How About a Lame Title for This Review, Like “The Adequate Seven”?

magnificent-seven

It would be hard to fuck up a remake of The Magnificent Seven, but if anyone was going to be up to the task it would be director Antoine Fuqua. For a while there -“a while” meaning roughly half of this movie’s running time- this looks like the worst case scenario for such a remake, but then again, the source material is solid enough and there are just enough good choices among a sea of bad ones that the movie manages to turn around and end up as a decent if unremarkable entertainment.

The first half of the movie is particularly worrisome, as we realize that despite being based on an enduring western -which in turn was based on one of the best movies ever made-, this remake is not interested in any kind of classicism. Outside of musical callbacks to Elmer Bernstein’s iconic score, this Magnificent Seven want to leave the world of classic westerns behind and be as modern as possible.

The problems, as is the case with so many movies, begins with the script. Keeping in the tradition of co-writer and True Detective originator Nic Pizzolatto, this is one of those screenplays that think obscure, semi-philosophical dialogue makes up for character development. You know, the ones in which characters are constantly talking about about the concept of death and vengeance in vague terms.

Not to imply that every movie’s major preoccupation needs to be character, but we’re talking about The Magnificent Seven here. A movie whose first half is dedicated to the rounding up of the ragtag group of dangerous and charismatic outlaws that are bound to protect the lonesome western town of Rose Creek from being swallowed up by the evil robber baron played by Peter Sarsgaard. The movie’s idea of badass introductions and fun personalities for its seven antiheroes isn’t very original, but it kind of makes up for it through casting.

The are seven magnificents in this movie, but the narrative focuses on two of them. And just like the movie is half good and half bad, so are the leads. The bad one is Christ Pratt, who broke through as a charming schlub in Parks and Recreationbut graduated into wisecracking leading man with Guardians of the GalaxyWe know Pratt is capable of comedy based on his television work, but the movies have so far let him down in the charisma department. Magnificent Seven serves him with one terrible one-liner after another that only serve to undercut how uncool his character is.

It doesn’t do Pratt any favors being cast opposite Denzel Washington, one of the biggest movie stars alive. Denzel doesn’t even have to open his mouth to fill the screen with oozing charisma. He is the true lead of the film, and his presence is essential to the most interesting and contemporary aspect of this remake. Every western made after 1965 is revisionist in way or another, and this Magnificent Seven turns itself into the story of a band of diverse misfits -led by a black man- that comes together to save a small town from an evil businessman. Sound familiar?

Be it through the racial politics of Training Day or the anti-government message of ShooterFuqua has always been a political director. This time, he has purposely assembled a diverse band of heroes. They are, of course, led by Denzel, but four out of these Seven are people of color. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo plays a Mexican, Martin Sensmeier a Comanche, and Korean star Byung-hun Lee ends up being the closest runner-up to Denzel in the charisma department.

Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio round up the cast, but there is only so much that this group of actors can do to counter-balance Fuqua’s frustrated attempts to make all of these people look cool when he is as interested in developing the characters’ personalities as the flawed script he’s working from. Charisma will only take you so far. So will nervously cut and poorly staged action sequences, which is what we get for most of the movie. Surprisingly, and pleasantly, this is not the case in the big finale, which benefits from clear geography and some appropriately pulpy action beats.

The Magnificent Seven might age well as a timely document of America’s preoccupations circa 2016. It might even serve as a fantastical escape for anguished people living through this dire moment. The movie might not hit all the right notes, but it hits them quickly enough that it never loses the beat. It knows itself to be a popcorn entertainment, and doesn’t lose time pretending that it isn’t. It goes through the necessary motions and it arrives at a prolonged final shootout that works much better than expected considering the preceding movie.

I wouldn’t call it a triumph, and I wouldn’t call it a failure. I would say there are far worse ways to spend your Saturday afternoon.

Grade: I flow between a 5 out of 10

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Flying a plane is no different than riding a bicycle, just a lot harder to put baseball cards in the spokes.

sully

There are a couple of objections one would have to the idea of making a movie out of Captain Chesley Sullenberger and the heroic way in which he managed to safely land a crashing plane on the Hudson River. First of all, you’d be hard pressed to get more than fifteen minutes of movie out of recreating the fateful “Miracle on the Hudson”, which lasted just a couple of minutes (208 seconds according to the movie). Second of all, is the fact that Sullenberger is as far as you can get from a controversial figure. Everyone except Matt Damon’s character in 30 Rock agrees he is a hero for saving the lives of all those passengers, and everyone knows agreeable admiration doesn’t make for good drama. Even ignoring those two major concerns, you’d still have to contend with the fact that the movie Flightstarring Denzel Washington, exists and was almost transparently inspired by these events (and which added extra drama by making its lead character an alcoholic).

All of those objections, paired up with the fact that this movie is directed by Clint Eastwood -a director who has made great films in the past, but who has adopted an antiseptic aesthetic that has only grown boring and lazy in the thirteen years since Mystic River– would be enough to keep at a safe distance from Sully… but then again, the movie stars Tom Hanks. Now, of course Hanks would be the man to play the quintessential all-American hero of our times, but while his casting is far from bold, the man has been having a fascinating career as of late. I used to strongly dislike Hanks –Forrest Gump is probably to blame- but the last five or so years have seen him doing career-best work in strong movies such as Captain Phillips and Bridge of Spiesas well as elevating mediocre projects like Saving Mr. Banks

Turns out Hanks’s Sully isn’t quite as extraordinary as some of his latest work. In fact, he feels very much like a mash-up of his Captain Phillips and Bridge of Spies characters, which makes his performance not necessarily exciting, but quite effective. The really surprising news is that Sully is actually not that bad of a movie. It ends up working quite nicely as a heartfelt tribute to the heroism not only of the Captain but the many people who assisted in the mission despite a couple major missteps.

But let’s start with the positive. There are certain moments in Sully that work as a lovely tribute to a generous spirit of solidarity and selflessness. The Captain insists that he and his crew “were just doing their job”, and there is something truly admirable in this old-fashioned idea of simply being professional and being humble as a person who is burdened by the task of keeping people safe. The same can be said of the respectful way in which the New York coastguard and fire department are portrayed in the movie. The rescue sequence is quite touching, especially when its images call back the tragedy of 9/11, and position this event as a coming together of people whose job is to keep people safe. The woman sitting behind me sniffled throughout.

Similarly, the recreation of the crash is very well done. Eastwood is not a particularly flashy director, but he (and the visual effects team) spices things up just enough to make the sequence appropriately tense, which must have been difficult since every person watching the movie will know the outcome of the accident ahead of time. The trick is pulled off by focusing on the details of the procedure of trying to successfully land a plane that has lost both its engines. What Eastwood is going for here is detail in realism, and he is quite successful at achieving it, be it through the  quiet blandness of the La Gaurdia control room, or the evocative recreation of the cold light of a winter morning in New York.

That being said, there are some big problems with this movie. First of all is the fact that, as suspected, there isn’t much drama to be mined out of this story beyond those 208 minutes. To remedy this, the movie focuses on the aftermath of the Water Landing, most specifically, the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) investigation of what exactly went wrong during the flight. The movie very clearly casts the people on the board as the villains of the piece, suggesting they weren’t as much trying to figure out what went wrong in order to keep things safe in the future (you know, their job) as much as they were out to get the blood of the heroic Captain Sullenberger because they are a bunch of suits who have never piloted a plane and don’t know what the hell they’re talking about because they weren’t there.

I don’t know if Eastwood’s treatment of the NTSB is better described as anti-intellectual or pro-individualism, but it sure as hell doesn’t mesh well with the movie’s supposed message of solidarity. It could also have worked a little better if the board members’ characterization didn’t make them seem as complex  as an 80s cartoon villain. And especially if the movie’s last and most triumphant beat weren’t these board members apologizing to Sully and admitting they were wrong, making it seem like sticking it to the these people who were essentially doing their job is more important to Eastwood than the acts of the many people that came together and rescued the passengers.

There are other things that don’t work. The dialogue is incredibly clunky and often risibly bad (but what else is new considering Eastwood’s history of disliking re-writes). The wasting of the great Laura Linney in the role of Sully’s wife is so bad someone should press charges. And the handling of Sully’s PTSD after the incident is as obvious and uninspired as the handling of the protagonist’s PTSD in American SniperAlmost every scene outside of the crash sequence doesn’t quite work. It’s thanks to Hanks and the supporting cast that there is any spark to those other scenes at all. He might not be doing career-best work, but he has become always dependable, and solid as a rock.

Grade: 6 out of 10