The Magnificent Seven

On Sunday Kish and I went to see The Magnificent Seven, the Denzel Washington-led reboot of the ’60s classic.  It made me realize, again, how much I enjoy westerns — and how infrequently Hollywood produces them these days.

The original The Magnificent Seven, which itself was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, is one of the best westerns and best ensemble movies ever made.  In that film, Yul Brunner recruits seven gunslingers who try to help some hapless Mexicans protect their village from the depredations of a ruthless gang of bandits.  In the current remake, the general storyline is the same, but the bad guy is an evil mine owner who has no problem with gunning down people in the middle of the street and setting a church on fire to try to intimidate the peaceful townspeople into selling him their land for a pittance.  (When somebody intentionally burns a church, you can be pretty sure he’s a bad guy.)

nesokb1uksa3vy_1_bTwo of the townspeople find Denzel Washington, a quick-draw bounty hunter, and convince him to help, and Washington then recruits the team.  As in the original, it features a diverse collection of western types, all of whom have split-second reflexes, can shoot with awesome precision, and have the military training from their Civil War service to develop a plan to defend the town that is worthy of Robert E. Lee.  (It being a modern movie, there’s got to be some dynamite and explosions in the plan, too.)  We learn some of the seven’s back stories during the recruitment and the training of the townspeople, but this movie, like the original and so many other westerns, is all about good versus evil.  We know that everything is pointing toward the final, inevitable showdown with the evil mine owner.

This film isn’t as good as the original Magnificent Seven — that would be holding it to an impossible standard — but it’s an enjoyable romp, and the western scenery that is a big part of the appeal of any western is gorgeous.  Washington capably fills Yul Brunner’s shoes, and the rest of the cast play their parts admirably, finding their inner heroism as they fight, and sometimes die, to free the rustics from the yoke of the evil mine owner.  It’s a fine, well-made story that strikes many of the enduring touchstones of American mythology.

So why don’t more westerns get made?  At our screening there were only three other couples in the theater.  I guess that’s why.  In a world of superheroes and CGI, maybe stories about human beings, horses, and guns just can’t compete.  That’s too bad.

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Review: Flight

Denzel Washington in Flight.

Most of Flight is slow-paced character development, but it contains a few scenes that make your heart thump. In one of them, Denzel Washington’s character, Captain Whip Whitaker, tries to pull his passenger jet out of a nosedive while the passengers scream in terror. In another, the same character, an alcoholic, discovers a mini-fridge full of liquor bottles in a hotel room and struggles with the temptation to break the week of sobriety he has achieved so painstakingly.

Both scenes made me lean forward in my seat, but I found the second more agonizing than the first. Although more than a hundred lives would have been lost if the plane had crashed, Whitaker’s soul was at stake while he stared at the glowing liquor bottles, and I felt invested in the condition of his soul.

It’s a credit to the talents of Washington and the director, Robert Zemeckis, that I cared so much about what choice the character would make. The movie they made together is rare in Hollywood these days – an intimate, realistic examination of a life.

Whitaker lands the malfunctioning plane with minimal loss of life by employing strange maneuvers that make his co-pilot scream in confusion, as well as terror. The scenes that precede and follow the flight explain how he could think clearly while the plane plummeted so fast that the altimeter was a blur. Before the flight, he snorts lines of coke, takes a puff of a joint and empties a few beers in his hotel room before strutting down the tarmac in his snazzy uniform. While addressing the passengers, he mixes a few mini-bottles of vodka with orange juice out of their view. It’s not that being drunk or high helped him control the plane. He’s just used to staying calm in the midst of horrible turbulence, thanks to his drug addictions. It’s a thrill for him.

After waking up in the hospital with a mild concussion, Whitaker decides to become clean. His drug dealer, played by John Goodman with his characteristic obscene energy, offers him various substances from his woven handbag, but he turns them down. He holes up at his family farm, where he collects liquor bottles from his hiding places and empties them down the sink. While he does this, we see clues that he comes from a proud line of pilots and that his addictions have shoved his wife and teenage son out of his life.

At first, Whitaker is a hero, but before long word gets out that blood tests taken at the hospital showed he was drunk and high, meaning he could be charged with manslaughter and spend the rest of his life in prison. Ironically, this revelation sends him back to the bottle.

Meanwhile, his union representative and a lawyer from the airline (Don Cheadle) ask him to play along in their strategy to obliterate the toxicology report and blame the empty mini-bottles found on the plane on a flight attendant who died in the crash. Whitaker has to make a decision: will he stop lying to himself and others about his alcoholism, or will he tell the truth and face the consequences?

Apart from the crash scene, most of the movie takes place in mundane settings such as a hospital, Whitaker’s ancestral farm and corporate meeting rooms, but Washington’s performance takes the movie to the extreme lows and highs of human experience – especially the lows. The movie is so devoted to the character of Whitaker that it wouldn’t work if the Washington didn’t manage to make him so realistic and nuanced, as well as hinting at an underlying decency that makes us root for him.

The ancestral farm that Whitaker exiles himself onto may be mundane, but Washington’s performance makes it powerful through the contrast of its pride and simplicity – the rotary phone, the black and white family photos on the walls, the old Cessna plane in the garage – with his decadent behavior.

Zemeckis also deserves credit for the quality of the movie. This is the first live action film he’s made since Cast Away, which was similar in the way it focused on one character developing in response to trial and isolation. Most of his direction is straightforward and concise, like a well-written novel that lets its fascinating characters keep the pages turning. A few times, though, he uses flourishes that become even more powerful in contrast to the conservative shots around them, such as a zoom and shake of the camera when Whitaker snorts a line of coke before the flight, or a long close-up of a mini-bottle of liquor that Whitaker might or might not take. The emphases these shots place show what Zemeckis thinks is important in the film: the moral choices Whitaker makes.

Flight‘s budget of $31 million was anemic by Hollywood standards. According to the film’s Wikipedia page, Zemeckis and Washington took large pay cuts in order to make the film. They must have really believed in the project to make that sacrifice. Judging by what ended up on the screen, they were wise to have faith in the material, but their devotion itself is what pushed the film into the upper stratosphere of quality.

The Book Of . . . Enough Already!

Last night Kish and I decided to watch a movie on HBO On Demand.  We ended up picking The Book of Eli.  We both like Denzel Washington, I like science fiction.  Why not?

Only a few minutes in, I thought to myself, “I’ve seen this movie already,” even though I hadn’t.  And that is because the ugly future, post-apocalyptic, lone hero movie has been done to death.  How is The Book of Eli different, for example, from The Road Warrior?  Something horrible has happened, civilization has crumbled, and the animal nature of the remaining humans is being acted out in the most gruesome fashion.  A lone guy appears, fights and beats and kills dozens of subhuman survivors, and then helps to set humanity back on the road to civilization.  They even share religious themes.  The only difference is the explicit Biblical aspect of The Book of Eli.

Apocalyptic themes have long been popular in science fiction books and science fiction movies.  On The Beach, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Road, and The Stand come readily to mind.  Isn’t it about time that authors and screenwriters start looking at futuristic movies involving an Earth that falls somewhere between Star Trek and cataclysm?