The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Remakes inevitably suffer from comparison to their predecessors. This version of the Magnificent Seven will not be an exception. It has star power, and entertainment value, but it seems to be short in stature because of the times in which it is made and the demands of contemporary audiences. We need our action to be spectacular and the visualization to be inventive. The problem is, with such a traditional setting, it sometimes feels a bit anachronistic. Characters playing out the events of the story in 1879, sound like they might have been born in 1979. The touches of humor and the self referential moments left me a little less impressed, despite some excellent tweaks to the well known story.

Let’s begin with the stuff that works and helps this movie cross the line as a winner. Denzel Washington is the closest thing we have to a movie star working today. His presence in a film can still bring out an audience and his acting chops are top notch. The only film star comparable would be Tom Cruise, and I think Mr. Cruise is more limited in what an audience is willing to see him in these days. Of course Mr. Washington is also playing in the action field now more than any other genre also. Cast as the lead cowboy in this band of mercenaries, he is completely believable in spit of  question of his heritage. You never once think that he is not exactly who he says he is and there is no question that the people he encounters grant him the respect he clearly communicate to all that he deserves. It is a credit to the makers of the film that they don’t exploit what might have been a distracting non-issue and instead focus on the story at hand.

 

Ethan Hawke’s character is also a plus in the film. We get a little more back story than we ever got with Robert Vaughn in the 1960 version, and it makes most of his actions seem more reasonable. As a deadly sniper who survived the  Civil War, his struggle with PTSD seems understandable even if it is only partially fleshed out. His friendship with an Asian assassin in the old west is a little more difficult to swallow, although it offers a nice relationship and provides quite a bit of entertainment. Also worthy are the characters played by Vincent D’Onofrio, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier. They make up a worthy second tier trio of mercenaries. I liked Byung-hun Lee perfectly well in the film but as I said, his character is one of two that draws attention to the fact that we are watching a story made by people trying to entertain us any way they can.

The second character that sticks out a bit like a sore thumb is Chris Pratt’s gambling cowboy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he is in the film and I enjoyed his performance just fine. The trouble is that the character is so overdone in an effort to make the film a little more hip that the story loses much of it’s organic nature. It screams for attention and the manner in which the character talks is more in keeping with the Space Opera Pratt is noted for than the Horse Opera we are watching. His story is written more for the audience than for the events in the film.

There are moments in the reworking of the story that I thought fit well. The events that propel the character of Emma Cullen to reach out for help from such dangerous men was well set up and executed. She develops as a character only so far however and in the end her role becomes a plot device rather than someone we can care about and relate to. I will say however that the audience I saw this with was enthusiastic about her piece of action at the climax of the film. Peter Sarsgaard as the villain of the piece is suitably despicable, although the capricious manner in which he treats his employees would make most people think twice about taking a job from him.

I could have lived without the backstory for Denzel’s Chisolm, I think he would be more interesting as a cypher but it does provide a bit more logical reason for him to take on the task that he himself describes as impossible. The planning components of the final battle are reminiscent of some of the same things that were found in “Seven Samurai”, the film that was remade as the first “Magnificent Seven”. That battle sequence does go on quite a while and it is one of the places that the action sometimes feels over the top. I did not count the number killed but it would certainly approach two hundred. I can say however that the deaths that occur in the group seem relevant and well earned.

 

This is the final score of the late James Horner, who died last year far too young but with a set of films on his vita that would make anybody proud. Two nights ago, in preparation for an upcoming podcast, I watched “Battle Beyond the Stars”, a Roger Corman cheapy Star Wars wannabe that uses the plot of The Magnificent Seven as it’s source. One of the gems in that otherwise minor film is the score, by a young James Horner. His career is thus somewhat bookended by this story. This score is not as iconic as either of those other two films but it does convey some seriousness and in a couple of places, the grandeur of the west. There is a continuing echo of the classic Elmer Bernstein theme in several spots, but that tune is not fully utilized until the end of the film.

I’m a sucker for a western, so my opinion on this was likely to be pretty high to begin with. It is a solid entertainment and a reasonable facsimile of a traditional western, but it has a few elements that make it feel more manufactured than it ought to be. I look forward to discussing it with my fellow bloggers next week, but for mow I will say you should definitely see it. There are not likely to be a lot of westerns in Denzel’s future career, and that is a shame because he fits in the saddle really well.

 

Alien/Aliens Screening at the Egyptian Theater

The power of these two films is impossible to deny. Both films have been out for more nearly thirty plus years, both have extensive home video formats available. In fact, earlier in the day on Friday, as I walked through Sam’s Club, I saw the two films being sold in stand alone packages for a very moderate price. Last night, I ended up in the Stand-by line, hoping to get a seat to a screening of the films at the American Cinematique program at the Egyptian Theater. The program had sold out and the theater holds almost eight hundred people. Not bad for a couple of films that are older than my kids.

I have met my daughter after work for screenings in Hollywood, several times before. She works in Venice and we live in Glendora. Those of you not familiar with Southern California topography simply need to know these are opposite sides of L.A. County and Hollywood is somewhere in between. Usually, I drive down to the Egyptian Theater but since I was free in the afternoon yesterday, I availed myself of public transportation. I took the train to Union Station and then the subway to Hollywood and Highland, where I walked the two blocks to the theater. My phone rang as I entered the courtyard and it was Amanda, asking where I was. When I told her she asked if I was inside, because she did not see me, …for the two extra seconds that it took me to come around the corner. We had managed to simultaneously reach the box office from opposite ends of the world. Timing is everything. It was then that we discovered the movie was sold out and we waited in the Stand-by line. There were about thirty of us and several people bought tickets from others who had extras. That is finally how we got in, and ended up a little closer than we might have chosen otherwise but still in seats that were very workable.

The films were introduced by a guy from an effects based organization, I was negligent in getting his name or remembering the name of the group. Several seats were up front and it turns out that at the break we would be treated to a behind the scenes slide show of photos from the production of “Aliens” by some of the effects wizards behind the movie magic. So it was definitely something to look forward to. Our host asked the audience how many were seeing these films on the big screen for the first time, and I was surprised to see the hands of nearly two thirds of the audience go up. He shook his head and wondered out loud where all these people have been for the last thirty years. Anyway the films then began.

http://kirkhamclass.blogspot.com/2010/06/alien-1979-movie-day-day-11.htmlIt is a great experience to be able to contrast the styles and moods of the two films from a single screening. “Alien” is atmospheric and moody and builds a sense of tension slowly. It is a horror film, but one that is smart and creates suspense deliberately and with a dark style. This is the same theater where I first experienced the movie back in 1979 and it was fun to tease Amanda with that information, she gets tired of my nostalgic ramblings sometimes so it is a dad’s privilege to annoy a child with useless personal trivia from time to time. If you click on the image of the poster, it will take you to the original post I did from the Movie A Day project back in 2010.

The guests presenting the slide show between the film were quickly introduced, and I got only two names for sure. They were the Academy Award winning brothers Robert and Dennis Skotak, and they  shared several personal memories about the making of “Aliens”. Digital computer work was mostly new when they made the film with James Cameron. They had honed their craft working on Roger Corman films like “Battle Beyond the Stars” and “Galaxy of Terror”. Several of the pictures they shared showed them and young Mr. Cameron behind the scenes of those very modestly budgeted films. It was their experience on those pictures that allowed Cameron to make the film on the scale he envisioned for a budget almost half of what Fox thought it would need to be. In fact, that is why he got the job.

This shot taken from my seat shows how some of the props and sets were destroyed after the filming, because Pinewood Studios would charge a storage fee if they were left on the lot and sending them all back to Hollywood would have been too expensive. Film geeks everywhere will mourn the fact that the sleep pods from this film are not collectibles that they could buy on ebay and then put in their own bedrooms.

Like the special features programs on the home video versions of the films, last night’s discussion was filled with little details about the techniques used and the problems solved during filming. The secrets I heard about the loader that Ripley uses to battle the alien Queen at the end of the movie were really cool. The fact that Cameron himself designed the Alien Queen because they could not afford to hire H.R. Giger to do the job was also interesting.

The presentation went on for a good thirty or forty minutes. There were some other tech guys speaking as well and I am so sorry that I was not taking notes and can’t give them the credit they deserve for the work they did on the film and the kindness they showed for coming out lat night.

“Aliens” is a different creature than the first film. It has horror elements but it is basically an action film set on a different planet. The scenario and the look of the weapons are probably responsible for much of the design of modern video games like Halo. This is a shootum up in outer space. It does have a wonderful central spine concerning the relationship between Ripley and the young survivor Newt.

http://kirkhamamovieaday.blogspot.com/2013/03/aliens.htmlThe pacing and the music are two ways that the films are distinct. “Alien” unfolds slowly with a ethereal electronic score by my favorite film composer Jerry Goldsmith. James Horner’s much more bellicose, Academy nominated score, is a perfect fit for the action beats of the film and the G.I. based plot. The humor in the film is often provided by the Marine mentality of the troops versus the corporate thinking of Paul Reiser’s Burke. Bill Paxton provides fantastic comic relief and if you look at the mashup I included in my post on an “Aliens” screening from a couple of years ago, you will find it a great contrast to his character in “Edge of Tomorrow“.Again, if you click on the poster to the left, it will take you to the Vlogpost that I did on this film, if you have twelve minutes , I think you will enjoy.

One final note, Sigourney Weaver became a star with her role as Ripley in these films. She is the strong foundation on which these stories are built. She deserves all the credit she can get for making these two films favorites of movie fans from around the world. Pretend the other films in this series don’t exist and you will have a perfect pair of bookends with these two movies.