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 Martin, 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.

Daybreakers (2009)

2016 #24
The Spierig Brothers | 89 mins | streaming | 2.35:1 | Australia & USA / English | 15* / R

Most of mankind have become vampires, but the blood supply is running out and without it people mutate into monsters. Ethan Hawke’s scientist is developing a substitute, but when he encounters human resistance fighters he learns there may actually be a cure…

Made by the guys behind Predestination, Daybreakers offers an original and imaginative world (how would mankind cope if we couldn’t go out in daylight? Maybe like this). It’s somewhat let down by a few campy performances and a sensibility that reverts to action sequences, but originality counts for a lot, especially for genre fans looking for something different.

3 out of 5

* The distributor chose to make six seconds of cuts to get a 15 in cinemas. The uncut 18-rated version was released on DVD and Blu-ray. No idea which version is available through Channel 5, where I watched it. ^

Predestination (2014)

2016 #21
The Spierig Brothers | 98 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Australia / English | 15 / R

A man walks into a bar in ’70s New York. The bartender strikes up a conversation, which leads to a wager: if the man’s story is the most incredible the bartender has ever heard, he’ll give him a free bottle of whiskey. It had better be pretty good, because what we know that the man doesn’t is that the bartender, played by Ethan Hawke, is an agent for the Temporal Agency, travelling through time to stop crime before it happens; and he’s just had his face burnt off and completely rebuilt while failing to stop a notorious terrorist known as the Fizzle Bomber. Beat that.

That said, the man’s story is pretty incredible too — but as the telling of it makes up over half the movie, and it’s full of its own twists, I shan’t get into spoiler territory. Predestination is a film that rewards knowing as little as possible, especially as the seasoned sci-fi viewer/reader has a fair chance of guessing a good number of its twists (possibly all of them) long before they’re revealed by the film. Fortunately that doesn’t really matter, because the tale remains an engaging and thought-provoking one, with many thematic points to consider, and not just of a science-fictional nature — there are human and historical issues in play here too, which is undoubtedly a rarity in modern screen SF.

We’re guided through this by a laid-back performance from Hawke, which turns intense when needed, but even more so by an affecting, transformative, award-winning turn from Australian actress Sarah Snook. She really should be much in demand after this. Chunks of the film are just a two-hander between Hawke and Snook, yet it effortlessly captivates throughout these stretches. That’s in part thanks to the fascinating nature of the narrative, adapted faithfully from Robert A. Heinlein’s short story All You Zombies (it has nothing to do with zombies — the story’s from the ’50s, before our modern conception of a zombie was formulated), as well as the direction of the Spierig brothers.

I don’t know how many people will remember, but the pair got a bit of attention back in the early ’00s with their debut feature Undead, because they not only wrote and directed it, but also edited it and created the CG effects at home on their laptops. That’s more commonplace nowadays (well, Gareth Edwards did it for Monsters, anyway), but was A Big Thing in certain circles back then. (I bought Undead on DVD at the time but have never got round to watching it. Plus ça change.) I thought they’d disappeared after that, but they were responsible for vampire thriller (and Channel 5 staple) Daybreakers in 2009. This is their third feature. Working from a low budget once again, they take us to alternate-history versions of the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, from bars to orphanages to universities to training for the space programme to the headquarters of a time travelling police organisation and more. To my eyes, it never looked cheap. Sure, it’s not overloaded with CGI, but it doesn’t need to be. I never got the sense anyone was having to hold back because of the low budget. Others may disagree, because I have seen people express the opposite opinion, but I think they’re wrong, so there.

Predestination is the latest reminder that “sci-fi” is not a byword for “action-adventure”. It certainly won’t satisfy the needs of the action-hungry fan (it’s not devoid of the odd punch-up or explosion, but they’re far from the point). For anyone interested in something a bit more intellectual, a bit more thought-provoking, particularly if you like the (potential) complications of time travel, or issues of gender and identity, then Predestination has a lot to offer, even if you guess the twists.

5 out of 5

Predestination placed 5th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

It is available on Sky Movies on demand and Now TV from today. It debuts on Sky Movies Premiere next Friday, February 12th, at 11:30am and 10:20pm.

Purists be aware: existing British releases completely muffed up the aspect ratio (reportedly it’s both open matte and cropped), so there’s every chance Sky’s copy will be similarly afflicted.

Boyhood (2014)

2015 #27
Richard Linklater | 166 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Oscar statue2015 Academy Awards
6 nominations — 1 win

Winner: Best Supporting Actress.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing.



BoyhoodOriginally titled 12 Years, until 12 Years a Slave came along, that’s the thing Boyhood will always be most famous for: it was shot from 2002 to 2013, for a few days each year, with the same actors developing and ageing in real time, to tell a story of childhood like never before.

It’s focused on Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane), who lives with his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) in Texas. Their dad, Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke), works in Alaska and turns up once in a blue moon. As the years roll on, we follow the family as Olivia gains and loses husbands, Mason Sr finally grows up and settles down, and the kids battle along in the wake of their parents’ lives. Of course, as they get older, they begin to face and have to deal with issues of their own.

It’s quite hard to give a plot description of Boyhood because, in many respects, it has no plot. I mean, how would you succinctly summarise the narrative of your entire school-age childhood? That’s the scope of the film’s canvas and, in tune with real life, various elements fade in and fade out over that time. The kind of childhood these kids have is not uneventful by any means, but nor is it especially dramatic. That said, your opinion on the latter will vary depending on the kind of upbringing you had.

Nonetheless, writer-director Richard Linklater strives to keep things almost unrelentingly normal. Okay, there are abusive relationships — things get a little extreme with her second husband — but even that doesn’t go as far as it could have. MomhoodNo one gets in a shocking accident or develops a fatal illness or dies suddenly; no one is seriously bullied or mugged; no one is arrested or imprisoned; no one is made homeless; no one gets pregnant… the list could go on. Every time you second guess that — every time you think, “oh now we’re going to have something big” — the film just rolls on with normality. Just like real life does, in fact.

Indeed, it’s so resolutely focused on the everyday that it even skips major-but-normal events in the characters’ lives. Neither of Olivia’s new marriages or divorces are shown on screen; for her third, we barely even see her fall for the guy, and we don’t see them separate. Mason Sr gets married and has a third kid entirely in gaps between scenes: we first meet them picking up Mason Jr and Samantha for the former’s 15th birthday, when they all clearly already know each other. Interestingly, most of the stuff we see that’s close to being definable as a “major” event occurs quite early on — in the early-middle of the 12 years’ filming, in fact. Did Linklater get drawn down a path of bulking up the drama, then decide to pull it back in? That sounds plausible. The stuff closest to being Big Drama is around what must’ve been the third/fourth/fifth year of filming (roughly speaking), and by the eighth/ninth/tenth we’re skipping over stuff and playing catch-up. At times it feels weird to just jump past events that are so important, but that seems to be what Linklater wants — a film focused on the literally everyday.

Remember these?Even while Linklater aims for a kind of universality, this is not just about any childhood, but about childhood in the noughties — or as the Americans like to (uglily) call them, “the aughts”. Some have called it “a period film shot now” and there’s a definite truth to that. The noughties-ness isn’t made explicit, but it’s an ever-present factor. The passing of time and issues of the era are conveyed almost exclusively through background details: politics (the Iraq war, the Obama campaign), culture (Harry Potter surfaces multiple times, the best films of summer 2008 are listed), technology (GameBoys, Xboxes, Wiis; CRTs, flatscreens; the ever-evolving iMacs and iPhones), the fashion (haircuts and clothing, particularly when Mason goes all Alternative in his high school years), the music (though the vast majority of it seems pretty obscure, so good luck with finding a grounding through that). It’s those details that ground the film so much in the ’00s and early ’10s, as well as present-day societal factors, like the string of broken marriages, the lack of financial security, the good-natured suspicion and humour with which our sympathetic leads view the Bible-lovers that Mason Sr ends up married in to (can you imagine an American movie about good ol’ family values from a previous era having its leads all but declare themselves atheists?)

It conveys the passing of time with equal subtlety — sometimes it transitions to a new year so inconspicuously that you might not realise it’s changed for several minutes. This, I think, is part of the point: it’s one long story, not “now it is 2005, now it is 2006, now it is 2007…” For a film shot across a decade when the technical side of filmmaking changed so dramatically, it has a remarkably consistent look. That each sequence does blend seamlessly into the next is a minor miracle. If you watch out for it, or put images side-by-side (as in the trailer), you can see a change in look from the heavily-filmic early stuff to what I presumed was digital photography in later years, and even then changes as digital improves. Screen siblingsHowever, it was reportedly shot entirely on 35mm, so something else must explain the changing picture quality. Perhaps that there were two cinematographers, presumably working at different times. However, as I say, during regular viewing the picture shifts are remarkably subtle, there to be spotted by cinephiles and PQ nitpickers, while going unnoticed by the general audience.

A greater feat of consistency comes from the cast. Experienced pros like Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette unsurprisingly give excellent performances, though we surely must acknowledge that it’s a colossal achievement to stay in character when you’re only filming for a few days every year for so darn long. Their characters evolve, too, but in highly plausible ways. Arquette, in particular, starred in the TV show Medium during Boyhood’s production — that’s 130 hours of TV over six years, playing the same character all the time. That she also managed to track Olivia through that period may in part explain all the awards she’s been garnering. Personally I felt Hawke edged it in the performance stakes, but maybe that’s just because Mason Sr undergoes a more obvious change.

As for the kids… well, it depends how much they have to convey. Samantha is always a bit of a… well, “bitch” would be too cruel; but she’s cast in the role of “annoying sister”, and while she comes across as a real person, she’s an annoying sister to the audience, too. Mason Jr grows up to be a little bit pretentious — ‘philosophical’ in the way certain teenagers always are, and which you sincerely hope they grow out of or they’ll become a Certain Kind of adult. ManhoodSome will find him irritating as he progresses through his high school years, again in the way the real-life variety of said teenagers are; others will just find it truthful. All of the acting feels incredibly ‘real’, to the point one just assumes it was all improvised. Apparently that’s not the case — according to Hawke, it was all scripted, with the exception of an amusing-with-hindsight scene in which Masons Sr and Jr discuss the potential for a Star Wars 7.

It’s only as the film comes to a close that some kind of sense of what it all signified comes in to focus. For one part, there’s Mason and his new college friend philosophising in the final scene: to paraphrase, “life isn’t about seizing the moment, it’s about the moment seizing you”. Put another way, all we have is now; however important it may be to learn from the past and plan for the future, they’re gone and not coming back or ahead and going to happen anyway — if you don’t appreciate now, it’ll all just disappear. I felt the more telling scene came a few minutes earlier, just before Mason Jr actually leaves for college: looking at her son about to head off on his own, Olivia breaks down, recalling the repetitiveness and transitory nature of her life — all the divorces, all the struggles to do right by her kids. It’s so much more meaningful because we’ve lived through it with her — we’ve seen it as just a string of moments too; we’ve noticed how it can seem repetitive. “I just thought there would be more,” she wails, echoing the sentiment of… all of us? I’d say if that moment doesn’t resonate for you, you must be one of the lucky ones.

Boyhood is unquestionably an achievement of filmmaking. The commitment to craft a story over such a long period of time is admirable; the skill with which it has been achieved is remarkable. The end result is one that won’t work for everyone. Looking to the futureIf you like your fiction to be about something exceptional or extraordinary, Boyhood is decidedly the opposite. Linklater has put something of the universality of childhood on screen, however. In no way can the life of Mason Jr be interpreted as a median of everyone’s experiences, but that so much within that is so relatable shows that, however different things may appear, there’s an awful lot that’s the same.

Even more importantly, the film conveys the briefness of our lives. It’s like a film adaptation of Allen Saunders’ quote, made famous by John Lennon: “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans”. You have to watch out for where your time’s going, or twelve years can race by in under three hours.

5 out of 5

The 87th Academy Awards are on Sky Movies Oscars tonight, with red carpet coverage from 11:30pm and the awards ceremony starting at 1:30am.

Dead Poets Society (1989)

2014 #103
Peter Weir | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Dead Poets SocietyAt an oppressive private school (is there another kind?), a gaggle of disenchanted students are invigorated by teacher Robin Williams; until his methods, and the independent thought they inspire, attract the ire of parents and faculty.

Here’s a film all children should see, to understand the value of free thought and rejecting the system. Cynics probably find its purity of message, coupled with a tragic ending, to be over-sentimental and twee, but this earnestness is what makes it work.

A few poor choices aside (slow-mo renders a key moment comical; Maurice Jarre’s synth score jars), this is powerful, affecting filmmaking.

5 out of 5

Dead Poets Society is on BBC Two tonight at 11:35pm.

Robin Williams also stars in Good Will Hunting, which I’ll review tomorrow. Both reviews are part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.