28 August 2019

Terrifyingly Titular Ladies

Terrifyingly Titular Ladies
by Kristin Battestella

This eponymous trio of period pieces provides Victorian, religious, and folklore scares for our ladies as well as their husbands, children, doctors, and priests.

Angelica – A Victorian couple spirals into paranormal horrors thanks to puritanical repression in this brooding 2017 tale starring Jena Malone (The Neon Demon), Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs), and Ed Stoppard (The Frankenstein Chronicles). Ghostly photography, flashbulbs, and empty chairs contrast the bustles, parasols, and formalities before lanterns, carriages, fine townhouses, and storms. Bedridden confessions lead to earlier courtings with circus sideshows and talk of Darwinism versus the stiff upper lip British tapering their animal appetites. The microscope revealing disease causing organisms is almost as fantastic as the camera capturing spirits, and while it's okay for a young lady to work in stationary store selling nibs and ink, she can't see her future husband's laboratory. Our humble orphan now in elaborate red dresses is called a counter jumper by the aristocratic ladies, and she's fearful of the bridal bed before enjoying it in a scandalously active montage. Bells toll amid talk of losing a mother nor wanting to be one, and this birth is graphic not maternal bliss thanks to scalpels, screams, and both lives at stake. Unfortunately, the doctor says another pregnancy is not worth the risk, and the couple should “desist entirely” and close her garden. Our husband doesn't want to seek pleasure elsewhere, but she can't get into other..options...and favors their toddler over him. Soon, she's completely revolted by her husband and obsessively attached to the child, and the wife is made to feel guilty about her health and desires by everyone in tense Victorian melodrama. Men in suits have no trouble warping her mind, but they are shocked to see a woman enter the medical theater amid animals in cages, exposed brains, and disturbing experiments that put the creepy back into the complex characterizations. Strange noises, visions of germs in the air, bugs in the woodwork, and wardrobes that open by themselves lead to more anger as the husband dislikes the chaos his overprotective wife is causing in their home. She won't let these apparitions prey on her daughter – who also sees this floating ectoplasm man in her room. Is she putting more notions in the imaginative child's head? Is this mental illness or is the repressed sexual energy seeping into the house itself?The maid calls in a scam artist spiritualist to ring bells, burn sage, and banish the banshees. Rather than a charlatan taking advantage, however, there's a woman to woman understanding and courage – a protection spell is more like piece of mind somewhere between being a modest mother and the shame of enjoying sex. There are also unspoken lesbian veils, entertaining women while your husband's away, putting their feet on the table, showing their legs, and drinking his best port. Drunken undressings provide laughter instead of rattling doors, swarming entities, prayers, and fires against evil. If he is not at home, who is festering this supernatural activity? The drama before the horrors may be slow to viewers expecting in your face scares a minute, but the intriguing characters are intertwined with the fear. Our mother needs to destroy the snake manifestations and demon man coming for her daughter before her husband sends her to Bedlam, and the once beautiful interiors become stifling as ghostly sexual encounters escalate to mind and bodies becoming one with blood and penetrations of a different kind. Although the bookends are unnecessary and this seems caught between two audiences – too much drama for horror fans and intrusive paranormal activity for period piece viewers – such Victorian horror drama with a touch of LGBT is perfect for fans of gothic mood and psycho-sexual dreadfuls.

The Nun – This 2018 R-rated spin-off opens with the creepy demon portrait and premonitions from The Conjuring before 1952 abbeys, on location Romanian filming, eerie forests, derelict cemeteries, and crosses everywhere. Fog, lanterns, crows, bloody hands, and screams in the dark accent chanting prayers, Latin warnings, and forbidden doors while relics, dark tunnels, gothic windows, and an upside down crucifix add a medieval panache. Evil shadows and soulless reflections need a vessel to escape, and a post-war chaplain and a habit-less novice are assigned to investigate the hangings, bloody bodies, and deceased nuns. Local villagers spit to ward off evil and fear talking about the cursed cloister – there's a cross on the wagon and a scared horse only goes so far on the dirt road toward the bombed out, overgrown castle. Crosses surround the now unholy ground to keep the evil in, not out, and the intimate cast, foreign touches, and blood on the church steps create an old school horror atmosphere. Eponymous reflections and shadows of unknown origin prove the simplest chill is the correct one, and foreshadowed Chekhov's clues are indeed used. The body preserved in the spooky food cellar is not in the position where it was left, bells on graves from when people feared being buried alive ring, and one and all cross themselves before using the crossed shaped keys. Dripping candelabras and marble thrones set off the barren stone interiors – not to mention the veiled figures among the sarcophagi and headless statues. What should be an enchanting, spiritual place is frightful and full of darkness amid vows of silence, ghostly phantoms in the woods, maze like structures, and lone figures in white among the stone columns. Vintage radios and old photographs give the convent a war time look, and brief flashes of past exorcisms gone wrong lead to snakes, empty coffins, and previous visions of Madonna guidance. The characters' histories are directly involved in the current good versus evil fight. Red glows and pointy gates lead to an empty inner sanctum, perpetual adoration, and researching leather bound volumes for our not so good friend Valak. The remaining nuns hide behind locked doors – afraid to speak of Dark Age history, witchcraft, rituals, and bloodletting. However, returning to the village whispers breaks the ominous atmosphere and tales of gateways to hell, monsters from below, crusader defenses, and recent war bombings freeing something unholy. Although the snarling is more effective when we don't see what we fear most, this shape shifter terrorizes with separation, isolation, cracking bones, and demonic winds as the spinning camera invokes a swoon, fainting against evil's power. Incessant prayers, clenched rosaries, and lone candles don't help against broken pews, demonic scratches, and pentagrams carved in the flesh. We're disturbed by the habits with blacked out faces and looking over our shoulders, doubting what we're seeing thanks to some great deceptions – leaving the purely for the fantastics visuals unnecessary. Old maps and blueprints lead to interior wells, sinking catacombs, torches, drownings, stabbings with crosses, holy water, and possessions. Sacrifices to stop the demon include relics of Christ, holy sacraments, and sacred revelations in a whiff of commentary about their being a time for prayer and a time for action. It is however totally odd that the casting of Taissa Farmiga (American Horror Story)sister of Conjuring star Vera – serves no onscreen purpose but to dupe viewers into thinking it would lead to more. The rushed narrative also resorts to standard horror trappings rather than taking its time with a very intriguing story. Hammer would have milked five movies out of this, and a prequel with all the crusader versus witchcraft action leading up to this movie's opening death seems more interesting than a sequel squeezed into The Conjuring timeline. Alas, the franchise connections are prioritized over truly realizing the spiritual introspection – faith as a force against evil is conveniently dropped for horror movie deus ex machina. Why does Valak have to tease them in some kind of religious themed house of horrors finale with typical whooshes to and fro? Fortunately, the repossessions, levitation, vessels made unholy, and body sacred re-sanctified keep this a mature and entertaining parable.

Unrealized Potential

The Curse of La Llorna РSpanish lullabies, lockets, and 1673 Mexico sunshine open this 2019 tale also tied to The Conjuring universe before murderous figures in white, drownings, and screams. Come 1973, it's feathered hair, typewriters, station wagons, and the family morning rush with funky music to match as a widowed case worker investigates a violent mother claiming she needs to keep her boys safe from the eponymous lady Рwith candles, boarded windows, crosses, garlic, and more protective talismans. Unfortunately, the authorities open the door where her sons are hiding, and putting them in protective custody leads to hospital scares, creepy corridors, phantom reflections, and some terrifying little looks on their child faces. Bodies in the river, red police sirens, sobbing ghosts, and veiled figures build mood, however the big roars and in your face screeches intrude on the chilling atmosphere. Kids in fear are upsetting enough Рas is the window that rolls down by itself. Although our ghostly lady is always after a set of two boys, a weak reason is given for why she's pursuing our case worker's boy and girl instead. Their late father was apparently a religious, Hispanic cop, and chats with the priest from Annabelle seemingly only exist so our white mother can dismiss the spiritual cleansings at the funeral, rosary gifts, and recommendations to have faith against evil. Symbolic umbrellas shield the children before being ripped away while pools, rain, and water of any kind become ominous. Her son is trying to be brave, yet his mother doesn't notice the changes in her kids' behavior or the burns on their arms. In fact, it's almost more disturbing how the children become stoic and silent because they know they won't be believed. Are we supposed to sympathize with a white woman who intruded without listening and doesn't consider the paranormal happenings until she receives a welfare check of her own? Does the ghost continually scare and screech at the kids rather than killing them and being done with it just so their mom can get a clue thanks to the doors whooshing open by themselves? She certainly doesn't recognize our lady despite being told exactly what she looks like, and the audience also doesn't have enough time to get a chill up our spines over her titular appearances in the mirror thanks to time wasted on clich̩ frights. The creepiest moments come when the dead hands reach out for a little girl in the bath tub Рthere's no music or camera excess, just held under terror. Outside of the seventies touches in beginning, the busy editing, zooms, and crescendos make this story feel too contemporary, and CGI Los Angeles skylines are useless in setting the spooky scene. Tablecloths, curtains, and linens obviously become billowing ghost skirts, and our medieval figure almost looks out of place rather than scary thanks to the frustrating horror mistakes made by our current mother Рlike holding the door knob is really going to keep the phantom in the bathroom, and it's her children who remain in jeopardy while she doesn't take this threat seriously. Three people recount the eponymous consequences twice each, but the church has technicalities about this sort of ritual and can't condone if she seeks the local shaman instead. The protection methods, however, are scoffed at as silly tricks, and I suppose not everyone grew up with a superstitious Italian nonne like me, because no one knows how to pray or spread salt, and the candles, crosses, and sage are treated like Mystical 101 against this equally foreign evil. Fading in and out snippets montage the finale like a trailer with wind whooshes and more human stupidity as a plot device. Although watchable for its attempted ethnic strides, this devolves into one unnecessary set piece after another, resorting to modern horror trappings rather than embracing its own folklore. If you are really interested in atmospheric pictures steeped in Catholicism and Mexican traditions, it's better to stick with the Abel Salazar classics like the 1961 Curse of the Crying Woman or the 1931 Spanish Dracula. Ultimately, I'd rather have seen the colonial crimes of passion here instead.

20 August 2019

The Magnificent Seven Season 1

The Magnificent Seven Season One is a Charming Marathon 
by Kristin Battestella

Gunslinger Chris Larabee (Michael Biehn), bounty hunter Vin Tanner (Eric Close), lothario Buck Wilmington (Dale Midkiff), gambler Ezra Standish (Anthony Starke), preacher Josiah Sanchez (Ron Perlman), and medic Nathan Jackson (Rick Worthy) school new kid in town J.D. Dunne (Andrew Kavovit) on the code of the West while they help Judge Travis (Robert Vaughn) and his daughter-in-law newswoman Mary (Laurie Holden) protect the town from bandits, corrupt ranchers, and all manner of outlaws...

In the winter of 1998, CBS brought back the familiar charm of The Magnificent Seven with nine episodes of good old fashioned cowboy adventure beginning with the ninety minute “Ghosts of the Confederacy.” The prejudice against Seminoles and freed slaves is immediate thanks to half breed hatred made physical with cannon fire and general Kurtwood Smith's (That 70's Show) demands for gold. The opening credits introduce us to the heroes before we see them onscreen, assuring viewers can recognize when our Seven are roused into fighting alongside the oppressed. Too many people are looking the other way, and this motley crew intend to do something about it with shootouts, cemetery standoffs, swagger, and sarcasm. Such lively lawlessness, however, isn't scene chewing laugh out loud set piece spectacles. Sardonic deadpans about greeting one with hostility versus hospitality come amid more subtle bonding over drinks, licking of wounds, and even moments of doubt. The Magnificent Seven is not high drama, but we need something to root for and big moments happen with firm western grandstanding. Seven horses march down main street at sunrise and shots are fired while capture, turncoats, and near executions have consequences. This pilot has a lot to establish, but different pairs of the team have a chance to get together and respect each other's skills. Now, on shows such as Enterprise, Robin Hood, and Merlin, there's always an obligatory out of place save a town from marauders by teaching them how to fight episode. With The Magnificent Seven, however, that's the whole story, and it would get old fast to save the day every week. Fortunately, “One Day out West” takes time at home as the new judge in town lays down the law against cattleman Brion James (Blade Runner). Local residents are reluctant to join the jury – justice isn't as important if you have to live in town once the trial ends. Wounds linger, characters question if they should stay or go, and both good and bad guys end up in the jail cell. Standoffs in the rain lead to coffins filled with rocks, legal ruses, and court presiding in the saloon as chases and heroics give the town courage. The Seven sign on for a dollar a day plus room and board to establish The Magnificent Seven's ongoing possibilities, and despite the common ranchers, homesteaders, and rowdy, this bottle episode gives the audience a chance to enjoy the charming interplay. When you have the cast, characters, and story you don't need the in your face, look look notice superficial try hard problematic last seen in the 2016 Magnificent Seven remake. Explosions, ladies in the prison wagon, and kids in the saloon set off “Safecracker” alongside sheriff turned conman Jeff Kober (China Beach), cheating at poker, and staking out the bank to plan the robbery. Kidnappings, across the border hideouts, and double crosses make for an entertaining heist. It's not all guns and glory but our boys are multifaceted scoundrels just as comfortable in the sanctuary as the saloon.

Intense black and white flashbacks and distorted gunshots through the eyes of a quiet, shy, terrified boy open “Witness” – the first slightly darker standout episode of The Magnificent Seven that should have come sooner than the fifth episode. Past unsolved crimes are revisited thanks to scary threats, dangerous horses in the street, stagecoach chases, bandits, nightmares, and family trauma. Viewers know who the well to do murderer is, but the focus here is our directly involved characters and lady-centric themes deepen the town ensemble and family dynamics. Who would have wanted a newspaper man dead? Well, a lot of people, and new details printed in the paper are used to flushed out the killer amid runaways, prairie shootouts, and confessions. Pain, memories, motherhood, and parent child conflicts divide and conquer our boys as they get to the truth, and The Magnificent Seven gets better as the season goes on in balancing serious individual stories and tall western yarns. In “The Collector” a tough old lady tells her young niece to save the last bullet for herself as rival cattle baron Tim Thomerson (Who's Harry Crumb) wants their homestead so he can sell big to the railroad. He believes in Three Gs – God, Guns, and Get the hell of my property – and today's troubles add to the talk of “Indian givers,” demeaning use of “boy,” burnings, and lynchings from a character called “Top Hat Bob.” Buying one's own deed and $300 taxes would be impossible but for a loan from The Seven, and the threatening raids and ill gotten gains are evenly paced with the awkward smitten and love lost plots. A and B stories mean the team is involved in each other developments as well as their own, topping The Magnificent Seven off with drunken diversions and dynamite that won't light. Unfortunately, The Seven don't think a Native American abduction of a white woman is as cut and dry as it seems in “Manhunt.” Her minister father and loud mouth brother incite town mobs and posses at funerals, and even some of our group suspect a savage only wants one thing from a lady. The upstanding white folk not being as righteous as they seem follows the previous episode's suggested ugly with more overt issues. The Magnificent Seven is a fun show with western plots that were common twenty years ago, yet some of the series' discourse on xenophobia and religious conflicts are unfortunately relevant again. Missionaries wanting to help make the situation worse – tribal law and punishment aren't enough for locals who want a hanging and some men are unable to accept the mistakes made. Despite jail cell rituals, escapes, and mano y mano fights, wise men on both sides try to quell the anger, grief, and bitter truths.

Despite mentions of the Union Army, General Lee, and Fort Laramie, The Magnificent Seven is unfortunately nondescript in its time and place beyond the generic West. Several episodes in a row also resort to a make the bad guys believe their quarry is dead ruse, and yeah, nobody knows how to contact The A-Team, sure. This is a family show, so while “son of a bitch” is rough and authentic, no one will dare say “whore” or “brothel.” In the late nineties, a series thought it could takes it time, so the earliest entries here are see one, seen 'em all with the ensemble charm carrying what today wouldn't be much to hold on to if viewers were watching weekly. These shows are also short – forty-eight minutes at most but often a quick forty-four minutes with credits when an extra scene and just more time overall would elevate the lighthearted into something more mature. Of course, today a show like this would kill one of The Seven or rotate the players, and although The Magnificent Seven has peril, there isn't enough cruelty to ruin the heroic escapism. Unfortunately “Working Girls” was as tired then as it is now. Perhaps one can excuse the Saturday night network lack of spice but the un-sexy bathtub humor and jokes about not charging a guy she really likes don't work amid the screams, bruised women, and abusive pimp plot. Already awkward for a family show, the jokes go from bad to worse with Ezra hoping to sell off the women as mail order brides after some charm school lessons in the church. Everyone goes along with this too, for they all think marriage and gentility are the hookers' only hope – when not resorting to stereotypical drag to save the day, of course. This entry feels like it was filmed much later in the season; filler lark when we are supposed to already know and laugh alongside our characters. When aired as the third episode, however, the tone is too off kilter. Ironically likewise hurt by its place as the season finale is “Inmate 78.” Despite modern feelings thanks to shivs, false arrests, backwater justice, numbers instead of names, and hard labor sentence in a private prison camp, this is a fine entry thanks to wanted posters, shackles, and escape attempts. The team has to pull together without their leader's heroics. References in the plot, however, reveal this entry was clearly filmed earlier in the season and it should have aired at least fourth. Rather than sending the series gunning right out of the gate, The Magnificent Seven saved all the more serious episodes for the traditional spring sweeps, leaving the easy going episodes to rally initial viewers on charm alone. But hey, the finale is the only episode where we see one of the guys shirtless. Nowadays, each of the boys would have to be buff and tussling topless by the horse trough every week. C'est la vie.

Man in black Chris Larabee is suave be it whiskey and a cigarette or unfettered in the shootout, and Michael Biehn (Aliens) is a fitting leader in the spirit of Yul Brynner and George Kennedy. Chris is cool in his simplicity but wise and sarcastic. He let's everyone have their shots at the clouds, knowing they didn't stop and reload, yet insists no one is ever shot in the back. When asked where he came from, he says the saloon. Where is he going next? The saloon. His reputation precedes him, and Larabee's backstory anchors The Magnificent Seven. Since his wife and son were killed, Chris silently endures his torment, threatening Buck for talking about it and saying nothing when people ask about his past. He objects to being called a cowboy, but sticks around even if he admits he feels out of place with the new businesses and opportunities in town. Chris chooses his battles, saying money can't buy everything, and makes his own justice when pretending to be the bad guy – such as robbing a bank and giving the money back to the locals. While in a prison camp he earns respect when defending those who can't help themselves and apologizes for being trigger happy many years ago. He's met the devil more than once but hasn't been beaten by him yet. Although he has a few lady friends, Chris clearly likes Mary's moxie. He whittles a toy horse for her son, but doesn't think he's the right person to nurture the boy. He thinks getting shot is just a scratch, too, but has no time for racists – insisting they should watch their backs if they don't thank Nathan for his help. When a prisoner has information on the Larabee murders in “Nemesis,” Chris holds the witness under in the trough until he gets the details. He doesn't trust all of the team to return to his homestead and confirm the story, but the trip only brings bittersweet, sunny flashbacks for Chris, colorful and idyllic scenes compared to his current dark facade. Evidence of co-conspirators and left handed clues aren't much to go on against slick killer Stephen McHattie (Deep Space Nine...”It's a faakkkeee!”). He's always one step ahead, and violent confrontations lead to shot in the back consequences. This superb episode should have been the season finale, and the rest of The Seven ride in to save the day – for now.

In double tribute to Steve McQueen, Eric Close's (Without a Trace) bounty hunter with a price on his own head sharpshooter Vin Tanner uses a Mare's Leg for The Magnificent Seven. He's quiet and sensible – dressing in sandy buckskin like an angel on the shoulder contrasting Chris' gruff darkness. Chris confides in him, but they also nod to each other in an unspoken respect. Vin always says he's going to clear his name and start fresh elsewhere, but he sticks around because he's no worse than the rest of the trouble coming to town. He helps an old lady because he likes her courage and returns her things when they are stolen before insisting he is no gentleman. Vin knows Ezra keeps his money in his boots and cons him out of it for a good cause but backs out of the room when he walks in on a love triangle. Most importantly, Vin wants to do right by his late mother, and after spending time living with Native Americans in his buffalo hunting days, he insists on being on the opposite side of a lynching party – whether that seems like the wrong side or not when others go along with racist rumors. In contrast, Dale Midkiff (Pet Sematary) as raised in a brothel womanizer Buck Wilmington loves to fight against the odds if it means there are ladies to be rescued. Life's tough and then you die, so he's making the most out of it when not drunk or taking J.D. under his wing. Although he says he only puts up with him because he can't be bothered to think of something nice to say at J.D.'s funeral. There are running jokes, too, about where he left his hat or boots and how he always gets them back, and after reading a book on animal magnetism, he claims that is his curse – the reason why he can't get rid of all the women coming on to him. Then again, Buck unsuccessfully flirts with Mary Travis and has a long time cantankerous relationship with Chris. He gets wild when Chris is in danger, but also “gets the devil in him” for a little good cop, bad cop when The Seven need it.

Of course, my favorite was always Anthony Starke (License to Kill) as gambler with the southern charm and swindler style Ezra Standish. He pretends to be drunk before hustling on double or nothing odds and has more card tricks up his sleeve – literally along with his two shot. He says he stays in town for the laughs yet entertains kids with his slight of hand. Ezra may speak in fancy colloquialisms to confuse others, but he has moments of doubt, ditching the action when Chris calls his bluffs before returning in the nick of time or sleeping on the church pew with his gun ready to defend one in need. When not running afoul with the law, he's delighted to have a kid protege who knows how to cut cards, however, Ezra won't help a lady fix her fence like the rest of the men, for “a gentleman does not debase himself by engaging in menial labor.” He thanks a woman who says he'd never be mistaken for a ranch hand and refuses to give his winnings to a “wizened crone, no offense ma'am.” Ezra doesn't trust Vin and dislikes “Mr. Tanner's” Robin Hood ways, insisting he do the talking because the rest of The Seven terrorize people, have no tact, and “rude would be an improvement.” Then again, Ezra swears on the grave of his sainted mother Michelle Phillips (Knots Landing), who we later meet in “Witness” shuffling cards to exercise her rheumatism. Her luggage – filled with rocks because appearances are everything – is gen-u-wine French leather, and Ezra wishes he'd left off his return address in his letters after she embarrasses him with poker playing and childhood tall tales. Maude Standish is proof there is a god according to Josiah, for he always thought Ezra was raised by wolves, and their opposites attract is great fun. Her appearance may be brief and Maude doesn't care for Mary very much, but they have intriguing, multifaceted conversations on how raising a son never gets easy, mistakes will be made, and regrets will happen. However, she also wants to run a cotton gin investment scam on the locals, tells free fortunes to J.D., and cleanses his luck with a discounted, five dollar ritual. Maude's shocked that Ezra's employed and wasting his talents, but he insists it's his job to protect the town from people like him and her. Despite the humor, zingers, and passive aggressive smiles, this relationship gives The Magnificent Seven a dramatic undercurrent that's explored more in Year Two.

Preacher Ron Perlman (Hellboy) is rebuilding a church as his penance for killing too many men. Josiah Sanchez has already seen hell, a dry strongman who would rather face death head on than turn the other cheek. He drinks of course, turning to the wrong kind of spirit when not ringing his church bell if he spots trouble in the distance. Josiah resents his missionary father for not practicing the rhetoric he preached, but he shelters kids in his church, regaling them with tales of sacred warriors who cleanse the earth of evil – a nod perhaps to The Magnificent Seven's Samurai past. He dresses up for “Getting Gertie's Garter Show,” smitten and ready to renew her acquaintance after choosing to pursue a spiritual journey with a Cherokee medicine man over her. Josiah is a man of god with a gun who's likely to get Old Testament if he's on a mission, for his faith only goes so far. Desperate for glory Andrew Kavovit (As the World Turns) as the kid J.D., however, is jumping off the noon stage in a bowler hat – a poor eastern boy bungling everything he tries yet wanting to help nonetheless. Chris doesn't want “young and proud” written on J.D.'s tombstone, and despite taking thirty dollars a week to be sheriff, he follows Chris' orders. J.D. also takes Buck's advice when it is good but will tell him when he is full of crap, too, saying he should take a bath to get rid of his smelly animal magnetism. Josiah is embarrassed by his cultural impasses with the Native Americans, and J.D.'s jokes are terrible – “a three legged dog walks into a bar and says 'I'm looking for the man who shot my paw.'” Unfortunately, Rick Worthy's (Enterprise) former slave Nathan Jackson is the least developed member of our team. Once a stretcher bearer, Nathan had to learn medicine on the side, and his cutting skills are handy be it weapon or scalpel. He seems to be the only one that can calm Chris, whether he's yelling at him or racing to stop him from killing the wrong man. Nathan patches up Josiah the most and helps him build his church, but confronts Ezra several times, saying his faux gentility can't hide his knack for making money off the backs of others. A pesky dime novel writer wants to write his life as From Slave to Surgeon, but Nathan insist he isn't a doctor and just wants to help people.

As an original member of The Magnificent Seven, the late Robert Vaughn provides a stamp of approval to series despite appearing in only two episodes this season and four more in Year Two. Judge Travis stands in the street armed and defiant, telling troublesome men to drop their guns with a tough old law stance to counter the outlaw. As father-in-law to Laurie Holden's (Silent Hill) Mary Travis, he's a kind support helping raise her son, and The Seven take their position seriously when Judge Travis relies on their help and protection. Certainly, it might have been interesting to have had more of the passing townsfolk on The Magnificent Seven, including a western novel writer embodying fun self-referential winks, a shrewd widowed shopkeeper, and the obligatory undertaker. Initially Mary is the only strong willed person in town, trying to stop a lynching in her contrasting red dress and rifle. She's intelligent and runs her own newspaper since her husband's death – not afraid to bend the facts and write some streets ran red with blood hyperbole if such sensational headlines keep the bad element out of town. Mary wants to know everything about these heroes, and she's obviously curious about Chris, who she initially vilifies before realizing you need someone like him to keep away the real riffraff. Mary has moment with each of The Seven, helping Nathan, providing womanly insights, or just being nosy about the latest danger. She admits she has a say in the town and will say it whether anybody wants to hear it or not. Her press is small and doesn't need more employees, but she objects that it is high and mighty prejudice when she won't higher a working girl. The Magnificent Seven opens with Mary as harsh and all business yet softens her as a woman by having her get rough to protect her son. She dresses down and is ready to ride when he is missing. Of course, this being a good old fashioned western, Mary is put in peril and in need of rescue a time or two.

With such feel good music and lively open credits, we know we're in for a good time on The Magnificent Seven. Big smiles, winks, and smooth profiles set off the snippets of adventure amid saloons, player pianos, horses, and western main streets. Perhaps some of the set looks a little cardboard stock simple, but that's almost expected in the western tradition with a general store, telegraphs, and pocket watches. Dusty breezes or sunny outdoor filming make up for any facades alongside well done action stunts and wagon chases across a variety of natural terrains. Dusters, boots, spurs, and cowboy hats make for some big entrances through the swinging saloon doors, and references to Kit Carson and western dime novels provide an extra touch. While the Native American designs are colorful, they are unfortunately not tribe specific – a surprising oversight when The Magnificent Seven otherwise has an award winning attention to detail with lace, frills, gloves, parasols, and bonnets. Thankfully, weapons, scopes, stagecoaches, saddles, and leather provide a rough and crusty to match the deadpans. Although the familiar, even whimsical cues suggest when to be amused, the audience isn't underestimated with over editing or extra visual excess. Granted, the nineties action is small scale with up close on the camera corners and slow motion emphasis on the nick of time moment amid the shootouts. Night time filming can be tough to see and the video transfer is grainy. However, this is also an era where not every smirk, trick shot, or cool moment has to be a GIF in the making, and The Magnificent Seven allows viewers to chuckle when we want to not when we are told. Big silhouettes, sunset skies, and riding across the prairie set off the pre-Y2K escapism even as our boys are wounded, shot, and bloodied. The theme has some down notes too – playing in a lower key when one of our boys gets angry. Perhaps today's audience also has to consider that this Magnificent Seven wasn't that far removed from the Original Film's sequels before the western in the eighties death knell. Young Guns and Bon Jovi briefly stirred a cowboy cool before the dark and realistic likes of Unforgiven, and with its action adventure and sardonic sophistication, on the surface The Magnificent Seven seems to be the male answer to Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. The Magnificent Seven served as mid-season filler on CBS between Dr. Quinn's final season and Walker, Texas Ranger when believe it or not – the whole family stayed in on Saturday nights and watched westerns. Ironically, the writer who penned the most overall episodes of The Magnificent Seven, is Melissa Rosenberg, of later Dexter and now Jessica Jones. Back then I taped The Magnificent Seven when it originally aired, and the DVD releases seemed late coming. After sporadic reruns on the western channels and current streaming opportunities, the thing that excites me most is subtitles. Some of those pseudo Old West shaggy looking mullet hairstyles, err no.

Despite a few standard plots, great characters, atmosphere, and personality keep The Magnificent Seven fresh and friendly. By placing charm and western spirit above post-modern grit, this quick First Season of The Magnificent Seven provides rousing crescendos and riding into the sunset adventure for the whole family.

06 August 2019

Stars Do Thrills and Kills

Stars Do Thrills and Kills!
by Kristin Battestella

Some big names past and present take on murder, mayhem, slashers, and suspense in these intriguing mysteries and fun horrors.

The Eyes of Laura MarsBarbara Streisand (Guilty) power ballads and photo negatives open this 1978 mystery directed by Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back) starring photographer Faye Dunaway (The Three Musketeers) and cop Tommy Lee Jones (Stormy Monday). Hazy point of view scissors, saucy magazines, fur coats, and stabbing knives contrast the Deco bedroom accented with multiple mirrors, reversed symmetry, white nightgowns, and strategic lighting glows. The swanky pads come complete with vintage photography, huge cameras, light boxes, print sheets, cases of Polaroid film, and a copy of the titular photography book. Despite dreams of killer crimes, the gallery galas must go on thanks to pushy reporters questioning the steamy, violent photos and whether such photography is just an incendiary fad compared to real artistry. Such topics are immediately fascinating to study then when nudity was relatively new onscreen and now as today's auteur photographer has taken a backseat to instagram filters and cameras everywhere. The edgy pictures here, however, are said to be a reflection of the world – recognizable selling points for our former war zone photojournalist. Funky music and great disco tracks contrast murder questioning as lingerie, lace, and garter belts accent the photo shoot montages with babes pulling each other's hair and cars on fire in the street. Editing matches the rapid fire shutter clicks until blurry visions and more death interfere with the couture and upscale time capsule. Violent stabbings and blood in the eyes overtake the viewpoint as the audience thinks we see more than what is actually shown thanks to the believe what you see or what I tell you duality. The ugly green, harsh police station and its neurotic smoking counters the glamorous scene and the slim, sexy campaign while unpublished crime photos suggest a copycat and cast suspicion on Laura's handsy ex-husband Raul Julia (The Addams Family). Sophisticated friends think she shouldn't mention these psychic visions, however the conversations happen while we're looking through the lense or at the billboards, for the images are distractions from driver Brad Dourif's (Lord of the Rings) rap sheet and details agent Rene Auberjonois (Deep Space Nine) isn't telling. Laura is no nonsense at work but reliant on the men around her once something goes wrong, and the models are to be looked at, used, or killed. Hard line cityscapes, industrial scaffolding, and massive windows are places where a lady can get hurt. Above and below chases, stabbings, shootouts, staircases, and filming through railings harken Hitchcock and Bava as deadly action happens in both the voyeur and the victim's perspectives. Video cameras and television screens filming the sex and violence as titillation layer the within within visuals while pictures within pictures and photographs provide both foreground and background subjects. More through the blinds peering and intercut editing match the slicing crimes as funerals begat admonishing sermons, intruding reporters, and hecklers blaming Laura. Trysts amid the trees and bed of furs zoom in and out of focus, and our photographer is taught how to aim, point, and shoot with a gun instead of the camera. Reflective wrapping paper reveals a picture of the receiver when he wasn't looking before he sings “I'm a jolly good fellow” and decoys of decoys, tails being tailed, and men dressed as women lead to screams, car crashes, and red herrings. Each frame is like looking at a wall of mirrors, creating tunnel vision where the audience, voyeurs that we are, see what we want to see until the double vision becomes one with elevators, shattered windows, slashed throats, and cracked mirrors. Imitators and wise viewers make the finale twists obvious now, however this should be seen more than once for the doubts on what we see as face value and not noticing what's hidden in plain sight.

The Last Horror Film – Cape wearing cabbie who still lives with his mother Joe Spinell (Maniac) fantasizes about directing scream queen Caroline Munro (Dracula A.D. 1972) to awards glory while stalking her at the Cannes Film Festival in this 1982 filmed on the fly slasher also called Fanatic. Boobs, red lights, hot tub shocks, and electrocution screams garner screening room praise amid vintage theater projectors, old film reels, and retro film equipment in a great visual capsule of New York streets, Riviera scenery, and topless beaches. Posters of the day – including the giant, unmistakable legs of For Your Eyes Only – and sly festival cameos contrast radio reports about Jodi Foster's stalker and creepy collage shrines of Munro as Jana Bates. Our obsessed wannabe blends in with the wild parties, filming within filming set ups, and crowded red carpet for his hefty but then innocuous on the shoulder camera is just one of many like today's fan encounters never in the moment but via the ubiquitous smartphone. Calls to the producer with script ideas for his leading lady mirror today's chance for anybody to @ a celebrity on social media while love triangles parallel the life imitating art relationships on and off screen. There's 212 phone numbers, too – no 555! Busy vignette filming with night clubs and neon slow the shoestring plot, yet the obviously bad toppling heads, slit throats, and slow motion scares blur the film within a film wink. Prophetic throwaway mentions of women wanting to talk film business pushed aside by producers looking for nude starlets accent debates about not needing security because the audience understands the difference between reality and illusion, actress versus character, and violence or bad influences onscreen. It's chilling how easy it is for one man to gain star access, but police suspect the crimes supposedly being committed must be performance art promotion for a horror movie – again not unlike today's fine line between PR and real life with social media photoshop and accidentally on purpose pap strolls. Babes frolicking on the beach taunt the weirdo who wants to watch before blinding spotlights in the cinema, silhouettes against the blank screen, and gory ax slices as the intercut editing merges the fantasies of our horny, disturbed director with onscreen stabs, gouged hearts, and fake blood everywhere. The audience eats popcorn while he bursts into the bathroom ready to pop the cork on his champagne, and the soundtrack fits the frenetic mental state. Lack of awareness on any wrong doing and rejection from his favorite star lead to chases through the festival wearing nothing but towels – and the cheering crowd doesn't help because they think such a fabulous entrance must be a publicity stunt. Lookalikes and security can't stop the backstage abductions as the old school horror leaves the festival for country villas and an over the top candlelight vampire meets chainsaw finale. The varying versions' gore contrasting Cannes unevenness and horror versus humor mixed tone add to the somewhat frustrating haphazard filming, however the winks come together in the end with the open for interpretation saucy, bemusement, and entertainment.

Spinning Man – Sunny lakeside fun turns into ominous docks and police blotters in this 2018 thriller starring professor Guy Pearce (Prometheus), detective Pierce Brosnan (GoldenEye), and wife Minnie Driver (Phantom of the Opera). Foreboding flashes, yellow tape, and photos of the deceased keep restarting the story alongside snippets of seemingly happy family fun, pieces of conversations, and disjointed exposition. The professors debate hypothetical opportunities with young students and guilt versus objective reason, but working out while the students look leads to crushes, stolen glances, and unspoken flirtations accented by the camera's focusing on a smile longer than it should or lingering on the long puff of a cigarette. Family collisions, questioning versus alibis, and rival smooth, however, are enough without unnecessary hot and heavy fantasizing and back and forth intercuts. Sometimes our professor is cool, yet other times he protests where there seems to be no reason. The detectives insist this is all routine, but the viewer understands the interplay without the story resorting to sensationalism as many crime and procedurals often do. Paralleling police mirrors or the man made small and isolated in the frame visuals accent interrogations while careful editing matches the police questioning and family arguments. Again unnecessary flashes of running in the woods break the suspect or family man tension when in the classroom philosophizing and literal versus figurative plays on words build better suspicion. It's easy to talk one's way out of anything if you interpret truth as subjective, and whispers about previous students and patterns of behavior mean treading carefully in the semantics with our pesky yet thorough detective. They're both searching for the truth, but the close to the vest police unnerve their suspect with their own existential theories. The timelines don't add up, and the impounded vehicle certainly points to our professor. Lawyers, however, provide realistic doubts on the circumstantial evidence – runaways instead murder despite suspect lipstick and traps lying in wait. Awkward family trips acerbate the narcissistic blaming and maybe maybe not memories ironically a la Memento. No one says what they actually mean and a mother must protect her children even if she doubts her husband. Perception on who's guilty and deception that doesn't make one look good provide duality, for hiding suspect behavior may be as innocent as putting up missing posters for a child's pet you know to be dead or as bad as rationalizing a scandal that puts the entire university in jeopardy. A son may put on a cape and pretend to be someone else but as adults we choose the destructive facades we wear. While this straightforward did he or didn't he doesn't underestimate the audience, it is slow in some spots thanks to the round and round. Viewers looking for tense a minute will also be let down as this is really a character drama misrepresented as a thriller. Fortunately, the fine ensemble and dramatic performances provide mature introspection as the lies and what is believed to be the truth come full circle.

I Didn't Finish this Skipper:

Slasher Season 2: Guilty Party – This eight episode 2017 installment now billed as a Neflix original gets off to a very rough start with shades of Friday the 13th and I Know What You Did Last Summer. Hip camp counselors take a snowy drive with rad music to revisit a past crime before torches and a hazing gone wrong lead to a bloody picnic blanket, dumping bodies, and screams. Unfortunately, everyone is an immediately unlikable horror stereotype deserving of what comes to them. Supply stop cliches and warnings from the experts add more seen this horror movie before deja vu, and summer staff lacking in proper outdoor clothing inexplicably know how to drive snowmobiles after complaining about how much they dislike winter activities. Now the retreat is a commune with likewise trite tree huggers suspicious in their lack of suspicions, as apparently they don't hear the loud arguing and x marks the spot map where the counselors fear a new developer putting in tennis courts will discover their buried secrets. Sudden chainsaw action and gruesome eviscerations are tough to appreciate when far too many characters are throw at the screen amid more contrivances for the obvious unknown witness and/or family member revenge. From taking a vote to call the police after saying murder is not a democracy to the drinking game for each time the hysterical snob tells everyone else to calm down and everybody telling each other to “fuck off” like it's “goodnight” on The Waltons – terrible dialogue acerbates the intercut unevenness between the shouting killer crowd versus the happy whispering commune. The original camp flashbacks are more interesting than the present but the back and forth also undercuts any current tension. Strung up skeletons and ominous tracks in the snow wouldn't sustain a weekly viewing if this were a traditional series nor can the scary shocks hide the laughable action and intestines wrapped around a snowman preposterous. Emo counselors crying wolf and making themselves the victim repeatedly ask why someone is doing this – because the “I know you killed her” bloody writing on the wall isn't explanation enough? Sabotaged vehicles, bloody packages, and stupid people who don't know they are in a horror movie thinking a thirty mile hike in the winter night is better than staying in a safe building create inexplicable motivations while brief wolf perils, frostbite, being lost in the woods, and a hitherto unknown medical expert among the crowd are no surprise. Dual timelines and the all over the place ensemble can't compensate for the too thin for eight episodes derivatives. Most disturbing, however, are the racist undertones over a seriously problematic love triangle with a black man and Indian girl desperate to fit in with the white Mean Girls. After two episodes, the only person dressed for the outdoors is the somehow unseen killer in a bright orange parka, and gouged eyes or snapped necks have no deeper, vengeful meaning beyond varying the gore. There's no reason to care about who lives or dies, and reading the remaining episode summaries provides cannibalism, rape, more characters who happened to visit the isolated retreat, a just missed it plane flying by rescue, and conveniently found old camp files among yet more numerous reasons to tune out ASAP.