Saturday, 1 October 2016

Oh, good. We got a Mexican.

The Magnificent Seven
(2016)

(SPOILERS) The Magnificent Seven is exactly what you’d expect from the umpteenth remake of Seventh Samurai, or more specifically the direct offspring of the 56-year-old western of the same title; it’s serviceable, undemanding, features mostly decent performances, but brings absolutely nothing new to the mix to justify itself. At least Battle Beyond the Stars and A Bug’s life wholeheartedly switched genres. At least The Seven Steptoerai… actually, no. It’s probably a better movie than its underwhelmed reception suggests, but the critical reaction is merited simply by virtue of the current glut of remakes greenlit for no other reason than that studios have the rights and money to flush away in a forlorn hope that brand recognition will be enough.


Although, MGM in particular should really know better by now. That is, if they had even a modicum of creative acumen. The semi-studio appears to subsist on a diet of reconstituted back catalogue, with wanton disregard for quality. Hence the forgettable or worse likes of The Pink Panther, Fame, Carrie, Robocop, Poltergeist and Ben-Hur. Antoine Fuqua’s coming on board as director might have been the first warning sign of innate ‘s’alright’-ness; he’s a slick technician who has given us a run of middling properties, from Tears of the Sun through to Olympus Has Fallen and Southpaw. Even his best, Training Day, is somewhat overrated.


He reunites with that movie’s two stars here, with Denzel Washington putting on his dependably sombre-faced face (he’s more interesting when he loosens up a bit; this is almost – but not quite; I wouldn’t be that insulting – in Bruce Willis autopilot mode) as the head of the group, Sam Chisolm, and Ethan Hawke as former Confederate sniper Goodnight Robicheaux. 


At one point, I thought Hawke might actually be intent on breaking out with something here, upending my general antipathy towards his performances with a loquaciously grandiose turn. Unfortunately, he doesn’t take long to give way to the usual pained emoting, culminating in a horribly clichéd return to the fray at a vital moment you can see coming about an hour off (Goodnight appears to be suffering from PTSD, but for all the picture’s fractured sensitivity in other areas, it seems to carry the message that all one needs to get back into the mind-set for some good killing is a pep talk from Denzel; who knows, maybe that’s true, and maybe the armed forces could employ the star gainfully to that end?)


Fuqua’s picture, credited to Nic Pizzlolatta (True Detective) and Richard Wenk (who scribbled the effective but perfunctory big screen The Equalizer for Washington) in the screenplay department, is also a fairly fruitless dotted “i”s and crossed “t”s example of homogenised multi-cultural casting, since it only really succeeds in utilising its actors according to an antiseptic array standard tropes. Given the bloated running time, it would have been relatively easy to flesh out these characters, but Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee) is only really defined by his knife-throwing, and Comanche Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) by his arrow slinging. The latter is even laden with the groan-worthy cliché of fighting a bad seed of his tribe (Jonathan Joss; that’s Joss, not Ross, although that would alone have been worth the ticket price), whom he runs through while tutting disapprovingly that “You dishonour us”.


So too the plucky broad role, Hayle Bennett (also in that Equalizer movie) showing Emma Cullen has the requisite fiery stuff in the most tiresomely repetitive fashion (Emma also, quite remarkably given her lack of arms training, manages to take out the villain from the other end of a church with a shotgun, while Chisum is in the way, strangling him). Worse, she is presented with an indigestible coda speech, droning something or other about how this lot were magnificent as we’re treated to a pan across the graves of the fallen warriors.


None of the above performances are bad, but the actors are insufficiently serviced to make much of a mark. In contrast, Chris Pratt absolutely steals the movie in a way he was unable to with Jurassic World, bringing comedy chops throughout to his Dean Martin-esque drunk, card sharp and would-be ladies’ man Joshua Faraday. Less in the limelight, but still effective in that regard are Manuel Garcia-Rulfo’s Mexican member Vasquez and Vincent D’Onofrio’s high-pitched, hilariously frenzied-with-a-blade tracker Jack Horne. Peter Sarsgaard has little to crow about in respect of his pallid villain Bartholomew Bogue, which may explain why he decided to play him as an opium addict.


Fuqua handles the action efficiently during the first half, albeit bringing no particular flourish to bear on his genre take. He establishes Bogue as suitably loathsome in an opening that sees the industrialist burn down the town church and shoot Matt Bomer at point blank range, introduces the seven agreeably enough, and moves right on to the most effective sequence in the picture, as the septet take down Bogue’s hired enforcers with due diligence.


Unfortunately, after this the picture stops dead for what seems like an eternity. Fuqua can instil no tension into what should be a ticking clock, waiting for the arrival of Bogue and his army of reinforcements, and there is nothing in the way of character material to fill the void. This is where it becomes painfully obvious that no one, not Washington, who must coast along on charm alone, has anything to elicit our care for them as characters.


And, when the showdown arrives, it’s full of bombast but lacks the clear staging and cutting of the first encounter, particularly once the town is beset by a rampant Gatling gun. Fuqua even allows some confusingly non sequitur shots, such as Chisum looking over his dead comrades, which somehow includes a full view of Billy at the top of the church bell tower.


Shave off half an hour, and the movie would have been much more economical and effective (the producers probably decided that making it five minutes longer than the original made it an inherently better movie). And, if you’re going to use The Magnificent Seven theme, use the damn thing; don’t leave it for the end. This isn’t James Bond; you’re not going to get another chance with the Magnificent Eight (well, I very much doubt it).


Like I say, though, this is serviceable, mostly well-acted, and at times (during the first half) clicks into an enjoyable groove that makes it clear, if any clarification was needed, that the western genre can continue on quite happily (without the need for remakes of popular titles) if only due care and attention is granted; someone should give Kevin Costner some money to make another, actually, since his last (Open Range) was terrific.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Don't mess with me. I may look like hell, but I'm a real samurai!

Seven Samurai
(1954)

(SPOILERS) Hugely influential classics such as Seven Samurai are so well covered and thoroughly examined, there’s scarcely anything left to say about them. That being the case, I may as well begin with a negative: those influenced, including those remaking the film in inevitably inferior fashion, have been well-advised not to imitate its running time. Really, good as the picture is, Akira Kurosawa had no business making it three and a half hours long. It isn’t that it drags horribly (it doesn’t), but it’s so studiously unhurried that the indulgences are extra-obvious, and, while I would never condone cutting a movie against its maker’s wishes, I can quite understand why the scissors were pulled out in this case.


Nevertheless, it’s quite easy to see why this was the director’s favourite of his films, and why it remains his most popularly acclaimed (all those votes on IMDB can’t be wrong; don’t tread the message boards if you too think it’s a little on the extended side, though –  although, the inadvisability of posting comments probably applies to any movie there, unless you’re a masochist). On the positive side, the luxurious running time affords us ample time to get to know not only each of the seven, albeit some better than others (none are mere faces, though), but also insights into the attitudes of the villagers they vowed to protect; often petty-minded and vindictive, they are borne into a caste system they have no option but to endure (in a particularly chilling scene, an elderly village woman forks a captured bandit to death in vengeance for the murder of her son).


Notably, the bandits are almost entirely indistinct, save for the sensible decision at the outset to save their plundering until post-harvest. As such, the picture could perhaps have more clearly established that the distinctions (or lack thereof) the villages make between bandits and samurai are partly based on the two intertwining (that many a disenfranchised ronin would turn to banditry to support himself), even given Kikuchiyo’s memorable outburst concerning samurai leaving him an orphan.


The most indelible of the seven is, of course, Kikuchiyo, thanks to Tohsiro Mifune’s gusto-driven performance as the wannabe samurai who repeatedly proves how at odds with the reserve and discipline of the warrior (Kikuchiyo is out of his gourd early on, and in an amusing introductory scene is unsuspectingly bashed on the head by Katsushiro; all the other candidates have been wise to his hiding in wait far in advance). Mifune said it was his favourite role, and it’s certainly a tour de force of unbridle energy, almost exhaustingly so.


It’s also interesting, given how influential this is, that the loudmouthed braggart who ends up as the most identifiably heroic character (if not the soundest of judgment) has been diluted in later incarnations. The latest would be Chris Pratt in The Magnificent Seven remake, but there’s never any doubt about his skillset. It’s Kickuchiyo who ploughs on after being shot, running the chief bandit through, but early on we keep expecting the character to be run off, or proved a coward; at very least, to continue as a permanent joke ("You're so special, I represented you by a triangle" he is told of a banner in which the samurai are signified by circles). Hollywood isn’t generally inclined to go quite so far off the straight and narrow, even when in full blown anti-hero mode.


Other highlight performances include Takshi Shimura’s leader Kambei, shining with moral rectitude and wisdom, but also a quiet sense of humour (also amusing is how diligently he marks off the progressive body count on his chart), and Seiji Miyaguchi’s ultra-serious-minded Kyuzo, who allows himself a rare smile, when no one else is looking, after the permanently bedazzled Katsushiro has effusively praised his amazing skills again (“You really are great, Kyuzo”). Then there’s Kato Daisuke’s perma-smiley Shichiroji. Isao Kimuro also makes an impression as Katsushiro, although that may be because he’s given the most screen time, even more than Mifune; his tentative romance does rather go on.


It’s an inoffensive plotline, what with his frolicking amongst the flowers with Shino (Keiko Tsushima), but begins to feel repetitive when her father (Kamatari Fujiwara) starts wailing on at her the for the umpteenth time. A lot of that is down to Fujiwara’s one note, extreme-pitched performance, though. The coda, in which Shino rejects Katushiro to celebrate planting crops with her fellow villagers, emphasises the lonely lives the samurai lead (albeit reinforcing their nobility) and that, as Kambei notes, “The victory belongs to the farmers, not us”.


The bandits rock up with about an hour to go, which gives some idea of the extended running time, and Kurosawa’s rain-drenched action remains highly impressive. Earlier, we’ve witnessed a masterful first taste of his skilled staging when Kambei takes down a thief who erupts from a hut in slow motion (Roger Ebert has suggested this sequence is the basis for the hero being introduced in a signature, self-contained subplot, such as Dirty Harry, and that’s easy to go with), but the sustained carnage is something else. It’s notable too how much the combined martialling of the villagers contributes to the victory; while this element has remained in later versions, the focus has been appreciably more on the role of the seven.


Admittedly, I’m not hugely au fait with Kurosawa’s oeuvre, a scandalous omission I keep itending to remedy, but it’s immediately obvious that George Lucas’ indebtedness in respect of Star Wars (notably co-opting C-3PO and R2-D2’s roles from the peasants in The Hidden Fortress) extends to Seven Samurai, which he has also cited as his favourite film. Name the protocol droid does this weary reflection, by a Seven Samurai villager, sounds like: “We were born to suffer. It’s our fate”?


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Altairians are a filthy people.

The Hidden
(1987)

(SPOILERS) A good number of ‘80s movies haven’t aged at all well, or have to be taken with a hefty side order of cheese to be appreciated, but The Hidden is not one of them. Perhaps because its feet are firmly rooted in the exploitation arena, it opts not to get side-tracked into attempting to compete with its considerably higher-budgeted peers. On that level, it’s much closer in tone to James Cameron’s game-changing The Terminator, in attitude, pace and no-nonsense thrills. This is a science fiction movie shot like a cop movie, rather than a cop movie shot like a science fiction movie. You can readily easily see the genre signposts for the picture, from the body horror/possession of The Thing, to the Starman-esque innocence of Kyle MacLachlan’s alien hero, to the spin on the then-at-its-peak buddy cop bickering of the likes of 48 Hrs/Red Heat.  But the most appealing aspect of Jack Sholder’s movie is its jet black humour. This is a picture that knows how to have fun with the various tropes, while still managing to keep its eye firmly on the ball, or slug-like alien parasite.


That’s the bad alien in The Hidden, an uber-icky thing that forces itself into its victims through the most readily available orifice (the mouth), and by possessing their forms continues the popular line of uncanny doubling and otherness that had resurged with Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and continued with the aforementioned John Carpenter movie. Sholder doesn’t have much time for revelling in the potential paranoia of such a scenario though; he’s focussed purely on advancing the plot, such that the picture’s path is dictated by the succession of forms the creature assumes. Thanks to which, its pursuing human cop Tom Beck (Michael Nouri) becomes increasingly baffled, the explanations offered by FBI guy Lloyd Gallagher (MacLachlan), namely that all these disparate hosts were connected via some kind of impenetrable crime ring, proving unhelpful to say the least.


Doctor: No one deserves to die like that. I don’t care what the man’s done.
Willis: He killed twelve people, wounded twenty-three more, stole six cars, most of them Ferraris. Robbed eight banks, six supermarkets, four jewellery stores and a candy shop. Six of the ones he killed he carved up with a butcher knife. Two of them were kids. He did all that in two weeks. If anyone deserves to go that way, it sure in the hell was him.


The first body we see is future MacLachlan Twin Peaks co-star Chris Mulkey as Jack DeVries (looking like a stock broker gone off the Black Monday rails in glasses and raincoat, he was known for being “a very kind, very honest gentleman”), holding up banks and indiscriminately killing bystanders. Indeed, the violence on the part of the alien is unapologetically, casually brutal. This ET has negligible interest in blending in, aside from furnishing itself with a humans (such that its plan to possess a politician come the finale seems doomed to folly), more concerned with fast cars (“He likes Ferraris”), potentially loose women (“Fuck off” he is told when, as second screen possessed Miller, he kerb crawls, fumbling for his gun in response) and loud rawk music (one hilarious moment sees him return to Miller’s house and put on a jolly country record “I believe in sunshine…’ before abruptly pulling the system out of the wall in disgust). The superb opening chase, very Grand Theft Auto, sees DeVries plough into an old guy in a wheelchair and take no precautions about avoiding police roadblocks (their response is robust, to say the least). All it has to do is change bodies in time, after all.


Miller: I want this car.
Ferrari Salesman: I bet you do, dear.

As mentioned, second victim is, perhaps most effectively in terms of casting, triple bypass patient Jonathan Miller (William Boyett, George C Scott by way of Herman Munster). TV veteran Boyett has a ball with an unlikely sexagenarian sitting in a café blaring a ghetto blaster at full volume, slaughtering salesmen and buyers at a car showroom (the only surprise is that he doesn’t also take their coke) and erupting in unpleasant inner gases, belches and rumbles as the host body begins to play up (at one point Miller chases a car down a street and is forced to beat his failing heart back into operation).


Gallagher: We’ve got to get to her before she dies.
Beck: Why don’t we wait until after she’s dead?

It’s a great performance, although Claudia Christian’s as the next hose is equally memorable (in a positive way; nothing’s as memorable as her dreadful “I am death incarnate” speech in Babylon 5, but who could make that work, in fairness?), a stripper in an arse-exposing ensemble, accompanied by a glimmer of alien-as-then-topical-sexual-disease subtext when the threat crosses genders and screws a victim to death (the next one is the more Thing-focussed police chief’s dog, however, so it’s only a glimmer).


This alien is revealed as a perfect ‘80s consumer, embracing everything vacuous, superficial and materialistic about the decade. Christian’s Brenda Lee Van Buren definitely gets the most sinisterly delivered line in the movie, (“I’m not coming out yet”), although the most sinister look goes to Lieutenant Masterson’s (Clarence Felder) dog, staring at itself in the mirror before attacking its master when he goes to the fridge.


Its final victim is Senator Holt (John McCann), as whom it offers similarly succinct views on its career goals as discussing cars (“I want to be President”). En route, Sholder evidences an efficient, punchy approach to editing during a police station shootout that recalls Arnie’s earlier rampage as the T-800. 


And if Gallagher’s decision to accost Holt during a press conference is perhaps injudicious (a gathering involving the most security personnel and people that could take shots at him), armed with a flamethrower, conveniently introduced as an incidental two acts earlier (Chekov’s flamethrower?), Sholder stages the sequence highly effectively in slow motion (quite how Lloyd explains everything away isn’t broached, since surely no one’s going to believe his story of alien slugs, even confronted by the smouldering evidence).


Gallagher: I read minds.
Beck: What was I just thinking?
Gallagher: That I’m full of shit.
Beck: Impressive.
Gallagher: Not really, you’re pretty simple to read.

This was only MacLachlan’s third movie role, after rather disappearing (along with everyone else) in Dune and then make a much stronger impression as the feckless innocent in Lynch’s Blue Velvet two years later. Here he takes full advantage of the opportunity to test his comedy chops, albeit in deadpan style, and he and Nouri have strong chemistry, the latter constantly confused and combative, the former calm, cool and, well, slightly alien. There isn’t much to the sensitive ET we haven’t seen before, although it’s a nice touch that Lloyd is a flipside to his opponent, also liking fast cars (“What did you do, steal it?” asks Beck; “Yeah” replies Gallagher nonchalantly), and not above possessing bodies (although he surely did this without killing anyone who wasn’t already dying… didn’t he?). In addition, he can’t take his alcohol, leading to amusing fish-out-of-water confusion on how to deal with Alka-Seltzer and aspirin as they relate liquid.


Gallagher: What I’m after is still out there, and I don’t know where to start.

MacLachlan is also able to add an unmassaged but effective emotional undercurrent; Lloyd has lost his wife and child to the alien (and his partner), setting up the curious ending in which the stricken Beck is taken over by Lloyd (via an ethereal blue life force, rather than anything gross; good aliens are beautiful, while bad ones are hideous, just like people). It’s a morally suspect decision (since he’ll now be deceiving Tom’s wife that he is the same man), but also a curiously touching one; Tom’s daughter, whom Lloyd earlier communicated with telepathically, is shown to recognise and accept that her father is now the alien (telepathically).


Gallagher: I guess a career in the police didn’t really prepare you for this, did it?
Beck: Yes it did.

Nouri’s role as jaded cop Beck is grumpily spartan in comparison to his co-star and, like James Caan in Alien Nation, Nick Nolte in 48 Hrs, and Jim Belushi in Red Heat, he is confronted by a new partner who is in his own way even more maverick (even if, in Alien Nation’s case, it’s just by being alien). But Nouri runs with it, making the baffled cop an asset rather than an irritation (he and Sholder did not get on, though). Everyone here does good work, in fact, with a cast including Ed O’Ross (villainous turns in Lethal Weapon and Red Heat around that time), Lin Shaye as the senator’s aide (now best known for Insidious franchise) and even Danny Trejo (playing, against type, as a criminal) furnished with a singular line of “Yo, hippy, what kind of dude are you?” before being blasted with a shotgun.


Sholder was coming off the ill-received Freddy’s Revenge at the time, and has expressed the view that this is his best movie. It isn’t hard to agree, since at this point there was only potential ahead that quickly dwindled into unmemorable TV movies (12:01 being a rare exception). He saw the picture as a police procedural, invoking Sidney Lumet, and a readily recognisable connection. Writer Jim Kouf has fared much better, with writer-producer credits on Angel and Grimm (Sholder reportedly did a rewrite, adding the element of Beck’s daughter). Jacques Haitkin’s work as a cinematographer was mostly in the B-movie genre (including a number of pictures for Wes Craven). There’s a very much of-its-era score from Michael Convetino (I like it, at any rate) and strong editing from Michael N Knue (currently working on the Marvel Netflix series) and Maureen O’Connell.


Perhaps the only surprise about The Hidden (I haven’t seen the sequel), given the current magpie penchant for seizing any vaguely cult property, irrespective of its actual commercial potential, is that this has spawned neither a remake (although Fallen comes close) nor a TV series. It could be because, unlike many of its plusher peers (Alien, The Thing, Predator), the actual creature isn’t particularly iconic. In Sholder’s movie it’s the performances and the action, and the sense of humour, that count most.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.