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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The Revenant (2015)


Leo in the wilderness.

Leo in the wilderness.

(2015) Western (20th Century Fox) Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Paul Anderson, Kristoffer Joner, Joshua Burge, Duane Howard, Melaw Nakehk’o, Fabrice Adde, Arthur RedCloud, Christopher Rosamond, Robert Moloney, Lukas Haas, Brendan Fletcher, Tyson Wood, McCaleb Burnett, Grace Dove. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

Nature has a way of reducing us to our primal, primordial selves. Life becomes reduced to a single choice; survive or die. There is nothing complex about it – but nothing simple either.

Loosely based on an actual incident, the story is about Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), an explorer and trapper in the 1820s American frontier who is leading a party of trappers set upon by the Pawnee, who erroneously believe they kidnapped one of their women. The Americans, under the command of the dauntless Captain Andrew Henry (Gleeson) are forced to stash their hard-won pelts and flee, led by Glass and his compatriot John Fitzgerald (Hardy). When Glass is attacked by a bear and gravely injured and the Pawnee hard on their trail, Captain Henry is forced to leave him under the care of three men, including Fitzgerald, young Bridger (Poulter) and Glass’ son Hawk (Goodluck), who is half-Native American. Glass’ wife (Dove) had been killed by soldiers a few years earlier.

However, the cowardly Fitzgerald, thinking that Glass is a goner for sure, decides to bury him prematurely while Bridger is away. Hawk discovers him and tries to fight him off but gets stabbed to death for his trouble. Fitzgerald quickly buries Hawk and then convinces Bridger that the Pawnee are almost upon them, and throws Glass into a shallow grave, still alive. Bridger reluctantly agrees but his conscience is absolutely bothering him.

The trouble is, Glass is not quite dead yet. And having witnessed his son’s murder, he is full on with a thirst for revenge. The trouble is, he is hundreds of miles away from anything and anyone and he can barely walk. It is the middle of winter and his chances of survival are nearly nil, but never count out the human spirit – and the thirst for vengeance.

This is one of the most beautifully shot films you’re likely to see. In my admittedly inexpert opinion cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is far and away the Oscar favorite and this has been a superb year for cinematographers. It is bleak and cold, but there is so much beauty. The shots are carefully constructed to frame the action but at the same time look like works of art, with the trees and the sky and the snow all combining to bring the audience into the frame. I couldn’t help but shiver at times.

DiCaprio was nominated for the Golden Globe for his work here and also has been nominated for an Oscar which are a few weeks away as of this writing and while his performance isn’t my favorite of the year, it was certainly worthy of the nominations and has a good shot at winning the statuette, Eddie Redmayne notwithstanding. He doesn’t have a whole lot of dialogue here and has to communicate much of his performance through wild looks, spittle blown out of his mouth and wordless screams. As elegant as Redmayne’s also-Oscar worthy performance was, this is primal and raw, a caveman to the sophisticate of Redmayne. It is rare to see such diversity of styles in a single nominated group and I don’t envy the Academy voters their task to pick just one winner.

Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto provided the minimalist score which often was comprised of found sounds, both natural and man-made. The composers also knew when silence would be more effective; the entire bear attack scene had no music other than DiCaprio’s agonized screams and the bear’s grunts and groans. As that scene almost has to be the most effective in the movie in order for the film to work, Iñárritu made some wise choices in setting up and executing not only the action (the bear was CGI from what I understand and quite frankly I couldn’t tell) but also in how that action was framed.

Iñárritu is a bit of a mystic and some of the scenes have that sense, almost like Carlos Castaneda translated to celluloid. He captures the brutality of life on the frontier almost too well; at times the intensity and the starkness is hard to watch. More sensitive viewers may find the film too grim for their liking. While this isn’t my favorite movie in the director’s filmography, it may well be his best in many ways but for reasons that may well be personal (I was literally exhausted while I was watching it after a sleepless night the evening before) it didn’t connect to me the way his other works have. In my case, this is a film that I admire more than I love, but that doesn’t mean you won’t love it. This is certainly when all is said and done essential viewing if you intend to capture the very best of 2015.

REASONS TO GO: An amazing technical achievement. One of DiCaprio’s finest performances of his career. Realistic almost to a fault.
REASONS TO STAY: Not for everybody; grim, relentless and sometimes too intense for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Along with frontier violence and some gory images, there’s also a scene of sexual assault, brief nudity and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DiCaprio, a vegetarian, at an actual raw buffalo liver in the scene that called for it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Man Called Horse
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Road to Nowhere