Thursday, September 29, 2016

Don't Think Twice

                                “Has anyone had a particularly bad day?”

                                                              Review by Ken Burke

Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                      
                                              Don’t Think Twice (Mike Birbiglia)
                 
A Brooklyn improv troupe of 6 close friends struggling for a larger stage encounters internal struggles when 1, Jack, is hired for TV’s popular Weekend Live with most of the others now even more desperate for a shot at fame except for his lover/show partner, Sam, who’s increasingly content with an obscure level of success; this is a funny, serious, quirky, unique film.
                           
What Happens: 
We begin with brief, off-screen-narration (that's supported by some grainy clips) informing us that improvisational comedy began coming into its own as a separate art form in 1955; then we move on to the actual focus of this film which is an improv group, The Commune, who are working out of a small theatre somewhere in Brooklyn with 2 of the 6, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) and Sam(antha) (Gillian Jacobs), involved and living together, the others—leader Miles (writer-director Birbiglia), Allison (Kate Micucci), Bill (Chris Gethard), Lindsay (Tami Sagher)—share cramped living quarters, with all of them desperate to find work on the famous TV-sketch-comedy-show, Manhattan-based Weekend Live (an obvious clone of NBC’s extremely-long-running Saturday Night Live).  At one of their shows, which always begin with Sam serving as MC, then asking the question which also serves as the title of this posting—leading into their 1st routine prior to generating others based on requested parameters from the audience—they’re aware that Weekend Live scouts happen to be in attendance so they’re pushing themselves especially hard (with Miles barely able to contain his bitterness that he’s still competing for a bigger showcase with younger members of his troupe [he’s now 36], some of whom he initially met in the classes he teaches to supplement his meager income) but the primal unity of The Commune (based on improv’s 3 fundamental rules—(1) say “yes” to whatever leads your castmates offer, (2) it’s all about the group, (3) don’t think [with the colliery-encouragement, “There are no mistakes,” just responses to be improved upon in future shows]) is broken when Jack starts showboating with his Barack Obama-impersonation, although it does help in getting him and Sam an audition-call for Weekend Live.  They’re scheduled at close times on an upcoming afternoon, but she insists he go on ahead while she completes her focusing-routine.  Sure enough, he's added to the TV cast, although he hasn’t seen Sam until later that night during the group celebration when she admits she got there late, wasn’t even allowed to compete.

 Tensions start growing within the group because all of the others are now pressuring Jack to get them a chance to either audition (Miles did years ago, wasn’t accepted, is frantically-anxious for another chance) or to have their comic-writing-samples read in hopes of at least joining the writing team, but Jack’s sternly advised by another cast member not to make any waves with producer Tim (Seth Barrish), to instead focus on keeping his own job because tenure on the show can be quite short if he's not able to connect well with his much-bigger-audience.  Further, once Jack makes an impact in a skit playing an old-time-ticket-taker in a movie theatre then The Commune’s audiences become increasingly disappointed if he doesn’t show up for these small shows (which he now rarely has time for), so while the group’s on-stage-comedy remains as sharp as ever (these scenes are uniformly hilarious, with Birbiglia admitting in interviews that he shot them both as scripted and done as improv, without revealing which is which in the final edit) they’re getting testier with each other, especially because Lindsay comes from a wealthy family so she’s not taken seriously as struggling as hard as the rest of them while Bill’s on edge because his father’s recently been involved in a major car crash (they all go with him to visit the old man at his hospital, in Philadelphia by what I [thought I] heard but upstate NY according to an account I read).  To make matters worse, Jack’s not getting his skits onto the air so he breaks another cardinal improv rule by bringing a bit to Weekend Live that the troupe previously created on stage (it’s a hit), angering Miles so much he storms into the after-show-party at a bar, punches Jack, gets thrown out, only to find that Lindsay’s now been hired by WL as a writer (which Bill was for oh-so-brief a time years back, a short stay he still bemoans), so the troupe’s dwindling (illustrated at the start of several scenes by the original 6 chairs being set up on stage reduced one at a time before the action begins), although the quick pace and snappy editing continues successfully throughout.

 Conditions worsen as their theatre is forced to close; an attempt to rent a more upscale one doesn’t pay off as now-higher-ticket-prices severely reduce the size of their audience; Bill’s becoming bitter that life isn’t working out as he’d hoped; Allison admits her failure to finish a graphic novel that she’s been intermittently working on for years; Liz (Maggie Kemper)—an old college friend of Miles (she was the impactful performer back then)—shows up, reconnects with Miles after a breakup back at her former home but then confides that she’s pregnant; Sam also has an admission, that she never showed up for the WL audition because she’s happy in the lower-pressure, mostly-under-the-radar-life (however, she has taken over some of Miles’ improv classes, with increasing composure plus her encouragement to the students of “You gotta love each other”); Jack makes another attempt to get Sam noticed by rejoining the troupe for a night, bringing along upcoming-WL-guest-star Ben Stiller (playing himself) but response is falling flat until he has to save it with his new-star-turn-old-man-ticket-taker-routine, but she really doesn’t want the greater exposure anyway.  The Commune essentially collapses with Sam doing one last show by herself before the theatre closes for good, although Jack suddenly shows up to try to help out; they get serious in the middle of the skit, though, with her telling him that she’s happy where she is even though their romance is over.  Next, we’re wrapping it up 8 months later with all wounds healed, everyone visiting Bill, Allison, and Sam at their new theatre (in Philly or wherever, an old porno house being renovated, left to Bill when his father finally died), Jack now a more-secure-star, Liz having had her baby with Miles completing the new family, and Lindsay possibly still on the WL writing staff (but I’m still not clear on that).

So What? If Birbiglia needed another title than Don’t Think Twice to avoid some sort of copyright lawsuit with Bob Dylan (which he wouldn’t have because you can’t copyright a title, but that’s a discussion for another day) he could have called his film Fear and Loathing in Brooklyn (although he might have gotten a cease and desist order on that one from Hunter S. Thompson’s publishers at Random House) because those 2 attributes are a lot of what this oddball-yet-intriguing film is focused on, along with talent, ambition, and frustration.  Based on the trailer and the likely-dramatic-conflict-scenario for such a narrative as this one, you’re not surprised to find both the agonizing sense of personal and career loss felt by Miles as his opportunities for notable success continue to slip away—even as younger members of his troupe are getting the acceptance denied to him—as well as the rising tensions when Jack uses his more flamboyant stage presence (along with that spot-on-Obama-impersonation, although that particular Presidential bit now has only a couple more months of relevance for a topical-humor-TV-show) to get a shot at national exposure while his improv-mates are still struggling to sell tickets in small venues.  However, the unexpected drama of this film that’s far more interesting to me is Sam’s decision to skip her audition, either because she truly believes that she’s happier staying in the minor leagues or because she has a fear of failure 
(or possibly fear of success, but that goes along with the settling-for-less-explanation as related to not having to face the ongoing pressure of staying funny enough, effective enough in roles likely written for you by someone else to maintain public approval in a fickle culture where the unknown, unnoticed masses often take massive delight in the failures of those who aspire to greatness).  

 In the world of improv a flat skit goes with the territory, as audiences know how difficult it is to keep discovering comic gold within the instant-insanity of spontaneous performance so they admire whatever works well, appreciate the strenuous attempts to keep the ball bouncing as it’s slowly losing air.  With live-TV-comedy you may get sympathy votes if you blow lines or break up in the middle of a sketch once in awhile, but overall your persona needs to connect or you’re replaced faster than a receptionist who can’t handle an onslaught of phone calls in a fast-paced-office.

My apologies for the poor visual quality of some of
these photos but I didn't have much to work with.
 I can relate to Sam in her decision to stay away from the harsh, unwavering-glare of the spotlight, no matter if it’s from fear of not being accepted even at the initial stage of this next career-plateau or from a sincere desire to be content as a lower-echelon-coach of others who truly aspire to move on up to those greater heights while she just performs periodically even at times when the circumstances are far less than ideal.  Toward the ending of the film, when the rest of The Commune has chosen to concentrate on other options of somehow making it big (or at least bigger) rather than any further, futile attempts at keeping their declining group project on life-support, she brazenly takes the stage alone, admitting—after an audience prompt—that she’s “had a particularly hard day” herself so she bravely uses her own morbid situation to create a bit where she’s trapped in a well of despair (but down in a hole also), imitating the voices of her departed colleagues tossing advice to her until Jack surprisingly shows up with the intention of giving her the support publically that he’s not lately able to offer privately, although that just leads them to break out of character as well as admit the dead-end-road of their love; we don’t see anything further of that scene, but I imagine it resulted in the shortest show in The Commune’s history.  In similar fashion, I devoted the latter-half of my wage-earning-years 
(after the 1st half in dead-end-AV-support positions or being fired from teaching and media-production jobs) to a more obscure small-college-career rather than trying to leverage the tenure I eventually earned there toward a more-prominent-institution, both because I was good enough at what I was doing at the smaller placein the classroom along with a reasonable amount of decent publicationsand because I never truly had the confidence I could thrive at a large university with the constant pressures of bringing prestige through best-selling-books or sizable-research-grants.  

 Maybe Sam and I both sold ourselves short or maybe we realized that we’d already risen to our best level of achievement, with nothing to be gained from attempting to function elsewhere.  No matter; I was moved by her desire to stay true to herself, just as I could appreciate the agony of Miles and the others who felt they’d never been given a chance in their cutthroat profession to transcend a less-appreciated-art form for one with greater embrace (as well as remuneration).

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: My wife, Nina, has taken improv classes so I asked her how valid she found the situations and cast deliveries to be here, to which she gave a highly-positive-response.  (I’ve tried this only a couple of times—unintentionally on both occasions—the 1st being when I went with a couple of other faculty to accompany some Mills College theatre students on a January-term-trip to Ireland and England to explore various aspects of the performing arts with one afternoon devoted to a master class in acting which pulled all of the accompanying-adults on stage with the students to respond to a series of spontaneous set pieces; the 2nd came when Nina and I went with another couple to one of those murder-mystery-dinners, with various people in the audience recruited into character roles where I became Dr. Feelgood, with little supplied-information on my supposed-background or motives so when a cast member would start questioning me I had to come up with answers on the fly—the amazing thing about that night is I ended up with the Murder Mystery Company’s award for Best Actor, so maybe I have more potential on the stage than I ever realized [as long as I don’t have to bother with the mundane aspect of actually memorizing lines]).  Nina found the Don’t Think Twice presentations on stage (and tensions about always giving an enjoyable performance, even as you're trying to come up with something on the fly) to be very believable, which I later learned is to be expected from these actors because all except Jacobs and Micucci had done improv before, although these 2 trained furiously before filming began in order to appear relaxed on stage, quick with wit, and easily responsive to these fast-evolving-situations.  

 What’s more intriguing about this film, though, is the doubled-edged-sword of a question that looms over all of them (even Sam until she makes her opt-out-decision, as we see her intensely-practicing for the audition, trying to hone her Katharine Hepburn imitation) about whether they’ll ever break out of the so-called-minor-leagues in their quest for national exposure or whether they’ve just wasted their lives to this point in pursuing something that will neither lead to a supportive career nor prepare them for anything else (with a lifetime on Bob Dylan’s "Desolation Row" [original recording on the 1965 Highway 61 Revisited album, this performance from The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, at London’s Royal Albert Hall] looming in the shadows).

 Given that much more serious subtext—and to further my oft-visited-answer to “What should be my Musical Metaphor to speak to the ultimate impact I’ve encountered with this film?” with some further wisdom taken from Dylan’s immense repertoire (especially if you journeyed through the optional-detour at the end of the last paragraph to listen to one of Bob’s famous tunes)—I’ve gone for what I initially rejected as too-obvious for this story’s Metaphor, Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (from the 1963 The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album) for a number of reasons so please let me elaborate them for you.  To begin with, I not only tried in my own mind to reject this song as being too obvious a link to the film in question but I also preceded the screening I saw with a rejection of that idea to one of my viewing companions that the film’s title had some reference to Dylan’s song, assuming it to be purely a coincidence (or a best a pun, based on that 3rd rule of improv that I noted in the What Happens? section’s opening paragraph above: "Don't think."); then, to my surprise, I found a snippet of an instrumental version of the song played on the soundtrack toward the end of the film, so it’s clear that Birbiglia had more of my friend’s assumptions in mind than mine, giving me reason to bring much more of the full song into my commentary.  Further, there’s the reality that this bitter song speaks to heartache, a sense of betrayal, a wistful longing for a better result from a stalled relationship that’s just not going to happen because the singer’s clear to “babe” that “It ain’t no use” from several perspectives, that the now-rejected-woman who got “my heart but […] wanted my soul” is not unlike how Miles felt about Jack and Lindsay, taking the dream that he’d so longed for as they “kinda wasted [his] precious time,” so let me steer you to this live performance (I don’t know where or when) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wXYLqEpJ74 which on YouTube then flows into another, much longer rendition (especially the harmonica part) from a concert in Cardiff, Wales, U.K. on September 23, 2000 to see if these failed-romance-lyrics evoke what I’ve previously told you about the improv performers’ interactive-murky-travails in the film of Don’t Think Twice.

 Actually, in that last sentence I could have stopped at “in the film,” because the 2 titles aren’t the same, with the song importantly adding “, it’s all right,” which clearly distinguishes the 2 works in different mediums but also adds that critical comma which provides a nice conflict between the implied flow of the words and the cynical delivery of Dylan as singer.  As written (in the song’s title and lyrics) the comma after “twice” implies an begrudging acceptance of the situation by the singer to his lost love, as in the implication that their previous problems of not “talkin’ anyway,” her not “callin’ out” his name, etc. is just how love sometimes slips away, so “You could have done better but I don’t mind,” we’ll just go our separate ways because “it’s all right”; on the liner notes on the back of the original album sleeve Dylan himself says this is a misinterpretation: “A lot of people […] make it a sort of love song—slow and easy going.  But it isn’t a love song.  It’s a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel better.  It’s as if you were talking to yourself.  It’s a hard song to sing.  I can sing it sometimes, but I ain’t that good yet. […] I can make myself feel better some times, but at other times, it’s still hard to go to sleep at night.”  As time passes, Miles and the others find a path toward mutual forgiveness that allows all of them to move on in non-Commune-directions, but the depth of conflicted emotions they mix in with truly side-splitting-on-stage-comedy makes Don’t 
Think Twice into a unique, fascinating experience that I’m really happy to recommend (if you can still find it because after 10 weeks in release—I admit it took me much too long to finally see it—it’s barely made a mere $4 million, along with down to showing in just 95 theaters, so maybe keep it in mind for a future spot on your video queue), as were the 99 critics surveyed by Rotten Tomatoes with their whopping 99% positive response, along with an unusually high 83% score from another group of reviewers at Metacrtiic (details on both in the links just below).  

 There’s nothing of lasting-filmic-significance in Don't Think Twice for time-vault-purposes, but it’s still a fine little exploration about the inevitable clashes between talent and ambition, with the likely human toll to be taken once some notable upward movement finally comes along with its glorious chances for recognition and success but usually just for some in any given group, not all.*

*A last other thing to quickly note before we bid adieu until next we meet is that Miles and Liz had known each other in Naperville, IL (near Chicago), seemingly while they were theatre-major-undergrads together, which could likely have put them at North Central College (although research shows me that there are 96 colleges within 50 miles of Naperville, so maybe I’m assuming too much), which I mention only because one of Two Guys’ most faithful readers, my friend Roger Smitter, taught there for a number of years (in Communication and Media Studies, rather than Art and Theatre, though) so if this had all been real he could have caught one of what Miles describes as Liz’s stunning performances.  (Birbiglia doesn’t specify North Central College but admits he’s used Naperville just because he found the name to be funny; whaddya think of that, Roger?)
               
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
                 
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*We’re sorry to say that a Google software glitch causes every Two Guys in the Dark posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to the Summary page, but there are too many of them to go back and fix them all.  From 8/26/16 on this link is accurate, with hopefully not too much confusion caused by this latest stupid snafu from the Alphabet overlords’ programming problems.

Here’s more information about Don’t Think Twice:



https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66MzomSYpXo (29:28 interview with writer-director/actor Mike Birbiglia and actors Tami Sagher, Kate Micucci, Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key)



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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.
              
WE DO OUR VERY BEST TO PRESENT THESE TWO GUYS POSTINGS IN A VISUALLY-CONSIDERED GRAPHIC LAYOUT, BUT EXTENSIVE TRIAL-AND-ERROR HAS SHOWN US THAT UNLESS YOU’RE READING OUR REVIEWS ON A MACINTOSH COMPUTER USING MAC OS X 10.10.5 AND SAFARI 10.0 YOU’LL LIKELY SEE A SLOPPIER PRESENTATION THAN WHAT WE INTENDED (but Google Chrome 53.0.2785.116 usually comes fairly close to our intentions).  OUR APOLOGIES FOR ANY INADVERTENT MESS THAT WE HAVEN’T YET FOUND A SUCCESSFUL WAY TO CONTROL.

The Magnificent Seven [2016]

                         Remake Math: Where 3 x 7 = 3½ (of 5 stars, that is)

                                                          Review by Ken Burke

Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                     
                 The Magnificent Seven* [2016] (Antoine Fuqua)
                        
*I’ll try to clearly differentiate this current remake through context from its 1960 predecessor of the same title, but if just the title is used then I’ve referring to this new movie.
                   
In the American Old West of 1879 a small farming town is under the rigid control of a gold-mining magnate set to force them off their land so a widow (her husband killed by the chief villain) hires a gunslinger/bounty-hunter of prodigious talent for protection against the usurpers; he recruits 6 other men well-skilled in combat in an effort to defeat a army of about 200 hired by the mining-miser.
                   
What Happens: In 1879 in a unnamed state in the American Old West (some accounts claim it’s California but I recall no such statement, just that it takes 3 days on horseback to ride from the town where most of the action occurs, to Sacramento, but based on rugged scenery that reminds me more of the Nevada wildernesses [much of this movie was shot in similar regions of New Mexico] than the wooded foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains I still contend that the actual location remains ambiguous) the settlers of Rose Creek are under the harsh control of local mine owner Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) who simply takes whatever he wants—in this case, the local citizens’ land so he can continue seeking new sources of gold (which could be part of the argument for a northern CA setting, except that the Gold Rush beginning in 1848 was more to those foothills, not landscape-similar to the rugged territory of … Seven) which he'll buy from them at bargain rates or else they’ll simply be pushed off (with no help from the local law, already under Bogue’s control) or worse: when he comes to town to deliver his demands he’s confronted by Matthew Cullen (Matt Bomer), a local farmer, whom Bogue callously shoots dead in the middle of the street as a warning to others not to resist his demands, then his henchmen burn down much of the local church, emphasizing neither God nor law has much hope against the firepower of Bogue.  

 However, Matthew’s widow, Emma (Haley Bennett), takes it upon herself to find some protection for her town so she and good friend Teddy Q (Luke Grimes) seek help, offering the little gold she has to pistol-master/bounty-hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) when she comes across him in somewhat-nearby-Amador City where he’s just killed a criminal posing as a bartender, which clears out the place except for gambler/gunslinger Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt) also recruited for the task (we’ll find out at the end of this story why Chisolm’s intrigued by going after Bogue, even though it’s clear this ruthless villain can easily raise an army to defend his interests in Rose Creek).

 Chisolm and Faraday then split up to recruit a few others, with the group rounded out by former Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke)—known during the Civil War as the “Angel of Death”—and his companion, Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee)—who’s great with a gun but prefers to get up close enough to an opponent to use one of his many knives—Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo)—who accepts the offer in trade for Chisolm’s promise that when their job is complete he’ll no longer be one of the bandito’s pursuers—fierce Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier)—an outcast from his tribe but deadly with bow and arrows (he forms a bond with Chisolm as they share bites of the heart from a dead deer)—and tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), a bear of a man (the oddest of the group, with a strangely-high-pitched voice and a sense of religious mission), deadly in close quarters with a hatchet.  Built-in-tensions among the group involve conflicts between Faraday and Vasquez (because the former’s grandfather was killed by the Mexican army at the 1836 battle of the Alamo), Horne and Red Harvest (because the former’s spent much of his adult life killing Native Americans), and even Chisolm and Robicheaux (both because they were on opposite sides during the Civil War—but Chisolm saved the latter’s life by not killing him when he had the chance simply because their unexplained-any-further-previous-encounter occurred just after that war ended—and because the expert-rifleman’s so emotionally-damaged by all of his previous killing that when the confrontation with Bogue’s army finally comes he finds he cannot shoot anyone else so he leaves Rose Creek, with Emma Cullen taking his place among the townspeople hunkered-down as a ragtag-artillery-force awaiting Bogue’s onslaught).  

 Chisolm and company know that a mere 7 guns—expert as they are—are no match for the sheer number of Bogue’s troops so they try to train the Rose Creek townspeople in marksmanship (to little avail), then switch tactics to digging trenches just outside the town’s entrances to be booby-trapped with dynamite taken from the now-abandoned-mining-operation.  Some of the miners stay to help with the town’s defense, joining the settlers who’ve remained although others decide to leave before the inevitable clash with the returning-massive-forces after the overcome sheriff is sent to Sacramento to summon Bogue, following the Seven’s killing of the town’s security crew.

 While there are various short interactions among the various members of Chisolm’s gang to reveal the internal dynamics of the defenders, much of this movie’s running time is taken up with the long-feared-arrival of Bogue’s hired-guns (including his own deadly American Indian assassin, Denali [Jonathan Joss]), the ensuing battle for control of the town with severe casualties to Bogue’s army caused by the dynamite-traps and the superior gun, knife and hatchet work of the determinded-Seven (including Robicheaux, who comes riding back in toward the end of the battle, reminiscent of Han Solo’s return in Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope [George Lucas, 1977]), although Horne’s killed by Denali (himself later dispatched by Red Harvest) before Bogue unveils his ultimate weapon, a deadly Gatling gun with rapid-fire-action that cuts down many of the victimized townspeople-defenders, including Robicheaux and Rocks who’d been picking off Bogue’s troops from their perch in the burned-out-church-tower.  Faraday takes it upon himself to ride out to the gun’s location (absorbing several direct hits from Bogue’s men along the way), then through one of his sleight-of-hand-tricks, lights a dynamite stick to blow it up (himself in the process).  By the time Bogue and his few remaining henchmen come into the town (his guardians are soon killed), the final confrontation is set between him and Chisolm, who then tells him (and us) that this defense of Rose Creek was personal all along because of a previous Bogue-mandated-slaughter of homesteaders that included Chisolm’s mother and sister, along with an attempt to hang him.  Just as Chisolm’s in the process of choking his adversary in the ruins of the church, Bogue’s slipping a small gun out of his boot; we hear a shot, initially implying Chisolm’s death but it turns out to be Emma’s rifle, as she avenges her husband by shooting Bogue.  While the townspeople begin to piece their lives back together, the story ends with a shot of the 4 grave markers of the Seven killed in battle as Chisolm, Vasquez, and Red Harvest ride away, maybe to join forces or maybe to go their separate ways.

The Magnificent Seven, 1960
So What? I’ve seen both source films for this latest action movie, Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954) and the 1st version of The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960)*, but I’ll offer no attempt to say I remember much about something I watched close to 5 decades ago; however, to help any of you who need to know something about their similarities to or the differences from the current Magnificent Seven I’ll steer you to this site which goes into extensive, useful detail on all 3 of them.  Obviously, both the Sturges and Fuqua versions have a fundamental difference from the Kurosawa original in they’re set in the American Old West (although, curiously enough, based on current political rhetoric about Mexico and protecting our supposedly-porous-U.S. border from undocumented Hispanic immigrants, the Sturges version takes place in Mexico where the hired guns ride across that border to protect a poor village from the domination of a bandit gang) while his occurs in 1586 Japan with ronin swordsmen (jobless samurai, no longer in service to a master during this time of political/economic turmoil).  Beyond that, most of the general plot’s the same, although characters change or are merged over time, with a clear-critical-consensus that Kurosawa’s version (at least the restored 3-hour, 27-min. one) is a masterpiece, Sturges’ revision is a highly-respected-example of the waning days of the old Hollywood Studio System, while Fuqua’s remake of Sturges’ approach (with some closer affinity to Kurosawa) is at best a decently-made-homage to the western genre (at least it’s a true western, unlike attempts to pin that description on a bank-robbery-spree set in contemporary west Texas in the marvelous Hell or High Water [David Mackenzie; review in our August 26, 2016 posting], which to me is more akin to Bonnie and Clyde [Arthur Penn, 1967] than what we’re watching in either Magnificent Seven).  Speaking of past reviews, I’ll also refer you to my account of the new Ben-Hur (Timur Bekmambetov; review in our August 26, 2016 posting) for considerations about why filmmakers should even consider remakes of classic movies, beyond the financial hopes of merging familiarity with current marquee names.

* To help bring these older films into context here are trailers for Seven Samurai and 1960's The Magnificent Seven to give you a sense of their content if you've not seen one or both of them.

 While I’ll agree (even based on foggy memory that feels right at home in both London and San Francisco’s celebrated-atmospheric-conditions) that this new Magnificent Seven is no threat to the memories of what it’s based on, it was still a nice sense of comfort to this moviegoer of a certain age (one that started way back in 1947) to begin the screening with the familiar logos of MGM’s Leo the Lion and Columbia’s Torch Lady (along with the names of  actual contemporary-production-companies such as the familiar Las Vegas-type-sign of Village Roadshow Pictures now joining these distribution giants) followed by a full-immersion into a genre that once was the staple of popular Hollywood entertainment as well as providing marvelous opportunities for the directorial-development of masters of the form such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sam Peckinpah (with his brutal telling of The Wild Bunch [1969], that film also involving Americans who end up freeing a group of Mexican locals but this time from the dictatorial actions of a corrupt army officer, even though they came south of the border by chance as they were bank robbers themselves, attempting to escape more effective methods of detection and tracking in the early 20th century), and Clint Eastwood both as actor and director (although Conner Schwertfeger argues that this contemporary remake of the protection of a community requiring “the kindness of strangers” shouldn’t have been done again as a western but instead put into a different format entirely [as Sturges did, although it’s clear that samurai warriors and western gunslingers have characteristics that lend themselves to parallels, especially in tales of defense of the weak], something more appropriate for 21st-century-tastes).

 Whatever value you think Schwerdtfeger’s brief argument has about a rethought-setting for this remade-story, if you’re open to Fuqua’s decision to simply retell it in the milieu of the western genre then I think you’ll find this version of The Magnificent Seven does a lot to honor that grand cinematic heritage although unless you already know his many references you may not fully appreciate what’s being evoked in these homages.  Certainly if you have had any previous familiarity with the time-and-audience-honored-notable appearances/ noble-attributes of this narrative tradition—or even if not, because certain aspects of this filmic-approach immediately become self-evident—you’ll recognize the use of an imposing landscape (reminiscent of the rugged desert terrain of John Ford’s work in Monument Valley of the southwest U.S. rather than the wooded-mountain-vistas of Shane [George Stevens, 1953] or Unforgiven [Eastwood, 1992]), the majestic music that accompanies the gathering of heroes as they ride across the plains to their fateful destinies (note my Musical Metaphor comments in the next section of this review regarding Elmer Bernstein’s famous score for the earlier Magnificent Seven or recall that the soundtrack for Stagecoach [Ford, 1939] won its year’s Oscar for Best Music (Scoring) as did High Noon's [Fred Zinnemann, 1952] soundtrack, along with Best Song for "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling," so that the technical aspects of this popular genre aren’t always just functional in support of their stories, as shown by both High Noon and Unforgiven’s Oscars for Best Editing); speaking of editing, there’s also the marvelous juxtaposition of shots in the new Magnificent Seven to create a high-sense-of-tension when the Seven first ride into Rose Creek to confront Bogue’s corrupt crew of “lawmen” before the rapid pace of their quick deaths, along with other dynamic uses of this production tool later to juxtapose the chaos in the streets when Bogue’s army arrives with the fear of the town’s children hidden in a dark cellar (all reminiscent of the fabulous “train arrival” montage in High Noon as Marshall Will Kane [Gary Cooper] anticipates his possible death with the arrival of outlaw Frank Wilson [Ian MacDonald] on the noon train, juxtaposed with shots of other characters in the film awaiting the showdown, with tension building as we revisit locations and faces associated with this conflicted town’s refusal to help out Kane in his moment of crisis).

 However, beyond the above sample of easily-understood-elements that helped make the western genre so popular for several decades of the old Hollywood era we also get a selection of several inclusions in the new Magnificent Seven intended to reference specific classics from that time (and a couple of others that come later in cinematic history but are intended as commentary—or deconstruction, as we in academia often use this scrutinizing-term—on that former tradition, with its long-standing-but-now-critiqued-underlying-assumptions of heroic action).  Because I can’t cite anything specific from the 1960 Magnificent Seven (due to memories “as faded as my jeans,” as Bobby McGee might say*), I don’t know if any of these connections were also included in the Sturges’ version, so I’ll just note the following as conceptual links between aspects of this new … Seven and several of its well-known-predecessors:  from High Noon we have the community meeting in the church debating whether to stand against the violence of an outside threat or simply let time take its course, as well as the ending where a woman (in the case of this earlier film, Grace Kelly as Kane’s wife, Amy) shoots a villain that’s about to kill the primary hero; from Shane we get the concept of an outsider gunman (Alan Ladd) willing to take on the protection of a small homesteader-town from the iron rule of a rich landowner (a cattle-baron in that case, Rufus Ryker [Emile Meyer]); from Stagecoach (Ford, 1939) we get the concept of a group of strangers (including a lawman, an outlaw, a gambler, a former Confederate) thrown together to find survival against a common enemy (although these travelers across hostile territory only agree to continue their dangerous journey once the situation is thrust upon them rather than willingly entering into it from the start) along with a final showdown 
between the primary hero and villain.  From The Wild Bunch we get the use of a military-grade-machine-gun, although in this film it becomes a weapon against the corrupt army of Gen. Mapache (Emilio Fern├índez) rather than an instrument of vicious assault against the poor outgunned Magnificent … protagonists; from Unforgiven we get the concept of paid revenge against an injustice (the maiming of prostitute Delilah [Anna Levine] that brings William Munny [Eastwood], Ned Logan [Morgan Freeman], and the Schofield Kid [Jaimz Woolvett] into battle against the fascistic-rule-of-law set up by “Little” Bill Daggett [Gene Hackman] and his deputies) along with another final clash of protagonist and antagonist over a grievous action (Bill’s tortuous killing of Ned).  I’m sure there could be more citations to be found from other notable westerns, but I think I’ve made my point as to how this new telling of The Magnificent Seven honors the overall memory of the movies’ western genre, even if it doesn’t truly extend it all that much.

*We’re not ready for a Musical Metaphor in this review yet, but given this song’s relevance to the western’s theme of a strong individual’s determination to take action for both personal integrity and the good of others in the community, you might want to give a listen anyway.  It’s written by Kris Kristofferson in 1969 but likely is most famous for Janis Joplin’s version (from her 1970 Pearl album) so give a listen if you like to her performance at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6iX-EcRKXJw, a particularly-significant-video for me because I was at the out-in-the-country-concert referenced at the beginning of it to celebrate her mentor in Austin, TX, Kenneth Threadgill, at a birthday party for him a few months before her 1970 death.  This footage isn’t from that night (apparently none exists nor did she actually sing this song then because she recorded it just before she died), but what is shown is certainly reminiscent of what I was privileged to see and now wistfully think about in context of the memories and longings in this review of the new version of The Magnificent Seven.

Bottom Line Final Comments: To fully understand how Fuqua’s rendering of The Magnificent Seven fits into the larger context of cinema’s western genre you need to understand the immense heritage of the foundational myth of the “garden vs. the desert” that underlies not only these movies but also, in general, the whole concept—myth, some would say—of the United States of America as a nation of pioneers (here’s where the myth automatically butts against the reality of the Europeans and Hispanics who forced their way into territory already occupied by other people for millennia) who boldly found their way into the wilderness from their original settlements on the Eastern Seaboard.  This “Manifest Destiny” idea (as well as ideal) in our history, literature, and various forms of popular culture pits the “garden”—civilization, with its laws, rigid religious assumptions, weight of historical implications and social expectations, the East with all of its implications of technological/cultural superiority but with the burden of conforming to that heritage—against the “desert”—the untamed frontier that combined the danger of physical elements (including resistance from those displaced Native Americans), the unknown around the next bend, the difficulty of establishing new settlements in places where the infrastructure needed to be built one thing at a time but also the open opportunities of individual freedom, new beginnings, the kind of independence from oppressive tradition that fired the American Revolution to begin with.  

 It’s my opinion—elaborated through years of teaching my Film in American Society class—that while all forms of literature, theatre, cinema narratives can find common heritage in the ancient hero myths (explored by Joseph Campbell and many others) along with their specific application to our nation’s conceptual conflict between the “individual hero” and the “community hero” (detailed in Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence’s The American Monomyth [1977], Lawrence and Jewett’s The Myth of the American Superhero [2002], and Robert B. Ray’s A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 [1985]), how we’ve elaborated this story within westerns’ pulp fiction and movies has also laid the foundation for all sorts of other movie genres, from crime to comedy, so if you’d like a relatively-brief-review of the intersections of Old West history and fiction I’ll recommend Douglas Pye’s "The Western (Genre and Movies)" (in Barry Keith Grant [Ed.], Film Genre Reader IV [2012], pp. 239-254) to see what I’m talking about in this section of my review.

 The Magnificent Seven 
(in either of its incarnations) serves these traditional notions of the western by inclusions such as: (1) the use of a proper historical frontier setting; (2) the selfless-determination of the Seven to stand up for the oppressed, even as they stoically-acknowledge they’re risking death in the process, defending the oft-cherished-American-goal of individual-determinism against the dictates of corrupted-economic-power (at least as far back as Stagecoach we have an instructive-situation where a U.S. Marshall allows an escaped-con—although falsely accused of his crime—to ride off into the desert wilderness [with his newly-acquired-ex-prostitute-girlfriend] rather than go through the rubrics of the legal system so that “they’ll be spared the blessings of civilization”), made manifest by Bogue defending his land grab with the grim equation of gold = capitalism = progress—even with the irony as these new towns prosper they’ll want to distance themselves from violence-based-solutions to civic-unrest (as seen as a concern in High Noon, then as a reality of the inevitable closing of the frontier, literally turning the desert into a garden in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence [Ford, 1962])—(3) the conflict of Western vs. Eastern values as personified by the ramshackle-buildings, dirt-based-main street of Rose Creek, where gunmen dress for long-range-horseback-riding, townspeople dress for farming chores vs. Bogue always in a corporate-businessman-suit quite at home in the refined surroundings of life in Sacramento (bringing up the final irony of actual U.S. westward expansion—noted in the implied move of William Munny to a mercantile life in San Francisco at the end of Unforgiven—where west coast cities become like the metropolises of the East as the Pacific Ocean prevents any furthering of the frontier lure/lore [as some have speculated, part of the reason why Hollywood since the 1960s moved away from westerns to stories of outer space as the “new frontier,” even as talk today accentuates about sending humans to colonize Mars in coming decades]).  However, simply dishing up a standard menu of genre elements doesn’t necessary result in a substantial, hearty-enough meal of creative delivery,* so how does the new Magnificent Seven score on that criteria-sheet?

* Also from the Grant anthology cited above you can find Edward Buscombe's article on “The Idea of Genre in the American Cinema” where he discusses the need for both formula and variety in successful genre movies (pp. 12-26); unfortunately, my preview experience showed that the entire article isn’t reprinted at this link nor anywhere else I’m aware of so you’ll just have to buy the book or a subscription to the Screen journal's online service if you want to read all that he has to say.

 The originality part of the new Magnificent Seven is where it stumbles a bit, leading to the general critical consensus where the Rotten Tomatoes collection of reviews gives it only a 62% positive result, with the ones at Metacritic even lower at a 54% average (details on both in the links below).  I’ll have to agree, that just because I see a lot of on-screen activity that’s very familiar to me (bringing back fond memories of a cluster of better films) that doesn’t mean that I’m all that overwhelmed by what I see here as a total package of narrative-satisfaction.  As I’ve already noted in that aforementioned review of the new Ben-Hur, a crucial question that both filmmakers and viewers must ask of any remake of a previous film—especially one held in high esteem by analysts and audiences alike—is “Why even bother doing this?”  Except hoping to reap a tidy profit based on name-recognition of the title coupled with the casting of prominent current actors, especially one like 2-time acting-Oscar-winner-Washington or star of recent box-office-successes-Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy [James Gunn, 2014; review in our August 7, 2014 posting], Jurassic World [Colin Trevorrow; review in our June 17, 2015 posting], neither of which I was all that keen on); I admit, though, that Pratt, and Washington, along with their co-stars (except for Garcia-Rulfo and Sensmeier, whose roles aren’t allowed to move much beyond stereotypical-expectations, similar to Eli Wallach’s typecast Mexican-bandit-Calvera in the original Magnificent Seven, along with his “ugly” Tuco character in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly [Sergio Leone, 1966]) are quite effective in the roles given them in this new movie, which is resonating well with audiences so far as it’s taken in close to 35 million domestic dollars in just 1 weekend of release.

 Except for the intended financial gain (with still quite a bit to go, however, in order to reach the new movie's $90 million budget plus extensive marketing costs) and possibly an attempt to appeal to a younger generation of viewers who expect more high-grade-visual-effects for their money than what they’ll get in a decades-old-western on DVD should they choose to rent it, I can’t say that there’s all that much going on with this remade-Magnificent Seven beyond some occasional snappy dialogue and a body count that will satisfy those invested in violent-video-games, with assurances that most of those deaths are either of the Star Wars-variety where lots of enemy combatants get blown away as if they were toy soldiers or of the more close-up-variety where even multiple arrows (Horne) or bullets (Faraday) into a hero’s body result in little blood or even the ability to keep these guys from moving forward toward their opponents (proving once again that a no-doubt-about-it-shot-to-the-head only seems to be viable in The Godfather [Francis Ford Coppola, 1972] or zombie movies).  What’s done is well-orchestrated enough to make a plausible case for how just 7 sharpshooters and a town-full of bad shots (except Emma)—again with a reminiscence of Unforgiven where Munny can no longer hit much of anything until breaking his sobriety oath releases his killer-demoncould conquer Bogue’s array of professional killers, but the lengthy-battle-scene does get tedious after awhile, especially if you know anything about this movie’s predecessors so that you’ve already got a solid idea about how it generally will resolve itself.  To satisfy those who wanted (expected?) more from the original adaptation than a guy dressed all in black, a gambler, a knife-thrower, a guy with Mexican heritage, and a troubled former marksman we find that the end credits finally include the famous Elmer Bernstein theme from the 1960 Magnificent Seven (this clip includes many brief shots from that movie’s scenes) but rather than recycle that here as my Musical Metaphor I’ll turn instead to Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” (from his 1972 album Still Bill) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=de 00ajXMUX0, a performance from a 1973 concert, because that’s what these 7-social-misfits do, as they “all have pain,” they “all have sorrow,” just like the abused of Rose Creek do, so it’s mutually-agreed that “You just call on me brother, when you need a  hand We all need somebody to lean on.”

 However, in retrospective-consideration of my viewing experience, “I just might have a problem’ but will they “understand” that “I’m gonna need Somebody to lean on” if I have to watch any more of gunfighters mowing down everyone in their way while most of them don’t get a scratch from the dozens they’re anonymously-killing (again, however, just like the Ringo Kid [John Wayne] picking pursuing Indians off their horses in Stagecoach, but that whole chase scene probably doesn’t last much more than 5 minutes; this new [sanitized] bloodbath at least feels like it takes up half the movie’s 2 hrs. 15 min.), becoming a bit of “a load you have to bear,” even if that’s all this story was ever about to begin with.  It’s enjoyable for what it is (while keeping the memory of the time-honored-western-genre alive), although its impact fades quickly after the credits roll is done. 
                
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Here’s more information about The Magnificent Seven:



https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6c33VPF9X4 ([16:47] Ben Mankiewicz and friends discuss the current movie along with its inspirations, Seven Samurai and the earlier version of The Magnificent Seven



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