“THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN” (2016) Review

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“THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN” (2016) Review

When I first learned that there was to be another remake of the 1954 movie, “SEVEN SAMAURAI”, I nearly groaned with displeasure. Worse, the movie would not only be a remake of the Japanese film, but an even closer remake of the 1960 film that had re-staged the story as a Western. I have always been leery of remakes, even if some proved to be pretty damn good. But I was more than leery of this particular film.

The reason behind my leeriness is that I am not a fan of the 1960 film. I tried to be. Honest I did. But there was something about it – the performances of the lead, if I must be honest – that I found somewhat off putting. I also feared that I would face the same in this latest adaptation, but with even less success.

“THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN” – or this version – begins in 1879 when a corrupt industrialist named Bartholomew Bogue and his men besiege the mining town of Rose Creek, California and slaughters a group of locals led by Matthew Cullen, when they attempt to stand up to him and his attempt to coerce them into selling their land to him. Matthew’s wife, Emma Cullen, and her friend Teddy Q ride to the nearest town in search of someone who can help them. They come upon Union Army veteran and warrant officer Sam Chisholm, who initially declines their proposal, until he learns of Bogue’s involvement. Chisholm sets out to recruit a group of gunslingers who can help him battle the powerful businessman:

*Joshua Faraday – a gambler and explosives man who takes on the job to rid himself of debt

*Goodnight Robicheaux – a Confederate veteran and sharpshooter who is haunted by his past

*Billy Rocks – an East Asian immigrant assassin with a talent for knives and Goodnight’s close companion

*Vasquez – a Mexican outlaw who is also a wanted fugitive

*Jack Horne, a religious mountain man/tracker

*Red Harvest – an exiled Comanche warrior and youngest of the group

Chisholm and his colleagues manage to rid Rose Creek of Bogue’s men. But knowing that the businessman would be determine to strike back with a bigger force, the seven riders set out to prepare the town’s citizens for what might prove to be an ugly, minor war.

I never really had any intention of seeing this new “THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN” in the movie theaters, considering my views of the 1960 film. But a relative of mine convinced me to give it a chance. And I did. There were some aspects of the movie that I found questionable. Well . . . two, if I must be honest. I wonder why screenwriters Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk had portrayed the Red Harvest character as a Comanche. The latter lived along the Southern Plains that stretched between Nebraska and Northern Texas. Why not portray Red Harvest from a region a bit closer to the movie’s setting – like the Paitue, the Ute or the Pomo? I also had a problem with some of Merissa Lombardo’s costume designs. Some . . . not all of them. I found her costumes for the main male characters to be spot on. Lombardo’s costumes for each male character not only clicked with the time period – late 1870s – but also with each character. But her costumes for the Emma Cullen character, proved to be a problem for me. They struck me as unnecessarily revealing for the wife-later-widow of a respected man from the late 19th century. Emma Cullen is not a 19th century prostitute. Why on earth did Lombardo come close to dressing her as one, as shown in the images below?

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Despite these quibbles, I enjoyed “THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN”. Very much. The movie was not an exact replica of “SEVEN SAMURAI” or the 1960 film, “THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN”. And that is a good thing. I would have preferred to watch director Antoine Fuqua’s personal version, instead of a carbon copy of either the original 1954 film or the 1960 Western. More importantly, I simply preferred his version over the other two films. Yes, I have seen both the 1954 and 1960 films. I am certain that many film goers and critics loved them. Unfortunately, my memories of the 1954 film is vague and I am simply not a fan of the 1960 remake. Fuqua and screenwriters Pizzolatto and Wenk managed to maintain my interest in the story, thanks to the former’s energetic direction and a screenplay that struck me as well paced. I noticed that this version did not include the seven gunmen being chased out of town by the villain before returning for a final showdown. Instead, Pizzolatto and Wenk further explored the seven protagonists’ efforts to help Rose Creek’s citizens prepare for Bogue’s retaliation.

The movie also featured some outstanding action sequences, thanks to Fuqua’s tight direction. Considering his past work in movies like “TRAINING DAY”, “SHOOTER” and “OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN”, I should not be surprised. There were a few actions sequences that I had enjoyed, including Rose Creek citizens’ tragic encounter with Bartholomew Bogue’s men, which set off the plot; Sam Chisholm’s brief, yet violent encounter with a handful of fugitives early in the movie; and the seven mercenaries’ first conflict with some of Bogue’s men. But for me, the movie’s pièce de résistance proved to be the final battle in Rose Creek. It was well shot action sequence as far as I am concerned. What am I saying? Well shot? Hell, I found it exciting, tense, tragic, euphoric and . . . yes, well shot. I found it very impressive and dramatically satisfying.

When I learned that the movie was shot in both Arizona and New Mexico, I was not surprised. It seemed apparent to me that a good deal of “THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN” was shot in both the northern and central regions of both states. What took me by surprise was the fact that the movie was also shot in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. When? Which scenes were shot in Baton Rouge? For the likes of me, I just do not know. Which only tells me that production designer Derek R. Hill really did his job of converting the Baton Rouge location to 19th century California. I also felt that Mauro Fiore’s cinematography gave support to Hill’s work and made the film look sharp and very colorful.

Now some are probably wondering how can I like this movie so much, yet harbor such lukewarm feelings toward the 1960 version. For me, the huge difference between the two movies proved to be the cast. Yes, I am aware that the 1960 version featured the likes of Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen and others who were just becoming famous. But the main reason why I always had a problem with this version is that most of the leads – with the exception of one or two – spent most of the film standing around or posing, trying to look “cool” or “iconic”. I found myself wondering if most of them were preparing for an audition for the role of James Bond. I found this most annoying. Thankfully, the cast of this version came off as a lot more earthy. Natural. Instead of “icons of cool”, the leads seemed more human.

The one actor whose performance seemed to closely resemble those from the 1960 cast was Denzel Washington, who portrayed the lead, Sam Chisholm. I suppose it would be natural, considering that he was not only the lead, but the oldest in the bunch. But even Washington’s performance had a paternal air that I never saw in Yul Brenner’s performance. More importantly, his character’s arc had a major twist that I should have seen coming after he was first introduced. Chris Pratt portrayed the group’s trickster – a gambler/womanizer named Josh Farady. I must admit that when I first learned that Pratt would be in this film, I just could not imagine it. Not by a long shot. But it did not take long for me to not only accept Pratt’s presence in the film, but end up being very impressed by the way he mixed both comedy and drama in his performance. Ethan Hawke also combined both comedy and drama in his portrayal of former Confederate sharpshooter, Goodnight Robicheaux. But his character had a bit more pathos, due to being haunted by his experiences during the Civil War. And this gave Hawke the opportunity to give one of the movie’s best performances.

Vincent D’Onofrio gave a very colorful and entertaining performance as the former religious trapper Jack Horne, who interestingly enough, was the only one of the seven men who came close to having a love interest. I was very impressed Lee Byung-hun’s sardonic portrayal of Robicheaux’s companion, the knife-throwing Billy Rocks. After seeing Haley Bennett’s intense portrayal of the revenge seeking widow, Emma Cullen, I could see why the actress has been recently making a name for herself with critics. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo proved to be just as colorful and entertaining as D’Onofrio as the wanted outlaw, Vasquez. Martin Sensmeier gave an intense, yet cool performance as the group’s youngest member, a Comanche warrior named Red Harvest. Matt Bomer gave a solid performance in the film’s first fifteen minutes or so as Rose Creek citizen, Matthew Cullen, whose death helped set the plot in motion. And the role of Bartholomew Bogue (my God, that name!) became another of Peter Sarsgaard’s gallery of interesting characters. Mind you, his intense portrayal of the villainous businessman was not as humorous as Eli Wallach’s more witty villain from the 1960 film, but it was a lot more off-kilter and just as interesting.

Despite one or two quibbles, I enjoyed “THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN” very much. As I have stated earlier, I found this surprising considering my lukewarm opinion of the 1960 predecessor. Director Antoine Fuqua did a great job of creating his own adaptation of the 1954 movie, “SEVEN SAMAURAI”. And he had ample support from an entertaining screenplay written by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, along with an excellent cast led by Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke.

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Top Ten Favorite HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

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Below is a list of my favorite history documentaries:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

1 - Ken Burns The Civil War

1. “The Civil War” (1990) – Ken Burns produced this award-winning documentary about the U.S. Civil War. Narrated by David McCullough, the documentary was shown in eleven episodes.

2 - Supersizers Go-Eat

2. “The Supersizers Go/Eat” (2008-2009) – Food critic Giles Coren and comedian-broadcaster Sue Perkins co-hosted two entertaining series about the culinary history of Britain (with side trips to late 18th century France and Imperial Rome).

3 - MGM - When the Lion Roared

3. “MGM: When the Lion Roared” (1992) – Patrick Stewart narrated and hosted this three-part look into the history of one of the most famous Hollywood studios – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

4 - Africans in America

4. “Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery” (1998) – Angela Bassett narrated this four-part documentary on the history of slavery in the United States, from the Colonial era to Reconstruction.

5 - Queen Victoria Empire

5. “Queen Victoria’s Empire” (2001) – This PBS documentary is a two-part look at the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. Donald Sutherland narrated.

6 - Motown 40 - The Music Is Forever

6. “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” (1998) – Diana Ross hosted and narrated this look into the history of Motown, from its inception in 1958 to the 1990s.

7 - Ken Burns The War

7. “The War” (2007) – Ken Burns created another critically acclaimed documentary for PBS. Narrated by Keith David, this seven-part documentary focused upon the United States’ participation in World War II.

8 - Manor House

8. “The Edwardian Manor House” (2002) – This five-episode documentary is also a reality television series in which a British family assume the identity of Edwardian aristocrats and live in an opulent Scottish manor with fifteen (15) people from all walks of life participating as their servants.

9 - Elegance and Decadence - The Age of Regency

9. “Elegance and Decadence: The Age of Regency” (2011) – Historian Dr. Lucy Worsley presented and hosted this three-part documentary about Britain’s Regency era between 1810 and 1820.

10 - Ken Burns The West

10. “The West” (1996) – Directed by Steven Ives and produced by Ken Burns, this eight-part documentary chronicled the history of the trans-Appalachian West in the United States. Peter Coyote narrated.

HM - Fahrenheit 9-11

Honorable Mention: “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) – Michael Moore co-produced and directed this Oscar winning documentary that took a critical look at the presidency of George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and its coverage in the news media.

“SHENANDOAH” (1965) Review

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“SHENANDOAH” (1965) Review

During my recent viewing of the 1965 movie, “SHENANDOAH”, I came to the surprising conclusion that it proved to be entirely different than what I had assumed it would be. But it is not surprising that it would take several years for the movie to be appreciated by today’s audiences than it was back in 1965.

Like I said, “SHENANDOAH” is an unusual film. Set in 1864, during the U.S. Civil War, the movie is about the efforts of a sardonic Virginia farmer and widower named Charlie Anderson to prevent his sons from fighting in the war. Although, he is sympathetic toward the travails his neighbors face from the Union Army’s presence in the Shenandoah Valley, he feels no obligation to fight on behalf of a state he believes had never help him maintain his farm. Nor does he support the Confederacy’s pro-slavery stance. His neighbors seem willing to tolerate his pacifist stance, although a few like Pastor Bjoerling occasionally make barbed comments.

Not long after his only daughter’s wedding to neighbor and Confederate Army officer Sam and the birth of his first grandchild, Charlie’s family fortunes take a turn for the worse. His youngest son, 16 year-old Boy, is captured by Union soldiers, while playing with his close friend Gabriel, a neighbor’s slave. Boy had been wearing a Confederate Army kepi cap he had earlier found. When Gabriel informs the Anderson family of the news; Charlie, most of his sons and daughter Jennie leave to look for Boy. They leave James and his wife Ann at the farm with their young baby.

While watching the first twenty to thirty minutes of “SHENANDOAH”, one gets the impression of watching a warm family comedy-drama with a Civil War setting. I almost felt as if I were watching “THE WALTONS” in a 19th century setting. There are very few characters in uniform. The movie featured the Anderson family at home, at work and a mildly amusing scene of them arriving late at church during the beginning of the sermon. And when the war did infringe upon their lives, the family usually responded in humorous ways – namely their boisterous fight with a state official and soldiers trying to acquire horses for the army, and a stand-off between Anderson’s sons and a group of army recruiters. By the time Charlie and his family set out to find the missing Boy, I felt certain that their adventures would be exciting, topped by a happy ending. Charlie and the rest of the Andersons got their happy ending. . . but at great costs, thanks to the Union Army, the Confederate Army and a group of deserters. The movie’s growing dark tones and anti-war sentiments really took me by surprise, considering its earlier tone. But what really took me by surprise is that the movie’s changing tone had been gradual, thanks to director Andrew V. McLaglen and screenwriter James Lee Barrett.

There were scenes in “SHENANDOAH” that really impressed me. I enjoyed those scenes with Charlie’s conversations with his future son-in-law, Sam, and his daughter-in-law Ann; due to their heartwarming nature, Charlie’s outlooks on both his family dynamics and dealing with marriage, and fine performances from James Stewart, Doug McClure and Katherine Ross. However, his conversation with Union Army officer Colonel Fairchild really impressed me, thanks to Stewart and George Kennedy’s performances, and the way the two men managed to emotionally connect on the horrors of war and fear of losing their sons. Boy’s escape with a group of Confederate soldiers from a riverboat struck me as rather exciting. In one of the movie’s earlier scene, Jennie Anderson had encouraged Gabriel to run away from his master. Not only did Gabriel run, he eventually joined the Union Army. This is probably why I found Gabriel’s reunion on the battlefield with a wounded Boy emotionally satisfying. The friendship and warmth the two boys felt for each other had not wavered, despite finding themselves within the ranks of the opposite armies. And I was amazed at how both Philip Alford and Eugene Jackson Jr. managed to convey the close friendship of the two characters with hardly any words. However, I feel that the movie’s two best scenes were featured in the Andersons’ local church. The first church scene proved to be a very funny affair, thanks to actor Denver Pyle’s skillful conveyance of Pastor Bjoerling’s irritated reaction to the Andersons’ late arrival in the middle of his sermon. The second church scene, which ended the film, was a beautifully acted and emotional that surprisingly left me in tears. It had the perfect mixture of relief, happiness and a little pathos that followed the emotionally draining aspects of the movie’s second half. Even after nearly five decades, many people still talk about it.

Despite my satisfaction with “SHENANDOAH”, there were some aspects of it that I found troubling. Most of my dissatisfaction came from the movie’s historical portrait of its setting. One of the Union soldiers that captured Boy proved to be black. The Union Army was not integrated in 1864. In fact, I do not believe it was ever integrated during the four years of the Civil War. And for the likes of me, I could not see how all of Charlie’s six sons could have avoided military service during the war’s first three years. His sons, especially Jacob, seemed to have minds of their own. I figured if they really wanted to fight in the war – whether for the Confederacy or the Union – they would have left the farm and join the military. I could not understand how someone as strong-willed as Jacob (who was the oldest) could have allowed his father to prevent him from joining the Confederate Army. And even if all the boys had wanted to remain on the farm, they would have been subjected to the military draft. The Confederacy had enacted the military draft about a year before the Union. And the Andersons were not rich or owned any slaves. I have one last complaint – a minor one at that. Some of the acting by the supporting characters in minor roles sucked. Period. I found their performances rather wooden and could not understand how they managed to get roles in an “A” production like“SHENANDOAH”.

Flaws or not, I can honestly say that “SHENANDOAH” is one of the better Civil War movies I have ever seen. Instead of telling the story of the war from one side or the other, it told the story about a family that desperately tried to avoid being dragged into the chaos and tragedy of war . . . and failed. Thanks to a well-written script written by James Lee Bennett and a talented cast led by the even more talented James Stewart, director Andrew V. McLaglen crafted an excellent story about the Civil War that proved to be more emotional and surprising than I could ever imagine.

“LITTLE WOMEN” (1949) Review

“LITTLE WOMEN” (1949) Review

Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel is a bit of a conundrum for me. I have never been a fan of the novel. I have read it once, but it failed to maintain my interest. Worse, I have never had the urge to read it again. The problem is that it is that sentimental family dramas – at least in print – has never been appealing to me. And this is why I find it perplexing that I have never had any problems watching any of the film or television adaptations of her novel.

One of those adaptations proved to be Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1949 adaptation, which was produced and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. It is hard to believe that the same man who had directed such hard-biting films like “LITTLE CAESAR”, “I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG” and “THEY WON’T FORGET”, was the artistic force behind this sentimental comedy-drama. Or perhaps MGM studio boss, Louis B. Meyer, was the real force. The studio boss preferred sentimental dramas, comedies and musicals. Due to this preference, he was always in constant conflict with the new production chief, Dore Schary, who preferred more realistic and hard-biting movies. Then you had David O. Selznick, who wanted to remake his 1933 adaptation of Alcott’s novel. One can assume (or not) that in the end, Meyer had his way.

“LITTLE WOMEN”, as many know, told the experiences of the four March sisters of Concord, Massachusetts during and after the U.S. Civil War. The second daughter, Josephine (Jo) March, is the main character and the story focuses on her relationships with her three other sisters, the elders in her family – namely her mother Mrs. March (“Marmee”) and Aunt March, and the family’s next-door neighbor, Mr. Laurence. For Jo, the story becomes a “coming-of-age” story, due to her relationships with Mr. Laurence’s good-looking grandson, Theodore (“Laurie”) and a German immigrant she meets in New York City after the war, the equally good-looking and much older Professor Bhaer. Jo and her sisters deal with the anxiety of their father fighting in the Civil War, genteel poverty, scarlet fever, and the scary prospect of oldest sister Meg falling in love with Laurie’s tutor.

Despite my disinterest in Alcott’s novel, I have always liked the screen adaptations I have seen so far – including this film. Due to the casting of Margaret O’Brien as the mild-mannered Beth, her character became the youngest sister, instead of Amy. Screenwriters Sally Benson, Victor Heerman, Sarah Y. Mason and Andrew Solt made other changes. But they were so mild that in the end, the changes did not have any real impact on Alcott’s original story. Ironically, both Victor Heerman and Sarah Y. Mason wrote the screenplay for Selznick’s 1933 film. I thought Mervyn LeRoy’s direction injected a good deal of energy into a tale that could have easily bored me senseless. In fact, MGM probably should have thank its lucky stars that LeRoy had served as producer and director.

As much as I admired LeRoy’s direction of this film, I must admit there was a point in the story – especially in the third act – in which the pacing threatened to drag a bit. My only other problem with “LITTLE WOMEN” is that I never really got the impression that this film was set during the 1860s, despite its emphasis on costumes and the fact that the March patriarch was fighting the Civil War. Some might say that since “LITTLE WOMEN” was set in the North – New England, as a matter of fact – it is only natural that the movie struggled with its 1860s setting. But I have seen other Civil War era films set in the North – including the 1994 version of “LITTLE WOMEN” – that managed to project a strong emphasis of that period. And the production values for this adaptation of Alcott’s novel seemed more like a generic 19th century period drama, instead of a movie set during a particular decade. It is ironic that I would make such a complaint, considering that the set decoration team led by Cedric Gibbons won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction.

I certainly had no problems with the cast selected for this movie. Jo March seemed a far cry from the roles for which June Allyson was known – you know, the usual “sweet, girl-next-door” type. I will admit that at the age of 31 or 32, Allyson was probably too young for the role of Jo March. But she did such a phenomenon job in recapturing Jo’s extroverted nature and insecurities that I found the issue of her age irrelevant. Peter Lawford, who was her co-star in the 1947 musical, “GOOD NEWS”, gave a very charming, yet complex performance as Jo’s next door neighbor and friend, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence. Beneath the sweet charm, Lawford did an excellent job in revealing Laurie’s initial loneliness and infatuation of Jo. Margaret O’Brien gave one of her best on-screen performance as the March family’s sickly sibling, Beth. Although the literary Beth was the third of four sisters, she is portrayed as the youngest, due to O’Brien’s casting. And I feel that Le Roy and MGM made a wise choice, for O’Brien not only gave one of her best performances, I believe that she gave the best performance in the movie, overall.

Janet Leigh, who was a decade younger than Allyson, portrayed the oldest March sister, Meg. Yet, her performance made it easy for me to regard her character as older and more emotionally mature than Allyson’s Jo. I thought she gave a well done, yet delicate performance as the one sister who seemed to bear the strongest resemblance to the sisters’ mother. Elizabeth Taylor was very entertaining as the extroverted, yet shallow Amy. Actually, I have to commend Taylor for maintaining a balancing act between Amy’s shallow personality and ability to be kind. The movie also featured solid performances from supporting cast members like Mary Astor (who portrayed the warm, yet steely Mrs. March), the very charming Rossano Brazzi, Richard Stapley, Lucile Watson, Leon Ames, Harry Davenport, and the always dependable C. Aubrey Smith, who died not long after the film’s production.

Overall, “LITTLE WOMEN” is a charming, yet colorful adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel. I thought Mervyn LeRoy did an excellent job in infusing energy into a movie that could have easily sink to sheer boredom for me. And he was enabled by a first-rate cast led by June Allyson and Peter Lawford. Overall, “LITTLE WOMEN” managed to rise above my usual apathy toward Alcott’s novel.