The Magnificent Seven (2016)


Don't ever mess with Denzel.

Don’t ever mess with Denzel.

(2016) Western (MGM/Columbia) Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Hailey Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard, Luke Grimes, Matt Bomer, Jonathan Joss, Cam Gigandet, Emil Beheshti, Mark Ashworth, Billy Slaughter, Dodge Prince, Matthew Posey, Dane Rhodes, Jody Mullins, Carrie Lazar. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

 

We often feel helpless about things. Those in power have too much money, too much power, too many guns. They have control over everything and we basically just have to take it and as time goes by, it becomes harder and harder to exist while those who are in charge seem to have it easier and easier, and do more injustice to us with impunity. In a situation like that, who are you gonna call?

In the town of Rose Creek, it’s easy to recognize who is oppressing them; it’s Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), a ruthless industrialist who runs the gold mine outside of town. He has bought and paid for the Sheriff (Rhodes) and treats his miners like slaves. Now he’s turned his sights to the town which he wants to destroy so he can further mine gold deposits he thinks might be there. He is trying to intimidate them into leaving – and it’s largely working, but some of the townspeople are willing to stay and fight. Those must be taught a lesson and that lesson ends with Matthew Cullen (Bomer), a good-hearted farmer, gunned down in front of the church which is also burned out.

His widow, Emma Cullen (Bennett) then goes in search of a gunman who can bring her if not justice at least vengeance. She finds Sam Chisolm (Washington), a duly licensed officer of the court from Wichita, Kansas – or a bounty hunter, which is what he really is. When Emma explains what’s happening in Rose Creek, at first he’s reluctant to get involved – until he finds out who is doing unto the good citizens of Rose Creek. Then he’s ready to take on an army.

He’ll need some tough characters to take on the murderous mercenaries that Bogue has hired. First up is gambler Josh Faraday (Pratt) who essentially owes Chisolm for getting his horse out of hock. After that came sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Hawke) and his associate Billy Rocks (Lee), an immigrant from Asia and an expert with knives. Then there’s the Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo) and the Comanche brave Red Harvest (Sensmeier). Finally there’s Jack Horne (D’Onofrio), a legendary trapper.

It is seven hard men against an army. When they ride into town, they take Bogue’s men by surprise and take over the town but they know that Bogue, who is in Sacramento at the time, will be back with many, many more men. They train the townspeople to defend themselves and they also liberate the miners who also will make their stand there. But how can they, when the bad guys are so many, so much better armed and so much more experienced at fighting?

This is of course a remake of the classic John Sturges western of 1960 which in itself was a remake of the 1954 Akira Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai. Fuqua, who directed Washington to an Oscar in Training Day, is a big fan of Westerns in general and The Magnificent Seven was always one of his favorites. Feeling that the themes of tyranny and terrorism were even more apt today than they were in 1960, he took on the daunting task of remaking an iconic Western which in many ways made the career of Steve McQueen (in the Josh Faraday role).

The cast here is pretty top notch. Washington is at the top of his game, channeling Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper. Few actors in Hollywood today can play a badass as effectively as Washington can; despite the 70s porn star mustache, he is intimidating and tough as nails. He also looks pretty freaking good for a man in his 60s.

Pratt like Washington is an enormous star and here he brings his trademark irreverence to the role, making Josh Faraday not just comic relief (which he is occasionally) but a badass in his own right. This role isn’t going to advance his career any further but it isn’t going to knock it backwards either. Pratt has a tendency to play the same role over and over again recently and this is more of the same.

Hawke has a good turn as the sharpshooter whose Civil War experiences haunts him and has made him reluctant to take up the rifle again. For my money though, one of the performances you’ll remember is D’Onofrio, whose high squeaky voice doesn’t sound remotely like what we’re used to from him, but plays Horne honestly and with relative dignity. He just about steals the movie.

Fuqua gets points for casting ethnic actors into the proper roles; a Hispanic actor plays the Mexican, a Korean actor the Asian and an Inuit actor the Native American. There isn’t really any mention of racial prejudices which in that era were prevalent and extreme; few white people would have sought or accepted help from an African American, even if they were desperate, nor would they have looked to Mexican or Native help as well – most white settlers considered all three ethnic groups subhuman. I like the diversity of the cast, but I do think that ethnicity should have been addressed at least somewhat.

The final confrontation between Bogue and his men and the townspeople takes up the bulk of the movie and is epic in scope. There’s some decent fight choreography here and while it doesn’t up the ante in action scenes, it at least distinguishes itself as well staged and exciting. The gunfight is everything you’d want from a climactic battle, so kudos for that.

I don’t think anyone can reasonably expect this movie to be replacing the original in the hearts and minds. I’m pretty sure that isn’t why Fuqua made it. Unfortunately, it will be held up against the original – whether Seven Samurai or the 1960 version – and it will come up short against both of those. However, taken on its own merits it’s not that bad but to be honest not that bad doesn’t measure up when it comes to two classic predecessors.

REASONS TO GO: Washington and Pratt are huge stars. D’Onofrio turns in one of his most interesting performances in years.
REASONS TO STAY: Nothing is really added to the source material here. The racism of the era is glossed over.
FAMILY VALUES: As with most westerns, there’s plenty of rootin’, tootin’ and shootin’. There’s also a bit of foul language and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be the final score by Oscar winning composer James Horner as he passed away June 22, 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wild Bunch
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Blue Jay

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300: Rise of an Empire


Eva Green sends a message to those critics who didn't like her latest movie.

Eva Green sends a message to those critics who didn’t like her latest movie.

(2014) Swords and Sandals (Warner Brothers) Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, David Wenham, Rodrigo Santoro, Jack O’Connell, Andrew Tiernan, Igal Naor, Andrew Pleavin, Ben Turner, Ashraf Barhom, Christopher Sciueref, Steven Cree, Caitlin Carmichael, Jade Cynoweth, Kevin Fry, Nancy McCrumb. Directed by Noam Munro

The original 300 depicted the historic Battle of Thermopylae (albeit taking some fairly liberal factual liberties) and in doing so, made a huge star out of Gerard Butler and director Zack Snyder, helped resurrect the Swords and Sandals genre (along with the Oscar-winning Gladiator) and showed how a movie made nearly entirely of CGI could be not only technologically possible but economically viable as well.

While Snyder is around for this sequel as a producer and writer only, this tells more or less a parallel story of the Athenian general Themistocles who was victorious at the Battle of Marathon at which the Persian emperor Darius (Naor) was killed by an arrow fired by Themistocles himself. His son and heir, Xerxes (Santoro) was manipulated by his most talented and vicious general Artemesia (Green) – who is of herself Greek descent – into ascending into a role as God-Emperor, which apparently makes you ten feet tall in the process.

While Xerxes is attacking King Leonidas (Butler, in flashback) at Thermopylae, Artemesia has engaged a small and ragtag Greek fleet made up mainly of fast, maneuverable Athenian ships along with a few motley vessels supplied by the other city-states of Greece who despite the peril represented by the vast army of the Persian empire are suspicious and quarrelsome among themselves. While Themistocles has some success at sea, the wily Artemesia lures his fleet into a trap and decimates it, leaving it with a handful of ships. As Xerxes gloats over his defeat of Leonidas and his burning of Athens, Artemesia brings her fleet in to finish off the Greeks once and for all – and after failing to move the grieving Queen Gorgo (Headey) of Sparta to help her fellow Greeks, Themistocles knows that Artemesia might well do just that.

This is made in the same style as the original 300 with lots of green screen, lots of digital effects, plenty of CGI blood splatters, bare-chested Spartans with six-pack abs and enough testosterone flowing to drown Australia. It’s the kind of movie that is meant to make it’s young male gamer/fanboy target audience beat their chests and grunt, a knuckle-dragging epic in which the only major female character has a bare-breasted wild sex scene with her supposed enemy that was more violent than sexy but less violent than it was improbable (yes Lena Headey is also in the movie but only for a few scenes).

What differentiates this from 300 is that for all its macho posturing, the original film had at least some semblance of humanity, actual characters who the audience could latch onto and even care about. Here, mostly the players are cannon fodder, hurled into a meat grinder of sharp blades, battle axes, spears, flaming arrows and sinking ships, gobbets of flesh dripping gore arcing in a graceful parabola through the air after being carved from shrieking soldiers. I can’t deny that there is a certain gratification in it, a primitive caveman reaction that is both visceral and appalling, but it must be dutifully cataloged if one is to be honest.

While the dialogue tends more towards jingoism, I also will be the first to admit that the visuals are impressive. You’d swear that you were watching titanic battles being fought in rolling storm-driven seas but the reality was that the actors had not a drop of real water on them – the ocean and the ships are all CGI. About the only thing that wasn’t CGI in the movie was Eva Green’s breasts and I have my doubts about those too.

Green does acquit herself the best and that is the only kindness I can spare the acting which is for the most part over-the-top and melodramatic. Green seems to be having a good time as a badass and it shows. She utters the most cringe-worthy dialogue with a straight face and her smiles drip venom as you would expect from an excellent villain. Stapleton doesn’t have the charisma that Butler has, at least not yet. His Themistocles did a lot of shouting but didn’t really inspire me to want to follow him into battle so his abilities as a leader of men were sharply called into question at least from my vantage point.

I have to mark this down as one of the year’s first disappointments – every year provides several such in the movie calendar. Unfortunately, Snyder was a bit too busy resurrecting the Superman franchise to put in the time and effort to direct this and while his hand is evident in the production end, certainly this didn’t have the wow factor that would make me want to see the third movie in the franchise (one is reportedly in the pipeline should the box office warrant it). In the end, this is a feast for the eyes but does little for the soul beyond providing some instantly forgettable entertainment.

REASONS TO GO: Impressive CGI.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks a Gerard Butler to keep the audience’s attention. A little too mannered and over-the-top. Hardly any human element to the story.

FAMILY VALUES:  If the fake blood hadn’t been CGI there would have been enough to fill one of the Great Lakes with it. There’s also a ton of hack/slash violence, a good bit of nudity and sexuality, and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the titles say that the film is based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel series Xerxes, the screenplay was written concurrently with the graphic novel which has yet to be published and has said to have changed massively since the film was made.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pompeii

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Bridge to Terabithia

13 Assassins (Jusan-nin no shikaku)


13 Assassins

I don't know if I could fight with a straight face against a bunch of guys with dinner plates on their heads.

(2010) Samurai (Magnet) Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuki Iseya, Goro Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura, Mikijiro Hira, Hiroki Matsukata, Ikki Sawamura, Arata Furuta, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Masataka Kubota, Sosuke Takaoka, Seiji Rokkaku. Directed by Takashi Miike

When you are trained to a life of service and honor is your most prized possession, justice is an important and necessary function of what you do. When justice is replaced by cruelty and barbarism, what is an honorable man to do?

In feudal Japan, the tradition of the samurai is on the wane as the Land of the Rising Sun slowly but definitely approaches the Meiji era, kicking and screaming in some places. The Shogun is still the de facto political power, deriving his power from the Emperor but in many ways wreathed in more temporal power than he.

The one currently in power has appointed his half-brother (and son of the previous Shogun) Lord Naritsugu (Inagaki) as his heir and the head of the country. Naritsugu, however, is corrupt and amoral, raping and killing without fear of reprisal because of his standing. Even other feudal lords aren’t immune as he attacks members of other clans without conscience. The country is on the verge of being plunged into civil war and even the Shogun knows it. He cannot openly oppose his half-brother or demote him from his position; to do so would lose tremendous face for him. However, through back channels he approaches one of the few samurai left who are honorable but without master – Shinzaemon (Yakusho).

Shinzaemon is shown the proof of Naritsugu’s depravity; a limbless woman whose tongue has been torn out, the wife of a peasant who dared speak out against Naritsugu’s depravations. She has been repeatedly raped and when asked what became of her family, she took a brush in her mouth and wrote out the words “TOTAL MASSACRE” before letting loose a wordless animal scream that is as compelling a moment as you’ll see on the screen this year – and also much more indicative of Miike’s usual style.

Shinzaemon knows that Naritsugu will be nearly impregnable in his palace in Edo (Tokyo) but awaits him to leave for the long journey to his home castle. He knows that even the well-protected Naritsugu will be vulnerable on the road. He can’t have a very large army like Naritsugu does; a pitched conflict would probably not end well for Shinzaemon and quite frankly would further destabilize the situation.

No, this is meant to be an assassination and to make it happen, he enlists the help of twelve like-minded samurai, including his nephew Shinrouko (Yamada). The task is made doubly difficult because Shinzaemon’s protégé Hanbei (Ichimura) is Naritsugu’s bodyguard and while Hanbei doesn’t approve of what Naritsugu does, he is loyal to his master as a samurai should be and will protect him to the best of his abilities, which are considerable.

Shinzaemon’s plan is to divide Naritsugu’s forces and send him through a specific town. In order to do that, he has to bar his travel across a single bridge. Fortunately, the clan that owns that bridge is more than happy to send Naritsugu on his way. The stage is set but Shinzaemon has to get ahead of Naritsugu by traversing a mountain. Unfortunately he gets lost but he comes upon a hunter named Koyata (Iseya) who while descended of samurai stock actually finds the samurai quite boring and unexciting.

Once they get to the village they turn it into a death trap with hidden fortifications, explosives and burning bulls (CGI flames animal lovers – don’t get your panties in a twist). However when Naritsugu arrives later than anticipated, Shinzaemon’s plan is thrown into disarray when it is discovered that rather than the 70 soldiers that they estimated he had with him, he has more than 200, a ploy used by the clever Hanbei to buy time to get reinforcements.

This leads to an epic battle in which much blood will be spilled, heads will roll, heroes will fall and Hanbei and Shinzaemon will cross swords at last. Will justice be served?

Miike is best known for his twisted and sometimes graphic horror films, but there are some who find his sensibilities a bit of an acquired taste. Fortunately, it’s a taste I’ve acquired. Miike has a reputation for deconstructing different genres when he attempts them (slasher horror, superhero and so on). He is incredibly prolific although this one seems to have taken more time than he usually does.

In fact, in a somewhat surprising move, Miike has opted to play this one more or less straight (other than a few occasional images including the limbless lady) which considering the depravity of Naritsugu probably brought up a few of Miike’s admirers up short. Samurai movies are a staple of Japanese cinema, and pretty much reached their nadir with Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s epic (which inspired, among other things, The Magnificent Seven. This is based on a movie from the same era from a different director and perhaps more in need of a remake but Miike does surprisingly well.

The cinematography is beautiful and ugly at once, with lush Japanese countrysides and bucolic villages combined with horrifying images of brutal violence. The final battle sequence takes up nearly half the movie and is the reason you’re going to either love this movie or hate it; some will find the sequence too overwhelming and over-the-top, some too long and others might even find it not long enough. In any case, how you feel about battle sequences is largely going to determine how you feel about 13 Assassins.

The acting is pretty decent here. Of note is Japanese rock star Inagaki who plays the powerful Lord as almost childish in his petulance crossed with an amoral serial killer and rapist. He is completely corrupt and without any sort of morals – sort of like a Wall Street CEO who suddenly realizes he can get away with anything.

Yakusho is a big star in Japan and he shows why here. He is charismatic and powerful, a man used to being obeyed (at least Shinzaemon is) and certainly confident in his talents. Shinzaemon is a man worthy of respect (and if you don’t show him the respect he deserves, he’s liable to lop off your head) and is a worthy leader of these disparate samurai. Iseya provides much-needed comic relief. He is agile and monkey-nimble, but surprisingly strong using rocks and sticks to kill his armed and armored opponents.

Part of the movie’s problem is that 13 are really too many samurai for us to get to know properly. Most are little more than a single personality trait that quickly gets lost in the carnage. Remembering their names? Forget about it. I couldn’t always keep them straight and I’m usually pretty adept at that sort of thing.

What this boils down to is an epic struggle, one in which honor takes center stage. The honor of a man avenging injustice against the honor of a man defending his master until the bitter end. It is truly a morality play, Japanese-style and the swordplay and buckets of blood are merely window dressing on it. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like samurai films you’ll like this one. If you like extensive battle sequences showcasing the sword skills of samurai you’ll love this one. If you like character development, you might want to give this a pass.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of awesome battle sequences, lots of blood violence and a truly hiss-able villain.

REASONS TO STAY: A little on the too long side, and it is difficult for Western audiences to really get too involved with the individuals who, except for the top three or four leads, aren’t developed as characters very much.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of bloody violence, some disturbing images, a rape and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story was based on an actual incident in feudal Japan, and was previously made into a black and white movie in 1963.

HOME OR THEATER: The epic scope of the film virtually screams theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Stuff