The Magnificent Seven (2016, Directed by Antoine Fuqua) 6

Starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Peter Sarsgaard

(6-Good Film)

Inferior. Entertaining. Unambitious.

I could have written my bottom line before seeing the movie. I knew how I was going to feel. This Magnificent Seven isn’t as good as the original Magnificent Seven, which in turn isn’t as good as Seven Samurai. Antoine Fuqua’s remake starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, and Peter Sarsgaard retells the story of a small town, bullied by what seems like a small army, that enlists the help of seven rogue men to save them.  Maybe a second viewing would be more revealing. It’s very easy to be unfair to this kind of film. It’s stepping into the shoes of a cultural giant and trying to take a different path to the same place. I commend the approach. They could have coasted off the aura of the original. That movie abandoned the austerity of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and instead went for a sense of pure adventure, on its way to becoming iconic. The score, by Elmer Bernstein, is a classic. The cast of heroes, most notably Yul Brynner, Steve Mcqueen, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson, was emblematic of 60’s era cool, linking hyper-masculinity and toughness with integrity. The latter three men would go on to be leading action figures for the next two decades. However, that Magnificent Seven achieved its immense popularity and esteem over time. Looking back at initial reviews, the consensus is pretty typical, and not dissimilar to reviews of this 2016 model. “Pallid reflection of the Japanese original,” said New York Times. So perhaps the final word on this new western is a decade or two down the line, in the hands of the millions of people who have never seen the original. After all, fifty-six years is a long time ago, and The Magnificent Seven 2016 does have pleasures of its own.

Any strong feelings about a Magnificent Seven film must start with the cast of characters:

Denzel Washington leads the gang as Sam Chisolm. He’s the only character in the group that is given a clearly defined motive in helping the town (one of the film’s weaknesses in my opinion). Washington is one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and he’s more than compelling enough to stand out and distance himself from the original’s shadow.

Chris Pratt has the tricky assignment of being the film’s most charismatic personality. His Farraday character mixes some of the traits of Steve Mcqueen and Toshiro Mifune which means he will be compared to them. He comes up short in my estimation.

Ethan Hawke is one of the more interesting side characters. He is Goodnight Robicheaux, an old Rebel soldier and dubious friend from Chisolm’s past.

Vincent D’onofrio is Jacke Horne. D’onofrio is a proven character actor and does a lot with little screen time in this picture. His sheer size is one of the more memorable aspects of the film.

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is a Mexican outlaw, Vasquez, coerced into helping the town by Chisolm. He largely gets lost in the shuffle of such a big cast. He adds diversity which is nice, but he brings more to the poster than to the film.

Lee Byung-hun is Billy, a former railroad worker and outlaw from…(they don’t ever say that I can remember, but the actor is Korean). The strong silent type in the mold of James Coburn from the original or Seiji Miyaguchi from Seven Samurai. His main purpose is to be cool, and he is, with a nod to the Coburn knife throwing scene for his introduction.

Martin Sensmeier a wandering Comanche named Red Harvest ends up being a pretty memorable character. I was sure he was going to be a token figure but he is given his moments to stand out, though without significant dialogue or motivation.

Overall, this new cast of seven is pretty good as they face off against a wealthy robber baron, played by Peter Sarsgaard, with his own private militia working for him. The action sequences are exciting for the most part, and the script manages moments of humor to make the proceedings feel a little more fun. My quibbles with the film are first, the way the film manages to fill out its diverse cast in a very politically correct fashion. Race never seems to be an awkward point in this 19th-century setting, and that’s kind of crazy. I was struck, watching Denzel Washington ride into town as the people’s savior, with the thought of how much more realistic Blazing Saddles (of all things) felt in the scene where Cleavon Little rides in and is eventually greeted with angry surprise by the white townspeople. Second, and to me, the most glaring flaw is the score or the total absence of a theme song to be more specific. It’s The Magnificent Seven. How can there not be a theme song? As escapism and as a setup for an action showcase, the film works, and the ride is never dull. Just don’t expect a whole lot more than that.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Son of Paleface (1952, Directed by Frank Tashlin) English 7

Starring Bob Hope, Jane Russell, Roy Rogers, Bill Williams, Lloyd Corrigan, Paul E. Burns

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(7-Very Good Film)

Inventive. Zany. Fun.

A loose sequel to The Paleface (1948), Bob Hope and Jane Russell return in new roles, once again facing off against the Indians (played by white people), outlaws, and ravenous townspeople who have been cheated out of money by Hope’s father. Like all Hope films that I’ve seen, there is a lot of witty one-liners, clever use of the fourth wall, and self-deprecating humor. Standing out from some of his others though, this film has some truly incredible stunts that rank among the best and most creative put on screen.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Rio Bravo (1959, Directed by Howard Hawks) English 10

Starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, Ricky Nelson

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(10- Masterpiece)

Classic. Rousing. Masterful.

After arresting a wealthy and corrupt man’s brother, Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) must hold his small town prison off from a horde of deadly mercenaries. The only help he has are his two deputies, the self-destructive Dude (Martin), and the lame Stumpy (Brennan). Classic western, one of the last and best of the old Hollywood style, coming right before the genre would be redefined by Italians and Sam Pechinpah. Centered more on characters and dialogue than most westerns, Rio Bravo is a terrific entertainment, kind of a boy’s fantasy. Hanging out with friends. Facing off against villains. Romancing a beautiful woman. Great stuff.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Pardners (1956, Directed by Norman Taurog) English 5

Starring Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Agnes Moorehead

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(5-Okay Film)

Light. Uninteresting. Unimaginative.

In order to save their ranch, Slim and Wade Jr. (Martin and Lewis) take on a violent gang known as the masked raiders, over twenty years after their fathers were murdered by that same gang. A lesser Martin and Lewis pairing, while still showcasing an abundance of style, that lacks wit and any memorable musical numbers. Lewis’ screen time dwarfs Martin’s, and I don’t consider that a positive. There’s also no romance to speak of, despite there being two romantic interests. Too much Lewis, not enough Martin.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Django Unchained (2012, Directed by Quentin Tarantino) English 10

Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Don Johnson, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson

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Funny. Violent. Epic.

My second favorite Tarantino flick coming off the heels of Inglourious Basterds, my favorite. Django is a wild picture. A kooky bounty hunter, named King Schultz (Waltz), strikes a deal with the formerly enslaved Django (Foxx) which ultimately leads to a strange friendship between the two and a mission to save the latter’s wife from the insanely evil Candyland plantation. So many flourishes and indulgences, and although not all of them work (Tarantino’s cameo as an Aussie for one), the film as a whole is incredible. Waltz and Foxx make a memorable odd couple, Jackson is diabolical as the loyal slave, Stephen, and the soundtrack, as we’ve come to expect from the director, is surprising and perfect.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Hostiles (2017, Directed by Scott Cooper) English 8

Starring Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Ben Foster, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Thoughtful. Expert. Strong.

As tormented as he is revered, Army Captain Joseph Blocker (Bale) begrudgingly accepts his mission to deliver an aging Indian war chief (Studi) and the man’s family to their native home. Along the way, Blocker and his men are confronted with Comanche war groups, past demons, and a grieving widow played by Rosamund Pike. Some may find the film too derivative. The influence of John Ford’s The Searchers goes beyond homage at times. I’ve read others questioning its pace or bemoaning the violent bigotry of Bale’s character. I found it to be an exceptionally made, expertly performed western. Bale, in particular, does a delicate job of not hiding his character’s racism and notorious past, and not overplaying the character’s kinder, more redemptive moments. His deft handling of the material is the key to its success, but director, Scott Cooper, gives all of his actors their moments, and the result is a quiet romantic, intimate, superior western.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Wagons East (1994, Directed by Peter Markle) English 4

Starring John Candy, Richard Lewis, John C. McGinley, Ellen Greene, Robert Picardo, Russell Means, Don Lake

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(4-Bad Film)

Lame. Lazy. Muddled.

Finding the old west to be not all as advertised, a group of 19th-century settlers hire a drunken wagon master, James Harlow (Candy), to lead them back east. Perhaps unfairly derided as an epic travesty and Blazing Saddles wannabe, Wagons East is bad but not as bad as its 0% on Rotten Tomatoes would suggest. This is a watchable film, with a solid, if undemanding performance from Candy in his last film. If you want to pretend that his last film was Cool Runnings instead, I understand. That being said, I did laugh one or two times, and the premise could have yielded better results with a better filmmaker. The main problem is too many lame, lazy jokes involving gay stereotypes and lowest common denominator humor.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


The Hateful Eight (2015, Directed by Quentin Tarantino) English 9

Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Demian Bichir, Channing Tatum

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(9-Great Film)

Gripping. Gruesome. Wild.

Shacked up in a remote lodge, snowed in by the blistering Wyoming conditions, bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Russell) reluctantly requests the help of a fellow bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Jackson). Ruth is carrying precious cargo, Daisy Domergue (Leigh), with a massive bounty on her head, and while the reward states dead or alive, Ruth insists on seeing her hanged (meaning taking her in alive). Ruth senses something’s afoot at the lodge as he looks at the fellow guests: there’s the weaselly Sheriff Mannix (Goggins), fork-tongued Oswaldo Mobray (Roth), the quiet Joe Gage (Madsen), notorious Confederate General Smithers (Dern), and shifty Mexican Bob (Bichir). Ruth believes that one of them, maybe more than one, maybe all of them, are working to free Daisy, and so he recruits Warren, the only one he basically trusts. What follows is a trademark Tarantino extravaganza: killer dialogue, wild tonal shifts, extreme violence, and a gallery of unforgettable characters. Race is a major issue, and many critics complained about how it is used in this film for provocation rather than enlightenment or insight. I see it as a continuation of Tarantino’s recent films that were grounded in wish fulfillment. Here, the black guy, Warren, is the smartest guy in the room. As the murder mystery unfolds, we watch him unravel the deception and conspiracy through intelligence and deception of his own. There’s a shocking (to some) scene in the middle of the picture exemplifying this where Warren uses a story I believe to be fictional simply to elicit a dumb response from an enemy so that he can dispose of him. Some characters work better than others. Mobray and Bob aren’t given much to do, and Gage, while being a textbook western character, seems boring next to the outlandish surrounding cast. There’s also an odd cameo that I’m unsure of. However, Jackson, Russell, Jason Leigh and Goggins are outstanding, and the setting, as filmed by Robert Richardson, is glorious.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


The Garden of Evil (1954, Directed by Henry Hathaway) English 6

Starring Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark, Susan Hayward, Cameron Mitchell, Hugh Marlowe, Victor Manuel Mendoza

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(6-Good Film)

Overcooked. Grand. Engrossing.

Not Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Not a classic. Not timeless. Garden of Evil is, nonetheless, an involving saga about a group of men-stoic Hooker (Cooper), cynical Fiske (Widmark), emotional Luke (Mitchell), and meek Vicente (Mendoza)- who agree to accompany beautiful Leah Fuller (Hayward) through Apache territory to rescue her husband, with similar themes of greed and men ruined by their quest for gold. Taking the premise of Treasure of the Sierra Madre and adding a woman is a promising wrinkle, but Garden of Evil is too content to be a pot boiler. The actors give flashy speeches, their lines end on suspenseful cue, and the characters aren’t given enough depth beyond what the great cast of stars bring by sheer presence. What can be said in the film’s favor is that the score (by the great Bernard Herrmann) is suitably brash, and the story unfolds, hitting all of the basic marks of entertainment, though leaving a more special, thoughtful western on the table.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Slow West (2015, Directed by John Maclean) English 7

Starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann

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(7-Very Good Film)

Distinctive. Melancholy. Spare.

A Scottish boy, Jay Cavendish (Smit-McPhee) travels west to find the girl, Rose, he loves and plans to marry. Accompanying him is Silas (Fassbender), a jaded drifter who’s actually a bounty hunter using Jay to lead him straight to Rose, who has a $2,000 bounty on her head, with another $2,000 on her father’s head as well. Lean, fierce western, with an original visual approach to the genre, and some revisionist elements. With only a handful of characters and locations, Slow West delivers a compelling narrative that finishes poignantly and sadly.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-