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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American Sniper


Taking aim on controversy.

Taking aim on controversy.

(2014) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers) Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner, Luke Grimes, Keir O’Donnell, Sammy Sheik, Leonard Roberts, Cory Hardrict, Eric Ladin, James Ryen, Jake McDorman, Eric Aude, Navid Nagahban, Mido Hamada, Kathe Mazur, Sam Jaeger, Chance Kelly, Elise Robertson, Ben Reed, Marnette Patterson. Directed by Clint Eastwood

As we deal with the aftermath of our country’s adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq as it seems we are preparing to do battle with ISIS, it behooves us to seek out the aftermath of those who fought those wars. War is never easy on those who fight it, regardless of the reasons they have for leaving their homes and their families and going off to some godforsaken place to kill other human beings. We often take that part of our armed forces for granted.

Chris Kyle (Cooper), a proud Texan and would-be cowboy, goes because he feels that after 9-11, it is his duty to protect a country that he loves. He leaves behind a wife Taya (Miller), a strong woman of no uncertain opinions who eventually falls for the burly Texan despite having exceedingly low expectations when first they met. He joins the Navy SEALs mainly because he believes them to be the toughest SOBs in the military.

Kyle proves to be a gifted sharpshooter who is perfect for sniper duty. His first action requires him to make an agonizing decision when it seems that a young boy is getting ready to hurl an explosive at an American convoy in full sight of his mother, who handed him the device. He waits until the last possible second, before it becomes apparent that his intentions are to blow up the convoy; then Kyle shoots him dead, and then his mother for good measure when it appears she’s going to finish the job her son was unable to. Far from being a moment of triumph, it deeply affects the young SEAL deeply. When he sees a terrorist (Hamada) put a drill through the head of a child while his parents watch, he decries the Iraqis as savages and it’s hard not to argue with him.

Kyle goes through four tours, and each time he returns home as Taya puts it, he’s not really there. He’s nervous, jumpy, living very much inside his head while Taya tries desperately to reach him, to get her husband back. By now Kyle is also a dad, and while he goes through the motions of being a father and assures VA psychotherapists as well as his immediate family that everything is fine, everything clearly is not. He only seems to be whole in country.

As he piles up the confirmed kills, he gets the nickname of Legend which at first makes him uncomfortable but eventually he grows to accept. It is a mark of the respect in which his peers hold him as he becomes the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, for all the lives of American military men he saves with his unerring aim and precise shots. There is however a counterpart within the ranks of the enemy, one known as Mustafa (Sheik) who is in many ways a mirror image of Kyle – a family man, one obsessed by his work and absolutely deadly. Somehow Kyle needs to survive his tours and come back to his wife and family – a whole man.

Clint Eastwood has become over the years a great American film director and although he has had his share of missteps (cough Jersey Boys cough cough) his consistency has been as good as any. In a lot of ways this is going to be counted as one of his best works ever, although it is steeped in controversy more because of the subject matter than anything else.

There are those who have decried the film because in their minds it glorifies an individual who shouldn’t be glorified. Many have pointed out that the real Kyle, on whose autobiography this is based, consistently identified Muslims as savages (which he does in the film on one occasion) and has been labeled a racist because of it. He has also been taken to task for exaggerations or making up incidents out of whole cloth.

These are two separate issues and on the first, I can only say that it was common for veterans of war to dehumanize those they fought against. It is one way for the psyche to cope with having to kill other human beings. If they aren’t human, if they’re savages, it makes it easier to justify what you’re doing. Thinking that way may not necessarily be politically correct but it’s at least understandable.

The other can also be looked upon as something of a Texas thing. Now, making up a story in which former governor and ex-Navy SEAL himself Jesse Ventura was rude and insulting to fellow SEALs who were mourning a friend and getting clocked by Kyle is wrong and Ventura – who has been excoriated for doing so – has every right to defend his reputation, even if it means suing the widow of the man responsible because she is after all profiting from the story in a matter of speaking, since the story is a part of his best-selling book. While I give veterans a good deal of leeway in their behaviors, they are nonetheless responsible for their actions when they return home and are liable for the consequences of those actions.

That said, I don’t think this film glorifies war at all or this one in particular – at one point, at a soldier’s funeral, an unidentified woman who I assume is the soldier’s mother reads a handwritten eulogy condemning the war – but rather tries to give us insight into those who fought it. For me, the most compelling material is when Kyle is home, struggling to be home and be present with his family. It takes a good deal of time for him to finally want to be home, to finally let go of his feeling of duty and to get past his need to be a hero which the real Kyle was often accused of and Eastwood seems to agree was part of the man’s psychological make-up.

Cooper, who added 40 pounds for the role, really inhabits the role of Kyle, who actually resembled the late wrestler Chris Benoit in reality. It’s a mesmerizing performance certainly worthy of the Oscar nomination he received. Cooper’s Kyle moves from a fairly normal aw-shucks cowboy to a heroic sniper in the field to a terse, uncommunicative stone wall of a man at home. It’s a brilliant performance that shouldn’t be missed.

Sienna Cooper’s performance as Taya is also flawless. It’s so good I wish the script and Eastwood would have devoted more time to her; at times she almost becomes one-dimensional because she’s trying to convince her husband to leave the war behind and be home. How she kept her family together, how she weathered those times when he was home and not with her (it must have been heartbreaking) would have added more nuance to the film overall. I’d have gladly sacrificed some of the battle sequences of Kyle in country for that.

About those battle sequences; they can be pretty intense and for those who might be sensitive to such things, you should be forewarned that there are scenes that are quite disturbing. However, the rest of us will find them, as I did, absolutely mesmerizing and keep you on the edge of your seat, as I was.

I don’t know why we need our heroes to be absolutely perfect. Nobody is, and Chris Kyle certainly wasn’t. I don’t know that I agree with all of his views or approve of some of the things he said. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great soldier, an expert marksman or a hero for saving the lives of hundreds and perhaps thousands of American troops. I do believe that for most people, how you feel about the war will color your perceptions of this film. The conservative right are hailing the movie as a masterpiece (which it isn’t – Unforgiven was far better) while the progressive left are decrying it as propaganda which it also isn’t. What it is when you get right down to it is a terrific movie about war itself, about surviving it not only physically but emotionally and mentally as well, and how hard it can be to come home when the tour of duty ends.

REASONS TO GO: Cooper is brilliant. Realistic and often heart-stopping battle sequences. Admirably allows viewers to make their own minds up.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally too intense for the sensitive. I would have liked to have gotten a little deeper into the mind of Taya.
FAMILY VALUES: Much gunfire and war violence, some of it quite disturbing. There’s also plenty of colorful language with some sexual references involved.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Chris Kyle and the real Marcus Luttrell of Lone Survivor fame actually met in SEAL school and became close friends which they remained for the rest of Kyle’s life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stop-Loss
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: A Most Violent Year

Predators


Predators

Adrien Brody, Alice Braga and cohorts are definitely NOT in Kansas anymore.

(20th Century Fox) Adrien Brody, Alice Braga, Topher Grace, Laurence Fishburne, Walton Goggins, Danny Trejo, Oleg Taktarov, Mahershalahashbaz Ali, Louiz Ozawa, Changchien, Carey Jones, Brian Steele, Derek Mears. Directed by Nimrod Antal

A very simplistic world-view of life is that we are either predators or we are prey. It’s simply a matter of where we want to be on the food chain, and what we’re willing to do to get there.

Royce (Brody) awakens in a very confused state. One moment he was with his unit, the next there was a bright light and now he is in free fall. That’s not a good place to be when you’re just waking up.

He manages to deploy a parachute and ends up landing safely, if a little bit roughly, in the jungle. One by one, a number of other parachutes deploy and soon there’s a group of people, all with roughly the same story, including Isabelle (Braga) an Israeli sharp-shooter, Stans (Goggins) a convicted killer two days from lethal injection, Nikolai (Taktarov), a Russian trooper keeping the peace in Chechnya, Hanzo (Changchien) a Japanese yakuza, Cuchillo (Trejo) a Mexican druglord, Mombassa (Ali) an African militia man and Edwin (Grace), a doctor.

Royce, for his part, is a black ops mercenary with not much in the way of a moral compass beyond getting the job done and surviving it. What they are all doing there is a bit of a mystery, as is where “there” is – Isabelle, who claims she’s been in most jungles of the world, doesn’t recognize this one. Amazon, maybe?

All that goes out the window when Royce notices that the sun remains stationary in the sky. It further takes a turn for the Twilight Zone when they emerge into a clearing to see a whole arsenal of moons floating serenely in the sky. They are most certainly not in Kansas anymore, or anywhere else on earth for that matter.

The appearance of strange bad-tempered warthog-like creatures with an array of bony spikes protruding from just about everywhere on their bodies doesn’t bode well. However, soon enough Royce figures things out – they are on a game preserve and they are being hunted. Sure enough, a Predator soon makes an appearance, with just enough technology for Isabelle – who was apparently privy to a lot of sensitive information – to recognize them from a report about a strange encounter with an American military team in South America in which only one survivor emerged. Will this team, stranded in an alien planet with no food or water, have even that many survivors?

This is billed as a sequel to the original Predator (1987) and there are plenty of references to the original from the obvious (Isabelle’s report) to the subtle (the playing of “Long Tall Sally” over the end credits, a song that was also played at the beginning of Predator). Obviously, the filmmakers had a great deal of respect and reverence for the original.

They may have been a bit too reverential, however. The storyline is essentially identical to the first Predator with a group of well-armed military people being picked off in a jungle one by one by predators, although in the original it was just one. While the original Predator saw an established and cohesive American military team being attacked, here it is a bunch of people from a variety of different disciplines and nations all brought together for the first time, and they bicker a good deal, although when the rubber hits the road they are terrifyingly good at what they do.

The cast is surprisingly good, especially Brody who isn’t known for action movies. He does a credible job here as the brutal and taciturn mercenary. Brody has obviously bulked up for the role, although he isn’t as muscular as, say, Stallone or Schwarzenegger, he has that wiry muscular toughness which is more in line with what you see in the modern military. Fishburne has what amounts to an extended cameo as the only survivor of a previous group brought to the planet to be hunted – he is there essentially to supply a bit of comic relief (only a bit) as well as a sense of perspective about how long this has been going on.

The action sequences hit all the right buttons, from the “predator vision” which is meant to resemble infrared, to things going boom. There are a number of nausea-inducing killings, which are very high on the cool meter, as well as a really nice sequence when Hanzo goes mano a mano with a Predator.

One of the little things I liked was that the Predators have different looks to them – I’m not talking subtle differences, but major ones, the way you would find in different ethnic groups. One of the problems with science fiction movies is that you rarely get a sense that alien races have the diversity of the human race; they have a tendency to be generically the same.

There are a few little quibbles with science in the science fiction here. A planet or moon that keeps one face turned towards the sun with planetoids or moons orbiting nearby would be torn apart by the gravitational forces; at the very least it wouldn’t have much of an atmosphere. Since some of the scenes take place at night (which I’m assuming occurs when one of the planetoids or moons gets between the game preserve planet and the sun) the screenwriters could have avoided this merely by giving the planet a rotation. Other than the scenes with the spiny warthogs and the view of the multiple moons, there’s no sense that you’re on a distant planet; all of the fauna are earth-bound varieties which would be extremely unlikely, unless the Predators terraformed the planet and seeded it with plants from our own world, which would seem to be a very expensive and labor-intensive job just to create a game preserve.

But these are quibbles and most viewers aren’t going to care about such things. This is about action and there is plenty of it. The action and character development is good enough to make this an enjoyable two hours. In a summer full of disappointments in terms of quality movies and box office, Predators stands out as one of the better popcorn movies in an off year for them.

REASONS TO GO: Solid summer action film fare. Brody is impressive as the mercenary.

REASONS TO STAY: This is essentially the first Predator relocated, with a team that isn’t as cohesive as the first one. You rarely get a sense that you’re on an alien planet.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of gore and violence, as well as some nightmare-inducing Predators running around. Given the pervasive foul language as well, I’d restrict this to older teens for the most part.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rodriguez conceived the idea for the movie back in 1994 and wrote a script that was submitted to Fox, who rejected it for being too expensive to produce. 15 years later, they changed their mind and Rodriguez wrote a modified version of the script that would be less expensive to produce, and delivered – the movie cost $40 million to make, relatively inexpensive for a high-profile summer sci-fi action movie.

HOME OR THEATER: In all honesty, the jungle location is more claustrophobic than grand in scale; it will easily fit in your home theater system. Those with smaller televisions might want to take this in on the big screen, however.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Inception