The Magnificent Seven Review

I guess Westerns are back. With the surprise hits of Slow West and Salvation back in 2015, and the utterly amazing Bone Tomahawk earlier this year, Westerns are getting both commercial and critical acclaim (let’s just all forget The Lone Ranger, yeah?) And now for one of the most high-profile Westerns ever created, now remade.

The Magnificent Seven stars Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier and is directed by Antoine Fuqua, The story follows a bounty hunter (Washington) who wrangles up a posse to protect a town from a dastardly industrialist (Peter Sarsgaard).

The director, Antoine Fuqua, is the man behind films such as Training Day, Tear of The Sun and The Equalizer. Gritty “guy movies” about competent bad-asses who give and receive gruelling punishments while also being actually good films rather than silly pabulum like the Taken sequels or anything by the director Luc Besson. And with The Magnificent Seven, he’s continuing his trend of macho-action blockbusters without much fail.

The actors are well cast. Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt are doing roles they could do in their sleep, smaller roles for veteran actors such as Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio and a breakout action female role for Haley Bennet. The best though are Byung-hun Lee as assassin Billy and Martin Sensmeier as Red Harvest, a Comanche warrior. Both are relative newcomers (Lee is a star in Asia but not Hollywood) but they are perfect in their roles as ultra-capable killers and are seemingly born to be action stars. Look out for these two later on in Hollywood.

The action is explosive and bloody, but Fuqua is a master at capturing the gunfights, which play out more like opera or music, with a great rhythm to the hits and bullets. The sound design is good, you can feel the weight behind the bullets, instead of just sound effects. The first skirmish is split evenly, with each character showing off their abilities. This where the previously mentioned Lee and Sensmeier shine, with their respective weapons of knives and bows. The second and final fight takes up the last half an hour and while it make become a little repetitive after a while, the final five minutes, when our heroes are beaten down and battered, is a high point of emotion-driven action.

There are also tense standoffs, in saloons and deserted streets near the beginning, and again, they are shot very well. You can feel the rhythm of the shots building up, as the film draw close to a shootout. It’s not a slow-burn tension of say, Anthropoid. It’s much more geared towards a popcorn entertainment, but it’s still created well.

The story is a little clichéd, with nothing really standing out or subverting trends in scriptwriting. The scriptwriter is Nic Pizzolatto, the creator behind True Detective. Despite that excellently written former work, M7 comes nowhere close to it. There aren’t many stand-out lines and the plot points feel like 101 scriptwriting. There are obligatory break-up/make-up sections and back-stories to characters that feel tacked on/aren’t explored. One of the main characters has a personal connection to the villain, and if we had learnt about it earlier it could have injected the third act with some human drama about sacrificing innocents for revenge. But no, it’s done away with in a few lines, sloppily added in just because it was on a generic story checklist.

In the end, The Magnificent Seven is a well-done popcorn earner. The little generic traits and standard story conventions are easy to point out, but the action and the actors are what make it a highlight. It doesn’t stand with Seven Samurai (the story M7 was based on) but it probably stand there with the original.

Score: 7/10 Not magnificent, but solid entertainment.

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Hell Or High Water Review

Sicario was one of the highlights of last year. A dark, twisting film about an extra-legal team from the FBI trying to shut down the drug cartels in Mexico. So when writer of Sicario, Taylor Sheridan, name came up in the pre-release buzz around Hell Or High Water, my interested picked up. Are we in for another grim treat?

Hell Or High Water stars Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham and is directed by David Mackenzie. The film follows a pair of bank-robbing brothers (Pine and Foster) who after several daring heists are chased by a determined aging Texas Ranger (Bridges).

The three leads are tremendous, a sure reason to go see Hell or Water. Just like other great suspense heist films such as Heat, we see both sides of the law, seeing their wins and losses, with us rooting for both cop and criminal. Jeff Bridges does his usual “too old for this” schtick. He even says that this is his last case (an all too common trope), but he is still an interesting character. Chris Pine and Ben Foster work well together as brothers Toby and Tanner, they have a good back-and-forth, whether it be during the getaway or back home on the ranch. Pine sheds his usual douchy persona and brings a layered character, trying to provide for his family doing something that might get him killed. Ben Foster starts off as the wackier older brother, but thankfully adds more nuance to his performance rather than the played out lunatic bank-robber formula. All three sport Texan accents, which sometimes are hard to understand.

While the film is supposed to be in West Texas, it was actually filmed in New Mexico. Even so, the scenery is beautiful. Much like Sicario before it, Hell Or High Water has may long. wide shots of the never-ending landscapes and stunning setting suns. The film also makes use of the urban environments, little one-street towns and retro diners, leaving a sense of places that simply got lost in time. It gives both a feeling of modern day but also timelessness. If you swapped out the 4x4s for horses and the automatic rifles for revolvers, you would have yourself an old-fashioned Western.

The film is over 100 minutes, but none of it felt like it was dragging or padding out the run-time. The extended bank sequences, using long sweeping takes rather than conventional editing keep the excitement up as the brothers go from bank-to-bank. The film also masters the art of the “ticking-time-bomb”, having something dangerous (in this case a bank robbery) in the background, while the other characters are talking with each other, oblivious to what is happening behind them. These dual approaches to the story keep it moving rather than the slower methods or predictability of previous heist films. The plot might become apparent to more savvy watchers, but the story behind why the brothers are bank-robbing will keep you invested until the finale, with raging gun battles and car chases suiting the more action-oriented fans.

The action is rather sporadic, but it is explosive and brutal. Guns are used more for intimidation, but when bullets start flying they leave blood and brains splattered. It isn’t glorified, again, similar to Sicario, it’s more sickening than fun.

The film is completed by country music, blaring both out of the radio and as part of the soundtrack, created by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. While country may not be to my taste, it fits the film’s setting perfectly, once again creating that atmosphere of young and old merging together.

I was holding Hell Or High Water to a high standard with the list of names attached, but it easily delivered. With tense and dramatic heist sequences, beautiful scenery and supreme acting from the three leads, this is one to go and see.

Score: 9/10 They don’t make many like this anymore.

Bone Tomahawk Review

I review the big films. I review the small films. I review films I or indeed no one else had a passing interest in because I feel I have to. And then we get to the films that I like the look of. The trailer for Bone Tomahawk had piqued my interest back when I first saw it in January, so how does the whole film do?

Bone Tomahawk stars Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins and Lili Simmons and is directed by S. Craig Zahler. The film follows Sherrif Franklin Hunt (Russell) in the Old West, who leads a posse to save Arthur Dwyer’s (Wilson) wife Samantha (Simmons) from a renegade tribe.

There hasn’t been a film to make me squirm in my seat like Bone Tomahawk did. I’m a fan of ultra-violence, things like The Raid 2, Only God Forgives, even to the really explicit stuff like A Clockwork Orange, I can stomach it. Bone Tomahawk almost lost me. The opening shot is of someone getting their throat cut open, it sets the mood for the rest of the film. The sound is what makes it so disturbing. While we do get a fair few shots of guts spilling out of people or bones poking through skin, the worst ones are the moments where we just hear the squelches and crunches of someone’s body being ripped apart.

One scene in particular made me look away from the screen, something I haven’t done since probably Sicario. I’ve been trying to think of how to describe it without it coming across as gratuitous, but I’m drawing a blank every time. Just think The Texas Chainsaw Massacre turned up to eleven and you’re on the right track. All the injuries are achieved with practical effects and the filmmakers just let loose with the gruesomeness. The film earns it’s 18 certificate and wears it proudly on its blood-covered chest.

Don’t think that blood and guts is all the film has to offer. The script is very funny, with the humour being very dark. I would compare it to Tarantino’s better work (without the genre styling’s, which is a point in Bone Tomahawk‘s favour) or something like Calvary. The character’s are cynical and know that death awaits them at every turn and so they joke to keep themselves going against insurmountable odds. They only character who seems to be happy throughout the film is an almost unrecognisable Richard Jenkins as the backup deputy Chicory. His rambling tales and quizzical ponderings over life’s mysteries are fun to listen to, and a fair few had the entire screening laughing. He discusses everything from why Mexican food is the best in the world to trying to figure out how to read in the bath without getting the book wet.

The bad guys are hardly seen throughout the film, only really shown until the very end. Early on, once Samantha Dwyer has been abducted, Sherriff Hunt is informed by The Professor, a Native American who lives in his town, that the people who abducted her are, to quote, “…not Native American. They are hardly human.” He describes them as Troglodytes, cave men who have a taste for human flesh. When the film does focus in on them, they have this otherworldliness about them. They shrug off point blank gunfire, they have tusks growing out of their cheeks and their battle-cries….damn those battle-cries. It made my skin crawl every time they tipped their head to the sky and roared. If this film doesn’t get nominated for make-up/costume and sound design at next year’s Oscars then it will be a shame, because I haven’t seen anything like the Troglodytes in recent memory.

The run time is over two hours, but I can’t think of anything I would want to cut. I like my films short, but Bone Tomahawk never felt like a chore to watch.

A couple of weeks ago, I watched Point Break. When I left the cinema, I was ready to give up. That film left such a sour taste that I all I wanted in that moment was to give up reviewing films. Films like Bone Tomahawk remind me why I go to the movies every week and why I write my reviews. For those who aren’t too bothered by gore, this is your film.

Score: 10/10 Not one for the squeamish, but will become a cult classic.

The Hateful Eight Review

Okay, I’m a few days late to this one. It’s been a hard week of university work. And seeing as everyone else is still concerned over Star Wars VII, I think I deserved a little time off. But I’m back now, with The Hateful Eight.

The Hateful Eight stars Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern and is written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. The film follows The Hangman (Russell) who is escorting The Prisoner (Leigh) to claim a bounty reward. They are snowed in a cabin with six other characters, where one character is lying in wait to spring The Prisoner free.

As usual, the acting is great. The eight main players are good, with Walton Goggins as The Sheriff and Bruce Dern as The Confederate being my favourites. Tarantino also gets amazing work out of the smaller roles, populated by Channing Tatum and Zoe Bell. Tarantino is known for getting actors to perform at their peak level, and they’re all doing first-class work.

Tarantino writes the script and while he still includes his usual screenwriting quirks, he manages to add some new features to his already over-stuffed screenplay. Gone are the overt references to genre cinema, instead we get a really tense, really moody and really thought-out film where the silences are just as good to listen to as the ten minute long conversations and Jackson soliloquies. Tarantino even jumps in and has some dialogue himself, narrating events after the film’s interval, and in between chapters.

The set-up could easily be thought of as Reservoir Dogs in a Western, but it’s a lot more complex than that. In Reservoir Dogs, we all know who the liar is, but in The Hateful Eight, Tarantino manages to keep it quiet until the very last minutes. Lines are drawn in the snowed-in cabin that the characters have settled in, with the barriers being Union vs. Confederacy, black vs. white and in the end, whether you’re a decent human being or not. Tarantino draws the audience in on these encounters, to the point where we’re pointing fingers in our mind, trying to figure out who the culprit is. It’s a film that you’ll probably want to watch twice just to see if you find all the clues that the director leaves out for us.

Ennio Morricone, famed composer of several Spaghetti Westerns, takes music duties and gives us one of most suspenseful soundtracks of all time. Taking cues from his tracks that didn’t make it into John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing as well as reusing a track from The Exorcist II, Morricone’s music choices seem to be horror directed, which ends up being the major factor that makes the film so tense and enjoyable to watch. The film could almost be a companion piece to The Thing, as both feature Kurt Russell, Morricone, snow and clawing sense that nobody says who they really are.

The film starts with a beautiful long shot of snow-covered Wyoming. We see a small dot in the distance, a station wagon, and as it gets closer, Morricone’s music comes in and just like Jed Kurzel did with last year’s Macbeth, the music adds a tremendous amount to the scene.

Just like all of Tarantino’s work, the film has problems in its length. While it was novel to have an interval in the middle and definitely added to the second half of the film, it’s the first half of the film that really drags it’s feet. We spend half an hour with Russell, Jackson and Leigh (two chapters out of six) before we even get to the main stage of the film. And while some of Tarantino’s dialogue is good to listen to, I have to admit, it’s stuff that we’ve all really seen before and heard it better in his other films. But apart from that, there really is no other problems with the film.

When I first saw the trailer for The Hateful Eight, I wasn’t too thrilled. I thought that Tarantino had had his time and that this one wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as his older filmography. But soon enough, all my reservations were swept aside and I was watching one of Tarantino’s best films.

Score: 8/10 The score is pretty appropriate for the film. But in all seriousness, it’s been a long time that I’ve seen a film so suspenseful.

Now that you’ve finished The Hateful Eight review, why don’t you come look at the review of the rest of Tarantino’s films?

Slow West Review

After a long hiatus, Western’s seem to be coming back into our cinemas. While some like The Lone Ranger have been shameless cash-ins, others like Salvation have been critical successes. Will Slow West, the newest entry into the Western genre, be one of the latter, or will it fail to ignite audiences?

Slow West stars Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smitt-McPhee, Caren Pistorius and Ben Mendelsohn, with John MacLean both writing and directing. The story follows a young boy called Jay (Smitt-McPhee) as he travels from Scotland to the west of America to find his love Rose (Pistorius) when she flees for her life. On his way he encounters the dangerous Silas (Fassbender) and his old gang.

The set-up is one of the most basic of stories. It’s basically the one hundereth retelling of Romeo and Juliet, this time set in the Wild West. That Wild West (represented here by New Zealand) however is beautiful. Throughout the film our heroes and villains trek through several miles of desert and forest, so we see several stunning landscapes which are breathtaking. Credit is due to cinematographer Robbie Ryan for capturing these shots.

Slow West flips between the trek from east to west of America with Silas and Jay and then back to Scotland to Jay and Rose, their supposed blossoming relationship and the act that makes Rose flee along with her father. The back-story is interesting and engaging, before we are catapulted back to the main story. Even though flipping back to a “shameful escape” it’s an overused trope of storytelling, the Scottish seaside that we see is just like the New Zealand Wild West, beautiful and for a few moments, actually breathtaking.

The film is near silent most of the time, with only small interupptions by Kodi Smitt-McPhee which are soon silenced by a death stare given off by Michael Fassbender. For a time the film does starts to just feel like a travelogue of New Zealand with some period costumes thrown in, but what it is a build up to a final third act gun battle that is spectacular.

The final shootout is one of the most well directed shootouts I have seen since John Wick. With a contrast of wooden prairie houses, wheatfields, and wide open expanses all being used for the shootout and with none of them feeling out of place, and with five different parties playing a violent game of whack-a-mole in the wheatfield, it’s a memorable scene to watch. It’s even at moments bloody, with gaping bullet wounds adorning both our heroes and villains. There is even a small little Star Wars reference with the last kill. Once we have our last man/woman standing, we get a run-down of all the bodies left in the wake of not just the final shootout, but all of the unattended and unburied bodies that have been littered throughout the film, from the final scene to the very first. it’s a solemn reminder of the bloody death that the Wild West will deliver you if you are not alert.

The film is as the name implies, a slow build, and this is where some of the audience might be left in wanting. At 84 minutes, the film is pretty short for most cinema releases, but with only the final ten minutes being the pay off for over an hour of build up, some audience members might feel cheated. This isn’t your old-skool John Wayne style cowboy flick, or an irreverent Django Unchained style murder-fest. It’s a slow, artsy think piece with the trappings of cowboy stereotypes.

In summary, Slow West is a film that will not be for everyone. It’s slow pace, near mute characters and constant build up to the final scene will definitely alienate some viewers. But if you stick with it you will find one of the most artistically beautiful and best films of the year.

Score: 9/10 Destined to be a classic in the Western genre