The Magnificent Seven (2016)

I’ve never liked Westerns, those hyper-masculine products of a time gone by. I’m rarely a fan of remakes, too, since they’re usually just made for cash.

Seeing as The Magnificent Seven is a remake of a Western remake of a Japanese classic, I didn’t go in with the highest of hopes. And I think, in the end, that made me like it.

Co-written by True Detective‘s Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua, the new Seven stars Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt (Jurassic World), and Peter Sarsgaard (An Education). The story is the same as the original(s): a tyrannical man threatens to claim a settlement, and a band of men is gathered to fight the man’s forces.

Honestly, it takes a while to get interesting, and I thought the film had lost me by that point. The film opens fairly well, establishing the brutality and inexplicable psychopathy of Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), and then the rest of the first half is spent assembling the men to fight him. The only truly engrossing part was the battle at the end, and even that was riddled with hackneyed, heroic fates.

This might be the most Western movie ever made, in that regard. So many aspects of the film are typical of the few Westerns I’ve seen, both the positives and the negatives. And yet, some elements of this film truly set it apart from what I’ve seen, and those are noteworthy. The score was partially composed by the late, great James Horner (Titanic), and I could not help but bathe in it as it kept the standard moments afloat. Also, there is one significant female role in this film, and it’s honestly the best of all of them. Newcomer Haley Bennett (next month’s The Girl on the Train) won me over almost instantly, adding so much truth and dimension to a male-centered film, and I think she’s really going to be one to watch in the future. The cinematography is truly outstanding, as well.

In Blazing Saddles, a black man rides into a white town on a horse. In that same film, the villains believe the settlement’s exterior is real, when in fact they’re just the building faces on supports. For most of The Magnificent Seven, I felt like I was watching those buildings—it looked authentic, but there was nothing deeper to it. It was a hollow film. Thankfully, by the end, the only real comparison was a black man on a horse.

2.5 Green

The Magnificent Seven is in theaters now.

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Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Perhaps the most transcendent sequel of all time, it also happens to be one of my favorite films.

The Empire Strikes Back takes what made Star Wars good, and it elevates every element. Handing the script over to Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett, the dialogue was snappier. Giving the director’s chair to Irvin Kirschner, the direction was more experienced. With a bigger budget, the world was more developed.

And yet, perhaps the greatest aspect of this film, to me, is the structure. The Empire Strikes Back is clearly divided into three acts. The first, Luke, Han, and Leia work to leave the ice planet Hoth. The second, Luke seeks a wise Jedi Master named Yoda, while Han and Leia seek to escape the Empire’s Star Destroyers. The third takes place in the Cloud City on Bespin, where the protagonists are forced to fight off Darth Vader. Luke, in a legendary moment, finds out the true identity of his father.

When I was a screenwriting student, I was always told to make my stories simpler, and perhaps I could have learned from this film. Its structure is profoundly simple, making the film easy to follow and letting each moment swell to its full potential. Nothing in this film feels rushed, and that is perhaps the greatest miracle of any film.

I feel like I could talk for hours about this motion picture, but I shall refrain. It fertilizes one of the greatest romances in cinema, introduces a character with a singular syntactical structure, and swells with one of the most recognizable scores of all time.

No, it’s not consistently realistic, but that’s by today’s standards. To me, everything about this film is perfect, and my life is enriched every time I see it.

4 Green

The first six Star Wars films are airing on TNT and TBS this week. Check your local listings.

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Star Wars (1977)

Perhaps it is the result of my own bias that I’ve given this film an imperfect score. It has few flaws if any. Then again, all three films of the Original Trilogy are classics, and yet they are not equal. As they are often compared directly, I was of the opinion that my own favorite should stand out among the rest.

Now that I’ve mentioned that, I can get on with my review.

Star Wars, or as it was later subtitled A New Hope, is one of the most significant films in the history of cinema. It featured an instant classic soundtrack by John Williams, as well as landmark special effects and one of the most bankable narratives of all time. And yet, I still know scores of people who haven’t seen it (I question their parents’ rearing).

It revolves around Luke Skywalker, raised by his uncle Owen on the sandy Tatooine. When he encounters droids C-3PO and R2-D2, they wind up leading him to an elderly Obi-Wan Kenobi. After Luke discovers his uncle’s farm destroyed by the Empire, Luke goes with Obi-Wan to find smugglers who might help deliver a set of plans to Alderaan.

It’s only when they get to Alderaan that they discover it obliterated by the very device they hope to destroy, the planet-killing Death Star. It is then up to the Rebellion to uncover and exploit a flaw in that device so that peace in the galaxy can be restored once more.

It’s a foundational motion picture, setting a template that has been copied by many films since, and it is phenomenal. It features several iconic, infinitely relatable characters, and one doesn’t feel like it was made on such a low budget ($11M in 1976). Writer-director George Lucas went to great lengths to tell the story visually, rather than verbally, and ultimately that it was made it successful. Anyone, anywhere in the world, could understand what was happening.

Star Wars is the rare film that completely justified a sequel—and ultimately many more. I will admit I have never seen the theatrical edition of this film, only the “enhanced” versions made by Lucas afterward. I don’t know what it looks like. What I do know is there was no need to mess with this film, as it was great already.

3.5 Green

The first six Star Wars films are airing on TNT and TBS this week. Check your local listings.

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Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

When I’m watching an opera, I never read the lyrics. Oftentimes, they are hackneyed and melodramatic, as one might expect from, well, an opera.

Instead, I try to focus on the feelings or even the plot. One should do that with Star Wars, the ultimate example of a space opera. Sometimes, when you do that, you realize how much you actually like it.

Unlike the first two prequel episodes, I have always found Revenge of the Sith to be excellent. The special effects are genuinely realistic to me, and George Lucas seems to have finally found his narrative footing. It centers again on Anakin Skywalker and Chancellor Palpatine, and they are so close to where we meet them in later films.

The Separatists have captured Chancellor Palpatine, and the film opens with an action-packed sequence where Anakin “saves him from Count Dooku.” Anakin soon has visions of his wife, Padmé, dying in childbirth, and he is willing to do anything to prevent that from happening. The Jedi Council charges Anakin to spy on Palpatine, and doing so brings the man closer to the chancellor, who ends up being one of the darkest Sith Lords of all time.

As Anakin listens to the promises made by Chancellor Palpatine, he begins to lose faith in the fair-minded Jedi, and this film chronicles his shift to the Dark Side of the Force, along with his fateful coronation as Darth Vader. Everything about this film is tragic but inevitable, and I wish this were the only film released narratively before A New Hope.

As I mentioned above, the special effects are among the best in the series here. In fact, a lot of the digital creations are so finely textured, they make the humans seem artificial by comparison. John William creates an enthralling, monumental score; Ian McDiarmid gets to ham it up as Palpatine; and Samuel L. Jackson gets to fully solidify his purple-sabered, powerfully awesome Mace Windu.

Also, compared with the other prequels, I was actually interested here, fairly consistently. This narrative has more in common with the classic trilogy than with Episodes I and II, and I’m so thankful for that.

Revenge of the Sith succeeds where the other prequels did not, showcasing a storyline that reminds me how easy it is to love Star Wars. It’s as operatic as they come, sure. But it’s so well done here, that just might be why I love it.

3.5 Green

The first six Star Wars films are airing on TNT and TBS this week. Check your local listings.

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Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Anakin is such a creep.

I think this movie would have been a lot better if he weren’t in it. I mean, consider what it’s got going for it. You have Christopher Lee playing an old Confederate Separatist; you have an exemplary duel between Lee and Yoda; you have a stellar, action-packed opening.

Anakin is just insufferable, and it ruins the movie. It could be the portrayal by Hayden Christensen, or it could just be the development of the character. After all, this is supposed to be the boy who becomes Darth Vader, so he has to have some personality flaws, one of which includes flirting with the woman who was still a woman when he was a child. Gross.

The basic storyline continues the political narrative of Episode IAttack of the Clones starts out with thousands of solar systems trying to secede from the Republic. Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) narrowly avoids an assassination attempt, and Anakin is tasked with protecting her, during of the course of which they fall in love. Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) discovers the creation of a clone army, Chancellor Palpatine manipulates his way into Hitleresque power, and soon the Clone Wars have begun.

I actually liked the story of this one more than the story for Phantom Menace, but this was more artificially presented. The environments were state-of-the-art when the film was released in 2002, but they could not look more computer-generated today, and it was to the point where it drew me out of the movie. You simply can’t fake a practical effect, and that’s why the original trilogy will last much longer than the films of the early age of digital.

Maybe George will redo the effects one day.

In the end, I don’t mind this film. It’s good when you’re watching the series, but it is clearly a weaker link in the chain. This film is the seventh grade of the Star Wars saga: it’s entirely necessary, and it had good moments, but it should be recalled as infrequently as possible.

2.5 Green

The first six Star Wars films are airing on TNT and TBS this week. Check your local listings.

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Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

A lot of hatred is spewed at this film. Like, a lot. And frankly, I don’t think this film deserves it.

Yes, Jar-Jar Binks is worthy of strangulation, and the film is far too political for its own good. Actually, this is supposed to be the story of Anakin Skywalker, but I really think The Phantom Menace is about Emperor Palpatine. Still, for all its narrative missteps, this is not a bad film at all.

The fourth released film in the series, yet touted as the beginning of the narrative, The Phantom Menace begs to be a necessary chapter in the saga. It’s ultimately about a boy named Anakin who is discovered on a desert planet. He just might be the one to bring balance to “The Force,” presumably vanquishing evil after his Jedi training. When this storyline is followed, the film is cohesive and essential, and honestly, I don’t mind watching it.

The problem is that’s not the main part of the film, not really. Everything else revolves around political alliances and upheavals. A senator named Palpatine is manipulating his way into power, and pretty much everyone knows who he becomes. Writer, director, and series creator George Lucas both knows this and seems to have forgotten it. He plays the Palpatine narrative like we’ve simply never seen it, and so, like with a lot of the film, I’m left wondering what was really necessary about this chapter at all.

Okay, so maybe this review is getting slightly negative. While I’m at it, the “state-of-the-art” special effects are mostly dated by now, nothing compared to the practical effects of the originals. A lot of the acting is heavy-handed, and I think the film might be a little racist.

But there are some good aspects. Many, even. For every Jar-Jar, there is a Darth Maul. For every verbal senate battle, there is a significantly more riveting lightsaber fight. George Lucas took great care to realize his galaxy to the best of his ability at the time, and some moments stand out in the now seven-film saga. Plus, you have Liam Neeson explaining religion to you in a way that’s not obnoxious.

This film has moments of true brilliance, even if they’re outnumbered by the film’s considerable flaws. Still, I do think I’d prefer having some greatness to none whatsoever.

2.5 Green

The first six Star Wars films are airing on TNT and TBS this week. Check your local listings.

Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016)

About fifteen minutes from the end of this film, a teenager pulled the fire alarm at my cinema, forcing the audience to evacuate. My main concern was not the safety of the building or its inhabitants, but rather who the bloody father was.

That is the effect this charming movie had on me. Like with the 2016 presidential election or something with seemingly higher stakes, Game of Thrones, it literally could have been almost anyone. I just had to know who it was.

And let me tell you, I was not disappointed. Bridget Jones’s Baby is the third film revolving around the title character, played with endearing faults by Renee Zellweger. This time, she gets lucky enough to “shag” two men in a close time frame, and she literally doesn’t know which one is the father. Call it simple, but it really does lead to complications.

The men in question are Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), her old flame, and Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey), a boyish billionaire matchmaker who literally wears a sweater to Glastonbury. This film is all about the hijinks between these men, as they start to compete for Bridget’s affection (like that would honestly make them the father), and Bridget cannot help but get caught in the middle.

Add in appealing production design, scenery-chewers, and a general affability, and I really could not have enjoyed the film much more than I did. It’s by no means great, and I might forget the plot before long, but this film made me enjoy life for two hours and two minutes. Sometimes, you can’t ask for more than that.

3 Green

Bridget Jones’s Baby is in theaters now. Take your mom.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

If you were born anytime after this movie came out, it might as well have been around forever. I literally cannot imagine a world where this film did not exist.

In case you do, in fact, live in that world, and you haven’t seen this film, it’s the epitome of a Disney classic. Beauty and the Beast is the story of Belle, a young woman in provincial France who educated herself by reading. When her father, an inventor named Maurice, is forced into stumbling upon a castle, she goes looking for him. The castle is the home to a foul prince who was cursed to take the form of a beast, and Belle offers herself in place of her dungeoned father.

Against all odds, Belle falls in love with the Beast, the only way to break the spell, returning all the enchanted servants to their human forms. There is nothing particularly original about this “tale as old as time,” but I have not seen a version as undeniably magical as this.

Beauty and the Beast was the first animated feature to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. It contained the first fully animated and computer-generated background (the ballroom scene). Nearly every song is cemented in the hearts and minds of children all over the world.

It’s really the type of film that doesn’t need to be reviewed, as you’ve likely formed your own opinion on it, whether you first watched it as a child or with your child. In my eyes, this is a magnificent film, and that statement is true as it can be.

4 Green

Beauty and the Beast: 25th Anniversary Edition, will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on September 20. It is available on digital platforms now, but you probably already own it.

[Editor’s note: the version I watched most recently was the Special Edition, which contains a deleted song, “Human Again.” It is an interesting concept of a song, but I am slightly thankful it was left out of the theatrical cut.]

The Exorcist (1973)

What exactly does it mean to be terrified? Are you shocked at something—a supernatural killer, perhaps? Or are you chilled to your bone, trapped in your own body as you watch something unfold?

I will admit I was terrified to see this film, billed the scariest of all time since its release. But I was also desperate to know if it actually was. I’ve seen a few of the “scariest films” ever recently, and I wasn’t afraid in the way I’d imagined.

Yes, this film is terrifying. But it’s not trying to make you jump, so much as it’s trying to make you sit perfectly still.

The Exorcist, written for the page and screen by William Peter Blatty, is about the possession of a little girl named Regan (played by Linda Blair). Her mother (Ellen Burstyn) is an actress, and at first she gets the girl tested for mental illness. Contrary to what I’d expected, demonic possession was far from the first thing considered—in fact, it was the last.

What really makes this film scary is the fact that it’s all laid out for you. If things go bump in the night, you know where they are. When the demon starts speaking through Regan’s mouth, you’re watching it all right there. For a large chunk of the film, the girl is actually tied to her bed, so you know the rest of the house is safe.

It’s grounded in the real world. Father Karras (Jason Miller) is a psychiatrist, and most of the film is dedicated to finding a scientific explanation for Regan’s misbehavior. Yes, she is possessed by a demon, and yes, her head turns completely around, and yes, I was trapped in my body with terror.

But what makes this film special is that it’s not sensationalized. It deals more with the humans than with the clever demon in Regan. Plus, with truly masterful makeup by Dick Smith, it is more believable than you might yourself believe.

The Exorcist is terrifying, but I’m not sure what would qualify as the scariest of all time. Your run-of-the-mill slasher might work for me. This film is not trying to scare you, and that’s what makes it so frightening. The material, openly presented, is scary enough. In the end, it’s a film about faith, doubt, and a little girl named Regan. And it’s exceptional.

3.5 Green

The Exorcist is available on Netflix.

Don’t Breathe (2016)

Are you afraid of the dark? Because he’s not.

I’ve been trying to watch horror films more often as of late, both because I need to stop being afraid and because we’re having a scarenaissance (just made that up). I heard a lot of good things about this film, and I figured it was worth the risk.

It was. So worth it. Don’t Breathe revolves around a trio of teenagers who break into the house of a blind veteran (Stephen Lang, Avatar). He won a settlement after the accidental death of his daughter and the group wants to snatch it. What they don’t know is that the old man knows every inch of his house and that he will stop at nothing to protect the cash.

This film is the type of terrifying that’s based firmly in reality, the kind that’s more thrilling than anything. The scares come from the man’s thorough knowledge of his home, the way that he can cut you off when he knows exactly where you’re going. They come from setups that you don’t notice until they’ve paid off. And the ride is truly relentless, offering tense moment after tense moment until the picture’s final seconds.

As far as horror films go, this one is genuinely excellent. In fact, my only real criticism of the film is that it’s so exhaustive in its thrills that it wears you out. The aesthetic and direction show a mastery of cinema, and I do not for a second regret seeing it. You can simply have too much of a good thing.

3 Green

Don’t Breathe is in theaters now.