The Magnificent Seven (****) is star power at its best

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Magnificent 7 – 2016

Director Antoine Fuqua
Screenplay Nic Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk based on Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa,
Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Starring  Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-Hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard, Matt Bomer, Sean Bridgers

In all fairness, I didn’t really care to see this movie. Washington has been in several good but nowhere near great films lately and I thought I would wait until it was released on video. When I came upon an extra 4 hours, I decided it was the best thing I hadn’t seen yet to pass the time. It was a grand decision.

Let’s be clear, nothing I watched in the span of 133 minutes is anything close to original. It’s the basis of most of the Westerns ever released, even if this version is properly accredited to Kurosawa’s original classic.

What one gets in a movie like this is the opportunity to try on a comfortable story with the flavors of the moment. The two primary ingredients this time, Washington and Pratt, are given the privilege of filling well worn characters with their own version of the trope. They are marvelous, but surprisingly aren’t even the best performers in the story.

That honor is awarded to Bennett and Lee. Who they play is not as important as how they play the roles. Both are fearless in attacking their roles with a fierceness rarely seen in retread stories. Bennett is the wronged woman Emma Cullen, stepping up when everyone steps back. She’s never expected her life to be rolled over by the likes of Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard) and she’ll be damned if she takes it laying down, like the rest of the residents of her mining town Rose Creek are all too willing to do. Emma heads to the nearest town in search of help. She ends up with Warrant Officer Sam Chisolm (Washington), who accepts the opportunity at vengeance because he wants a crack at Bogue.

Chisolm gathers up the dangerously loquacious Josh Faraday (Pratt) and together they gather the United Nations of anti-heroes to come along and help. This group includes Hawke’s dangerous yet shell shocked sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux. Robicheaux just happens to be doing the Every Which Way But Loose tour with his friend Billy Rocks (Lee). To say Rocks is good with knives would be like saying Quigley’s only good with rifles. Frankley, the dude can master every type of weapon imaginable.

By far the strangest addition to the group is D’Onofrio’s grizzled old kook trapper Jack Horne. The tone of voice used from the onset is shades of latter day Brando. That voice morphs into something different, but equally indecipherable when they get to Rose Creek. As much as he needs subtitles to be understood, D’Onofrio has mastered the skill of holding the camera’s gaze. It’s not a wasted performance by any means. Let’s just say I had to acquire the taste.

Mexican outlaw (Garcia-Rulfo) is represented as more than an a brown person with an accent. His character is given some gravitas and actually fits in well with Pratt’s goofball persona, without losing any of his stoic demeanor.

Only the rogue Comanche (Sensmeier) comes closest to being a trivia question here. His motivations are never clear enough to explain his desire to join the group, especially after nearly every one of them pulls a gun on him at first meeting when it’s obvious he’s not a threat in the slightest.

Pratt makes a bit of a comeback here, after floundering a bit with Jurassic World. Even if he’s merely a more dangerous version of Star Lord, he gets the best moments of the script and never flounders the opportunity.

Washington, as usual, gets the straight man role and flourishes. He’s not been a supporting actor in so many years, it’s hard to expect that he would develop any tics at this point. He’s got the charisma of Eastwood, but he doesn’t have to rely on a snarl. He’s the most reliable actor of the last 20 years and this is a performance that brings him glory without having to do more than flex his tiniest acting muscles. His leader outshines the one note Brenner and equals Shimura’s original. What’s most incredible is that what he’s doing doesn’t even feel like acting. It’s just who he seems to be.

Sarsgaard gives us some good old greasy evil. He’s despicable and he has style. He walks on the good side of Ribisiville. That’s a good thing, because until I saw this, I didn’t know one could pull off a stylish version of Ribisi.

The best thing about this story is Lee. He continues to shine in everything he’s in. He exceeds the grasp of his caricature here. He’s just supposed to throw knives. Instead he brings charisma to every scene he’s in, while bringing depth to Hawke’s already good performance. He is the spice that moves the needle to near greatness.

Fuqua continues to succeed in Hollywood, when critics keep comparing him to Denzel’s Oscar vehicle Training Day. He turns huge profits with most projects and his actors love working for him. Working with True Detective writer Pizzolato serves the best instincts of both. There is no downtime here. This is the best PG-13 violence I have witnessed in a film. It looks dangerous and the humor works without removing the tension.

Even if you are not a fan of the recent spate of pale remakes that come along with every generation, this update is worth your time. It will take a spot in my collection, to be sure. Right after Kurosawa.

(**** out of *****)

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Free State of Jones (****) – The rebellion to the rebellion

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Free State of Jones – 2016

Written and Directed by Gary Ross
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali,
Keri Russell, Brian Lee Franklin, Jacob Lofland, Sean Bridgers, Brad Carter

Who knew that there was a rebellion to the rebellion? There are several passages in Free State of Jones where it feels like one is being educated without sacrificing too much in the entertainment department. We get the feeling of a movement from the ground up in watching Matthew McConaughey move further away from stardom and closer towards investment in the character of Newton Knight, a southern Civil War deserter turned man for all people in Jones County, Mississippi.

His quest begins early enough, when he sees a young man from his town (Lofland) who is conscripted into fodder for the South. Knight does what he can to protect the boy, but, come on, what are his chances? He takes the boy back home to his family and knowing his desertion puts him in peril, decides to stay with his wife and child anyway. While there, he discovers that local forces have been confiscating from the poor and leaving the rich to continue profiteering.

He begins to go Robin Hood on these forces and it leaves him wounded and wanted and into the good graces of a band of runaway slaves. He quickly becomes one with the group, leading them to resist from the protection of the swamp.

The Siege of Vicksburg leads a large swath of the Southern army to desert and Knight’s group is there to welcome them. As the group grows, they begin to become more successful in their efforts to procure their county as a land free of the tyranny of the slaveholders who own the land and give pittance to everyone else.

Gary Ross treats the material respectfully. It’s filled with plenty of moments that every story contains, but there are also nuggets here and there revealing things about the Southern U.S. before and since the war that are borne of the horrible legacy of the Democrats that took hold of the region. This includes the strange dynamic of the Knight clan that is a direct result of the circumstances.

The story is interspersed with a court case regarding Mississippi’s miscegenation laws in the 1950’s and one of Knight’s descendants. This, along with the last 30 minutes of the movie goes some way to detract from the hopefulness exhibited earlier. The overall effect is muting, but feels authentic. This includes an genuine representation of the way Democrats of the South eliminated the rights expressed in the 15th Amendment until Republicans in the U.S. Congress helped to finally secure justice to all people 100 years after its passage.

This is the kind of film that will be hard for the Hank Williams, Jr. set to comprehend. The South that perpetrated the Civil War were predominantly plantation owners who convinced the poor in their towns to side with their cause. In showing a group of real outsiders as being the most American in spirit, it goes a fair distance in educating.

THE FREE STATE OF JONES
The journey starts here

The key role in the film outside of its main protagonist is Ali’s Moses. Through Moses, we see the absolutely integral story of the Free State of Jones. When we first see him, he has an inhumane contraption stuck around his neck. Through the removal of this sign of oppression, we see Moses grow into one that fights for his own rights through combat. Eventually as the war ends, his fight becomes more figurative, but no less worthy and definitely still lethal. Ali’s performance is something that will resonate.

McConaughey is certainly uninterested in presenting himself as a movie star. His performance stands in direct contrast to, say, DiCaprio’s overly desperate attempts and dramatization in The Revenant. Whereas that film goes out of its way to change history in order to make its protagonist the only sympathetic figure in the story, we get more from …Jones by showing Knight as an overly well meaning, slightly charismatic but also a flawed individual who has a loose understanding of marital fidelity. There are no attempts at swaying the material to make it look like he has no choice. In fact, we see that he quite clearly has options.

This reviewer will take McConaughey’s complicated and somewhat creepy Knight over the good guy with no flaws any day.

(**** out of *****)