where Chambers convinces Campbell to turn Ghantt into the police one can see the glimmer of comedic motivation in the actors eyes once again-it's as if we're back in 2004-it's vintage Owen Wilson. Leslie Jones also has a nice little bit of chemistry with the film’s real MVP, Jon Daly, as a couple of FBI agents that like to play up every aspect of their often imitated duties. “Masterminds,” like its characters, is something of an oddity that knows it wants more out of its existence, but isn't quite sure what that more is. And so, it bumbles around in funny and sometimes compelling ways before giving in to a too by-the-numbers conclusion that force it to revert back to what I hoped it wouldn't be: more or less what I expected.
by Philip Price
There is something to this formula director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg have cooked up together. They've found a composition of elements that when brought together in their capable hands more than appeals to a large type of audience while simultaneously being thrilling and intelligent enough for the seasoned moviegoers to look past the standard genre elements they fit squarely into. This formula largely resides in the telling of American stories that focus on the little guy. The man's man who isn't sitting somewhere in an office with a suit on pulling the strings, but rather the men on the front lines. This is appealing to a whole region of the country not accustomed to seeing mirrors of themselves on the big screen in such big budget productions, but Berg and Wahlberg (lots of German ancestry going on here) have now told two sweeping stories concerning two "based on real life events" (and have a third coming later this year) that are more or less simple stories when taken at face value, but that permeate more meaning about the state of affairs in our country and world than a pointed essay about the state of affairs in our country and world ever could. This is how Berg captures his core audience and pleases his critics: he's able to say something boldly heroic about the men who risk their lives for others or perform in composed and exceptional manners when finding themselves in a set of insane circumstances while hinting at what this illustrates in the larger scope of things. In essence, it is those who are unassuming and voluntary in their heroics who continue to be the pulse of this country's integrity and not the house of governmental leaders or the big business tycoons who cut corners and jobs for their own personal gain. Thus the reason why the big business tycoon or better yet BP, AKA what was once known as British Petroleum, but changed their brand to that of "Beyond Petroleum" in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, fulfills that role of antagonist here. Why that spill happened, which resulted in severe environmental, health and economic consequences, as well as serious legal and public relations repercussions for BP, happened in the first place is the story “Deepwater Horizon” is telling and much like their previous collaboration, “Lone Survivor,” Berg and Wahlberg tap into a real understanding for the value of life and that it is not worth throwing away for inconsequential details such as how many days past schedule one large oil and gas company might be.
Opening, effectively I might add, with playback of the Deepwater Horizon's Chief Electrical Engineer Mike Williams' testimony and his account of the situation that occurred on April 20th of 2010 when questioned about the emergency processes of an oil rig the size of Deepwater Horizon we are brought into this world immediately. I can always appreciate when a director utilizes every inch of their film and that Berg plays this choice piece of audio over the studio logos that contractually have to precede his movie tells us from the get-go that the man has a very clear direction in which he intends to take both his movie and his audience. As the credits fade and the first image comes onto the screen we are then introduced to the Williams we will get to know via Wahlberg. Married to his beloved Felicia (Kate Hudson) with which he has a daughter, Sydney (Stella Allen), that clearly adores him Berg sets up the family dynamic immediately. We are let in on the fact this is a routine the women in Williams' life have become accustomed to-cherishing their time with their husband and father to its fullest knowing he will have to leave for three straight weeks to be on the job again after no doubt feeling like he's just returned from his previous stint. The Williams' have a good thing going on and Wahlberg and Hudson do a more than commendable job of communicating as much as the two have some real, natural chemistry. This sets up the drive to return home that Williams will have when things begin to explode later on in the film, but before getting to that Berg takes his time in setting up Williams' connections that exist on the rig as well. We are introduced to Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), a rig operator with a penchant for muscle cars as well as general operational supervisor, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), who is affectionately referred to throughout as "Mr. Jimmy". Williams has clearly known each of these individuals for some time as there is an ease and comfortability to their relationships that is immediately noted. The same is clear when they finally board the Deepwater Horizon and we glimpse the likes of drillers Dewey A. Revette (J.D. Evermore) Jason Anderson (Ethan Suplee), and Stephen Ray Curtis (Jason Pine), as well as floor hands Caleb Holloway (Dylan O'Brien) and Adam Weise (Jeremy Sande) and are witness to the type of freewheeling, but authentic relationships that are established between all of these people. We become invested in each of their individual stories and histories-Mike Williams simply being our way into this world that guarantees a happy, but scarred conclusion based on the facts of the matter.
From the time Williams, Fleytas, and Harrell step onto the Deepwater Horizon it is made apparent BP is attempting to rush a process that needs to be carefully monitored. Berg even places himself in a role as one of the Schlumberger employees who were dismissed from inspecting the rig to demonstrate how early the crew of the rig were told of BP's corner cutting decisions. Needless to say, Berg doesn't care to paint BP in a forgiving light as not only does he cast the blame early and consistently, but he casts John Malkovich as Don Vidrine or who essentially serves as the face of the "company men" to blame for this disaster. Malkovich lathers on the thick Louisiana drawl making his seemingly evil intentions all the more obvious. This may be a little much considering how well the rest of the film seems to draw on reality for the events it chooses to depict, but Malkovich is such a presence on screen it's understandable why Berg would want to accentuate the antagonist in this situation. Vidrine is here to reinforce one idea and one idea only: that BP favored speed over safety and though this is likely true to some degree given the extremities with which Berg and Malkovich paints their evil villain one has to wonder how much they're bending the facts. This is one of the few shortcomings with the film overall though, as “Deepwater Horizon” is mostly a gripping and endlessly thrilling piece of cinema that spends its last forty or so minutes so consistently hammering the audience with explosions and the number of potential threats the crew must deal with on this massive freighter that it builds to a visually overwhelming feast. What makes this barrage of explosions and escape tactics worth investing in though, is the films allowance of time for us to get to know these men before the terror takes hold. With a screenplay credited to Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand the film takes us through a tour of the Deepwater Horizon via Wahlberg's Williams after he arrives on the rig for the first time in the feature. Treated to all of the different departments or cogs in the machine that keep this free-floating piece of behemoth architecture afloat 5,200 feet above the ocean floor displays the amount of collaboration needed to run the operation while at the same time spitting out banter that is genuinely funny and thoroughly accurate to the point of endearment that in many ways is unexpected in this genre of filmmaking.
Wahlberg especially is a master of this everyman persona that is used to its seeming full potential here as his Williams is made to be this man of the people that we can trust because so many others who come by their money honestly do. Williams is a center point for which we can measure the likeliness of survival during the impending doom we all know is coming while also laying out the lines for the morally good and the morally corrupt. This banter that is anchored by an appealing Wahlberg performance gives the film an energy that keeps the tone light in its first hour while being very precisely undermined by composer Steve Jablonsky's consistently somber score. Despite all of the good vibes and safety awards given out (yes, there is a scene where BP execs present Mr. Jimmy with an award for the rig's safety record that is based in fact) we all know what is coming and it is in this pacing that Berg balances his emotional heft that is necessary when telling a true story audiences aren't too far removed from and will likely still resonate in more affecting ways for some depending on their connection to the events. When Berg finally jumps into the action-centric portion of his film it is relentless-and intentionally, even needfully so. The terror takes hold and doesn't care to let up until it seemingly knows the viewer has been beaten down. This intensity isn't for the purpose of wanting to wear audience members down though as it is more in service of the quest for survival that becomes priority number one for our embodiment of heroism in Williams. The film nicely incorporates his attachments to his fellow crew throughout this quest with Russell and O'Brien especially coming into play as compelling presences that not only guide the narrative to logical and hopeful places, but add that critical nuance of the human spirit and determination that make this formula Berg is cooking up a guaranteed winner. This is all to say that the film is a harrowing experience no matter what, but that Berg and his editors Gabriel Fleming and Colby Parker Jr. navigate these character tasks within the repercussions of the rig explosion so that there is an emotional weight lent the film that makes the harrowing action sequences that much more so. There are other cool facets to the film such as Russell's make-up post-explosion being terrific as well as the use of and absence of sound depending on the situation, but what will make “Deepwater Horizon” a film that goes down as much for its telling of a true story is the fact it takes that true story and doesn't just tell it, but tells of the men who lived it, survived it, and honors those who didn't while slyly begging the audience to evaluate the contradiction of this man-made disaster and how easily it seemed to happen when these characters we've come to know and like seemed so good at their jobs.
The Girl on the Train
by Philip Price
“The Girl on the Train,” the film adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ best-selling novel, is directed by Tate Taylor and features a solid cast of talent led by the remarkable Emily Blunt, but ultimately serves as a reminder that even the most creative juices can be filtered through the system and down into the most generic of thrillers when there is no more motivation to a story than to relay melodrama. My apologies for the run-on, but like the movie it is describing there is a lot going on in “The Girl on the Train” with none of it seeming to amount to much at all. Even as the film comes to its "shocking" conclusion there is little to take away from the film other than the fact that we now know "whodunit" never mind the fact we don't really know why they did it or what more might be going on below the surface because that is as deep as “The Girl on the Train” gets: surface-level. That isn't to say there aren't glimmers of more interesting caveats to the film as it's clear the intent of the premise was to allow the material to explore how we perceive the lives of others yet only assign them a handful of details to remember them by when they, in reality, have just as full a life as one's own self. Taylor and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson don't have much of an interest in these aspects of the story though as they seem more concerned with cramming in as much of the source material into their 112-minute feature version without bothering to flesh any of that material out. Novels are, by nature, too layered and more inherently nuanced than films to be adapted directly and so the key when taking on a project such as this is to latch onto one idea or theme that the book contains and view the entirety of the story through that prism so as while maybe not capturing every moment from the beloved book one actually stands a better chance at capturing the spirit-which, both fans of the novel as well as the uninitiated (count me among them) will undoubtedly thank you for in the long run. This will not only add more compelling and fascinating aspects to the film with each viewing, but it will help viewers to better understand the fractured psyches through which this story is conveyed. As for the product Taylor and his team have delivered-there will be no replay value to this film. Once the mystery is gone it only becomes more glaring how poor the execution is.
It is painstakingly clear even from the opening title sequence that Taylor intends to leave no directorial trace on this film as zero creativity goes into the packaging of his product when endless opportunities lent themselves to not only the title, but the campy thriller vibe it so easily could have lampooned in an edgy way that might have made audiences sit up and pay attention. Rather, we get text faded on and off of an already filmed image in a font anyone in the audience could have picked at random. This may sound nitpicky, but in not taking advantage of obvious opportunities the tone is set early for “The Girl on the Train” to keep with this line of thinking throughout and indeed-there is no sign that this is a film crafted by the same guy who already adapted another best-selling novel into a rather fantastic film and turned the life of James Brown into a sprawling epic. Rather, Taylor holds no such innovations in his back pocket this time around leaving “The Girl on the Train” to seem as if it could have been directed by any hired hand that calls the Lifetime network home. Because essentially that is what “The Girl on the Train” is: a Lifetime original movie, but with credible talent.
There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it “The Girl on the Train” is a Lifetime movie where the lives of three individual women are spun together due to their past history with men and how each of them deals and acts within their (past) relationships. We are first introduced to Blunt's Rachel who it is made clear almost immediately is likely an unreliable narrator of sorts. She is an alcoholic and a dreamer, but more of an alcoholic as of late as she's dealing with the end of her marriage to Tom (Justin Theroux) and the agony of watching him carry on with his new family in the house they bought and built together. It just so happens that, every day on her commute into Manhattan for work, Rachel's train goes by her and Tom's old house; re-opening the wounds every morning and afternoon never allowing them a chance to really heal. Tom is now married to Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) who was originally Tom and Rachel's realtor and whom Tom had an affair with while married to Rachel. To make matters worse Rachel was never able to have children despite multiple attempts with various options and Tom and Anna have just recently had a baby girl. In her attempts at escapism during her train rides Rachel begins to focus on the beautiful couple two houses down from where she once lived, Scott (Luke Evans) and Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett), but it is when Megan goes missing and Rachel goes from a casual observer to an active part of a puzzle both she and the audience are trying to piece together that things begin to get really crazy.
While “The Girl on the Train” may feel like a Lifetime movie it looks like something from the early 2000's where the largely grey palette of the film washes everything out as those non-film, non-phone digital cameras of the first few years of the millennium tended to do. Everything looks a little worn, a little dated, and just a tad off. This was clearly a stylistic choice as cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen has produced gorgeous work such as last year's “Far From the Madding Crowd,” but it seems an odd one as do the random moments where slow motion is all of a sudden enlisted to make Bennett's Megan look more dreamlike and desirable. It is these strange aesthetic choices combined with the pacing that plods along, the movie never being as enticing as it seems to think it is, that result in a project with zero energy and zero momentum that messes up the only real bright spot it has going for it (the performances) by glossing over them with sloppy editing. Maybe sloppy is a harsh term considering Taylor and his editors Andrew Buckland and Michael McCusker clearly have an outline and goal in mind as they begin the film by profiling each of the three main women involved in the plot, but as they add in incremental flashbacks to relay Megan's character arc while at the same time jumping back and forth in time to highlight the Rachel/Anna/Tom triangle it all just becomes too convoluted to care about considering that outside of Rachel none of these characters have been developed enough to care about in the first place. The movie also does that strange thing of not explaining obvious factors that would need to be known for this world to make more sense. Like, let us know prior to the scene where Rachel is hanging out in a train station bathroom with a random while supposed to be at work why she isn't at work or how in the world these three women tend to see each other as much as they do when the normal proximity between Rachel and the other two women clearly isn't as close as it seems. These are small complaints that come to feel like bigger issues when the film ultimately plays out in a non-too dramatic form that uses brutality as a shock factor and deception in the form of lies to lead the audience in one direction eventually leaving us to feel betrayed by how little the film offers in light of the potential it holds.
And so, the best thing “The Girl on the Train” has going for it is the stacked cast. As previously mentioned, Blunt's Rachel is the star here despite the narrative clearly wanting to extend those same courtesies of character development to both Megan and Anna. As Rachel, Blunt is giving it her all. Rachel is a character who it's made obvious has been unstable for some time. She is a woman wholly consumed by the past and the "what ifs" of her unfulfilled future that constantly haunt her. Rachel is a woman searching for a purpose or at the very least a distraction and it is through this need that she seemingly creates this unnecessary web of lies that our movie is attempting to frame in some accessible fashion. Blunt conveys this torturous state of being in that aforementioned bathroom scene where she more or less lays it all on the line and is willing to look as unglamorous as her characters situation truly is. Blunt is an extremely charming persona and she has always been able to carry a large amount of charisma within her small frame-proving in many roles to be the strong and steady constant others rely on and thus it is easy to see the appeal of such a damaged human being and the opportunity to play something different. I only wish Blunt had found a movie more worthy of the performance she delivers here. Even more so, I wish I could say the same about the performances of Bennett and Ferguson, but they are so grossly underdeveloped they become exactly the type of surface-level personalities the narrative was seemingly trying to deconstruct. Megan is little more than an object and she knows it-she's been as much since she went through puberty and even as she goes to therapy with Édgar Ramírez's Dr. Kamal Abdic to discuss her bouts of depression over being as much she can't help but to resort to the only tactic she knows that guarantees people will show her love-she sells her sexuality. At least Megan is given backstory through those incremental flashbacks leading up to her disappearance as poor Rebecca Ferguson is stuck playing the one-note over-obsessed stay at home mom that judges everyone for the choices they make that she doesn't agree with. Though Ferguson (who impressed everyone with her commanding presence in “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation”) serves as the middle woman in a cycle or rather the portrait of what the other women once were and might eventually want to be one would think she might be integral to the story, but most of the time it's easy to forget Anna is even there. The same could be said for both Evans and Theroux's characters were they not absolutely necessary for the plot to function as it does, but this perfectly encapsulates the problem with “The Girl on the Train”: Everything is here for reasons that a certain series of events take place, but none of it carries any purpose.
The Birth of a Nation
by Philip Price
Nate Parker's “The Birth of a Nation” plays with the title of D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent film to reappropriate its phrase of a title to no longer be used in a deprecating manner towards black people. Griffith's film (which is a requirement in any film school due to it being widely accepted as the first feature length motion picture) used blackface to portray African American characters while, given the time in which it was made, is also wildly racist in many regards. For Parker to be willing to challenge a term and the cultural baggage that goes along with it that has now been established for over a century is bold. This boldness ultimately works in his favor though as his film certainly stands to make a statement. Coming off a whirlwind debut at the Sundance Film Festival at the beginning of this year the film scored a record for the most expensive acquisition deal in the festivals history with Fox Searchlight snatching up Parker's slave drama for an astonishing $17.5 million. Of course, in the months since that acquisition stories have re-surfaced about the seventeen year-old case in which “The Birth of a Nation” director, writer, producer, and star Nate Parker was accused and acquitted of sexual assault and that four years ago the woman who accused him committed suicide. Such allegations can of course not be taken lightly and it doesn't exactly bode well for Parker that he depicts or suggests two savage and humiliating rape scenes in his film as performed by malicious and one-dimensional Caucasian villains, but to let those allegations influence the judgement of this piece of art he has created feels unnecessary. Sure, this is solely a product of Parker's doing as he had a hand in every stage and facet of this production and thus his particular view of the world undoubtedly made its way into the DNA of the film, but to allow such outside influences such as actions from nearly two decades ago to come into account for a piece of art made by an individual who has no doubt grown, matured, and maybe even changed in that time period isn't wholly fair. And I understand-neither was what he was accused of doing. It wasn't fair that the repercussions of his actions might have contributed to the accuser's death, but taken on its own terms-only as a piece of filmmaking depicting an ugly time in history that simultaneously attempts to re-write multiple generations worth of certain interpretations of history- “The Birth of a Nation” is a powerful and unapologetic film that uses that aforementioned boldness and an appealing saga of revenge to craft something memorable if not exactly transcendent.
Beginning in Southampton County, Virginia in 1809 we meet a young Nat Turner (Tony Espinosa) who is witness to his father stealing food and killing a white man in the process of attempting to escape. While giving us the reason as to why Nat will turn to his mother, Nancy (Aunjanue Ellis), and grandmother, Bridget (Esther Scott), for comfort for the remainder of his life while also displaying the reason he took up the head of his household at such an early age this first sequence in the film also sets up our main antagonist in the form of Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley) a nasty overseer who literally rides atop his high horse for the majority of the film and may as well be a faceless henchmen for the slavery overlords as he takes advantage of every rule he can in order to beat down on "disrespectful" slaves. The film quickly chronicles how a young Nat more or less becomes friends with his plantation owners son, Samuel Turner (Griffin Freeman), and how his owner's wife, Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), teaches him to read the Bible thus preparing him for his future as a passionate follower of God and a powerful preacher. The film then fast-forwards 22 years to where Samuel (now Armie Hammer) has taken over for his father to run the plantation and Nat has become something of his right-hand man. We see as Nat meets a young woman at a slave auction, encouraging Mr. Turner to purchase her, and falls quickly in love with her. Cherry (Aja Naomi King) returns Nat's feelings and they are soon married and having a child, but Turner has different plans for Nat as the South is facing a drought during this period in history and he requires Nat's unique skill of reading and preaching to help him keep their farm afloat. Other plantation owners will pay good money to have a slave come in and motivate their own slaves who are working for next to nothing due to the drought with the slave owners hoping their human property might listen and be inspired more by one of their own. It is through these realizations of how other slaves are treated at other plantations-an opening of the eyes if you will-that leads to the revolution within Nat's mind that eventually gives way to the rebellion he mounts on the battlefield.
For the first half hour of the film Parker paces things in something of a tedious fashion. It feels intentionally slow, but to the detriment of the film as it never has that immediate hook that brings us into this time period. Rather, Parker wraps us up with some striking, but abstract imagery that lends the audience more a cautious curiousness in place of pure intrigue. This choice in pacing feels odd by virtue of the fact there's no narrative drive in the traditional sense, but more a chronicling of the growth of our protagonist and the events in his life that will culminate in that aforementioned rebellion we all know is coming. It is also within this first half hour to forty-five minutes that Parker shoe-horns in certain aspects of Parker's life so that he may use them for emotional payoffs later. These are the bigger issues with “The Birth of a Nation” as the film hardly develops the romantic relationship Between Nat and Cherry before he proposes and then two scenes later is having a child. Parker seems to hope the scene in which Nat recommends Cherry as a thoughtful gift to Turner's sister Catherine (Katie Garfield) and a necessary purchase is enough to solidify his character's affection, but the juxtaposition of the sometimes dull pacing with the rushed quality of this relationship reminds us that Parker is a first time director and that while he certainly has a vision for this story the ironing out of the execution of the details can be trickier than anticipated. It is in this waiting only to hurry up fashion in which the film implements its narrative that it also feels like we spend too much time on certain events and characters that never go anywhere while once we do get to the last 25 minutes or so in which the bulk of the action takes place it's all over before we can really grasp the extent of Nat's actions. In short, Parker tends to short change himself in certain, more critical areas by spending too much time on less effective moments that aren't necessary in order to deliver the full weight of Nat's literal and psychological revolution. The case of Hammer's Samuel Turner is a perfect example in that he is consistently portrayed as one of the kinder plantation owners, but who is ultimately an unhappy alcoholic. Why does he drink? Why doesn't he have a family? These questions are merely touched upon, but the answers are never even suggested making his fate not nearly as complex or affecting as it could have been. Parker will surely learn that less is more as there are a few directorial choices that undermine the power of certain moments while I'd also hoped for a few more unique flairs from such a vision, but some of the imagery Parker and cinematographer Elliot Davis stage are truly striking somewhat making up for the lack of more inspired storytelling.
“The Birth of a Nation” makes a point to remind the audience time and time again how infuriating the mistreatment of human beings could be. It illustrates this through the travelling of Samuel and Nat from plantation to plantation where Nat is meant to preach to his fellow slaves in ways that more or less promise them an eternity in heaven if they listen to their masters here on earth. Of course, the point of it all is that slave owners were essentially the worst kinds of Christians in that they justified their inexcusable actions by bending passages of the Bible to suit their own wants and needs. It is this exposure to how his fellow people are treated-the travelling that brings to light the different levels of cruelty and brutality-that incites the need to do something about it rather than simply continue to bend to their every whim. As much of the films emotionality is based solely in Parker's performance this tactic of dolling out example after example as to why he feels pushed to do what he eventually does is effective in that it riles up the viewer as much as it does the protagonist. Parker's performance specifically in a scene with his beaten and battered wife as well as that of the obligatory whipping scene are beyond searing. Parker's charisma is present throughout-making it easy to see why the man could garner such a following so quickly, but it is in these moments that Parker demonstrates a level of intensity in the fervor of his performance where we can see the actor reminding himself why he committed himself so completely to bringing this story of Nat Turner to the big screen. They are moments that are truly show-stopping and that relegate the shortcomings of the narrative missteps to that of mere afterthoughts. The crux of the film though, is this moral struggle Nat comes to deal with in preaching an interpretation of the word of the Lord that he doesn't necessarily agree with. Nat is preaching the word of a man who, if taken according to the white man's interpretation, has given Nat and his people no reason to believe in him. How does one go on having faith in something and someone who seems to have so easily allowed this entire race of white men to stand between them and their savior? How does one accept such doctrine as truth when it's been used as long as one can remember to oppress? This is the main idea that gives “The Birth of a Nation” and Nat Turner the drive to discover there can be numerous interpretations; to realize they can use their slave owner's greatest weapon against them. One has to wonder how the events depicted in this film didn't occur sooner-how there wasn't a larger revolution that plucked the roots of such a crooked system from the ground instead of Nat Turner's small escapade that broke only a few branches, but it is in Parker doing as his character does when he comes to realize that nothing is stopping him from changing how things have always been to how he thinks they should be that makes this film one to be noted and appreciated even if there is no desire to ever see it again.
by Philip Price
I see what Warner Brothers Animation is attempting to do here and I can dig it. After finding great success with “The LEGO Movie” and the fact they acquired the likes of Phil Lord and Chris Miller who directed ‘21’ and “22 Jump Street” (as well as “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”) to helm that hit animated movie the thought of continuing to try their hand at bringing in R-rated comedy directors and seeing how they operate within the world of children’s entertainment is a ballsy, but interesting move. Much like with the case of “The LEGO Movie,” Warner Bros. was likely hoping this formula might produce something both mature and goofy with the plus of remaining consistently funny throughout the majority of its runtime. It makes sense and what better way to test said formula than with the likes of Nicolas Stoller, director of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and the two ‘Neighbors’ movies, thus the reason we now have “Storks.” Because of this inclination to take someone known for one thing and put them just far enough outside of their element, their comfort zone if you will, I was inclined to be more interested in this seemingly agreeable animated family movie than I might have been otherwise. I love it when directors or studios cast an actor known for one type or style of work, especially comedians, and place them in a different setting where we see them challenged in new/different ways that usually result in a more fascinating piece of work by virtue of the outside influences and persona that performer brings with them. That is kind of what is happening here though maybe not to the extreme of, say, Jim Carrey in “The Truman Show.” Rather, Stoller is being challenged by the limits of a PG-rating and how far he can go with his comedy inadvertently forcing him to be more creative with how he comes up with the laughs needed for a 90-minute children's film. And so, how does all of this hype and build-up effect the final product? Well, in many ways this is a disappointment when considering the potential the film had considering the interesting premise, its insanely talented and funny voice cast and of course the presence of Stoller in the director's chair. Instead of producing anything unique or of distinguishable value, “Storks” more or less plays by the rules of Pixar and DreamWorks movies where the narrative sees a couple of characters going on a quest to achieve a goal that will allow them to discover new things about themselves along the way. There's nothing especially wrong with this structure especially when executed in fun and interesting ways and “Storks” certainly has its quirks, but more than anything the film feels far too routine to be a product of someone who should have really been challenging themselves.
“Storks” is weird. Let's get that out of the way first. It's just not weird enough to be as subversive of the typical animated film as it seems to yearn to be. One can see the ideas and intent there, especially if you are aware of the director's filmography and the fact the script was penned by Stoller as well, but just when you think it might push up against those genre conventions hard enough to break them the characters go back to adhering to the established system and we're on our merry way back to predictable town. It's kind of a shame, really, because older kids in the audience will undoubtedly be left with lingering questions about where babies actually come from, but instead of going so far as to fill in the gaps in logic and explanation that would be necessary to justify certain generations of the human races existence the film ignores this issue altogether and assumes parents will assume that once the storks quit delivering babies adults finally figured out how to use their parts to do it themselves. That premise a little testy for you? Well, all of that is without saying the reason the storks decided to stop delivering babies in the first place was due to the fact that it was essentially a tough life; the birds grew too close to the children they ultimately had to deliver and they just couldn't do it any more or they were all going to keel over from heartbreak. It is because of the fact these birds developed loving, paternal feelings for these human babies that they can no longer deliver them. This wouldn't be so strange were it simply left to backstory, but things are pushed in a weirder direction still as there are two parallel storylines taking place within “Storks,” one of which follows hardworking stork Junior (Andy Samberg) who, through a series of really unfortunate events, ends up having to deliver a child with orphan Tulip (comedian Katie Crown) to its rightful parents, but who develop into a small family of their own along the way. It's not that it's out of the ordinary to personify animals, but when animals are personified and act on a certain level of intimacy with humans things get a little icky. Somewhere here there is a metaphor for the non-traditional family and I know the movie’s heart is in the right place, but functioning as it does “Storks” hues closer to eliciting vibes of bestiality than it does ones of sympathy.
I know what you're thinking, "Don't be ridiculous! It's a children's movie" or "You just have your mind in the gutter," and maybe that's true to a certain degree, sure, but truly those are the somewhat off-putting tones that the film doles out in hopes of illustrating this idea that a family doesn't necessarily have to consist of a mom, a dad and their children. Still, “Storks” ends up not being as much about relaying a message of finding ones true calling or true self, but rather a goofy and absurd comedy that can't quite get a grasp on its own metaphor and instead favors family-movie conventions to convey what they want to relay as unconventional. Let's just look at the complicated way in which it tries to do this for further proof that the intent is fine, but the execution is far too jumbled and odd to really say what it desires to say effectively. So, storks no longer deliver babies, but instead run a company called Cornerstore.com which is essentially Amazon. Junior is the top delivery stork at the company when the movie opens and is up for a big promotion. Of course, before he is promoted to being "The Boss" his current boss, Hunter (Kelsey Grammer), requires him to complete one task. That task is to fire the orphan named Tulip who is more or less the reason storks quit delivering babies in the first place. The stork that was meant to deliver her, Jasper (Danny Trejo), became too attached and wanted to keep her pushing him to break the device that tells storks where they are supposed to deliver a child. As a result, Tulip has been raised with and by storks, but as she is more harm than good and is now set to celebrate her 18th birthday, the storks no longer feel the need to look after her. Unable to go through with firing Tulip, Junior places her in the mail room where letters were once sent to the storks from people requesting a baby. Hoping he will be able to hide Tulip and keep her out of trouble while still getting the promotion, things are turned upside down for Junior when Tulip receives a letter from a boy who discovered one of the old pamphlets that informed prospective parents how to get a baby. Tulip, as she does, complicates things by creating a baby (this is done through some sort of magical machine) forcing Junior to scramble to fix the issue by delivering the baby with Tulip before Hunter finds out. The boy who sent the letter, Nate Gardner (Anton Starkman), leads the parallel story as he's currently dealing with neglectful parents (Ty Burrell and Jennifer Aniston) and wants someone that will spend time with him thus his need for a sibling. See what I'm saying? There's a lot to dissect here.
Though “Storks” is strange in somewhat disconcerting ways there is enough here to see through some of the more troubling aspects and recognize those aforementioned good intentions. The biggest plus coming in the form that, as a parent, the film really hits you in the final act. In many ways, especially given my initial resistance to the orphan Tulip character, I was surprised to find myself empathizing with the characters as much as I did. Though overly-complicated, the film eventually proves itself to utilize those many layers to become more compelling through the course of its main quest. Tulip is at first as frustrating a character for the audience as she is to our main character despite the fact the script wanting to paint her as this living and breathing embodiment of empathy. Over the course of the film though the character builds more and more of our respect through both her actions and her selflessness. This contradicts well with the storyline chronicling Nate and the ordeal he is going through with his parents. The Gardners have become so engulfed in their jobs they are essentially the worst parents in the world. Completely ignoring Nate and making decisions based wholly on their own self-interests rather than that of their son's the film is able to give parents this ever necessary reminder that time is our most precious commodity and that it's the only thing we can't get more of. It only hurts their case even worse that Nate is such an interesting and insightful character. Most of his lines are read for comedic effect and no 5- or 6-year-old could ever be as perceptive as Nate is presented to be, but that's not the point – the point is to make his parents realize they only have so long that they'll be able to take care of him before he no longer needs them, that they'll only have so long before he doesn't look up to them anymore and only so long before he'll begin to resent them for the way they've pushed him to the back burner. This dynamic is a real highlight and though played for laughs it possesses a strong undercurrent of truth that might make some of those laughs uneasy ones. That's a good thing-not to mention the fact it does exactly what it needs to do to make us like Tulip all the more. “Storks” can be really funny. There is a running gag with wolves led by the Alpha (Keegan-Michael Key) and Beta (Jordan Peele) wolves of a pack that is just random/outlandish enough, but still grounded that it would be impossible to not at least chuckle. On the other end of that spectrum is Pigeon Toady (Stephen Kramer Glickman) who is laugh-out-loud funny on first appearance, but quickly grows old due to the film’s over-reliance on his shtick. And so, there is some good and some bad, leaving “Storks” to mostly muddle around in average territory, but had the script gone through some slight "gentrification" we might have had something truly hilarious and original on our hands.
by Philip Price
Full disclosure: I've never seen “The Blair Witch Project.” I haven't seen its rushed sequel, “Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows,” either though I hear that's not a bad thing. Being the oldest of my siblings only meant the rules were enforced hardest on me and despite being a solid 12 years old when the original film debuted in the summer of 1999 I wasn't allowed to see it. What it became within the landscape of pop culture is now unavoidable as it more or less spurned the idea of what became a genre all its own. When “The Blair Witch Project” premiered over 15 years ago though, there was no such thing as "found footage" movies and so it was an experience moviegoers had never had before (or so I'm told). It wasn't a gimmick as much as “Paranormal Activity” would relay itself to be a decade later, but rather that original ‘Blair Witch’ carried itself with the air of a documentary – something authentic that audiences shouldn't necessarily be seeing. The fact I'd never seen the original dawned on me more heavily when it was announced at Comic-Con this past summer that the new film from director Adam Wingard (“You're Next,” “The Guest”) previously titled “The Woods” was actually a third entry in the long-stagnant ‘Blair Witch’ franchise. Given the aforementioned affect it had on pop culture and that the film itself had become more a reference point than a talking point for the actual content it provided, I wondered if it would be better to finally see what all the fuss was about or simply go in cold; hoping for an experience that might capture the same feeling of terror the original conjured up in so many. Of course, given the circumstances, that latter hope could never actually be realized considering the ways cinema has transformed in the last 17 years. It seems that with “The Blair Witch” films, time is simply not on my side. Too young for the original and too seasoned to now be deceived by the found footage-style of filmmaking it's as if I was destined to never realize the full potential of this series. I can acknowledge that and it is discouraging I can never view the original the way the filmmakers intended, but on its own terms the new ‘Blair Witch’ does nothing new for the genre of "scary movies" and that would be true even if it wasn't based on a 17-year-old idea. This film could have come out today with no previous films in its canon with no variance of opinion in that ‘Blair Witch’ is a middle of the road horror flick with some nice ideas and even a couple of genuinely frightening moments that don't parlay into enough of a sucker punch to send us running from the theater.
Completely ignoring what happened in ‘Book of Shadows’ (again, or so I'm told) Wingard's ‘Blair Witch’ begins by introducing us to Heather Donahue's younger brother, James (James Allen McCune), who believes he has discovered a video showing what he believes to be his sister's experiences in the demonic woods of the Blair Witch aka, The Blair Witch Project. Naturally, James and a group of his friends including childhood buddy Peter (Brandon Scott), Peter's girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid) and James' other friend/film student/maybe love interest Lisa (Callie Hernandez), all decide to head into the forest in search of his lost sibling with Lisa providing the cameras and current technology that will document it all. From the outset what is meant to differentiate this new ‘Blair Witch’ from that of its predecessor is the change in technology that has occurred. By giving Lisa equipment such as a drone, GPS trackers/locators, and Bluetooth-like cameras that the characters wear on their ears the film is automatically able to give us better quality footage than most of what we see from the found-footage genre as well as offering multiple perspectives and intelligent ways for which our protagonists might combat the haunting stories that surround these mysterious woods. Before entering the Black Hills of Burkittsville, Md., though, the James gang meets up with locals Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry) who supposedly found the tape that James believes his sister could be on. Lane and Talia agree to show James and his friends where they found the tape on the condition they allow them to tag along. Ultimately having no other choice the six young adults, seeming to range in age from 20 to 25, set out past the, "No Entry After Nightfall," sign and into what unfortunately turns out to be a monotonous set of obstacles and jump scares with not enough character development to pad the running time before the final half hour really jumps things into gear setting up a final 15 to 20 minutes that is the relentless and creatively frightening piece one might hope the entire film to be.
And so, the good: the main cast of characters are fine if not excessively appealing. All of the performers come off as real as one can hope in this day and age – none overly aching to fit into one group/type of people, but more these are average folks who happen to have an emotional connection and reason for why they'd do something as crazy as wander back into what are likely haunted woods. The exceptions here are obviously the Lane and Talia characters who, having grown up in Burkittsville, have become fascinated with the lore and the mystery surrounding the hills that surround their homes. Though Robinson has the showiest role as far as outright theatrics go, he still plays things with an edge of realness in that the character of Lane clearly takes all of this very seriously. The necessary exposition tells us James is an EMT and that Lisa is present just as much due to her friendship with James as she is for what could potentially be a gold mine of footage. We're also presented with the indications Peter somewhat resents Lisa for taking advantage of his life-long friend and his quest for closure while Ashley is meant to serve as the peacekeeper between the two. And so, the bad: one would think the film might use these dynamics in order to create more tension among the people the script is placing in these dire situations, but as soon as Lane and Talia show up all of the animosity shifts to them leaving the rest of the cast to act suspicious toward the obvious members of the group and then wander into genre trappings as they are picked off one by one before being thrust into a climactic third act of action and horror that is literally and structurally only stumbled upon so that the film may find some way to wrap things up. The film hits some positive notes in exploring the way in which the forest manipulates time and space and there are some cool ideas around these concepts that the movie digs into in those final 15 minutes, but for the hour prior there is little more than people walking through the woods and jumping every time they hear something in the distance. This leaves so much more to be desired as the indicators are there to be put in motion and we're clearly building to what can be nothing but a lose/lose situation and yet for the longest time one can't help but feel bored instead of scared to death.
Most of all, ‘Blair Witch’ is disappointing because it's familiar. It's ridiculous to put the same set of expectations on a 17 year-later sequel for not being as striking or original as the legacy that follows the first film now and it's not even that this new ‘Blair Witch’ has to bring something new to the scary movie genre, but to at its most basic level be entertaining and/or intriguing a horror film must execute the tropes it's going to abide by in interesting and well-done ways. ‘Blair Witch’ does this some of the time, but most of the time it simply feels as if we could be watching any number of "kids lost in the woods" movies. What makes the film easier to recommend though, with the caveat of it being fine without being anything special, is that it delivers in the end and has a solid enough payoff for sitting through some of the more meandering moments that we don't mind doing so as much. Without going into too much detail there are two specific moments within the last 20 minutes of the film that caused legitimate chills to run down my arm and then another sequence featuring a confined space that is almost palpable to the point I wanted to stand up from my seat just to make sure I still could. It is moments such as these – moments that creep into you that the film could have used in more varied points rather than throwing them all at the audience in the final act. ‘Blair Witch’ is a movie that conveys the thought of what's happening being creepier that what is actually being shown on screen. The idea that when night falls that space and time somewhat become their own thing to each individual or that, when they finally stumble upon the house that James' sister went into at the end of the original, there is an inherent sense of panic and frustration when it becomes apparent nothing is as it seems. Those are innately haunting ideas. That there are no rules to which this ominous antagonist plays by and so there is no way of abiding by or outsmarting that antagonist is even further proof the film has a strong concept to play with. These are all scary thoughts, but unfortunately Wingard and his writing partner Simon Barrett, while clearly fans of both the genre and the original film in particular, just don't present enough interesting ways to make the scares as frightening or the story as riveting as it needs to be in order to render this new sequel necessary.
The Magnificent Seven
by Philip Price
“The Magnificent Seven,” the re-make of the 1960 John Sturges film starring Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, from director Antoine Fuqua accomplishes exactly what it intends to. This is pure popcorn entertainment meant to capitalize on the combination of brand awareness and the popularity of the actors it has on its roster. That said, it takes full advantage of those aspects while delivering a wholly satisfying blockbuster Western. It is difficult even, to take away from what is being accomplished within this pure Hollywood product as its only ambition is clearly to deliver something of an updated mythos on the story of seven exceptionally skilled sharpshooters and little more. Given the Sturges film itself was a re-make of director Akira Kurosawa's 1954 film, “Seven Samurai,” that supplanted the story of a poor village under attack by bandits who recruited seven samurai warriors to help defend their village with an oppressed Mexican village that assembles seven gunfighters to help defend their homes from outlaws relays the idea this particular story is one that can easily be adapted for new ages, new circumstances, and with new relevance. And so, why re-make “The Magnificent Seven” once again? It seems as though Fuqua, while not having a complete answer, mostly intends to use MGM's idea to raid their classics catalog by allowing him to lend more context to and highlight more of the race relations that were taking place in the late 19th century than might have been approved of in 1960. In light of such a re-framing of history as people see it through pop culture (which is never a good place to rely on for your history, not in 1960 and not now) Fuqua has cast frequent collaborator Denzel Washington in the lead role or the equivalent of what Brynner played in the original. Filling out the titular seven we also have a Mexican in Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Ruflo), a Korean in Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), and a Native American in Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) with the remainder of the crew filling out the tall white man quota with the likes of Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke and Vincent D'Onforio. Whether Fuqua's version of these events takes advantage of such changes and actually pulls insight or interesting dynamics from these updates is another thing as the 2016 “The Magnificent Seven” doesn't stand to get too weighty or theoretical, but instead it simply puts these ideas out there for audiences to recognize while at the same time making these characters so bluntly badass that boxes such as ethnicity hardly seem to matter. Whether this works in favor or against the reasoning for this movie to exist is a conversation to be had, but as far as I'm concerned Fuqua's film is so relentlessly entertaining and such a fun experience there need be no greater reason for its existence.
This is a story of men going to battle. This is a story you've seen before. And Westerns, for the most part, are basic set-ups with character development and action left to fill in the gaps where other movies might find more substance in the narrative. “The Magnificent Seven” makes up for it sometimes lacking character development by having a large cast of characters for us to get to know, focusing in on two or three, with the rest more or less having a single identifier by which we are assisted in remembering who is who. As for the set-up, like previously mentioned, it is a simple one. In this version of the story a town is under siege by an evil bad guy (an insanely sweaty Peter Sarsgaard) who runs a mining company that is essentially robbing this poor village of all they have. Mining their land for gold and offering the landowners a certain price for them to leave without plans of negotiation give the villagers no choice but to either be forced to move again from all they've built and put in honest work to obtain or to fight back against Sarsgaard's ruthless Bartholomew Bogue who shoots those who dare to oppose his propositions on sight. After a chilling initial shootout that leaves the town more distraught then before two of its residents take up the task of finding a way to defend their home. Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) and Teddy Q (Luke Grimes) head out to find a few good lawmen that might come together to help them defend their village from Bogue and his thieves. In light of this we are introduced to Washington's Sam Chisolm, a warrant officer who is on a mission to capture a bounty that allows his skills to be put on display for Emma and Teddy while at the same time sparking a slight affinity between Chisolm and Pratt's Josh Faraday. Scripted by “True Detective” showrunner Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk (“The Equalizer”) the film spends a fair amount of time in the establishing of and rounding up of the key characters before segueing into the main conflict that sees our titular seven coming in, intimidating, and then planning and preparing for the inevitable return of Bogue and his army. Only lagging in the second act as it attempts to find a transition from the expositional section of its script to that of the action Pizzolatto and Wenk offer a straightforward and linear presentation of events peppered with interesting and compelling enough characters that are only made more so by what the actors portraying them bring to the screen.
The glue holding all of this together is of course Washington who, at 61, can turn on his gravitas with ease. There is an early scene in which Washington's Chisolm rides into a predominantly white town where he immediately draws stares. Beyond this one telling sequence Fuqua doesn't harp too much on the color of his main character’s skin, but the script does allow for it to play into the overriding justification that pushes Chisolm to involve himself in the situation in the first place which, unfortunately, somewhat takes away from the character Washington builds throughout the film. It makes sense, the symmetry the screenwriters are attempting to craft in creating this understanding between our hero and our catalyst in Emma, but it mostly feels unnecessary in that we would have bought into Chisolm's choices and motivations were they nothing more than he believed he was doing the right thing. Outside of his arc, Washington is still as charismatic as ever and can pull in a viewer solely with his gazes and smirks. Here, the actor doesn't so much play Chisolm with an edge of cockiness, but more a confident and quiet assuredness that resonates throughout the rest of the group. Pairing Washington with the ever charismatic Pratt was an inspired choice and Pratt very much takes the role of the comic relief and runs with it while sporting an equally fierce facade that could, in some instances, be interpreted as flat out mean. Though Pratt is more or less playing Chris Pratt he does so in an effective manner that helps more than it hinders the overall tone and companionship of the group that becomes necessary for audiences to buy that these seven strangers can so quickly form a coherent and lethal organism. While Washington and Pratt are given the most screen time Hawke's character, Goodnight Robicheaux (a great name from the original I'm glad they kept here), surprisingly has the most interesting journey as he is the most conflicted. A former Confederate soldier who has seen more death than he cares to remember and has thus become something of a haunted individual because of it. Given that Robicheaux is the only other character Chisolm has a history with as well there is an inherently deeper connection to know more about what is going on inside the characters head as Hawke pairs Robicheaux's arc with one his always insightful performances.
If we're to discuss the range of performances in this film though, what D'Onforio brings is so out of left field and so strangely appealing that it ends up working despite one's first instinct to laugh off whatever high-pitched voice it is that the actor is attempting. D'Onforio has always been one to be something of a paradox by playing subtlety in big ways and he doesn't disappoint in that regard here as his Jack Horne, a bounty hunter and mountain man, is both a killer and a man who leans heavily on the guidance of the Lord to show him what path he needs to travel. There is no denying that D'Onforio's performance is over the top to the point it might even be distracting (and don't worry if you can't understand everything he says), but as the group melds together and as this camaraderie begins to genuinely form without needing the nudge from Chisolm it did-it is the character of Horne that we come to appreciate more fully and his quips we come to enjoy all the more any time his presence graces the screen. As for the remainder of the seven it is somewhat undermining that the three men of other nationalities or ethnicity's are the least developed characters, but the fact Fuqua worked to incorporate a diverse cast at all in this genre is saying something. As Vasquez Garcia-Rulfo is able to develop his persona as the flashiest gunfighter on the team only a little more than Lee and Sensmeier due only to the fact the other two are limited in their English dialogue. And though these characters are given less backstory and less to do in the grander scheme of things the script makes a choice on their behalf that at least stands to comment on where these individuals stand in terms of respect among their peers noting a sense of equality and even superiority in skill over any natural and therefore unavoidable factors that might have contributed to their appearance or set of beliefs that would thus cause them to be discriminated against. That also said, Lee and Sensmeier's Rocks and Red Harvest prove to be the most intimidating and deadly of the ensemble leaving their lack of dialogue to be made up for in the large action set-pieces where they display their worth in spades. It is worth mentioning also that, despite Bennett feeling like the flavor of the week who was cast in everything coming out this fall, she portrays a strong and capable woman in a wholly believable fashion here through a performance that stands up against each of the ones given by these aforementioned men.
And while the actor's certainly bring much to the film that it seems might not have been there on the page what is truly most impressive about this new version of “The Magnificent Seven” is simply how it is able to update the pacing of a genre that typically prides itself on the slower, more methodical approach while still retaining the inherent soul of the western genre. Fuqua puts much on display to pay homage to the films that reigned supreme in Hollywood for nearly three decades and it is also somewhat symbolic that the 1960 version of this story was something of the last of a dying breed in its assembly line "shoot 'em up" style that it was originally presented in that makes it the perfect kind of surrogate for which to bring that long dormant genre into the modern era of Hollywood. Of course, the fact it spawned three sequels and a hit television series doesn't hurt either. Now considered a modern classic that Sturges picture is glimpsed in Fuqua's film through the visual aesthetic and accompanying score that references, but doesn't explicitly take advantage of the iconic original score until the closing credits. Fuqua has always had a penchant for gritty and brutal films and in applying that to the old west what the director has crafted is a violent, sometimes shockingly violent, film that puts the right men in their places without getting too into its own head or visceral about what picture it's painting. In essence, “The Magnificent Seven” is a movie that implies and states a number of things that could be considered both presently timely and significant for the period in which the film takes place without openly discussing them. It is a movie that lets the facts of the situation speak for themselves and in many ways this works to the films advantage. Look, this isn't high-grade Oscar bait, but its solid fun with a through the roof entertainment factor and given those clear intentions it has from the beginning one is hard pressed to ask for more than that.