Review of “The Black Phone”

“Stranger danger” was a marketing term used in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and to a lesser extent today, to educate children about the personal safety. It encouraged youngsters to be wary of people they encountered, not accept any candy, get in cars or accompany anyone they didn’t know. If a stranger says they lost a puppy and would you help find it, the child was encouraged to loudly say “NO” and run away. Popular media reinforced the idea of “stranger danger” with movies about child abduction, sexual abuse and murder perpetrated by a shadowy, usually middle aged, paunchy, sweaty man. The news focused on such cases when they happened and devoted hours of time and space to any missing child story. However, most of the concern over “stranger danger” was misplaced as most crimes against children, from sexual assaults and physical abuse to murder, are carried out by relatives or people they know. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 99% of abducted children are taken by relatives. Still, a custody dispute isn’t nearly as headline grabbing as an unknown menace stalking the streets, preying on innocent children. That’s the main story of “The Black Phone” from “Dr. Strange” director Scott Derrickson and, despite being a “stranger danger” story, it may keep anyone seeing it looking over their shoulder for a black panel van for some time.

It’s 1978 and a child predator dubbed the Grabber (Ethan Hawke) has abducted four children in their pre to early teens from the same high school. Finney (Mason Thames) and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) live with their single, alcoholic, abuse father Terrence (Jeremy Davies) in a suburb of Denver. Finney and Gwen know most of the kids including the latest abductee Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora), who recently protected Finney from some school bullies. Gwen speaks to another abductee’s sister at school, telling her about a dream she had containing information the police hadn’t released to the public. Gwen gets a visit at school from Detectives Wright and Miller (E. Roger Mitchell and Troy Rudeseal), wondering how she knows what she knows, but are disappointed by her answer she saw it in a dream. While walking home from school, Finney is abducted by the Grabber and held in a concrete, soundproofed basement. There’s a black rotary phone on the wall, but the cord has been cut. After a day or so, the phone rings. When Finney answers it, he hears static, but the next call has the voice of a child. It’s one of the Grabber’s victims, trying to give Finney the information he needs to stay alive as long as possible.

“The Black Phone” is based on a short story from Joe Hill in his collection “20th Century Ghosts.” When a short story is adapted for a film, there are can be new bits added to flesh out the narrative to feature length as the inner monologue of the characters is lost in the transition. Some of it can be incorporated into dialog, but it is often set aside. Derrickson, and co-writer C. Robert Cargill, manage to avoid the pitfalls of adaption and provide a taut, tense, sometimes funny story of a deranged child snatcher and his latest abductee.

The biggest kudos need to rain down on the young actors Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw. They make Finney and Gwen likable, relatable and sympathetic for both the horrors of Finney’s abduction and the terrible homelife they have. Each tiptoe around their alcoholic father, attempting to drown his grief over the death of his wife, and the children’s mother, from suicide. He explodes with violent anger if they make too much noise or cause him any other issue. A scene where Gwen is beaten with a belt is painful and uncomfortable to watch as she’s wailing with pain and fear, tears streaming down her face twisted with agony. There’s a fire in Gwen that still burns through the abuse and McGraw allows it to burst to the surface in that scene.

Thames’s Finney is just trying to get through each day without drawing the ire of various bullies. He wants to impress a girl in his class but is usually the victim of some sort of beatdown. Finney is also determined, looking to take care of Gwen and his abusive father. It’s not an easy life, but Finney is doing the best he can. That determination is what aids him in dealing with the Grabber, along with the advice of the disembodied voices over a disconnected phone. His scenes in the basement of his abductor, and at home with dad, are two versions of Hell. One threatens to break him while the other may kill him. With the voices’ help, he might one day walk in the sunshine again. Thames is a very good young actor with a promising future ahead.

Ethan Hawke is super creepy as the Grabber. He constantly wears a mask when in the basement. Sometimes the mouth of the mask is smooth and blank. Other times, it’s in a big frown or a giant smile. His voice is sometimes singsong, sometimes gravelly, but always threatening. No matter what mood his mask or voice is in, Hawke is a perfect fit as the Grabber. We never know when the rage and desire to kill might appear and Hawke’s performance constantly keeps us guessing.

The story is constantly tense, even before Finney is abducted. At home or school, Finney is under threat, his senses heightened for the next attack. The random posters of missing boys spread all over town never lets us forget the danger lurking in the shadows. The police have no clues, and the next boy could be snatched any time. When Finney is taken, the tension is cranked up to the max and we wonder if we’ll ever breathe easily again. This movie is the kind that will give your hands a good workout as you constantly grip your theater seat arms.

“The Black Phone” is rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some drug use. There are a couple of school fights that turn very bloody. Gwen is punched in the face in one of them. She also is beaten with a belt by her father. We don’t see her hit, but we hear it. The spirits of the Grabber’s dead victims show signs of injury. Finney is gassed unconscious and punched in the face by the Grabber. A secondary character is shown snorting cocaine in two scenes. Foul language is concentrated in a couple of scenes with Gwen being the most active curser. While praying for more dreams with clues to Finney’s location she says something along the lines of “What the f***, Jesus?!”

If you enjoy tense horror thrillers, I cannot more highly recommend “The Black Phone.” It is a wonder of atmosphere, writing and acting. While there are a few scenes where you may ask if what happens is possible, they aren’t so egregious as to ruin the film. I would recommend gathering as many friends as possible to go together to the theater as “The Black Phone” is an experience best had in a group.

“The Black Phone” gets five enthusiastic stars.

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Review of “The Magnificent Seven”

Matthew and Emma Cullen (Matt Bomer and Haley Bennett) live in the small frontier community of Rose Creek. The nearby gold mine is owned by Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) and he wants to force out all the residents of Rose Creek and take over the entire valley. During a meeting at the church of many of the town’s residents, Bogue walks in and offers only $20.00 per property to the remaining families. His cadre of armed men forces everyone into the street and set the church on fire. When Matthew stands up to Bogue, Bogue pulls out a gun and kills him. Since the town’s sheriff is on Bogue’s payroll, nothing is done to stop his reign of terror. Emma rides to the next town and witnesses a bounty hunter named Chisolm (Denzel Washington) wipe out a bar full of outlaws and ask him to help her. Initially reluctant Chisolm agrees when he hears Bogue is involved. His first recruit is a hard-drinking poker player named Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt). Then they find an outlaw named Rulfo Vasquez (Manuel Garcia), Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-hun), Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Native American Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). The group heads to town and quickly wipes out all of Bogue’s men. The sheriff is left alive and Chisolm sends him to tell Bogue what happened and challenge him to return to town and face Chisolm. The seven convinces the townspeople to join them and prepare for the coming bloodthirsty hired gunmen that Bogue will lead to town.

“The Magnificent Seven” is a remake of a 1960 film of the same name that starred Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen and Eli Wallach. It was recently named for preservation by the Library of Congress and the soundtrack contains one of the most recognized, used and copied theme songs in the history of film. While this modern version may not be quite the classic of its predecessor, director Antoine Fuqua and writers Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk have delivered an entertaining and, to some extent, thought provoking film.

The cast is full of people (with a few exceptions) you’ve seen in many, many other films and TV shows. From lead actors Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt to character players like Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio and Peter Sarsgaard, the entire group of main actors is spot on and firing on all cylinders. Both Washington and Pratt play characters with silent strength and menace but in different ways. While Washington’s Chisolm is a man viewed as dangerous on first meeting, Pratt’s Faraday is more like comic relief until there’s a threat and then he is a force to be reckoned with.

Vincent D’Onofrio steals the film in every scene he’s in. A bear of a man with a disarming high, squeaky voice, D’Onofrio’s Horne quotes scripture as he’s driving a knife repeatedly into the body of one of Bogue’s henchmen. The contrast is disarming and makes anything Horne does a bit of a surprise. I would have liked to see more of Horne in the movie and Fuqua (or someone else) could maybe make a solo film of Horne’s life prior to him joining the seven.

Peter Sarsgaard’s Bogue is a character that does nothing but evil throughout the film and it almost feels like he’s too much of a villain to have lived as long as the character has. Someone that evil must have made more than a few enemies over the years and someone should have taken him out before now. Still, Bogue is a great villain for this movie. He’s easy to despise and impossible to root for. He appears unstoppable with all the wealth and resources necessary to wipe the town and its people off the map. Bogue, like Chisolm and Faraday, is quietly dangerous. He listens to someone’s complaint then quickly makes the decision to take the life of whoever is complaining. He doesn’t tolerate failure or cowardice in others despite letting surrogates do his dirty work for him. He walks into town surrounded by half a dozen or more ruthless killers and shoots an unarmed man. He has succeeded by intimidation, theft and murder. For him, it is simply the way he does business.

Speaking of business, Bogue gives a speech early in the film that implies the writers and director had a political agenda they were trying to get across. Bogue talks about how capitalism is kind of a religion and the townspeople are violating God’s law by standing in the way of Bogue’s empire. If one applies this bit of thinking to the rest of the film, it might seem like Antoine Fuqua and the screenwriters are looking at the story as an allegory for the struggle of the working class against the power and control of big business. The seven fighters brought in to try and dismantle the greedy corporate interest could be seen as labor unions using whatever means necessary to make the company treat the workers with respect and to share the wealth. This might be me putting too much thought into a minor plot point but the sledgehammer-like subtlety of this monologue seemed to have been purposeful.

“The Magnificent Seven” is rated PG-13 for extended and intense sequences of Western violence, and for historical smoking, some language and suggestive material. The shootout that ends the film is probably close to 30 minutes long. There are numerous scenes of people being shot, some bloodier than others. There are also scenes with people being killed by arrows. The suggestive material is very mild and brief. Most of the characters are shown smoking at some point. The language is mild and widely scattered.

Despite what felt like a ham-handed attempt at social commentary, “The Magnificent Seven” powers through to deliver a fun and exciting Western adventure. With massive explosions, huge gunfights, bad guys with bad aim, galloping horses and majestic scenery, the film is a kind of throwback to an earlier time when the good guys and bad guys were easy to identify, the ladies in the saloon were always hookers with a heart of gold and the townspeople needed a good kick in the butt to make them see they needed to fight for their futures. It may not be perfect but it was fun.

“The Magnificent Seven” gets five guitars out of five.

This week a couple of movies based on true stories and the return of Tim Burton arrive in a multiplex near you. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Deepwater Horizon—

Masterminds—

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children—

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