Monday, February 27, 2017

Thoughts On: Shrek (2001)

'What did you do this weekend, Geekboy?'  Well, I watched the Dreamworks animated film 'Shrek' with my family.  Because about the only other thing I could muster up the energy to do was watch sword-fighting clips from Errol Flynn swashbucklers on Youtube.  That's right.  The party never stops when I'm around.

'Shrek' is pretty much beloved by kids and adults across the board.  Why is that?  What makes it tick?  Why is 'Shrek' hailed as the perfect modern fairy-tale for the 21st century?

Is it because there's enough princess stuff for the young girls, enough action and gross-out humor for young boys, and a nostalgic pop soundtrack for the grown-ups?  I think appealing to so many demographics is definitely part of the success.  As a kid I really dug the actions scenes with the suspension bridge over the pit of lava and the dragon chase through the castle (and still do as an adult).  My Dad liked 'Shrek' primarily for the jukebox soundtrack and Donkey's wacky antics.

But jokes and catchy music only go so far.  What is it about the story and the characters that resonates with all ages?  I think it's because it's a story about oddballs.  And let's face it, we're a society of oddballs.  Few things are more compelling than three individuals who come together, learn to see past their differences (or differences that are actually similarities in disguise) and become buds.

Let's take a look at the title character Shrek.  He's a loner who takes the whole introversion think very seriously.  As an introvert I can identify with this character right away.  But as the story goes on we learn that a big part of the reason Shrek hates being around people is that people hated being around him first.  They started it.

Then we have Donkey.  When he crosses paths with Shrek he has that whole 'We oddballs must stick together!' thing going.  Shrek, who is so used to being alone, is incredibly annoyed by this.  We identify with Shrek here because we all know what unwanted company is like.  We introverts will find all living beings to be annoying at some point in our lives.  Our family, our we don't ACTUALLY hate everybody, we just need a little space right now.  And the ability to hear ourselves think.  But on the flip side of this we also identify with Donkey.  Because we all go through that awkward stage where we desperately want someone - ANYONE - to like us.  Often this awkward stage is called puberty.  And as much as Shrek doesn't really want Donkey around, Donkey does slowly begin to draw Shrek out of his shell.

And to complete this trio we have Princess Fiona.  She's trying her hardest to behave the way a perfect Princess should act, because that's the role in society that she's expected to play.  But let's face it - that's just not her.  In addition to this she has an embarrassing secret: That whole 'turning into an ogre when the sun sets' thing.  This resonates with the 'Oh, nobody would like me if they knew about (fill in the blank) ' that most socially awkward people have going.  So, Fiona is basically pretending she's something that she isn't - twice over - in order to fit in.

These characters are all basically three sides of the same socially awkward coin.  So the narrative of these three people who don't fit in anywhere become friends - or in Shrek and Fiona's case fall in love - is the sort of story we oddballs need to hear.  Because deep down we know that there's nothing so wrong with us that we can't have friends or fall in love, but sometimes we need a reminder.

That may not be why Shrek resonates with everyone - I don't know what you extroverts get out of it - but I think it's why it resonates with me.  Leave a comment about why Shrek resonates with you.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Here we go again.  Last installment of the Seven Samurai vs Magnificent Seven series.

The 2016 version makes a few subtle changes to the story we should be pretty familiar with by now.  Rather than bandits stealing grain we have an evil robber baron 'Bartholomew Bogue' out to steal the farmers land and the valuable mineral rights that go with it.  The seed for this idea of 'Thar be gold in those hills!' was planted in the 60's version with Harry Luck's obsessive notion that the bandits must be after buried treasure rather than grain.

Rather than turn to the local wise old man for advice the townsfolk meet in the Church to figure out how to deal with this.  Bartholomew crashes this little party, and burns down the Church building.  All this is to show us just how evil he is.  As if this isn't bad enough Bartholomew's men quite literally kick the Pastor while he's down.  The husband of our female lead, Emma, rushes to the Pastor's aid and is shot in cold blood.

We now switch to our heroes.  Or at least one of them.  There are seven of these guys after all.  Specifically we switch to Sam Chisolm, who is quick to remind you that he's a 'Warrant Officer' rather than a bounty hunter (but he's basically a bounty hunter).  We're given clues to his character arc and motivation through the sort of bounties he collects.  He's after a man who has murdered fathers, sons, and raped wives.  You don't mess with families around Sam Chisolm.

Chisolm is approached by Emma.  Unlike Seven Samurai and the '60s Magnificent Seven, Chisolm doesn't agree to help simply because it's the right thing to do.  His interest isn't peaked until he hears the name Bogue.  He's got history with Bartholomew.  He asks Emma if she's out for revenge.  Her response?  'I seek righteousness, as should we all.  But I'll take revenge.'

Now that our heroic leader is on-board we go about the recruitment process.  To save time Chisolm already knows most of the men he recruits.  And the ones he doesn't have history with are all like, 'Hey, I have a buddy who's an expert knife thrower!  Can they come too?'  So, that's a subtle difference between versions.  Another is Chisolm's recruitment methods.  They occasionally border on blackmail.  For example, he buys the horse Joshua Faraday lost in a dice game and is all 'My horse now.  If you want it back you have to do a job for me.'  And then there's Vasquez, an outlaw he promises not to turn in, but only if he joins the suicide mission.

So.  On one hand this updated version feels a little cynical to me.  The storytellers decided to give most of the characters motivations to fight other than 'Yay!  Sticking up for the underdogs!  It's the right thing to do!'  Chisolm in particular feels a little jaded to me as we learn he's out for revenge on Bogue himself.  As leader of the seven he's the one you want to feel the LEAST jaded.  At times I feel like they were trying to make a Clint Eastwood western rather than a Magnificent Seven remake.

On the other hand we have themes of joining a common cause in spite of personal differences.  This message is downright humanitarian!  We have the Mexican outlaw Vasquez and Goodnight Robicheaux, whose grandfathers fought on opposite sides in the Battle of the Alamo, and we also have ex-Indian fighter Jack Horne and Comanche warrior Red Harvest fighting side by side.

The choice of the name Red Harvest - and this may be a bit of a stretch - seems like a clever Easter Egg to me.  Film Historians speculate that Dashiell Hammett's prohibition era mystery novel 'Red Harvest' may have inspired Akira Kurosawa's film 'Yojimbo' which in turn inspired the Spaghetti Western film 'For a Fistful of Dollars.'  And who directed 'Seven Samurai,' the film upon which 'Magnificent Seven' is based?  Also Akira Kurosawa.

Speaking of 'Seven Samurai,' the 2016 adaption doesn't seem to have a stand in for the Kikuchiyo character.  Not among the Seven at least.  I honestly think the closest equivalent is Emma.  She spends a good deal of the story trying to convince Chisolm to let her join the fight,  but not in a cheesy 'girl power' type way.  She doesn't have anything to prove, but feels as if they need every good shot they have, and wants an active part in bringing her husband's killer to justice.

I feel like Emma/Kikuchiyo parallel is particularly evident in the climax of the movie.  In a desperate attempt to escape from Chisolm's wrath, Bogue runs to the Church for sanctuary.  You know, that same Church that he burned down in the beginning of the picture.  Chisolm has him cornered, but like all dishonorable bad guys Bogue pulls out the backup weapon he had stashed on his person.  He's about to pull the trigger, and we hear a gunshot.  Not his gunshot, but Emma's.  She's avenging her husband's death and - like Kikuchiyo - becoming a full fledged warrior in the process.

And that's it for my Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven series.  Hope you enjoyed, and if you haven't already, check out at least one of these movies - if not all three.  Each one has its own merits and I think it's worth studying the differences and similarities between adaptions.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Welcome to spot the differences...Magnificent Seven addition!  Now, the most obvious difference between 'Seven Samurai' and the The Magnificent Seven' is that 'The Magnificent Seven' is 'Seven Samurai' but with COWBOYS!

Okay.  That's it for this post.  Lets see, what should I review next?

What, you were expecting a more in-depth compare and contrast?

>Sigh<  Fine.

Remember when I said one of the major themes in Seven Samurai is the class differences between the farmers and the Samurai?  That's not really the case here.  The Gunslingers pretty much treat the farmers as equals.  This is a story about sticking up for the underdog and fighting for a cause because it's the right thing to do, rather than for personal gain.  Seven Samurai is also about fighting for a cause because it's the right thing to do, but it's more about personal honor and less about underdogs.

The film starts in a small Mexican village in a similar manner to Seven Samurai, only this time around there is actual interaction between the farmers and the bandits.  When one of the farmers tries to fight back he is gunned down.  So the villagers consult the old man and he tells them to scrape together everything of value they have so they can buy guns to fight off the bandits.

So they head north to find guns.  As we're cutting out all of that class difference stuff, we're also cutting back on the process of finding honorable Samurai who don't treat the farmers as if they're the dirt beneath their shoes.  The first thing the farmers witness when they arrive in town is two gunslingers risking their lives to give a dead American Indian a proper burial.  These gunslingers are Chris (played by Yul Brynner) who will be your Sensei Kambei for the evening, and Vin (played by Steve McQueen).  At first glance Vin seems to fill the role of Katsushirō, except there is no mentor/student dynamic between Chris and Vin.  Again, they are treated as equals.

The act of heroism is also witnessed by a young Mexican wannabe Gunslinger named Chico (played by Horst Buchholz).  Chico seems to be Katsushirō and Kikuchiyo combined.  He has Katsushirō's youthful naivety, insecurity, and romantic subplot.  He has Kikuchiyo's pride, blustery goofball nature, and also plays the role as moderator between gunslingers and farmers.  Chris describes Chico as 'Young and proud.  And the graveyards are filled with young and proud gunslingers'.

So the farmers ask Chris to help them buy guns.  Chris advises them to hire gunslingers instead as 'Men are cheaper than guns'.  ...That's not cynical at all...  So they offer him all the money they could scrape together.  To which he responds: 'I've been offered a lot for my work...but never everything.'  Is that profound or what?

So after that Chris goes about hiring gunmen.  This section is more or less identical to Seven Samurai.  One think about Seven Samurai though, is after the main introduction of each of the seven only the three main characters get a lot of development.  In 'The Magnificent Seven' more of the gunslingers have defining characteristics.  We have Harry, the soldier of fortune, Lee, army deserter who caves under pressure, and Bernardo, who has a soft spot children in spite of his gruff persona.  Of course as we're spending more time with the gunslingers we're also spending less time with the villagers and the social commentary from the original.

One interesting difference between 'Seven Samurai' and 'The Magnificent Seven' comes in the form of 'Show Don't Tell'.  Seven Samurai has Kambei studying maps and surveying the land to determine the best way to defend the village.  Magnificent Seven merely shows us the gunslingers overseeing construction of stone walls and the placement of nets.  'Magnificent Seven' saves time in this manor, but 'Seven Samurai' shows us that Kambei to be a brilliant strategist.  Also in 'Magnificent Seven' Petra tells Chico through exposition that the fathers feared for the safety of their daughters and made them go into hiding.  She also tells Chico that her father will punish her for spending so much time with him.  In 'Seven Samurai' Shino's father forcibly cuts her hair so she'll look like a boy, and later gives her a beating after catching her with Katsushirō.  I don't know if Petra's exposition info-dump is to save time or because of the MPAA's stance on depictions of violence towards women at the time.

In general 'Magnificent Seven' is a lighter movie than 'Seven Samurai'.  For example, there's a scene where the gunslingers try to convince the wise old man to move into the village as they can't defend his home.  The old man refuses to leave.  In 'Seven Samurai' the houses on the other side of the river are burned to the ground and everyone but a small child is killed by the bandits.  In 'Magnificent Seven' the old man shows up again after the climax without a scratch.

Although the first half of 'Magnificent Seven' follows 'Seven Samurai' pretty faithfully, the second half starts to diverge.  Rather than sneaking off into the enemy camp to steal superior weaponry, Chico infiltrates the bandits to spy.  And instead of negative consequences for his reckless action, he is praised as a hero.  However, some of the farmers get cold feet after the initial skirmish and betray the gunslingers by letting the bandits into the village.

The bandit leader allows the gunslingers to live, but only taking there guns and force marching them out of town.  The seven decide to return to the town in spite of this betrayal, as they were paid for a job and that job is unfinished.  It's a combination of personal pride and sense of duty.

So they have a heroic last stand which many of the gunslingers die.  The most tragic is Bernardo, who dies protecting the three young boys who've adopted him.  Chico - and this is what I consider to be the biggest difference between the two versions - survives.  I was actually pretty disappointed about this the first time I watched 'Magnificent Seven'.  I hadn't seen yet 'Seven Samurai', but I knew from the anime series 'Samurai 7' that Kikuchiyo dies in the end and is buried with honor alongside his fallen comrades as a true Samurai.  Having Chico survive and stay with Petra to start a life as a farmer felt like the opposite of a character arc to me.

Watching it again, the change works pretty well.  The other gunslingers are predicting that Chico will die in battle because of his impetuous nature since the beginning of the movie, so it's kind of a plot twist when he doesn't.  Also part of what makes Kikuchiyo's death so effective is that he's atoning for his past mistake of deserting his post and getting people killed.  Also, Chico is a combination of Kikuchiyo and Katsushirō, and given the more optimistic tone of 'Magnificent Seven' it makes sense that Chico gets Katsushirō's happy ending.

Bottom line: 'Seven Samurai' and 'The Magnificent Seven' have a lot of similarities, but enough differences to keep things interesting.  If you watch one it is definitely worth your time to watch the other.