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Posts Tagged ‘Denzel Washington’

In an unprecedented development, the blog finds itself reviewing two westerns on the spin. Once upon a time (in the west), this might not have seemed so notable, for the cowboy movie was a Hollywood staple for decades, with literally thousands of films being produced. Not so many these days, of course – and the films that do get made are usually reinventions, or low-budget deconstructions, or remakes, or films that creep into western territory without genuinely being truly of the genre (is The Revenant a western? Is Cold Mountain?).

So it should come as relatively little surprise that the movie under review is Antoine Fuqua’s new version of The Magnificent Seven, as this is one of the very few westerns with any name recognition these days that wasn’t made by either Sergio Leone or Clint Eastwood. This would usually be the place for me to complain about Hollywood’s habit of doing pointless remakes of brilliant extant movies, but (possibly annoyingly) the new movie has a ready-made defence: the 1960 John Sturges version of The Magnificent Seven was, of course, already a remake, of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai. (Neither Sturges nor Kurosawa gets a credit on the new film, by the way.)

the-magnificent-seven-international-poster

The thing is that Seven Samurai is, not to put too fine a point on it, one of the greatest movies ever made, and the 1960 Magnificent Seven is also a classic in its own right, an almost-perfect film. (The story has been pastiched many times since, too, and some of those were also pretty good – I really should look again properly at Battle Beyond The Stars one of these days.) Surely the new film is just asking for a critical drubbing up by going up against this sort of competition?

The story is more or less recognisable. The year is 1879 and the inhabitants of the small town of Rose Creek are being driven from their homes by ruthless businessman Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), but being a tidy-minded sort of villain he sets a convenient three-week deadline for them to pack up and get out. Feisty young widow Emma (Haley Bennett, who is a perfectly acceptable actress but whom I suspect will mainly succeed in her career due to her resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence), whose husband has been killed by Bogue’s men, refuses to be cowed and sets out to find help in resisting him.

And, well, she ends up with seven gunmen, as you might expect. Denzel Washington plays Yul Brynner, Chris Pratt plays Steve McQueen, Ethan Hawke plays Robert Vaughn and Byung-Hun Lee plays James Coburn. (The film is trading off the popularity of the Sturges version, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make this sort of comparison – though I should mention that character fates from the 1960 version aren’t necessarily repeated in the new one.) Vincent D’Onofrio, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeier complete the septet, though their characters are essentially original.

Well, that’s one way of putting it. As you may have noticed if you’ve seen the trailer, one of the seven is now a native American, one is a sort of Korean ninja, and various other ethnicities are in the mix too. Some have gone so far as to describe the new film as a ‘diversity western’ (as opposed to what, I wonder), and there’s a slightly laboured scene drawing attention to just what a mixed crew they’ve ended up with. Still, at least this film hasn’t drawn the tsunami of abuse directed at the all-female Ghostbusters remake, possibly because there’s at least a tiny element of historical accuracy here, and the original film and its sequels took a few steps in this direction, too, featuring black, disabled, and Russian gunfighters.

It’s perhaps illuminating to consider just what has been changed in the new movie: well, first off, the whole film is set in the US, rather than the seven going off to Mexico to defend some villagers – but this is hardly a surprise, given the Mexican government objected to its citizens being presented as so weedy 56 years ago, before we even get onto present-day US-Mexican relations. On perhaps a related note, the villain is no longer a simple bandido but a super-rich industrialist intent on despoiling the landscape for his own betterment, but I think suggestions that the bad guy is a thinly veiled caricature of the current Republican presidential nominee are probably pushing a point. Perhaps most significantly, in story terms, this is no longer just a story about a bunch of guys going off to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing: there’s some Questing For Vengeance going on here, because being virtuous for its own sake is apparently not a proper motivation any more.

I’m not sure I agree with this: one of the things I like about the 1960 movie is that it’s such a simple story of good guys pitted against bad guys, without a great deal in the way of moral ambiguity. Then again, this is very much a post-Unforgiven western, with the west presented as a hard, somewhat squalid place: nearly everyone has a beard and looks like they probably smell quite bad. At least the good guys are still pretty good, although what were subtle touches in 1960 have become hammer blows here – the knife-throwing member of the seven is festooned with blades, the one whose nerve has gone is afflicted with the screaming ab-dabs, and so on. The bad guy is, regrettably, fairly terrible: he’s an absurdly underwritten cartoon villain and it’s very jarring when he eventually starts coming out with some of Eli Wallach’s dialogue from the original script.

This doesn’t happen too much: only a few lines and a couple of bits of business are retained, but I can’t decide whether this is for the best or not. These moments are fun, but do you really want to be reminded of another, better movie? Where the film really struggles is in its soundtrack, which was one of the final projects worked on by James Horner before his death. Writing a completely original Magnificent Seven soundtrack would challenge the greatest composer who ever lived, for Elmer Bernstein’s music is surely one of the most famous and best-loved scores ever written – it’d be like trying to write a new Star Wars soundtrack without being able to utilise any of the elements written by John Williams. Sure enough, the music spends most of the film trying as hard as it can to surreptitiously suggest Bernstein, before the movie caves in and plays the main theme of the 1960 movie over the closing credits. Of course, by this point it just feels rather incongruous, almost like a contractual obligation.

In a sense this extends to much of the film – it’s really compelled by its very nature to reference the Sturges movie, because that movie’s continuing popularity and fame are the main reasons why this one exists at all. But it never really feels comfortable doing so – it wants to be dark and gritty and psychologically complex where the 1960 film was breezy and light and entertaining (The Magnificent Seven is itself a very 1960 sort of title – no-one gives their movies such on-the-nose names these days).

In the end the new Magnificent Seven isn’t a particularly bad film, but it isn’t going to rock anyone’s world either, I suspect. I think part of the problem is that Hollywood studios stopped making westerns on a regular basis so long ago that they’ve kind of lost the knack. It does feel oddly self-conscious about the classic genre elements, and much more comfortable with its modern-style action sequences (suffice to say much stuff blows up amidst automatic gunfire). The cast are pretty good (Ethan Hawke probably makes the biggest impression) but most of them still look more like grown men dressing up as cowboys than authentic western heroes. Perhaps the classic western is truly dead and it is time to stop interfering with the corpse; this movie passes the time fairly agreeably but if you want to watch this story, you have other, far superior options available to you.

 

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Ahh, the cinema is filled with intelligent and thoughtful dramas, clearly aimed at an audience of mature adults – it must be February. I’m not great fan of the Oscars on most levels, but at least the very fact of their existence forces the major studios to invest in this kind of film, if only so they have a chance of making a good showing on gong night itself.

There is a certain protocol involved in getting your film onto the shortlist, with a few options available to you. One of the most popular is to secure the services of one of those performers who appears to be catnip to the Academy: in short, someone who only needs to turn up in front of the camera in order to secure an Oscar nomination. We speak here of the likes of Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Tom Hanks, and so forth. And to this list we can probably add Denzel Washington, who recently picked up his fifth Oscar nomination, for Robert Zemeckis’ Flight.

flight

Flight is one of those intelligent and thoughtful dramas, sure enough, though something different is perhaps promised by the opening scene, in which a hungover and drugged-up Washington engages in a foul-mouthed squabble with his ex-wife over the phone while Nadine Velazquez wanders back and forth past the camera in the buff. The nudity has been singled out for comment in most of the other reviews of this film that I’ve read, which can’t solely be down to the easiness of Velazquez on the eye: it does smack somewhat of gratuitousness, certainly, and if it’s trying to establish that this is a film for grown-ups there are surely better ways they could have done this.

Anyway, it turns out that Washington is playing someone called Whip Whitaker, who is clearly a functioning alcoholic and substance abuser on a considerable scale. This, I would argue, would be his own business – and possibly that of the people immediately around him – were it not for the fact that he is an airline pilot flying passengers around the USA every day. The film does good work in making the extent of Whitaker’s on-the-job debility quite clear without laying it on with a trowel.

However, on this particular day Whitaker’s physical state is to prove of great significance: the jet he’s piloting experiences serious mechanical failure and, as malfunctioning planes are wont to do, starts heading earthward at an uncomfortable rate. It’s up to Whitaker to try and save the plane and everyone on board. (I don’t think I’m spoiling the film when I reveal that he succeeds.)

There’s a sense in which Flight is being marketed on the strength of the plane-crash sequence, which is fair enough as it is brilliantly executed, visually striking and extremely tense. But it’s all over and done with quite early in what’s a long film, and from that point on this is a much more serious and – sorry – grounded movie.

In fact, it’s not completely unreasonable to suggest that the whole plane crash angle and the legal fallout from it is really just Hollywood sugar sprinkled onto a story to attract a mainstream audience to what might otherwise be a rather heavy and uncommercial addiction drama. The rest of the plot really revolves around Whitaker’s attempts to come to terms with his drinking, in particular. The fact he’s being investigated for his part in the crash (and may be looking at prison time if he’s found to have been drunk in charge of an airliner) raises the stakes on this, certainly, but it’s not the sole or even the largest element of the story.

Nevertheless, this is still an engrossing and intelligent drama, much darker in places than you might expect, and filled with good performances – Washington is superb, fully deserving of his nomination, willing to appear unsympathetic for most of the film, and very capable of acting drunk without being hammy. Don Cheadle plays his lawyer, Bruce Greenwood his union representative, and Kelly Reilly is another addict, this one recovering, with whom Whitaker begins a tentative relationship. All of them are very good indeed, as are most of the supporting cast.

In its closing stages the film perhaps begins to skirt cliché much more frequently than it has previously done, and the inclusion of what’s practically a theological angle feels rather uncertain – the crash is declared an Act of God, the plane clipping a church on the way down is clearly meant to be significant, and there’s a faintly (and presumably intentionally) uncomfortable sequence where Whitaker meets another survivor of the crash who is a devout Christian and insists on praying with him. There’s a touch of melodrama towards the end, with the crash-investigation plot allowing for the easy drama of what’s essentially a courtroom setting, which suits the climax. Possibly I’m just a bit thick, but I didn’t at any point find myself thinking ‘Okay, so this is how it will play out…’ – I was too wrapped up in the story and characters to step back and think about that in too much detail, which has to be a tribute to the quality of the film.

Flight is a seriously-intentioned film and, for the most part, a satisfying one, with enough subtlety and moral ambiguity in its story to engage the viewer. The acting is very strong across the board as well. Probably not ideal as a piece of in-flight entertainment, but very good for any other venue.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 6th 2006: 

Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that doesn’t know quite as much about the English education system as it thinks it does. This week I was hoping to share with you my thoughts on (the apparently hilarious) Basic Instinct 2, but scheduling problems meant that this hasn’t worked out — hopefully next time [In the end I had to go to Japan to see this movie – A]. Instead, I went to see Spike Lee’s Inside Man, what on paper looks like a rather generic thriller and an odd choice of project for this famously politicised film-maker. However, as in the plot of the movie, not all is as it seems.

On an average day in Manhattan, proceedings at a wealthy and respected bank are disrupted by the appearance of devious mastermind Dalton Russell (Clive Owen doing a reasonable American accent) who leads a crack team of people called Steve in an audacious raid on the institution, barricading themselves inside and taking the staff and customers hostage. The NYPD being really quite sharp, they fairly soon notice what’s going on and send in detective and trained negotiator Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) to try and sort it all out painlessly. However the situation is more complex than Frazier suspects, as the chairman of the bank (Christopher Plummer) has a very personal reason to worry about the crooks ransacking his vault, and sends in ruthless political operator Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to resolve things to his own satisfaction…

Well, the first thing to be said about Inside Man is that it is a tremendously slick and polished, thoroughly solid piece of entertainment. The plot is fairly complex but never obscure, the situation is genuinely involving, and it’s very well performed by a quality cast (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Willem Defoe play two of the other cops backing Washington up). This isn’t the most original scenario for a thriller – Russell Gewirtz’s script acknowledges the debt it owes to Dog Day Afternoon, amongst other things – but the plotline concerning Foster’s character gives it a new spin, and it’s not afraid to lighten things up with moments of dry comedy either. Washington is charismatic and, as ever, believable as a man caught up in machinations he doesn’t entirely understand at first, while Owen is very nearly as good, especially considering he’s playing a character we learn almost nothing about and who spends most of the film masked. The script is playful and deceptive, only losing its pace and focus slightly near the end once the siege at the bank is over and the aftermath of the situation is playing itself out. There is of course a twist in the tale, but I think you would have to have seen virtually every episode of Mission: Impossible to figure out what it is.

In some ways this is a rather old-fashioned, seventies-style movie, and Terence Blanchard’s muscular soundtrack seems to be acknowledging this. But in others this is a very contemporary film and one senses that this is why a fairly radical director like Spike Lee took the movie on. This isn’t an overtly political film but the plot does fundamentally revolve about the exploitation of minority ethnic groups – to say much more would be to spoil the plot. The film seems to ask who is really worse, the bank robber or the corporate raider, and isn’t afraid to load the dice in favour of its preferred answer, going so far as to make Owen’s character seem rather more sympathetic than Plummer’s. Lee can’t resist throwing in a few incidental jabs about modern race relations either – there’s a fairly long sequence where a Sikh who works at the bank gets mistaken for an Arab suicide bomber, roughed up by the police and has his turban confiscated, and another with a droll parody of the Grand Theft Auto franchise and its glorification of the gangsta lifestyle, neither of which is strictly crucial to the plot. Lee directs confidently, with lots of long takes and tracking shots, although at least one of his grand flourishes ends up looking unintentionally funny – at one point a close-up on Washington, supposedly running flat out, looks instead like he’s being wheeled along on a trolley – mainly because he very obviously is!

But this isn’t a heavy or preachy film, and all this stuff is by no means crucial to enjoying what it has to offer. Inside Man is at heart a genre piece, but it’s made with such wit and skill and energy that one almost doesn’t notice this. Very enjoyable indeed – recommended.

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