#1 movie, weekend of 9/23-9/25/16
What it is: A remake of the 1960 Western, which was itself basically a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (neither of which I’ve seen). Denzel Washington leads a group of gunslingers (including Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio) to liberate a small mining town from the reign of an evil land magnate (Peter Sarsgaard).
This may be one of the douchiest things I ever say but, for better or worse, I really think it’s true: The Wire changed the way I look at art. Seeing the first season end in a way that not only paid off the seemingly meandering preceding story threads but did so in a way that satisfyingly resolved the entire narrative as presented up to that point, whether or not the show ever returned for another season, contrasted sharply with every other TV drama I had ever seen, all of which were designed to spin their wheels and keep stringing their stories along for as long as the series remained profitable, actively avoiding arriving a real resolution of their central conflicts and themes. I had always known that those shows operated that way; The Wire showed that that wasn’t the way things had to be.
And I think from that point on I saw a dividing line in creative media generally: Some movies/novels/albums/etc. are created because their authors have a new and honest idea that they feel compelled to communicate to their audience, while others–probably the vast majority–are created because their authors just have to come up with something, anything, either to make some money or to reinforce their self-identification as creative people. This isn’t a matter of “high” or “low” art; plenty of superficially classy work is derivative and uninspired. It’s a matter of whether or not something is born of a genuine creative impulse. This may not be the best perspective for a pop culture critic to have (and it’s probably why I can give the impression that I “hate everything”), but once you start seeing this distinction, you can’t really stop.
All of which is to say, as you might expect, that The Magnificent Seven (2016) falls pretty decisively into the category of art that doesn’t really have a reason to exist.
But before I say anything more about this movie in particular, I should note that I’d be a hypocritical asshole to act like there’s no value to that category. Case in point: I enjoy horror movies, and my enjoyment really doesn’t seem to depend on them being super innovative in some way. The Conjuring was a total meat-and-potatoes haunted house thrill ride, but by that rubric, it was great, and I loved it.
And while I didn’t love The Magnificent Seven, I did find it to be very well-made. It’s got a bunch of great actors who are generally allowed to do their thing, the cinematography boasts gorgeous landscape shots and compelling action sequences, and Antoine Fuqua’s direction generally has wit and grace, allowing for small moments (Ethan Hawke hissing like a cat during a shootout) and tossed-off dialogue asides (“So we’re not going to shoot anymore?”) that make the big moments feel more authentic and earned. The script sometimes seems to tilt towards the excessive grandiosity that people ended up making fun of in co-writer Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective (the villain’s big monologue opens with “Americans have always equated democracy with capitalism” or something like that), but generally it’s amusing and effective. I’m not a big Western or action aficionado, but if you are, I imagine you’ll have even more fun with this movie than I did.
So, to be clear: I didn’t hate this movie. Overall I liked it! But I still can’t forget that it’s a different beast from a work that actually has something to say, regardless of Pizzolatto’s best efforts. To put things in seasonal terms, it’s like a plastic pumpkin versus an organic one. Plastic pumpkins can look perfectly nice, but you can’t turn them into a pie.