Friday, August 19, 2016

Movie Review - "The Magnificent Seven" (1960)


This was a difficult watch, just like I know this is going to be a difficult review, because "The Magnificent Seven" is so incredibly close to "Seven Samurai" that it sometimes comes across as if the American version is ripping off the Japanese film, when I shouldn't be comparing the two and look at "The Magnificent Seven" on its own merits.

In a way, I'm glad I have watched "Seven Samurai" four or five times in my life before watching "The Magnificent Seven" for the first time. If I had only watched Kurosawa's samurai masterpiece once or twice, most of the similarities and respectful tributes would go over my head. If I had never seen "Seven Samurai" before this, the comparisons would be lost on me. But now I know almost every major plot point in "Seven Samurai" and can point to every key scene for its significance and how each scene is like a beautiful sand-swept painting by Kurosawa, without ever getting tiresome.

The story of "The Magnificent Seven" follows a small Mexican town being constantly attacked and pillaged by Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his bandits. The townspeople decide they will not stand for this crimes anymore and that they must protect themselves by hiring bodyguards. As some of the townsfolk head across the border to a nearby town, they come across Chris Adams (Yul Brynner), who is more than willing to protect the village. Chris eventually gets assistance from six other cowboys, including Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen), Britt (James Coburn) and Bernando O'Reilly (Charles Bronson).

While the comparisons to "Seven Samurai" are unavoidable, I think that's what "The Magnificent Seven" was going for. Keep in mind this came out in 1960, when you couldn't see "Seven Samurai" unless you had an indie or foreign movie theater or lived in Japan. But American film studios loved "Seven Samurai" and wanted to share its story of a gang of misfits protecting a village for no reward with the rest of the world, and found this was the best way to share that experience.

There are many scenes in "The Magnificent Seven" that are direct copies from "Seven Samurai," including the introduction of Charles Bronson and James Coburn's characters, while also giving us a slightly different interpretation of Yul Brynner's introduction, while still laying the ground work of how calm and calculating his character is, much like Takashi Shimura's leader.

Strangely enough, the runtime for "The Magnificent Seven" is about half the length of "Seven Samurai," yet it still feels like every major scene in the Japanese film is covered here, including the rouge and hot-blooded character giving his grand speech about how cowboys/samurai's make peasants want to take up weapons just to defend themselves.

But the biggest improvement "The Magnificent Seven" has is its villains. "Seven Samurai"'s bandits got the job done, but they were the most basic and undefined villains you can think of - they steal, kill and burn down villages, that's about it. But now we get a grandiose performance from Eli Wallach, who played Tuco in "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly," who loves to drone on about how much he loves his lifestyle and believes he is being grateful to the villagers. He is so full of himself that you love seeing his grin that shows off is silver tooth, and you want to see these cowboys gun him down for being the biggest bastard around.

Overall, "The Magnificent Seven" is a wonderful homage to an even better movie. I keep going back and forth on whether I should compare this movie to "Seven Samurai" or let it stand on its own, but I think as both an adaptation and a captivating western. It brings a foreign product to American audiences in a way we can understand it, while still giving us the best parts of "Seven Samurai." Yet the film still stands on its own, powered by many great performances from Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Eli Wallach.

Final Grade: A-

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Movie Review - "3:10 To Yuma" (1957)


There's a strange sense of claustrophobia in the open air throughout this black-and-white western, "3:10 To Yuma," as Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) has to transport a well-known criminal and killer, Dan Evans (Van Heflin) from his small town to the train station, while being pursued by Dan's gang. All the while, Dan tries to persuade Ben to join his side and let him go free for a large sum of money, and eventually resorting to threats against Ben's wife and how badly Ben treats her.

The cinematography is what sells "3:10 To Yuma," through its crisp and deep focus lens, where everything is clear and distinct, even something far in the distance, so that you know what Dan's murderous gang is on the horizon. Most of the film is Glenn Ford and Van Heflin going back and forth about their life stories, with Dan showing Ben that they're not so different, while Ben is trying to make a living while setting a good example for his family. All the while, Ben never takes his eyes off Dan, always with a slight intent that he might kill him with his shotgun that he keeps a firm grip on.

The danger is always present in "3:10 To Yuma," and its rarely from Dan's gang. The space around Ben keeps getting tighter, as his moral compass begins to drift. He could take the money Dan is offering him, but he'd let a guilty man walk away. He could kill Dan and end all this suffering, making everyone's life easier. At times, the law of west begins to take hold, and Ben is constantly in a battle with himself and the times he lives in.

Final Grade: B

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Movie Review - "Star Trek: Beyond" (2016)


Strangely enough, I haven't had much of an opportunity to discuss my love of Star Trek before. I consider myself a much bigger fan of Star Trek over Star Wars, as the journey that the many crews of the Enterprise embark on has always been far more fascinating to me. Perhaps its the overly optimistic outlook on the future and the constant need to explore the unknown. Or maybe characters like Spock, Data and Kirk feel so close and yet larger than life at the same time. Either way, Star Trek is my choice the better space opera.

But it seems that the perception of what Star Trek stands for has changed over the last few years, thanks in large part to the updated films from J.J. Abrams, with their sleek lens-flared look, and a distinct focus on action over exploration of space, something that Gene Roddenberry would probably disapprove of, which pisses off a lot of Trek fans. Then again, the last few seasons of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and all of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" goes against the Roddenberry ideal of a perfect utopian future, by basically saying there is no such thing as a "perfect" utopia, so it's not like Abrams broke new ground by doing something different from Roddenberry.

I enjoyed the 2009 "Star Trek" remake, even if it did feel far more like a Star Wars film at times than a Trek movie. "Star Trek: Into Darkness," however, felt like a genuine Star Trek film and had some of the best writing of any Trek movie, until the last 20 minutes when it felt like ripping off "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" and everything got thrown into a blender on the highest setting.

Which brings us to the newest film in the franchise, "Star Trek: Beyond," the first of this rebooted universe to not be directed by J.J. Abrams, passing that task off to Justin Lin, the director of most "Fast and Furious" movies. As I heard about the production for "Beyond," I was immediately turned off from the picture for a few reasons. One was Lin, whose style with the "Fast and Furious" movies and their action-junkie heavy story lines didn't seem to mix with the overall themes of Star Trek. The other was the first trailer, with its emphasis on high-paced action, supporting that Lin was taking the film in far different direction, and the trailer showing the death of one of my favorite characters in this rebooted series - the Enterprise.


But then I heard about the overall positive reception "Star Trek: Beyond" was receiving and decided to give the film a chance to impress me. I was not disappointed by what I witnessed.

Set a few years after the events of "Star Trek: Into Darkness," the crew of the Enterprise is now nearly three years into its five-year mission of exploring deep space, and most of the crew is starting to get restless, especially its captain, James Kirk (Chris Pine). After the Enterprise docks at an advanced Federation starbase, Yorktown, an escape pod arrives with an alien captain begging someone to go save her crew. The Enterprise is sent in to investigate, but is attacked by a swarm of alien ships that disable and destroy most of the ship, forcing the crew to flee and end up on the planet, stranded by the evil alien Krall (Idris Elba).

The screenplay for "Star Trek: Beyond" was co-written by Simon Pegg, who plays Scottie in these films. And while the script is not as tight and focused as it was with "Into Darkness," this one does capture the fun and imagination that comes with science fiction and deep space exploration. The two characters that get the most screen time here are Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), who are stranded on the planet together and have to find their way back to the rest of the crew. The two do nothing but butt heads the entire time, as McCoy loves to make up expressions and metaphors, while Spock is cold and logical, unable to accept McCoy's southern sayings.


Being stuck in this situation, where they have to rely on each other to get off the planet and save Yorktown, helped to build the comradery between these crew members, something the previous two films were lacking. In those films, it was just accepted that they were friends, but here we see the relationships building, as Spock and McCoy grow to respect one another, and Kirk learns about the many survival skills of his crewmates, especially Chekov (Anton Yelchin).

I would describe "Star Trek: Beyond" as a combination of "Star Trek: Into Darkness," with many of the same themes of isolation, loyalty and the purpose of the Federation, and "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," as we watch the crew try to survive in an unfamiliar environment and have to lean on each other to get through it all.

But "Beyond"'s advantage is the overall care-free nature to what the actors want to do. Aside from Pegg writing the screenplay, John Cho, who plays Sulu, chose to give his version of Sulu a husband an adopted daughter, as an homage to the original actor who played Sulu, George Takei. There's a scene where Chris Pine rides around a motorcycle while aliens shoot at him, only to fooled by holographic projections. It comes across like the actors got to pick and choose what they wanted their characters to be like, instead of being told how they're supposed to act through the script. It makes their reactions feel genuine when something terrible happens, since they're just as invested in their performance as we are watching it.

This made "Beyond" seem unpredictable in a way, where the actors could ad lib any lines they wanted to, without fear of going against what the director wants. In a way, Justin Lin was a great choice to direct, since he allowed the actors to make the movie they wanted to make, instead of the movie he wanted.


There are also some wonderful science fiction elements on display here that I haven't seen since "Inception," in particular with Yorktown, the newest and most advanced Federation starbase. Yorktown is made up of numerous rings in the style of an Escher painting, screwing with your sense of perspective and making you question where one ring ends and the next one begins. I was blown away by how many massive skyscrapers were on this base, and if you looked up you could see another city...or are you looking down on that city?

Supposedly, there are over a thousand different species of aliens living in Yorktown, all coexisting together in a place that would make Christopher Nolan's head spin. This was one of the most original place I've seen in a while, and all while still being loyal to Gene Roddenberry's idea of a utopia.

Overall, I really enjoyed "Star Trek: Beyond," even if it did kill off the Enterprise rather quickly. The care-free atmosphere throughout the film helped give the film a more laid-back and easy-going feel, where the actors contributed far more to the film than the director did, while still feeling like a Star Trek movie. There was just enough innovative science fiction on display to keep the audience interested and the characters were a joy to witness as always. This one might be the best of the rebooted film franchise, as it pleases hardcore Trek fans and the general film-goings audiences alike.

Final Grade: B+