Monday, January 2, 2017
Dynamite documentary and a raucous remake showcase moviemaking's downhill slide
By Jim Bray
A reasonably good remake of a western classic, and an Oscar-winning Canadian documentary are on tap for review this week, two movies that are wildly different from each other, but both of which have distinct Japanese connections.
The original "The Magnificent Seven" was a remake of an honoured Japanese film, Akira Kurosawa's "the Seven Samurai," and this new remake does a reasonable job of updating the story for today's Hollywood - for better and for worse.
Meanwhile, 1975's "Best Documentary" Oscar-winning "The Man Who Skied Down Everest" is a remarkably compelling film that, to my surprise (despite its title) is more about the journey of the man himself than the actual ski down Everest, as remarkable as it was in its own right.
I never saw "Samurai" so can't comment on how faithful John Sturges' 1960 "Magnificent Seven" was - and to be honest it's been so long since I saw the original "Seven" that I don't remember a lot of it, other than knowing I enjoyed it immensely.
But I do seem to remember that the basic story revolved around the helpless residents of a small town that's being menaced by a bunch of thug banditos - tough guy bullies who were making the townsfolks' lives a living hell, much like the grasshoppers' reign of terror over the ants in "A Bug's Life." So they hire a gunslinger (Yul Brynner) to save them and he puts together a superb septet to fight the baddies and save the town for decent folk.
Now, not surprisingly, the bad guy is an evil businessman - aren't they all, to today's Hollywood? - and he wants the townsfolk's land so he can make himself even richer. And rather than being a simple gunslinger (if I remember Brynner's character correctly from the original), Denzel Washington's Sam Chisolm character is a lawman, though we're not really sure whether he's telling the truth or if that's just the shingle he hangs out when he's bounty hunting.
Antoine Fuqua's remake is actually pretty good if you can get around the clichés and the lack of surprises. I mean, you've seen everything in this movie before (even if you haven't seen the originals), including the hotshot who's lost his nerve and runs away just before the big, climactic battle - only to return, like Han Solo in the original Star Wars - in the nick of time when things are looking the darkest. And of course the hero townsperson is a spunky woman (Haley Bennett, who's very good in the role) who's more than a match for the men in the town.
The only thing that's missing is an openly homosexual character and a change of the title to (to rip off an old Rush Limbaugh parody) "The Magnificent Steven."
Despite that, I enjoyed this new Magnificent Steven, er, Seven quite a bit. The action is mostly good, the locations are gorgeous - and deserved a featurette of their own - and the performances are all first rate. Washington has been good in every film in which I've seen him, which alas isn't most of his collection, and he brings both class and gravitas to his role here.
The supporting cast is also very good. Besides Bennett, there's Ethan Hawke as Han Solo, and "Star Lord" Chris Pratt as a gambler/gunslinger with a heart of, if not gold, then at least silver. Vincent D'Onofrio brings his chameleon-like abilities (I didn't recognize him at first) to the part of mountain man Jack Horne. The rest of the seven is made up by the nice and diverse ethnic blend you'd expect from today's Hollywood (not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that - if it makes sense to the story), including Asian Byung-hun Lee, Hispanic Manuel Garcie-Rulfo and Aboriginal Martin Sensemeir. All these guys give creditable performances and their characters bring complementary skills to the task at hand. Peter Sarsgaard, as the evil capitalist on his quest to make Hollywood grate again, is also good even though his evil capitalist character is pretty one dimensional.
Remakes are tough to pull off - just look at my review of the new Ben-Hur for evidence - but for the most part director Fuqua has been successful in bringing this western classic to a modern audience. I have a feeling this version won't be remembered as the classic that the John Sturges version is (even though I've forgotten most of it!), but time will tell.
The Blu-ray offers excellent audio and video, and the spectacular western landscapes are done gorgeous justice here. The image is sharp and, though there's some film grain, it's clean and very detailed overall. The audio, DTS-HD Master Audio, is also up to snuff. Since there are plenty of gunshots, explosions and the like, you'll want the BD to fill the home theatre with bombast, and it certainly does this in spades. Gunshots fly around the room, debris hits the ground with the appropriate thuds and even ambient sounds like animals in the background come through clean, clear and crisp. It's a very good Blu-ray, as it should be.
Extras are a tad sparse, however. There are a few deleted scenes and a few featurettes, as well as "Vengeance Mode" - a full screen commentary/"making of" track that's actually pretty compelling, but I would have liked to see more.
Things go downhill from here…
The Man Who Skied Down Everest is a must-see for anyone interested in learning about "the Man" himself (who I'd never heard of before watching this Blu-ray) or who are interested in learning more about the regions surrounding Mount Everest.
The skiing in question actually only happens right at the end of the movie and is a fitting cap to the film, which documents the journey to near the summit of the world's laziest mountain (why else would it have been named "ever rest?"). The rest of the film is even more interesting than the climactic downhill jaunt, though, and if you're as impressed by beautiful scenery as I am (one of the reasons I liked "Magnificent Seven" so much), you won't want to miss this.
Yuichior Miura came to fame before this trip by skiing down Mount Fuji (that wasn't his only claim to fame, but it may have been his biggest) and the movie follows his Everest adventure from Katmandu (or, as they say now, Katpersondu) to about 26,000 feet up the world's tallest peak. He and some 800 of his closest friends - bearers, scientists, etc. - leave Katmandu on a weeks' long slog to - and up - Everest.
The scenery is fantastic and Blu-ray is definitely the best way to see it. There are gigantic glaciers, rocks the size of houses, mountain-hugging Sherpa villages, and jaw-dropping drops and cliffs that made me wonder out loud more than once while watching the film why they didn't just hire a bunch of helicopters and skip over the difficult trek. Maybe that wasn't possible in 1970? Maybe that wasn't the point of the adventure?
Along the way, the expedition runs afoul of Person Nature badly enough that several of the adventurers die on the forbidding Everest slopes, adding a tragic chapter to what's otherwise a fascinating adventure and soaring paean to the human spirit.
I didn't really expect much from the film, which was produced by Crawley Films of my home town Ottawa Canada, but it really blew me away. Not only is the scenery worth the price of admission alone, so is the story of this - well, nut - who risked his and many others' lives to live his dream. Its 86 minute running time zips by so quickly you may wish they'd included a lot more footage from this outrageous adventure. You may also wonder how they got so many great long and wide shots. Did they have a second expedition going up the other side of the mountain? Alas, there are no supplements to let us in on the secret.
The climactic ski took Miura down 6000 feet of the mountain, in two minutes and 40 seconds - not all on his feet - and we get the see the whole thing, twice (the second time adds context missing from the first showing and the repetition works really well).
Complementing the visuals is the narration track, by Douglas Rain (if you don't recognize his voice when you're watching the film, think "I'm afraid, Dave. My mind is going."), reading excerpts from Miura's diary of the trip. It's very compelling as well and Rain's reading is perfect.
The Blu-ray, from The Film Detective - is sparse (there are no extras at all), but magnificent. The 1080p picture is as spectacular as can be, other than 4K, in showcasing the spectacular venues through which Miura and his entourage trudged. Colours are rich and the detail is sharp and clean.
The audio isn't as good, though that's to be expected from a 1975 vintage analogue recording. It's fine for what it is, though, and since this movie is more about the visuals (and things cerebral) the lack of a lossless surround track is no big deal.
Both of these new Blu-rays are well worth your time, but I have to admit I enjoyed "The Man who Skied Down Everest" more than "Magnificent Seven." And I never expected that.