THE MAGNIFICENT 7 (Dir. Antoine Fuqua, 2016, US)

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What if you got the opportunity to rework a contestable classic but had nothing to say? This is pretty much what The Magnificent 7 feels like. One can probably imagine the creative heads that cooked up this idea stemmed from the certified stone cold image of Denzel Washington as a mysterious gunslinger on a horse cloaked in black; an irresistible cinematic construct indeed. But that’s where this idea should have ended.

Fuqua’s re-imagining is a lamentably inert, mechanical Western that refuses to take a breath. Washington’s intro is ace, conjuring a laconic rhythm that Fuqua should have tried to mirror in the rest of the film. Asking that a director slow it down seems like a prosaic request to make these days but even if this was the case then that typically means having something good enough to explicate to fill those silences. Consequently, characters cultivate insubstantial psychological depth, relying on the debatable vestiges of parody. Fuqua may not be the most rousing of filmmakers yet Training Day spasmodically articulated a promise to grow. However, it did not take long for us to discover Fuqua is just as parochial in his approach to big budget high concept cinema as his contemporaries. Perhaps then it would be erroneous to set him apart, deploring his authorial limitations as singular in a cultural practice of artistic habituation.

A paralysing inertness arises from a half-baked script that lingers thoughtlessly on how best to regurgitate a litany of genre clichés. While the elemental simplicity of Kurosawa’s original idea marked The Seven Samurai as a classic, what Sturges got spot-on with his hip Hollywood updating, regardless of the detractors, was the accent on epic moments, something which is altogether absent from Fuqua’s lacklustre updating. The Magnificent 7 may foolishly signal diversity and progress in Obama’s post racial make-believe, but the tired, one-dimensional stereotyping reeks of a regressive cinematic imagination, infecting the lumbering narrative trajectory. Not only does the film refuse to develop the promising austerity tinged ideological machinations alluded to in the opening but points to a political acquiescence rendering both the racial and economic politics of the film a banal afterthought.

An extended opening and an even longer protracted ending means a middle section goes missing. Typical emotional investment by the audience never transpires. Instead relationships, characters and emotions are given to us in digestible bite size anachronisms, amounting to a type of corrosive creative contempt. Such contempt is mirrored in an altogether familiar aesthetic, stylistic monotony. Infuriating hyper edits, a terribly uninspired score by James Horner, stock action sequences and misplaced quips delivered with unusually poor comic timing by Chris Pratt may appear like minor quibbles but the culminating effect is a totalizing self-aggrandizement evident in contemporary popular culture. However, critical observations of this kind are not uncommon for high-end Hollywood cinema. If so, then how can the Western like Science Fiction, one of the few genres that accommodates for a transposition of anxieties, where genre subversion has flourished, come across as incredulous and oblivious to such faculties?

Since this reworking of The Magnificent 7 retains the title and the thrust of the narrative, then why abandon the original theme music for a completely redundant and forgettable score by Horner? I am not sure if this was down to an issue to do with rights or the distracting penance for nostalgic affectations but in my opinion Fuqua should have blasted Bernstein’s mythical music all over the place. At least give us some nostalgic satisfaction. Not only does the absence of the original theme music explain the lack of the requisite gratuitous money shot in which we dispiritingly never see our magnificent seven riding together but points to the absence of spectacle which a film of this scale should have been aspiring to, at least in spirit.

The film opens with a flawed panning shot, moving from left to right, an attempt to draw on the mountainous milieu of the American West and Frontier imagery. But what should have been a shot that lasted for much longer takes place hastily, striking a tone of artistic impatience. This instance points to the wider disjointed design of the film, problematizing the increasingly populist critical position often chosen when big budget Hollywood films fail to deliver, labelling them as passable, great fun, mildly diverting and so on. Even the mammoth shootout at the end is feebly conceived, the problems of filming a half-decent action sequence writ large once again. I should also briefly mention the villainous Bart Bogue; an apparition that lingers indistinctly, dwindling into a puddle of cowardly piss which may be wholly representative of the whoring capitalist tyrant archetype but fails to offer concrete oppositional ideological threat – it is all rendered as cinematic bluster.

If anything The Magnificent 7 is a star vehicle for Denzel Washington (with the long sideburns Washington is a ghostly reincarnation of Henry Fonda’s Frank from OUATITW) and the likely success of the film at the international box office is a continual reminder that he is probably one of the few American film stars who can still pull in a loyal crowd of filmgoers and justify being labelled bankable. Part of me hopes the film does well at the box office. We might get more Westerns. However, if they are all going to be as derisible as this then maybe we should stop right here.

DEEP VALLEY (Dir. Jean Negulesco, 1947, US) – Melo-Noir

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The first time I heard about Ida Lupino was in Scorsese’s journey through American cinema series, which first aired, in the mid 1990s on C4. Scorsese framed Lupino as an auteur director who dealt with social issues that went unmapped in much of mainstream American cinema, such as rape. It was only later I realised how great of an actress she was: British born, eloquent and unassailable. Lupino was a film star first and had unbelievable range; she could play trashy and classy with relative ease and cropped up in many film noirs during the 1940s. She was most striking when she played characters that were inflicted in some way, physically or psychologically, conveying a vulnerability and timidness that mark performances such as Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. There was also a capricious side to her acting. Below the vulnerabilities lurked a volatile social rage incessantly pushing outwards. In many ways, Lupino’s career was a germinal one since she not only acted but also directed, offering a counter hegemonic view of a patriarchal Hollywood system.

Deep Valley was a star vehicle for Lupino, featuring one of her most accomplished performances as Libby Saul, an impecunious and shy girl, secluded from the outside world by unreasonable demands placed on her by an ailing mother and churlish father. Libby lives literally a life of quiet desperation with her parents in a dilapidated farm in the woods of the California coast. Her life is complicated by a convict, Barry (Dane Clarke), working nearby as part of a group making a new road that will lead from the coast to the valley. Libby is attracted to Barry but represses her feelings. During a landslide, Barry escapes and meets Libby who has run away from the farm. They hide out in the woods and slowly Libby falls for Barry.

The director of Deep Valley, the Romanian Jean Negulesco, made over 80 films during a career that saw him work on many studio genre films in the 1940s and 1950s. Negulesco spent much of the early 1940s learning the craft by on short films and also assisting on other studio projects. This is a point made by Scorsese in his documentary; that directors got to work all the time, on four or five pictures a year, and this naturally meant they got to be good at what they did. Moreover, having to work under austere utilitarian and economic constraints also imposed a discipline on many studio directors, leading to the mastery of narrative economy, an important classical notion all but absent from contemporary mainstream Hollywood. It is an approach still evident in the work of Steven Spielberg. Perhaps the greatest purveyor of narrative economy is Alfred Hitchcock. Spielberg like Hitchcock before him storyboard meticulously, reiterating that such a process is intrinsic to the traditions of classical Hollywood storytelling. Negulesco’s break came in 1944 with The Mask of Dimitriois, a low budget film noir with Peter Lorre. Deep Valley, made at Warners in 1947, arguably saw Negulesco at his peak, bringing together noir aesthetics with the melodrama form. What makes Deep Valleyi a particularly striking work from the 1940s studio era is the involvement of Ida Lupino who is given a more unconventional role as a female film star than was expected at the time.

Categorising Deep Valley as a mood piece is a position that I am compelled to agree with as Negulesco creates a disquieting ambiance, presenting a dysfunctional family reminiscent of a Gothic horror trope in which instability radiates from an arduous past that remains closed to us. There is a sickly tone that materialises. Libby’s desire for escape is realised through Barry, symbolising the forbidden, whereas the father dubiously pimps his daughter to Jeff, the mildly arrogant engineer overseeing the construction of the road. The film is uncharacteristic in such respects but when contextualised in the melodrama form, female subjectivity is key to our understanding of the way the genre functions and communicates with audiences.

Although Libby’s longing for Barry could also be viewed as a form of late teenage rebellion, it is Barry’s status as an outsider that forges a relation since this is how Libby has been positioned by her family and those around her; a strange, odd girl (not a woman) and an outsider. This raises questions about gender that the film deals with subtly. Since Libby has been raised in seclusion, her social skills are infantile while her understanding of sexuality is also erroneous. In many ways, her identity constructed by her parents explains why Libby feels most at ease when she is in the woods with her dog. The interactions with Barry and Jeff complicate her independence as they place demands on her related to negotiating new ideas concerning gender and sexuality. The father in particular wants Libby to conform to traditional ideas of gender and the choice of Jeff as her suitor smacks of dogmatism that Libby contests.

Like many films made under the studio system it was the endings, habitually striving for closure, that were characteristically compromised ideologically and thematically, and in some cases struck a tone which clashed with the rest of the film’s narrative. Deep Valley ends incongruently. Barry and Libby cannot be allowed to escape and their affections for each other are undercut by an ending, promulgating a moralistic tone, that sees Barry/Libby neutered for their attempt at transgression. However, it is not clear from the closing moments if Libby is now with Jeff. Though they are seen together in the final shot, the inclusion of the dog suggests primitiveness still exists and that Libby retains her unconventionality and that she is still free from the tyranny of men.

A noir reading of Deep Valley compared to other noir films released around the same time offers some notable vagaries. For example, traditional noir conventions argued the femme fatale typically seduced the central male protagonist, leading to his entrapment and subsequent downfall. Deep Valley reverses such a narrative idea, arguably positioning the femme fatale as Barry, the male protagonist, whereas Libby is the prey and to a certain extent becomes Barry’s attempts to escape a fatalistic trajectory already mapped out for him by society. Unlike the dangerous woman who is usually punished for transgression, this time the male anti-hero gets his comeuppance. However, there is no satisfaction for Libby in this conclusion but rather a loss that is romantically inclined which returns to the cathartic audience pleasures of the women’s melodrama.

SOME CAME RUNNING (Dir. Vincent Minnelli, 1958, US) – Twisted Americana

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Sinatra sleepwalked through a lot of the films he starred in. His acting could easily be described as blank. Many of his performances bear little finesse, nor are they memorable. Occasionally, Sinatra did deliver but his career was inconsistent and an extension of his fame as a singer. Even his most celebrated performance in The Manchurian Candidate is over rated and so is The Man with the Golden Arm which finds him in the realm of histrionics. Both of these roles demanded so much more from Sinatra than to simply play himself; he tries but comes up short. It was only when Sinatra played himself, understating mannerisms which he consciously ‘performed’, were the results much sharper and impressionable. Sinatra’s most perfect role, a semi throwback to his Oscar winning role (another often over praised performance) in From Here to Eternity, is also his most complex.

Some Came Running, a high end melodrama, by the great studio director Vincent Minnelli, appeared in 1958 at a time when the melodrama form was reaching its zenith in terms of what was possible within such conventional parameters. Minnelli shoots much of the action (sparse that it is) like a musical, counterpointing a film solely made up of three characters talking; Sinatra’s embittered writer, Dean Martin as a drifter and Shirley MacLaine as a naive prostitute? All of these characters have their fair share of hang ups which seem to hold them back in life but what makes this a significant work in Minnelli’s oeuvre and as a studio melodrama is the class politics that gradually rise to the surface, culminating in an unconventionally downbeat ending. I don’t know why I didn’t see the class perspective when I first watched the film. It gets sort of disguised by other vagaries such as Dean Martin’s scene stealing role as a fatalistic card shark who never takes his hat off in case it brings him bad luck.

Is this one of the unhappiest films ever to emerge from the Hollywood studio era? Everyone is living a lie, discontent with the choices they’ve made and trying desperately to find a way out from the suffocation of middle America. Unhappiness seems to be at the very core of this film and Minnelli uses melodrama to attack post war Americana, depicting a town of people trapped in the American dream beginning to come apart at the seams. Think The Last Picture Show (Bogdonavich has talked about the influence of Some Came Running on his own work) as a double bill or even a few years earlier with Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life, perhaps the most influential American melodrama after Sirk’s undisputed masterpiece All that Heaven Allows. Disillusionment, despair, divorce and displacement have taken over middle America, symptoms which no longer have to be translated in metaphorical or metonymical terms; they exist openly, creating a disconnect which only a writer such as Dave (Sinatra) has the capacity to acknowledge or critique for its incongruence. Dave fears the trashiness of Ginnie (MacLaine) since her transparency creates a wretched contempt further problematised by Gwen’s class snobbery. Dean Martin only gets a few scenes but proves how underrated of an actor he really was. Essential viewing in terms of 1950s American cinema and another film that deserves a proper UK release on DVD/Blu; a stunning cinemascope film.

WORLD WAR Z (Dir. Marc Forster, 2013, US) – The Infected


If John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids influenced the post apocalyptic trajectory of Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s science fiction-horror 28 Days Later (2002) then it is a novel which reaches back to the past and affects the present day consciousness of Hollywood cinema. For a long time, the undead was fragmented from the gothic into the vampire and zombie film. Perhaps the one pre-28 days Later text cited by many attempting a new variation on the zombie film was Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Although Romero modernised the zombie flick by saturating the narrative with a socio-political perspective, it wasn’t long before parody rendered Romero’s dead films as a mute point in terms of zombie referencing. If cinema has secretly longed for the end of the world with its endless post apocalyptic fantasies then 28 Days Later merged familiar horror idioms with an underlining nastiness about the human condition. 28 Days Later repressed the zombie, perpetuating a forgotten horror trope – the infected. More importantly, the resurrection of the infected as a post 9-11 horror convention laid bare an allegorical opportunism that projected a plethora of geopolitical anxieties. Whereas the zombie was an icon of the undead, the infected after 9-11 seemed logical since ideological infection was rife, contagious yet somewhat inexplicable in a world being reconfigured by demagogues and iconoclasts. If 28 Days Later led to a new interest and revival in zombie cinema then it also spawned a line of post apocalyptic films with the infected as an allegorical catalyst. In other words, zombies representing no real social or political threat rendered them essentially irrelevant and this meant reiterating their presence in horror films as nothing but gore. The infected on the other hand isn’t as empty when it comes to ideological interpretation and the ‘rage’ virus in 28 Days Later sought to situate the symptoms of the infected in contemporary social reality. 

World War Z, a post apocalyptic blockbuster, takes a similar premise as 28 Days Later and gives it an international context by transforming the central protagonist of Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) into a global citizen, travelling to places such as New York, Jerusalem and Cardiff in order to find a vaccine to an unexplained infection. Typically in such post apocalyptic Hollywood narratives, the central protagonist would either by an ordinary individual, extension of the government or someone with a past in the military. Given the presence of Brad Pitt in the main lead and who also acts as a producer on the film, it’s not surprising that his ties to the UN in the film constructs him as a global citizen and since much of the film takes place internationally rather than typically in America (as do so many Disaster/post apocalyptic films), an attempt is made to refashion the end of the world scenario as a globalist allegory. Given the current civil unrest brought on by the failings of market liberalism and the end of capitalism, allegorically the sense of destruction envisioned in the film is less of a warning about populist resistance and more of a semi-meditation on global interconnectedness stemming from multi protagonist films such as Syriana and Babel. While the film is ambitious in terms of reinvigorating the post-apocalyptic sub-genre, the attempts to narrate a seemingly intelligent story is crudely interrupted by a series of well-executed but immaterial set pieces. Bookended with the instrumentals of Muse, World War Z is a mildly diverting blockbuster that is likely to grow as a potential franchise for Paramount and Brad Pitt. If we get a sequel, the mention of the infection originating from India in the film points to a likely South Asian geographical context.