Friday, May 12, 2017

7 x 7 x 7 (a movie(s) review post)

I first saw the original The Magnificent Seven when I was a kid. I was into westerns, possibly because Saturday TV was dominated by them and that's what I would watch if there was no one to play with, and I saw most all of the big ones at some point or other. That doesn't mean I had any significant memories of it, though. My memories are dominated by the Lone Ranger and the Rifleman with a little bit of Rowdy Yates, the Cartwrights, and Matt Dillon.

At any rate, when the new  iteration of Magnificent came out, I figured I should go back and re-watch the original, too, but let's start with the new one.
What a great cast, right?
But sometimes movies don't live up their casts, and this is certainly one of those, to no fault of the cast, though. Whoever was responsible for adapting the original failed in almost every possible way to grasp what both the original Magnificent and Seven Samurai (what Magnificent was based on) were about. I'm just going to touch on two things:

1. The villain. In Seven Samurai there is no "villain." There's a group of bandits -- yes, they clearly have a leader, but he's not an individual character -- who raid villages for their food. Why? Because they can. In the original Magnificent, there is a similar group of bandits. In that movie, the leader of the bandits is an individual character, but he's just the embodiment of "we do this because we can."

However, in the new Magnificent, I suppose they felt they needed to make the bad guy more nuanced, because they gave him "motivations." I mean, he might not really even be a "bad guy," just a guy trying to achieve noble purposes through the wrong methods. It's a big wagon full of bullshit, and it doesn't work. It doesn't make the character more "rounded" or three dimensional. Bad guys didn't and don't take what belongs to others so that they can use it to "build a better world;" they do it because they can. What we get in the new Magnificent is not a more complex villain or, even, a conflicted villain; what we get is a stupid villain.

2. The hero. Identifying "the hero" in Seven Samurai isn't as straightforward as it is to identify the hero in an American made film but, for ease of translation, we'll go with him being Kambei Shimada, the leader of the samurai defending the village. Kambei reluctantly agrees to help the villagers, but he is only reluctant because he's tired of fighting and war. He's interested in doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing (unlike the many other samurai the villagers have asked for help). Likewise, in the original Magnificent, Chris Adams (played by Yul Brynner) eventually agrees to help the townsfolk not because of the money (because it's only a token amount) but because he wants to help the villagers. He has empathy for them and wants to help. The good guys are good guys because they are good guys.

But that's just too simple, I suppose, because in the new Magnificent, they felt they needed to give the hero, Chisolm (played by Denzel Washington), "motivations" of his own, namely revenge. Really? They had to go to that? It's like people have come to believe that the only possible motivation for anyone to ever do the right thing is for the sake of revenge. So Chisolm is completely uninterested in helping the townsfolk until he discovers that the "villain" they are being threatened by is Bartholomew Bogue, with whom he just happens to have a score to settle. Well, once he finds that out, he's all in. Again, this doesn't make the character more nuanced or complex; it just makes him a selfish prick out for his own interests.

I did watch the new Magnificent first and, even before re-watching the original, I found it lackluster at best. It focuses on being flashy and having lots of guns and stunts but not much of anything else. It is especially lacking in heart. It was a waste of an excellent cast.

After watching the new one, I went back and watched the original and while, yes, it does look dated, it was a much better movie and deserves its status as a classic. Despite the use of stereotypes in both the Mexican peasants and the Mexican bandit leader, Calvera, the characters themselves are still much more believable than the ones in the remake. All in all, it's a more intimate movie, and the deaths of characters are much more meaningful.

Which brings us to the original inspiration for both movies: Seven Samurai
Considering the influence Akira Kurosawa had on George Lucas and, specifically, Star Wars, I'm sure I've not watched enough of his films. I had never seen Seven Samurai before this, for instance, and I can't even say why since it's been a movie on my to watch list for... a long time. I'm glad I finally got around to it.

To say that Seven Samurai is a more complex film than the two Magnificents would be an understatement. For one thing, the external conflict of defending the village from the bandits is not really what the movie is about. That's just the vehicle for exploring concepts of class conflict, which I have to suspect were happening in post-WWII Japan, though I'm not really versed in the Japanese history of the time. It's a movie that I believe still deserves to be being watched today...

Which is not to say that I think most people will be interested in seeing it. It's black & white and subtitled and long, all three of which are barriers to the mainstream movie-going audience. But it's full of well-rounded characters and lots of nuance.

Really, although based on Samurai, the original Magnificent is a completely different movie and different kind of movie, not less good but certainly different. Both films are worth watching. But you can skip the new version of Magnificent and not have missed anything.


  1. This is a mega-comment on the posts I missed and just read, going back to Day 20.

    The future history is really good; I keep saying that and wish I could say something other than "it's really good." Keep it up.

  2. I've been thinking a lot lately how nonfiction is a poor vehicle for "truth." Truth gets hidden behind facts, often, and when we study history or pop culture or current events or politics, the obsession with a specific fact or set of facts can often obscure the bigger truth behind it. That's the genius of fiction; it shows us the underlying truths about the big ideas that we struggle with.

    So while only a portion of Future History (does it have a name?) is 'factual' in any real sense, it has an underlying truth. Not the 'truthiness' thing Colbert started, but a truth about the way people and society and politics and economics work, really, behind the facades that include both facts and arguments.

    So I like it, and I think it's important in a way that a billion op-eds can't be. Think of this: how many people know what 'Big Brother' is, at least the idea behind it, and the themes -- the truths -- that drove Orwell to write 1984? Lots. Everyone understands the basic concept, even if people don't always get it. "Big Brother" is a truth about how society works; it demonstrates the complacency that people can find themselves being lulled into or forced into and then relaxing about.

    Your story might be the 1984 of Trumpmerica (TM).

    As for The Magnificent Seven, remakes make me sad; it's the Brandization of pop culture, but in a specifically terrible way. There's no real reason to remake the original movie. They could have made a new Western, or made a different movie entirely. But instead they simply remade -- in a homogenized and awful way -- a movie because people will buy something if they recognize the name on the label.

    The remake has made $93,000,000+ already. I didn't even KNOW IT WAS MADE until I saw it on your blog. That's how awful the movie is and how easy it is to sell someone something they recognize as a Brand.

    I saw an article the other day about how "The Godfather" couldn't get made today. I might be one of the few people ever who didn't particularly care for that movie, but I agree that it would never get made today, at all, at least not in a way that anyone would recognize as being "The Godfather" because it's not the kind of movie that can be a 'tentpole.'

    1. Briane: Well, I have to strive for Truth because I can't rely on the actual facts. And I have to be willing to bend things to retain the Truth as the facts in motion change. The scary thing to me is that this is the direction we're actually heading unless the Republicans in Congress grow some spines.

  3. Maybe that's why I find myself more and more looking to TV, and Netflix, and Hulu, for interesting things to watch (and reading more, as I'm still doing the 100 Books, or trying to.) When I watch things, I watch "Fargo," or series on Netflix and Hulu -- The Magicians, Shut Eye, Top Of The Lake -- that feel more fresh and original and interesting than most movies that come out.

    They've now made a Baywatch movie, and parodies of 1980s-90s tv shows are officially a genre (Brady Bunch Movie, Starsky & Hutch, 21 Jump Street, and now Baywatch), reselling ironic nostalgia to aging Gen Xers and Millenials. Star Wars' sequels I suppose to be fair are the same thing, or at least along those lines, which is kind of sad. (I'm not against sequels or remakes per se, mind you. If there are more stories to tell and they're good, sequels are great. If you have something new and original to say or do with a remake, then that's fine too.)

    I don't think there's a real point to this comment, other than to rant. I've been pretty busy (in a fun way) at work the last month or so, and that's good because I feel like I'm making a real difference for some people as well as enjoying life more than ever, and it distracts me from how depressing life is when I look up from my desk or stop playing with the boys.

    Then I come to your blog and get reminded that Trump is president and movies have become another product with endless iterations like flavors of Doritos, and rant for a while. But at least you do a good job of presenting them, so don't mind the grumpy old guy here.

    I had to break the comment up because word limits.

    1. Briane: As for remakes, I'm somewhat ambivalent. For instance, the remake of True Grit was amazing, but I think it was amazing because the Coen brothers didn't mess around with the story; they really changed the tone, especially the colors. I think they actually made it into a better movie. That's hard to say, though, because the original is a great movie.

      Actually, I think good remakes exist at about the same level as good original properties but, as far as movies are concerned, they (remakes and sequels) make up a greater percentage of the market than original stories.

      As for TV, well, I think that comment, right now, would be too long.

  4. I've never been that interested in westerns, but it's always disappointing when a remake doesn't live up to the original. But considering they're all Hollywood makes these days, you'll only have to wait a few years for another remake.

    1. Jeanne: Especially if it's something from DC.
      Or Sony.
      Or Fox.

  5. I was excited for the new movie as I like both originals. But the early reviews were discouraging so we didn't go. Your review helps to reassure me that I didn't miss much.

    We watched the original again recently, my daughter's introduction to Kurosawa. It's such a deliciously nuanced story and, it almost goes without saying, beautifully shot. The continuing legacy is well deserved. Someone else will try again someday.

    Now, you should go back and watch the Clone Wars "Bounty Hunters" episode. There is a "Seven Samurai" story early in Star Wars's original Marvel run, too.

    1. TAS: Well, I probably won't actually do that. I knew at the time that it was a Seven Samurai nod, but they do a lot of teaching-the-locals-how-to-defend-themselves stories.

      American remakes of foreign classics is a thing we could do better at, not for the sake of remaking, but to introduce American audiences to stories from other parts of the world.

  6. I'm not sure if it's that they've lost the meaning of the old westerns (there was a reasoning behind them, and they were reflecting the times in their own way), or if they haven't successfully "rebooted" the meanings for the current time. Unforgiven got it, but not many others have. I grew up on westerns, so I have a nostalgic love of them. I don't know if their time is done, or if the right person hasn't figured out the right way to bring them into modern times.

    1. Shannon: As I said to Briane, the Coens got it right with 'True Grit,' so I think it's more a question of the talent of the particular filmmaker.
      As far as that goes, 'Justified,' though a modern show, got the tone of being a Western just right.