Blindspot Review Roundup

Spoilers for my next monthly update: I’ve completed watching all 22 films on my 2017 Blindspot and “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” lists. Hurrah!

What I haven’t done is reviewed them all. Indeed, 17 still languish in my review backlog — that’s 77%. (In fact, I’ve only actually reviewed one Blindspot film — The Exorcist — with the other four being from WDYMYHS.)

So, with the end of the year fast approaching — and, with the new year, a new batch of films to watch — I thought it high time I cracked on with those reviews. Here’s a quick roundup of a few, linked by all being adapted from novels, which may be the first of several such omnibus editions.

In today’s roundup:

  • Dances with Wolves: Special Edition (1990/1991)
  • Jackie Brown (1997)
  • Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
  • The 39 Steps (1935)


    Dances with Wolves
    Special Edition

    (1990/1991)

    2017 #26
    Kevin Costner | 227 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English, Lakota & Pawnee | 15 / PG-13

    Dances with Wolves

    Oscar statue1991 Academy Awards
    12 nominations — 7 wins

    Winner: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score.
    Nominated: Best Actor (Kevin Costner), Best Supporting Actor (Graham Greene), Best Supporting Actress (Mary McDonnell), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design.


    The behind-the-scenes story of Dances with Wolves is almost as grand as the movie itself. An actor turned director whose inexperience led to production delays and budget overruns, leading to rumours the film was a pending disaster like Heaven’s Gate a decade before it (some nicknamed it “Kevin’s Gate”), and the studio who wanted a 140-minute cut having to settle for the 180-minute one that director delivered. The resulting film never even reached #1 at the box office… but still went on to be the highest grossing Western of all time, and became the first Western to win the Best Picture Oscar in almost 60 years. It was so popular that a 53-minute-longer extended cut was released a year later, which Costner later denied being involved with.

    Having not seen the theatrical cut I can’t offer an opinion on which is better, but the near-four-hour extended one certainly feels its length. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — this is an epic in the truest sense of the word, with a large story to tell on a grand canvass; although it’s concurrently a drama about just a couple of people from different cultures coming to interact. It’s almost too big to digest in a single go — I’m even not quite sure what I made of it. You can see why I’ve spent 10 months not writing about it.

    Anyway, I admired its scope and ambition. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but it merits revisiting someday.

    4 out of 5

    Jackie Brown
    (1997)

    2017 #49
    Quentin Tarantino | 154 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Jackie Brown

    Oscar statue1998 Academy Awards
    1 nomination

    Nominated: Best Supporting Actor (Robert Forster).




    Jackie Brown has long been my Tarantino blindspot. I caught up with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction after he was already established and they were regarded as modern classics, then was old enough to see the Kill Bills at the cinema and have followed his career from there. But, for some reason, his third feature has always eluded my attention. My tenth anniversary “heinous oversights” list seemed a good time to rectify that.

    Some people argue that Jackie Brown is secretly Tarantino’s best movie. I add “secretly” there because it gets a lot less attention than the aforementioned movies that came either side of it. That’s not a bandwagon I’m prepared to jump on. To me, it feels a little like QT was trying to emulate what worked about Pulp Fiction without just making a rip-off of his own movie, and therefore it’s a bit of an inferior copy. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie by any means. The eponymous character is particularly interesting, as you’re never quite sure what Jackie’s up to; what her plan is. She seems to be telling everybody everything, but she has to be screwing some — or all — of them, right?

    Possibly I was just approaching the film in the wrong way. Tarantino has called it “a hangout movie”, which he explained thus: “Jackie Brown is better the second time. And I think it’s even better the third. And the fourth time… Maybe even the first time we see it we go, ‘Why are we doing all this hanging out? Why can’t we get to more of the plot?’ But, now the second time you see it, and the third time you see it, you’re not thinking about the plot anymore. You’re waiting for the hangout scenes… It’s about hanging out with the characters.” Personally, I’m not in any desperate rush to hang out with these characters again. But who knows, maybe I’ll get it the second time. Or the third. Or the fourth…

    4 out of 5

    Silver Linings Playbook
    (2012)

    2017 #61
    David O. Russell | 115 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Silver Linings Playbook

    Oscar statue2013 Academy Awards
    8 nominations — 1 win

    Winner: Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence).
    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing.



    Bradley Cooper’s performance — 3.5/5
    JLaw’s performance — 4/5
    JLaw’s dancing — 6/5
    Direction — 2/5
    Screenplay (first two acts) — 3/5
    Screenplay (bit where it suddenly gets plot-heavy and all exposition-y to set up the third act) — 1/5
    Screenplay (third act that seems to be from a completely different, much more conventional movie) — 2/5

    Average =

    3 out of 5

    The 39 Steps
    (1935)

    2017 #60
    Alfred Hitchcock | 83 mins | download (HD) | 4:3 | UK / English | U

    The 39 Steps

    This adaptation of John Buchan’s adventure novel is one of the best-known among director Alfred Hitchcock’s early works, and for good reason.

    Galloping briskly along with a running time under 90 minutes, it’s a film where mood, tone, and the wonderful execution of individual sequences are all allowed to trump plot, which is somewhere on the spectrum from unexplained to nonsensical. We follow the likeable wrong-man hero Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) as he runs away from a gang of villains who barely feature. That they have a nefarious plan is outlined early on to kickstart the action; what they were up to is explained in the final scene to give the story some resolution; and in between they’re pretty much just a force chasing our hero. It’s almost like the villains are the film’s MacGuffin: it doesn’t matter what or who they are, just that they want to catch Hannay and so he must escape them. It’s how he escapes and what happens during his escapades that matters to us; that provides our entertainment.

    It almost plays like a spoof in that regard — the plot is such stock spy-thriller fare that it doesn’t need to make sense in and of itself, we just get what it’s driving at. Of course, considering the age of the film, it’s more proto-spy-thriller than neo-spy-thriller. Whatever you class it as, over 80 years since its release it remains rollicking entertainment.

    5 out of 5

    Dances with Wolves, Jackie Brown, and The 39 Steps were viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Silver Linings Playbook was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here. Other WDYMYHS reviews already published include Hail, Caesar!, Into the Wild, Nightcrawler, and Room.

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  • A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    In his own way he is, perhaps, the most dangerous man who ever lived!

    Original Title: Per un pugno di dollari

    Country: Italy, Spain & West Germany
    Language: English and/or Italian
    Runtime: 100 minutes
    BBFC: X (cut, 1967) | AA (1981) | 15 (1986)
    MPAA: M (1967) | R (1993)

    Original Release: 12th September 1964 (Italy)
    UK Release: 11th June 1967
    Budget: $200,000

    Stars
    Clint Eastwood (High Plains Drifter, Gran Torino)
    Marianne Koch (The Devil’s General, Spotlight on a Murderer)
    Gian Maria Volontè (For a Few Dollars More, Le Cercle Rouge)
    Wolfgang Lukschy (Dead Eyes of London, The Longest Day)
    José Calvo (Viridiana, Day of Anger)

    Director
    Sergio Leone (The Colossus of Rhodes, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)

    Screenwriters
    Víctor Andrés Catena (Kill Django… Kill First, Panic)
    Jaime Comas (Nest of Spies, Cabo Blanco)
    Sergio Leone (The Last Days of Pompeii, Once Upon a Time in the West)

    Dialogue by
    Mark Lowell (High School Hellcats, His and Hers)

    Story by
    Adriano Bolzoni (Requiescant, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key)
    Víctor Andrés Catena (Sandokan the Great, Cabo Blanco)
    Sergio Leone (Duel of the Titans, Once Upon a Time in America)

    Based on
    Yojimbo, a Japanese samurai film written by Akira Kurosawa & Ryûzô Kikushima and directed by Kurosawa. (Not officially, but the makers of Yojimbo sued and it was settled out of court — presumably because it’s really, really obviously a remake of Yojimbo.)


    The Story
    The Mexican border town of San Miguel is ruled over by two rival gangs. When a gunslinging stranger arrives, he attempts to play the two gangs off against each other to his benefit.

    Our Hero
    The Man With No Name, aka Joe, seems to just be a drifter, who rocks up in San Miguel and sees an opportunity to make some money by doing what he does best: killing people.

    Our Villains
    Neither of the two gangs — the Baxters and the Rojos — are squeaky clean, but the Rojos are definitely the nastier lot. Led by three brothers, the cleverest and most vicious of them is Ramón, who’ll stop at nothing to punish Joe after he threatens their empire.

    Best Supporting Character
    The innkeeper Silvanito, who warns Joe away when he first arrives, but becomes his friend and almost sidekick later on.

    Memorable Quote
    “When a man with .45 meets a man with a rifle, you said, the man with a pistol’s a dead man. Let’s see if that’s true.” — Joe

    Memorable Scene
    As Joe heads off to confront three of Baxter’s men who shot at him earlier, he passes the coffin maker — and tells him to get three coffins ready. Coming face to face with four of Baxter’s goons, Joe asks them to apologise to his mule. They, naturally, refuse… so he shoots them all dead. As he walks back past the coffin maker, he casually apologises: “My mistake — four coffins.”

    Memorable Music
    Ennio Morricone’s score is as much a defining element of this movie as the visuals or the cast. His later theme for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly may be his best-known work, but there’s a cracking main title theme here too.

    Letting the Side Down
    It’s just a fact of this kind of production from this era, but the English dubbing is really quite terrible. Well, the acting’s not all that bad, as it goes, but the lip sync is not very synced.

    Making of
    When it premiered on US TV in 1977, the network found the film’s content morally objectionable: the hero kills loads of people, apparently only for money, and receives no punishment. While that might sound perfectly attuned to US morals today, they had different ideals back then. So they ordered a prologue be shot, showing Eastwood’s character receiving a commission from the government to go sort out the town of San Miguel by any means necessary — thus morally justifying all his later killing, apparently. The short sequence was directed by Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop) and starred Harry Dean Stanton (RIP).

    Next time…
    The loosely connected Dollars (aka Man With No Name) Trilogy continued with For a Few Dollars More (which was part of my 100 Favourites last year) and concluded with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (which someday will get the “What Do You Mean You Didn’t Like” treatment).

    Verdict

    The Dollars trilogy were among the first Westerns I saw, and I’ve been meaning to revisit them for many years. I was finally spurred on to start by watching Yojimbo for the first time. Watching that and this back to back, you can’t miss how similar they are — no wonder they settled the legal case, they wouldn’t’ve had a leg to stand on. Yojimbo is the classier handling of the material, giving the whole scenario a weightiness that has gone astray here. Fistful has its own charms, of course, as director Sergio Leone merrily reinvents the Western genre before our eyes — out go the simply white hat / black hat moral codes, in comes baser motivations (greed, lust) and quick sharpshooting. What it lacks in classiness or weight, it makes up with coolness and style.

    Hell or High Water (2016)

    2017 #19
    David Mackenzie | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Hell or High Water

    Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
    4 nominations — 0 wins

    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing.





    The line between right and wrong, legal and illegal, is blurred once again by the writer of Sicario in this tale of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) committing a series of bank robberies for reasons beyond greed, and the two Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) hunting them down.

    I don’t think it would be unkind to describe Hell or High Water as a genre picture: it’s a crime thriller about bank robbers and the police out to catch them, with its setting and tone also bringing something of the Western — or, rather, neo-Western. (It bugs me a little when people refer to films not set in the Old West as “Westerns”, because that seems an inherent part of the genre to me. Naturally, the term “neo-Western” has already been coined, and I feel it’s one we should start using more widely.) There is something more to it than that though, which might explain its slightly incongruous presence among 2017’s Best Picture nominees. In part it’s a social drama, the characters’ motivations based in very topical concerns, including their plan that represents a form of revenge against the banks who have it coming.

    Pair of crooks

    In another part it’s a character drama. Indeed, the acting is the best part. Jeff Bridges subsumes himself in the character, an old lawman on the verge of retirement, but still sharp and capable, who won’t know what to do with himself once he’s put out to pasture — this is his last great hurrah. He got all the plaudits because he’s Jeff Bridges, but it doesn’t feel massively outside his wheelhouse. Conversely, Chris Pine is practically a revelation. Best known for leading blockbusters, here he convinces as a father who’s finally trying to do the right thing for the future of his kids, whether that thing is legal or not. When these two finally come face to face, it’s nail-biting. That’s to do no disservice to Ben Foster, as Pine’s wildcard brother, who perhaps has less honourable intentions; or Gil Birmingham as a fellow Ranger, who Bridges spends most of the film mercilessly teasing, though it turns out conceals an underlying affection for his friend.

    Credit is also definitely due to director David Mackenzie, who certainly has an eye for a shot and a way with constructing an action sequence, for which credit must also be due to editor Jake Roberts. Similarly to cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who evokes a dusty West Texas with its own kind of sandblasted desolate beauty.

    Pair of cops

    Hell or High Water is a very good film, a neo-Western crime thriller genre movie that is exceptionally well directed, shot, and performed. Yet somehow it feels out of place among the Best Picture nominees — like, it’s not that good. Of course, Oscar has a long history of nominating films that aren’t good enough, and Hell or High Water is better than most of them. So while I don’t feel I can stretch to giving it five stars, I certainly recommend it highly.

    4 out of 5

    Hell or High Water is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

    The Magnificent Seven (2016)

    2017 #57
    Antoine Fuqua | 133 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Magnificent Seven

    Despite sharing a title and setting, this second Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is almost as different from The Magnificent Seven (1960 version) as that was from the original. Maybe that’s over-egging the point, but The Magnificent Seven (2016 version) is certainly not just a straight-up do-over of the popular Western classic.

    The broad sweep of the plot is the same: a small town is being terrorised by a local big-man and his gang, so they hire a septet of down-on-their-luck warriors to defend them. Here, said town has been relocated to America (from Mexico in the ‘original’), and the characterisations of the seven gunslingers have been struck afresh rather than recreated, albeit with some near-unavoidable similarities to the previous seven.

    What you want to see in the film affects whether these changes are sizeable or not. As I said, the basic shape of the plot remains untouched, with the defenders recruited one by one, training up the townsfolk, and then engaging in a lengthy climactic battle when the bad guys return to town. So at a story level it works as well as this tale ever has, with the same pros and cons for its characters: with so many principals some get shortchanged on screen time, but they’re a mostly likeable bunch. In the lead roles, Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke are decent modern stand-ins for Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and Robert Vaughn (respectively, more or less), though of course that varies depending on your personal like or otherwise for the actors in question.

    The magnificent action

    Looking to the combat, the film is again similar but modernised. The action scenes are slick, well choreographed and littered with dead bodies and big explosions, rather than the slightly off-the-cuff style of older action films. Framing it as a few-against-many last-stand skirmish, the film constructs the finale as a battle with strategies and tactics, ebb and flow, rather than an everybody-run-at-everybody-else free-for-all. That seems to be the way movies are going with their depiction of large-scale conflict, and I think that’s a good thing.

    Where the remake’s changes have most impact is if you want to consider the film politically. The town in need of defending has been switched from a Mexican village to an American outpost, a symbol of good honest hard-working folk trying to establish a life for themselves. The villains terrorising them have been switched from a Mexican criminal gang to a power-hungry businessman, with a group of heavies and the local sheriff in his pocket. The seven encompass a greater deal of racial diversity: a black leader, a Mexican fugitive, an Asian knife-thrower, a Native American archer… The other three are white guys, but that doesn’t negate the point. In our modern political climate — particularly in the US — there’s a lot of different stuff to unpack there.

    The diverse seven

    I’m not sure the issues in question really need spelling out, so I’m slightly more curious how much of it was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, and how much an incidental side effect of changes they made just to differentiate the film from the 1960 version. Frankly, I don’t think the movie is interested in making any big political points — you can’t reasonably deny those readings are there, but it’s all subtext (whether intentional or, I think more probably, accidental) to be analysed by those who are interested. I think director Antoine Fuqua and co were more concerned with creating an entertaining action movie than a political tract, and I think they’ve achieved that.

    Judged as such, The Magnificent Seven probably isn’t at the forefront of its form, but it’s mostly a rollicking good time. And, as if to cement what I was writing recently about my preferences generally erring towards modern cinema, I actually enjoyed it more than the 1960 one.

    4 out of 5

    The Magnificent Seven is available on Netflix UK from today.

    In a Valley of Violence (2016)

    2017 #20
    Ti West | 104 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    In a Valley of Violence

    The spirit of the Spaghetti Western is alive and well in writer-director Ti West’s shoot ’em up; though where they once took inspiration from samurai movies, now Mr West has his sights set on modern-day gun-fu movies — specifically, here he retrofits John Wick into a familiar Old West narrative.

    On his way to Mexico with just his horse and dog Abby for company, drifter Paul (Ethan Hawke) passes through an almost-deserted town, where he ends up in a fight with wannabe-tough-guy Gilly (James Ransone). It turns out Gilly is the son of the local Marshal (John Travolta), but he considers the matter settled and lets Paul move on, ordering his son to leave it be. A shamed Gilly has a different opinion, however, leading his gang of friends to assault Paul in the dead of night. But as is the way with halfwit villains, they leave our hero alive, ready for him to ride back into town and exact his vengeance.

    If you come to movies looking for an original storyline, you’ll be disappointed here — as I say, it’s basically John Wick in the West (if you’ve seen that Keanu Reeves actioner, you’ll already know the outcome of Gilly’s revenge on Paul). The devil is in the details, however, and in that respect In a Valley of Violence is rather enjoyable. Perhaps the biggest mark in its favour is its sense of humour. It’s not a comedy by any means, but Gilly’s gang are borderline incompetent in a way that’s increasingly laughable.

    Do you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in the West?

    Travolta gets in on the act as a man who seems very much in control of his own little kingdom, but when things truly kick off he’s somewhat caught in the middle. Thankfully he’s not just the bullying villainous type, instead getting a nicely balanced reaction to events: he knows Gilly’s done wrong, but stands by him because he’s his son; but when Paul’s pushing comes to shoving… well, familial loyalty only gets you so far.

    As Paul, Hawke finds some degree of complexity in the (anti-)hero, but this isn’t exactly a movie built for psychological complexity. Taissa Farmiga is positioned as the love interest, but thankfully isn’t entirely reduced to such a thankless role. As her sister, Karen Gillan reminds us that, while she may be best known for brightly-coloured sci-fi on screens both big and small, her roots are in comedy. But the biggest star is, of course, the dog. You can’t help getting attached, even when you know you’re watching John Wick of the West.

    The dog's the star

    The film offers many stylistic nods to remind us of its Spaghetti inspiration, like the starkly animated title sequence, or Jeff Grace’s Morricone-riffing score, which some criticise for its obviousness but I thought was fun. It even comes through in the film’s structure, with a slow-burn first half that reminded me of Leone’s attitude to action. Some complain of the pace there, or lack of it, but I rather liked that. It partly functions as a deliberate delaying of gratification: the main reason we’re here is for the bloody vengeance we know will eventually be coming, but West carefully sets the scene and gradually puts characters in place early on so that the second half can more fully concentrate on the violence. The wit is kept alive even then, with more than one of the deaths provoking at least some laughter.

    The more I write about it, the more I wonder if this film is something of an acquired taste. It’s not out-and-out comical enough to be classed as a comedy, but action die-hards may feel the lighter elements undermine the violent thrills they seek. I thought it worked, but experience has taught me that I’m more accepting than most of such tonal mash-ups.

    Cool cowboy

    Despite the plot similarities, In a Valley of Violence isn’t going to challenge John Wick for ultra-choreographed action satisfaction, but it has many aspects to recommend it for those who like a chuckle alongside their bloodshed.

    4 out of 5

    In a Valley of Violence is released direct to DVD & Blu-ray in the UK on 6th March.
    John Wick: Chapter 2 is in UK cinemas from today.

    Serenity (2005)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #82

    They aim to misbehave.

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 119 minutes
    BBFC: 15
    MPAA: PG-13

    Original Release: 29th September 2005 (Australia)
    US Release: 30th September 2005
    UK Release: 7th October 2005
    First Seen: cinema, 7th October 2005

    Stars
    Nathan Fillion (Waitress, Super)
    Summer Glau (The Initiation of Sarah, Knights of Badassdom)
    Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, 12 Years a Slave)

    Director
    Joss Whedon (Avengers Assemble, Much Ado About Nothing)

    Screenwriter
    Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Toy Story)

    Based on
    Firefly, a TV series created by Joss Whedon.

    The Story
    In the far future, a crew of renegades harbour a fugitive who knows a terrible secret about the totalitarian rulers. When a ruthless assassin comes for them, their only hope becomes to seek out the truth behind one of the regime’s darkest acts…

    Our Heroes
    The crew of the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity. Led by Captain Mal Reynolds, they’re a gang of rogues and thieves, but are also honourable sorts (well, mostly) forced into that life by a harsh universe. They’ve recently taken onboard Dr Simon Tam and his mysterious sister, River, who has certain skills…

    Our Villains
    The Operative, an efficient and moral assassin sent by the Alliance, the universe’s ruling body, to retrieve River — at any cost. But if he’s the rock then there’s also a hard place: Reavers, bloodthirsty perverted cannibals who stalk the uncharted regions our heroes will need to venture into.

    Best Supporting Character
    Shepherd Book, a preacher and former member of Serenity’s crew, now living on the appropriately-named planet of Haven. Has some very insightful words of advice for Mal.

    Memorable Quote
    “I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it.” — Shepherd Book

    Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
    “Shiny” — as a synonym of “great”.

    Quote Most Likely To Be Found on a T-Shirt
    “I am a leaf on the wind, watch how I soar.” — Wash

    Memorable Scene
    After the history-lesson-within-a-dream-within-a-hologram-within-a-scene pre-titles, Whedon introduces us to the crew and their titular ship with a four-and-a-half-minute unbroken tracking shot. I do love a long single take, and this one excels by introducing us to all the main heroes, their personalities, their situations, their relationships — all at the same time — while also establishing the geography of the ship; and, by extension, the incredible set, which featured the entire interior of the ship built across just two sections (there’s an invisible cut in the middle of the shot to transition between sets).

    Technical Wizardry
    I created this category to highlight any elements of production that were especially striking — things like cinematography, editing, design, costumes… No offence to any of them (and considering the film was produced for a slight-for-a-sci-fi-blockbuster $40 million, they all do a super job), but the real star is Whedon’s screenplay. Packed to the gills with the literate, witty dialogue he’s famed for, it also manages to be emotionally affecting, make points about governments and their power, engage with themes of belief and the importance of freedom, and weave in a subtext that reflects the real-life story of Firefly’s death and rebirth — though Whedon claims that last one was an accident.

    Letting the Side Down
    The public. It didn’t gross enough; there weren’t any sequels. Damn you, mankind!

    Making of
    Talking of the impressive Serenity set (see: Memorable Scene), it was built in the same way for Firefly, but the blueprints were lost between Fox destroying the series’ sets and production on the movie beginning. When Nathan Fillion learnt this at a production meeting, he was able to supply the blueprints himself — he’d been so excited to be on the show, he’d taken photos of all the pre-production material he’d seen, including the set blueprints.

    Previously on…
    Serenity continues and, to an extent, concludes Joss Whedon’s criminally short-lived TV series Firefly. Mismarketed by US network Fox, the series wasn’t a success on original broadcast, leading to cancellation after just 11 episodes had aired. Thanks to word-of-mouth and availability on DVD, it has developed a massive following since.

    Next time…
    Despite the distinct and disappointing dearth of sequels, the Firefly/Serenity franchise has continued on, mostly in the form of various comic books, which have plugged gaps in continuity, revealed long-awaited character histories, and even continued the story after the movie.

    Awards
    1 Saturn Award (Supporting Actress (Summer Glau))
    1 Saturn nomination (Science Fiction Film)
    Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

    What the Critics Said
    “With its Hawksian attention to group dynamics and its skilful definition of character through action, this supremely entertaining hybrid-movie plays like Rio Bravo in space. The textured narrative is peopled by precisely delineated characters who employ a salty retro-future-speak, in which twenty-fifth century slang is morphed with frontier Western archaisms (‘take umbrage’, ‘confound these bungers’). The settings and tone are hyper-real, yet the human behaviour is grounded and credible, the moral conflicts complex and involving. Shiny, intelligent fun.” — Nick Funnell, Time Out London

    Score: 82%

    What the Public Say
    “We get a decent story, providing lots of action, a huge amount of wit and plenty of suspense. It’s extremely entertaining. It’s well written too, with information smartly hidden beneath breezy dialogue, and looks very cinematic. (The camerawork is often expressive and classy.) Maybe what’s most impressive is the economy. Many scenes are doing double-duty, servicing plot and character, action and exposition, drama and comedy… There’s just a sharpness to everything, which means the film rattles along and is never boring.” — Ian Farrington

    Verdict

    Regular readers may have picked up that I don’t re-watch films much (I can’t identify at all with people who claim to have seen the same film dozens or hundreds of times). Despite that, I saw Serenity in the cinema four times, two of them back-to-back. Such is the genius of writer-director Joss Whedon, and the quality of the Firefly universe — it’s a situation where every element just clicked to make a perfect result. (Well, every element except the original TV network, anyway.) No doubt Serenity is best viewed as a capper to the fourteen-hour TV series — that extra investment in the characters and universe makes the film’s best bits sing — but it’s accessible to newcomers also, being so cleverly structured and packed with all the information you’d need.

    It was named “Film of the Year” by the BBC’s Film programme; it topped an SFX poll for the best science-fiction film of all time; and its DVD is a permanent resident on the International Space Station to entertain the crews. Cào nǐ, Fox.

    #83 will… get busy living or get busy dying.

    The Salvation (2014)

    2016 #141
    Kristian Levring | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Denmark, UK & South Africa / English, Danish & Spanish | 15 / R

    The SalvationThe spirit of the Spaghetti Western is kept alive in this Euro-minded South Africa-shot revenge Western.

    Danish settler Mads Mikkelsen finally brings his wife and son out to America, only for tragedy to strike, which pits him and his brother against a gang who are extorting the nearby town.

    Thematically thin, familiarly plotted, and with visuals that occasionally belie low-budget roots, The Salvation somehow succeeds through a combination of filmmaking skill, a whip-fast running time, and a quality cast (Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jonathan Pryce, Douglas Henshall, and, er, Eric Cantona) who elevate the material just by turning up.

    4 out of 5

    Westworld (1973)

    2016 #155
    Michael Crichton | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG

    WestworldWhen writer-director Michael Crichton hit upon the notion of a theme park where the future-science star attractions broke free of their shackles and endangered the lives of the guests, it was so good it served him twice: he replaced the initial murderous AI-powered robot cowboys with rampaging genetically-engineered dinosaurs and sparked a multimedia franchise of enduring popularity. His first attempt hardly faded into obscurity, mind, bedding in as a minor sci-fi classic that HBO has now seen fit to reboot as a TV series, which premiered on Sunday in the US and debuts in the UK tonight. I think this new version may be most welcome, because Westworld has a great concept but, when it comes to the original film, that’s almost all it has.

    Set in the near future, the film follows two friends (Richard Benjamin and James Brolin) as they visit an amusement park where you can live for a time in thorough recreations of either ancient Rome, medieval Europe, or the old West. It’s an immersive experience where you’re kitted out with era-appropriate clothing, stay in authentic lodgings, and the staff really believe it all — because they’re robots who’ve been programmed to do so, distinguishable from humans only by their imperfect hands. The film follow the chums through this process and the fun they have pretending to be gunslingers, though one of the robots (Yul Brynner, done up as the spit of his character from The Magnificent Seven) seems repeatedly antagonistic towards them, and, behind-the-scenes, the repair staff are baffled by some robots’ out-of-character actions.

    Westworld doesn’t even reach the 90-minute mark, but even then there isn’t quite enough story to fill the running time. There’s a big dose of wish fulfilment in seeing Benjamin and Brolin getting to just enjoy the park — wouldn’t it be cool if this was real? Wouldn’t you want to go there? Though the price tag would put most people off: it’s $1,000 a day, which, factoring in inflation from 1973, means a two-week stay would now cost a little Face off, mk.1under $76,000, or about £58,200. The potential threat of the robots malfunctioning is built up gradually here and there, in asides from what our ostensible heroes are up to, and isn’t explained. There are nods to the fact the human staff don’t actually know how the robots work, but why should that be? Some of them were apparently designed by other robots, but how did the designing robots come about? Rather than explore any of its science fiction themes, the film just uses the basic idea to have the robots go on a killing spree right at the climax. This is something Crichton definitely turned around for Jurassic Park, where how it was done is explained and debated… and then the creations go on a rampage. Best of both worlds, that.

    So this is where there’s space for HBO’s new version. I haven’t read too much about it (avoiding spoilers ‘n’ that), but given the long-form needs of TV I’m presuming it’s going to dig into the science a bit more. Co-creator Jonathan Nolan has already demonstrated an interest in the whys and wherefores of artificial intelligence through his last TV series, Person of Interest (which I’ve discussed in several of my monthly TV overviews), so I’m presuming it’s going to take Crichton’s broad idea but then be a little bit Ex Machina: The Series as well. Sounds good to me. Maybe this will be a reboot that pays off, because while the original film does offer Crichton’s superb concept, plus a few straightforward action/suspense thrills, it’s too slight to really deliver on the inherent promise.

    3 out of 5

    The new Westworld starts on Sky Atlantic at 9pm.

    The Magnificent Seven (1960)

    2016 #152
    John Sturges | 123 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG

    The Magnificent SevenDescribed in the booklet accompanying the Ultimate Edition DVD release as “the last great American western before Sergio Leone reinvented the genre,” The Magnificent Seven doesn’t feel as dated as that might make it sound. Famously, it’s a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai — a technique Leone would pilfer for his first Western, A Fistful of Dollars, which is a do-over of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Leone did his without permission, resulting in a lawsuit that was settled out of court, whereas Magnificent Seven was a fully-licensed re-do. As you’d expect, it therefore sticks fairly closely to the events of Seven Samurai, albeit getting through them an hour-and-a-half quicker.

    Of course, it’s relocated — not to America, but to Mexico, where a farming village is being terrorised by a gang led by Eli Wallach. A couple of villagers head to the border to buy some guns to defend themselves, but end up recruiting Yul Brynner to put together a band of gunslingers to help. With no significant pay on offer, his slim pickings are pre-fame turns from Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn, plus Brad Dexter and Horst Buchholz.

    Steve McQueen respondsWith even less screen time to go round than in Kurosawa’s original, the cast only get to provide thumbnail sketches of their characters. However, bearing that in mind, only Vaughn really feels shortchanged on time, while McQueen manages to steal every scene he’s in, even when he was supposed to just be in the background — much to Brynner’s annoyance. One reason this works is because the seven represent more or less the same things thematically, in some respects functioning as one hero character with seven parts. They are all unsettled drifters, good at killing but not at settling down; they have nothing to do but win and so be damned to go find another cause, or die trying. This is taken from Kurosawa’s film too, of course, but it fits just as well in its new setting, and the main scene where the seven discuss it is a definite highpoint of the movie.

    Most of the action is saved for the big climax, a good old fashioned free-for-all that (like the rest) doesn’t quite have the epic scope of Kurosawa’s movie, nor the stylised discipline and suspense that would be Leone’s enduring contribution to the genre. I’ve yet to see this year’s remake, nor read too much about it, but I understand it’s changed the plot and characters a fair bit, and I imagine this is one area it’s really applied a new emphasis. Much has changed in what we expect from action movies, which is not to criticise the ’60s film, but more to observe that what once might’ve satiated an action fan’s thirst may no longer fit the bill.

    Magnificent badassesThat’s not something that bothered me, but where I did find it suffering was in comparison to Kurosawa. While it has obviously been rejigged for its new setting, it’s not just borrowed the basic concept of seven violence-skilled loners defending a needy village, but rather retained all the bones of the samurai original. As with most remakes, it falters by not doing the same thing quite as well, for one reason or another. Still, if it is a faded copy then at least it’s of one of the greatest films ever made, which leaves it a mighty fine Western in its own right.

    4 out of 5

    Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #67

    There were three men in her life.
    One to take her…
    one to love her…
    and one to kill her.

    Original Title: C’era una volta il West

    Country: Italy, USA, Spain & Mexico
    Language: English and/or Italian
    Runtime: 166 minutes (international) | 145 minutes (US theatrical) | 175 minutes (Italy)
    BBFC: A (cut, 1969) | 15 (1989) | 12 (2011)
    MPAA: PG (1969) | PG-13 (2003)

    Original Release: 21st December 1968 (Italy)
    UK Release: 14th August 1969
    First Seen: DVD, c.2003

    Stars
    Claudia Cardinale (, Fitzcarraldo)
    Henry Fonda (My Darling Clementine, 12 Angry Men)
    Jason Robards (Hour of the Gun, Tora! Tora! Tora!)
    Charles Bronson (The Magnificent Seven, Death Wish)

    Director
    Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in America)

    Screenwriters
    Sergio Donati (Face to Face, A Fistful of Dynamite)
    Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dynamite)

    Story by
    Dario Argento (Deep Red, Suspiria)
    Bernardo Bertolucci (The Conformist, The Last Emperor)
    Sergio Leone (The Last Days of Pompeii, For a Few Dollars More)

    The Story
    The mysterious Harmonica arrives in the town of Flagstone, out for revenge against Frank. Frank, working for a railroad baron, is busy murdering Brett McBain for his land and blaming the crime on the bandit Cheyenne. Cheyenne teams up with Harmonica to help McBain’s newly-arrived widow, and therefore owner of his land, Jill. Jill finds herself caught in the crossfire between the three men pursuing their own interests…

    Our Heroes
    Jill McBain, a former prostitute who’s still subject to the will and whims of men. Harmonica, a formidable gunslinger known only by the instrument he plays. Even Cheyenne, a bandit leader, is a good buy when they’re all arranged against…

    Our Villain
    Frank, the meanest sonuvabitch in the West. What did he do to Harmonica in the past? What will he do to Jill to get his way? Nothing good…

    Best Supporting Character
    Crippled railroad tycoon Morton only wants to intimidate the McBains to relinquish their land, which I guess makes him a nice guy when compared to his murderous handyman, Frank, who he clearly can’t control.

    Memorable Quote
    Harmonica: “Did you bring a horse for me?”
    Snaky: “Well, looks like we’re… looks like we’re shy one horse.”
    Harmonica: “You brought two too many.”

    Memorable Scene
    In one of the most iconic opening sequences in cinema history, three gunmen arrive at a train station and… wait for a train. For ten minutes. Ten real-time minutes, accompanied only by sounds like a squeaky windmill, a dripping water tower, and distant bird cries. Then the train arrives… and then the train leaves… and then a harmonica plays. And the action… threatens to start. Ah, Leone.

    Memorable Music
    It’s a Sergio Leone film, of course there’s an Ennio Morricone score — and it’s one of his best. It was composed before shooting began so Leone could play it on set, so it fits like a glove. The best bits include the striking leitmotifs: a haunting one for Jill, with wordless vocals by Edda Dell’Orso, and a dramatic one for Harmonica, threatening guitar combined with a melody played on a… well, you know.

    Technical Wizardry
    The entire picture looks fantastic thanks to the work of cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. It displays all the framing and composition Leone is famous for, but also evokes an oppressive hot, sweaty feeling, and the light and texture of the image have pure cinematic quality. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

    Letting the Side Down
    Leone’s original plan was for the three gunmen in the opening scene to be cameos for the stars of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach — but Eastwood (who’d already turned down the role of Harmonica) was unavailable. Shame.

    Next time…
    Considered by some to be the first part of a thematic “Once Upon a Time” trilogy, which continues with A Fistful of Dynamite (released in some regions as Once Upon a Time… the Revolution) and Once Upon a Time in America.

    What the Critics Said
    “The world of a Leone Western is just as enchanted as it was in the films the director saw as a child, but the values have become confused. Heroes as well as villains are apt to be motivated by greed and revenge, and the environments in which they operate are desolate and godless, though very beautiful. The Leone Westerns are twice removed from reality, being based on myths that were originally conceived in Hollywood studios in the nineteen-thirties. […] Once Upon the Time in the West thus is a movie either for the undiscriminating patron or for the buff. If you fall somewhere in between those categories, you had better stay home” — Vincent Canby, The New York Times (Just so we’re clear, I think this is a terrible review.)

    Score: 98%

    What the Public Say
    “The clue’s in the title: Once Upon a Time in the West is a fairy story, a mythologised version of the American West, peopled with immediately recognisable archetypes. It’s also a commentary on the Western genre itself, and a celebration in the form of a kind of “greatest hits”, full of references to other films and filmmakers: John Ford, George Stevens, Anthony Mann, Shane, The Searchers, High Noon, and so on. […] So the game isn’t originality, but Everything More Iconic Than Everyone Else. Westerns – even great Westerns – would follow, directed by the likes of Sam Peckinpah, Walter Hill, and Eastwood himself, but [this] still feels like the genre’s final word.” — Owen Williams

    Verdict

    America didn’t ‘get’ Once Upon a Time in the West when it first came out (hence the retrospectively laughable reviews, like the one above). The French did, though: it played for literally years in Paris cinemas, even inspiring fashion trends (the long duster coats). I confess, my initial reaction was a little more akin to the Americans’ — OUaTitW can be quite a slow film, and the plot is deceptively obscured until quite late on. But it certainly rewards repeat viewings, because it’s a film of rich content and, perhaps even more importantly, supreme style and technical achievement. The French were right (but don’t tell them that).

    #68 will be… completed while you shop.