Sunday, January 29, 2017

TRAIN TO BUSAN is a thrill ride you need to catch!

The zombie genre is a funny thing.  The concept of the dead coming to life to feast on the living has been done to redundancy.  Every possible idea has been thoroughly explored on the big and small screen.  Ever since the first RESIDENT EVIL movie came out back in the olden days of 2002 there has been a nonstop wave of zombie films of all ranges of quality.  Some good.  Most bad.  Just when you think the genre is being laid to rest, another clever, well made movie or show comes out and inspires a whole new generation of movie makers to go out and make their own cheap knock-off.  SHAUN OF THE DEAD or THE WALKING DEAD are great examples of this phenomenon.  Now the WALKING DEAD's ratings are slipping. All the newly made zombie films are not getting bought up in film markets.  If they are lucky they might end up on Chiller T.V. or the SYFY Channel.  Yet just when you think the movement is over, here comes TRAIN TO BUSAN to reanimate the whole genre once again.  I don't care.  I like zombie movies and I really liked TRAIN TO BUSAN.  Even though I am a die hard fan of zombie movies, I think even the most casual fan of horror or movies in general will like this movie.  It is a bit unique.

The movie is about a father who is taking his daughter to visit his mother via the train to Busan.  He is a man consumed with work which has resulted in a failed marriage and a daughter who can't stand to be with him.  After getting on the train, however. zombies happen and now he is fighting along with the other passengers to survive and make it to Busan, possibly the only city on the route that is safe.

With its sharp focused shots, smooth camera movement and brightly lit and colorful cinematography TRAIN TO BUSAN stomps the trend of ugly and bland looking horror movies.  The subject matter might be grim but the film doesn't have to look it.  The result is that TRAIN is energized with life.  The film moves fast from scary moment to scary moment.  The characters are alive revealing who they are through their actions throughout the film.  The zombie thrills are spontaneous making it almost impossible to predict when the next attack will happen.  It is an exciting film through and through bolstered by the audience fear that their favorite characters might die.  You are going to care and have the 'feels' for these people.  Everyone is motivated by something whether it is the fear of dying or fear of the one you love meeting the horrible fate of being a chew toy for the undead.

The movie feels more like a disaster movie than a straight up horror film.  It is more about the characters surviving a cataclysmic event more than showing a bunch of gore and gross stuff usually associated with the genre.  The zombies are treated more like a natural disaster reserving them for the road blocks that our heroes need to either run from or come up with some desperate way to get past.  The movie is about surviving, not figuring what happened and trying to stop it.

TRAIN TO BUSAN's zombies are of the WORLD WAR Z variety.  They are fast moving, with the ability to jump somewhat, and seem to be motivated by the desire to spread the zombie plague rather than eat people for their flesh or brains.  People are treated like chew toys spit out before they can be torn apart allowing them to become fast moving double jointed zombies too.  It is rather mesmerizing to watch a character turn.  They kind of do some erratic Break Dance moves complete with the cracking sound of bones before going all grey eyed as they succumb to Zombitis.  They are scary screaming freaks that swarm like army ants.  Also it doesn't help that nobody has any guns.  That means when you are on a train full of undead crazies you are going to have to punch, kick, wrestle and use anything you can find to fend off the attackers.  They make killing zombies look so easy in THE WALKING DEAD, don't they?

Let me tell you my favorite part of the movie.  It is near the very beginning before all Armageddon breaks loose.  We are introduced to the real world troubles of a father trying to ineptly form a bond with his daughter who wants nothing to do with him.  When he is driving her to the train mentioned in the movie's title it is completely uneventful.  The quiet of a sleeping city is broken by the sounds of roaring sirens heading to a building on fire out in the distance.  We, as the audience, know that all hell is breaking loose all around them but the chaos has not yet broken their little bubble of what is left of their former lives.  They are unaware that they are running in a race of life and death as slowly as possible.  Even when boarding the train all the passengers do not realize the danger biting at their heals.  The tension is immense.  You just want everyone to get on that train as fast as possible and get the heck out of there!  Move, people!  Really great zombie movies have these wonderful calm before the storm moments.

TRAIN TO BUSAN isn't SNAKES ON A PLANE.  This is a zombie movie that you can't help but get emotionally involved.  It's funny at times.  It is heartbreaking at times but always exciting.  If this movie was made in America it would be treated as just another exploitation movie and given the obvious title of ZOMBIES ON THE TRAIN or LOCOMOTIVE OF THE DEAD or some other stupid title that is just a knock-off of a much more successful franchise in the genre.  No doubt there will be a North American remake starring Mark Wahlberg.  Ugh....


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016) When is a remake not a remake?

Well they did it, didn't they?  They finally did it.  The Hollywood Remake machine has finally claimed another American classic.  Never in my wildest dreams would I have believed they would have the tenacity to attempt to redo a nearly perfect classic film.  How much more taboo can you be?  The film that I am talking about of course is WORLD GONE WILD.  The post apocalyptic action western starring Bruce Dern is about a hippie from the sixties living in a world ravaged by nuclear warfare.  He lives in a small settlement of peaceful pioneers in the desert who find themselves under threat of Adam Ant and his cult of followers.  Out gunned Bruce Dern goes out and recruits about five other tough guys who manage to fight back and save the town from the weirdo attackers.  Of course the most memorable moment in the film is when Bruce Dern kills a bad guy by flipping a hub cap into his throat with the flick of a stick.  Oscar worthy and totally possible in real life I am sure.

Of course I am being silly.  Yes, WORLD GONE WILD is a remake (or homage) of the classic western, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, which was a remake of the classic samurai film, THE SEVEN SAMURAI, directed by Akira Kurosawa.  But we are here to review the new Denzel Washington film directed by Antoine Fuqua.  I bring up WORLD GONE WILD to make a point.  WGW has the spirit of the original as well as some lines of dialogue and some visual cues as well.  THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN 2016 only has a few lines of dialogue from the original.  The spirit of the original is completely absent from the new film.  The new MAGNIFICENT SEVEN barely even qualifies as a remake.  I would argue that it is not a remake at all, but just another "Men on a Mission" movie.  However, the idea that this is not a remake does not make the new movie better.  There is no fresh or new approach to the material.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN from 2016 is about a gunfighter named Sam (Not Chris!) who accepts a request from a recently widowed woman to help save her town from an evil rich guy and his army of bearded, duster wearing, professional gunmen.  Of course along the way Sam (The Denzel) recruits Chris Pratt and five other cohorts to lead the revolt against the army of TOMBSTONE movie enthusiasts.

I was shocked to see according to IMDB that the new MAGNIFICENT SEVEN was two hours and thirteen minutes long.  That is five minutes longer than the 1960's version!  How can the longer film have less story?  The new movie has gutted the story and replaced it all with guns, guns and more guns.  The movie becomes more of a standard revenge Western than an epic tale of men of questionable character deciding to fight for a noble cause with little chance of winning.  Yes, that is right I said "revenge Western."  Spoiler!!!!  At the end it is revealed that the rich bad guy, Bartholomew, had murdered Sam's family.  That revelation undercuts the whole point to the story.  The story narrative is incredibly important.  The filmmakers didn't trust the audiences to understand a motivation that wasn't revenge or getting gold and stuff.  The concept of fighting because it is the right thing to do seems to be too much of an abstract concept nowadays.  When Sam says the line from the original "I have been offered a lot, but never everything" it now suddenly has no meaning because he is only joining the cause for revenge.  Contrast that with Yul Brynner's character, Chris, who is moved by the gesture of poor farmers scraping together everything they have just to hire him to fight.  Which movie has more depth of character?  Which movie is going to move you more on an emotional level?

Akira Kurosawa's film was called THE SEVEN SAMURAI.  It is about seven samurai.  The 1960's MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is about seven gunfighters.  The new movie's cast of characters have different occupations.  You have Sam and the Mexican as gunfighters, a knife expert, a former Confederate who is now a sharp shooter, a Native American who joins for no reason, a mountain man and a gambler.  The diversity of their occupations doesn't hurt the modern film because there is no attempt to bring a connection between our protagonists and our super rich and super mean antagonist.  There is no time for character development despite the longer run time.  Longer run time means longer gun fights at the end.  1960's MAGNIFICENT had a cast of nothing but wandering gunfighters just like the wandering samurai from the source material.  These seven gunfighters are fighting a large band of outlaws who are also gunfighters.  They have similar job occupations.  Eli Wallachi leads the gang of outlaws who steals from the poor defenseless farmers.  Near the end he out smarts the heroes and takes over the small village but he doesn't kill them.  He respects them.  He sees himself as one of them even though he doesn't understand why they are fighting for some pathetic farmers.  The new movie has a stereotypical wealthy bad guy.  Only at the end is there an attempt to establish any connection our heroes and villain and it is only the deflating revelation that the bad guy killed Sam's family back in the day.  Standard stuff you would find in any Western.  That is why I really don't consider this a remake.  It is too far gone from the source material.  It is in name only that this is a remake.

Location.  Location.  Location.  The location is so important to both versions of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.  For the original it helps emphasize the thoughtful nature of our heroes.  They choose to fight the odds in a foreign land far away from anyone who will ever know their sacrifice.  There is no reward for what they are doing.  No one will remember them except for the farmers and villagers they help save.  They are alien to the Mexican culture.  Through the course of the film, however, the gunfighters envy the farmers for having a life worth living full of family and friends.  The farmers and the gunfighters learn from each other and develop a kinship.  Also the village is in the middle of nowhere far from any form of law enforcement which is ideal for Calvera and his men to take as they please.  The villagers are so desperate to hire men that are good with guns that they scrounge all of their most valuable possessions together making themselves even more poor than they were before.

The location of the remake takes place in the United States.  The townsfolk are not poor when compared to the farmers of the original.  The townsfolk gathering up their possessions to pay for their own Magnificent Seven isn't as meaningful.  They probably have more wealth where that came from.  Just look at how prosperous their town looks.   These people have jobs.  It feels disingenuous.  Being in the United States means there is some kind of government law somewhere about.  I know the film gives the classic cliche that the evil rich guy owns the law but if you are going to seek help from an army of bad guys, you don't buy gunfighters.  You go to a nearby fort and find the United States Army and ask them to help for free.  Does the bad guy own the Army too?  Not bloody likely.  Maybe there is some kind of HEAVEN'S GATE situation going on the movie doesn't mention.

Calvera played by Eli Wallachi is bombastic, deadly and a true threat.  He is a bandit, a killer, a man who has lived the life of adventure.  He lives outside of the law just like our heroes.  Contrast that to Bartholomew Bogue the wealthy murdering businessman.  Peter Sarsgaard is a great actor and he does his job well playing the antagonist but his diminutive size and stature does not present much of a menace to our stalwart band of larger than life heroes.  Being a man raised in great privilege makes him look soft having armed guards do his dirty work.

So what are we left with?  A descent action western and not much else.  Its not great but it is entertaining for the most part.  All the actors are great in their respected roles.  Denzel is always good.  You can never accuse the guy of giving a bad performance.  Chris Pratt is pretty much an early relative of STARLORD but that is a good thing for this film.  The Seven do have some good chemistry between them all that musters some attachment from the audience.  I like Byung-hun Lee as Billy Rocks the knife expert and his partner Goodnight Robicheaux the sharpshooter.  These two have an fun and sympathetic friendship where Billy keeps Goodnight in check from completely falling apart from his past experience in the Civil War.  If they had survived the movie they should have had a spin-off movie exploiting their further adventures.  Oops!  Spoilers!  Antoine Fuqua is a really good action director and he brings his "A Game" for this one.  There is a ton of glorious six gun blasting action in this movie and it's well staged and easy to follow.  No busy editing to distract form the action.  I particularly like all the horse stunt work Denzel does shooting bad guys from atop his magnificent black steed.  He is like a gymnast on a pommel horse.  Don't worry, folks.  The horse survives.  With all the shootings, stabbings and other major impalement issues I am surprised that this film managed to squeak out a PG-13.

Its funny.  Antoine Fuqua made another actioner that came out back in the old days of 2003.  It was TEARS OF THE SUN.  It starred Bruce Willis as a Special-Ops commander who leads a small group of soldiers who are sent into Africa to retrieve a doctor played by Monica Bellucci but find themselves ignoring orders to save a bunch of refugees fleeing a murderous army that seeks to kill them all.  Its an okay movie.  Tom Skerritt pops up in the film as an added bonus.  TEARS is way more closer to a MAGNIFICENT SEVEN remake than the Denzel movie.  Men in a foreign land who fight against a much larger army to save some people they have no apparent commonality with.  Sure it doesn't take place in the same time period and it lacks the memorable dialogue of the original but it does have the same core concept of few against many for the lives of strangers and the greater good.  See it for yourself.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN has more in common with any generic action movie (WORLD GONE WILD) concerning men recruited to undertake a dangerous mission than it does with the classic Western the movie steals it's title from.  Still the new movie is enjoyable with it's colorful cast and impressive amount of shoot'em up fun.  It is just too bad they didn't approach the material as an epic rather than just another BANG-BANG action movie.