The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Director: Antoine Fuqua (2016) BBFC cert: 12A

Compared to the truly magnificent 1960 original, this unlooked for western remake is unsurprisingly inferior. But after a summer of poor blockbuster fare, it’s passable entertainment in its own way.

Unburdened by any more ambition than a broad desire to be please, the film trots through the familiar story of a small posse of cowboys facing overwhelming odds.

There’s a liberal lifting of scenes and dialogue from the John Sturges version and a cheeky play of Elmer Bernstein’s majestic original score over the end credits. The new main score by the late James Horner is monumentally forgettable.

Reasons for watching include handsome photography, great period design and the no shortage of old school action. There are real sets, stuntmen and horses instead of CGI fakery. The $100M budget is all on screen.

Traditional western themes of comradeship, courage and loyalty are wrapped up in a glossy tale of redemption. This is an optimistic vision of how the US could still be won, with a rainbow society trying to overcome corporate greed and restore the church to the centre of civic life. This last point will resonate with US conservative Christians, a larger and more influential congregation across the pond than here in the UK.

Headliners Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke are clearly enjoying themselves and their combined charisma is the film’s biggest strength. Vincent D’Onofrio adds more humour as a tracker, a fool who speaks truth to power.

The casting attempts to accurately reflect the ethnic mix of contemporary US, and presumably hopes to attract the audience which makes the multi-ethnic Fast Furious franchise such a global success. So the remaining gunslingers are respectively Chinese, Mexican and Native American. Sadly they’re so poorly scripted, their race is pretty much the extent of their characterisation. One is described as an assassin but they may as well have gone the whole hog and called him a ninja.

Washington stars as bounty hunter Sam Chisolm, hired by a young widow who needs protection from a corrupt industrialist. Haley Bennett offers true grit as Emma, the only female speaking role of note.

It’s a shame there aren’t a few more women in the movie, or even – gasp – in the seven. Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and Natalie Portman’s Jane’s Got A Gun featured strong willed gun-toting women. We could have done with more similarly natured women here.

Although Emma plays a small but crucial role, she definitely is not part of the all-male gang. As it is, she barely qualifies as the female Smurf. Amid all the back slapping diversity, fifty percent of the population are woefully under-represented. Except for whores, who are everywhere.

Chisolm has a personal reason for taking the job and recruits collection of desperadoes and misfits to defend the gold mining town. They include Pratt’s gambler and Hawke’s PSTD suffering civil war veteran.

Through a suitably sweeping landscape we move briskly from one action scene to another. The action is staged with occasional invention but at times the geography is unclear. This is especially true in the finale where our heroes face almost insurmountable odds and a seemingly infinite supply of ammunition. Until the smoke cleared I wasn’t sure exactly who had survived.

Peter Sarsgaard sketches without light or shade his consumptive black hearted villain, Bartholomew Bogue. He mostly acts apart from the Seven and with the protagonist isolated there’s a sense the film isn’t terribly interested in him. Consequently nor are we very much.

For long periods it’s agreeable crowd pleasing stuff. We’re reasonably entertained but never roused or excited. This not a disaster such as the recent Ben-Hur remake is, but it is quite far from magnificent.



Maggie’s Plan

Director: Rebecca Miller (2016) BBFC cert. 15

The best laid plans of Greta Gerwig go awry in this New York comedy of manners.

As Maggie she is forever interfering in the lives of others and must learn restraint in order to find her own happiness.

She’s a sensible shoe wearing singleton who is ready to have a kid but lacks a boyfriend. Her scheme to inseminate herself via a sperm donor is interrupted by the appearance of John, a hunky academic.

This doesn’t endear Maggie to his wife Georgette and their kids. Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore enjoy themselves as the feckless, self pitying, dishonest man child and his ferociously poised Danish wife.

The script gives John the anthropologist a forensic examination and finds the behaviour of this modern man severely wanting. But it also has the heart to allow the him at least a small measure of self respect.

Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph offer Maggie an alternative view of life as home truth dispensing best friends and Travis Fimmel is sweet as a lyrical pickle entrepreneur.

As a director Miller is in love with the city and it’s full of therapy, hipster beards, wooly hats, street entertainers, health food, ice skating and outdoor markets, but keeps its quirky mannerisms to a thankful minimum.

And her script obeys the rules of a romcom while functioning as a commentary on our atomised society, one which is indifferent to reducing conception to a mechanical process involving a syringe and a smart phone app.

Maggie’s Plan plays as an updated version of Jane Austen’s Emma filtered through Woody Allen, and is an honest, sharp and very funny look at modern life.





Director: Richard Linklater (2015)

This astonishingly ambitious and unique coming-of-age drama is another change of direction from the ever-surprising Texan director Linklater.

Filmed over twelve years using the same talented cast throughout, Boyhood creates great emotional weight through small domestic scenes.

We quickly invest in these characters, liking them, anticipating the directions their lives are taking and fearing for them. When drama erupts we don’t dwell on it but follow the consequences.

Years slip by as haircuts and shoe sizes change. Part of the fun is guessing how the actors will alter when time jumps forward again. Graciously allowing the audience the benefit of a brain, Linklater never flags up the changing of the years with captions but leaves us to work it out.

It’s eerily like being a parent on fast forward and I gazed in wonder at the truth of the lives on the screen.

There’s domestic abuse, alcoholism, first dates, marriages and eventually Olivia finds a peace of sorts as she braces herself for the future full of an empty nest.

Six-year-old Mason Jnr (Ellar Coltrane) and sparky older sister Samantha (director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater) live with single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette). The three form a compact family unit that expands and contracts as step-fathers and siblings come and go.

Much of the film’s understated, unassuming intelligent springs from the well of Coltrane’s even-tempered playing. Mason’s cautious approach to events is a coping mechanism which serves him well through some turbulent times.

Arquette is the emotional anchor; strong, anguished, fallible, continually trying to improve herself and forever making poor choices. It’s a beautifully honest performance as she attempts to marry the anxieties and sacrifice of motherhood

Equally excellent is Ethan Hawke as Mason’s dad who annoyingly and disconcertingly, never appears to age. He’s a well-meaning if absent father who pops by occasionally and spoils the kids rotten. It’s clear by his car of choice – a 1968 Pontiac GTO – that the film’s title applies equally to him.

If there’s one shame it’s due to the sometimes waning interest of the young actress in the project; so Samantha features less as time progresses.

It’s funny, engaging, uplifting and the finest film of 2014.

If I have to wait twelve years for a sequel, It will be worth it.