Old School Reviews: The Magnificent Seven (1960)

I’ve had a little trouble opening this review because it comes with a troubling (for me at least) admission. I’d never watched this movie until a few days ago. I mean, sure, I’d caught a couple of scenes over the years – a snippet here, a moment there – but I’d never actually sat through longer than a few minutes of The Magnificent Seven, and never on its own merits. I couldn’t even make my usual claim, that I’d watched “beginning, middle and end, but not in that order and not in one sitting” like I can with so many other movies. Why does that trouble me?

Well, for one, I have a soft spot for Westerns. I find it to be one of the most adaptable genres in fiction (fuck I love a good space western, from Firefly to the Borderlands games), and even love the works that thoroughly tear apart the mythology built around it (Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West still stands as one my favourite books ever and I was probably way too young to read it when I did). The second reason is that The Magnificent Seven is such an excellent movie and I cannot believe it’s taken me this long to find that out for myself.

Based on classic 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai (which I also really need to watch, given how many films it’s influenced over the years) and released in 1960, The Magnificent Seven tells the story of unemployed gunslinger, hired by a small Mexican village to help defend themselves from bandits. He finds six others willing to help, and are paid a pittance of 20 dollars (“That won’t even pay for my bullets!”), food and board for six weeks of bloody work. In time, the seven fall for the village, coming back to defend it in a climactic battle even after (spoiler alert for a fifty-fucking-six year old movie) some of the villagers betray them to the bandit leader, Calvera.

There’s such a huge cast that going through everyone would take longer than I’m willing to put the effort into, so let’s just mention the ones that stood out. Yul Brynner as the Seven’s leader Chris, who brings gravitas, kindness and practical authority to the role. A character with a firm grasp of the benefits of “teaching a man to fish.” Steve McQueen as Vin Tanner. Fuck, do I need to say anything else? Just, those eyes mate. Those eyes. Jorge Martinez de Hoyos as one of the leading villagers, Hilario, a brave man desperate to create a better life for his children and people, incredibly loyal, intelligent and overall one of the most well-rounded characters in the film. He also shares one of the most endearing scenes in the film with Steve McQueen, while they’re hunting a trio of Calvera’s snipers. Eli Wallach as Calvera is something great as well, swagger and smalltalk unable to hide his willingness to commit violence at a moment’s notice, and utterly unable to comprehend why such talented killers are defending a pisspoor village with nothing to offer but three squares and gratitude, who then don’t even show a great deal of gratitude for most of the film.

The direction and fight choreography is about as good as you’d expect from 1960, and in more than a few ways even better. The deaths are over-dramatic and ridiculous, clutching and staggering and swooning in grand, sprawling heaps. But let’s not discount the absolute talent that was required to be shot off a horse without breaking your neck. Seriously, stuntmen were fucking amazing people, and still bloody are. The final battle is big and chaotic and as gritty as they could be before stuff like squibs were seeing wide use, and the fights before that are just as dramatic. There’s one moment in the first big fight between the Seven and Calvera that just made my jaw drop. Calvera and one of his henchmen are racing their horses through the village, perfectly synchronised as they hurdle over stone walls and whatever else is in their way, the camera following them as they go, and it’s both an amazing example of horsemanship and camerawork.

But what I really love about this film, what I really love, is the honesty of the film. I mean, the characters are all open about their motivations for the most part. Charles Bronson’s character is broke and desperate. Robert Vaughn’s Lee has lost his nerve and is on the run, and simply needs somewhere to hold up. Brad Dexter as Harry Luck thinks there’s more value to the village than what Chris is telling him (a gold mine, precious jewels, something) and that he’ll get a piece for defending it from Calvera. James Coburn as the lanky, laconic Britt is looking for a fight. As for Chris and Vin? Well, they’re never quite clear on why. This is just the work they do, and this cause is good as any other excuse to do it. Better, in Chris’ mind. The only one who seems to be there in some quest for heroism and glory is Chico, played by Horst Buchholz, something that is heavily discouraged by the others.

It goes further than simple character motivations though, greed or a lust for violence. Calvera’s men are starving, they need the villager’s corn or they wouldn’t survive the winter. We meet Chris and Vin driving a hearse to a graveyard, simply because they’re the only ones willing to risk getting shot by a bunch of angry bigots who don’t want an Indian buried on a ‘white’ hill. Charles Bronson’s character, Bernardo O’Reilly, berates a group of boys who call their fathers cowards for doing their very best trying to protect their sons, that being willing to back down for the right reasons requires its own kind of bravery that O’Reilly certainly doesn’t possess. When Chico discovers one of the village women, and learns that they’d been sent to hide in the hills because the village men said that the Seven would rape them he’s outraged by the lack of trust. Chris just goes, “well, yeah, we might” (paraphrasing here). He’s not saying they’re going to rape the villages women, but he acknowledges it as a valid fear that a bunch of well-armed, underpaid strangers might feel entitled towards taking additional payment from the village women. Shit, can you remember the last time a movie acknowledged this? That male heroes are often depicted being entitled to sex? I can’t. And here’s this guy not angry, just going, “I completely understand and you made the right decision given the information available to you.”

This film rips the shit out of toxic masculinity. And it’s a fucking western from 1960, the genre and tail-end of a decade that is responsible for so many of the most harmful tropes. I mean, yeah, there aren’t a whole lot of female characters, but still. This is definitely going in the pool room. Somewhere besides Mad Max: Fury Road.

Seriously, why have I not watched this film before now? This is my jam.

Reviewing the Old School: Down Periscope (1996)

There was this period in the eighties and nineties where films about groups of ragtag misfits in the US military are able to achieve seemingly impossible success thanks to the unorthodox efforts of the misfit-in-chief. This era of screwball military comedies probably started with Private Benjamin (1980) and Stripes (1981) but saw a real renaissance through the nineties with Renaissance Man (1994), In the Army Now (1994), Major Payne (1995) and – that great Steve Martin vehicle – Sgt. Bilko (1996) just off the top of my head. Not always great films, but usually enjoyable enough.

Down Periscope – released in 1996, directed by David S. Ward – stars Kelsey Grammer as Tom Dodge, a navy veteran with two decades of experience and a tattoo on his penis. Yep. As you might expect from such a person, he’s known for his lack of discipline and relaxed leadership style. Having been prevented from taking command of his own submarine for years by a vindictive commanding officer, Admiral Graham (played by Bruce Dern), he’s finally given an opportunity by Admiral Winslow (Rip Torn) with an impossible task: sneak a diesel sub (a recommissioned museum piece) into two heavily guarded US Navy bases, launch flares and blow up some dummy warships. He’s given a handpicked crew of the submarine fleet’s losers, washouts, dropouts and special cases and the wargames begin. Hijinks ensue.

I don’t know. It’s sort of like if Tom Clancy wrote comedies. I mean, it probably doesn’t have the same sort of accuracy that Mr Clancy put into every detail of his books, but the jargon, the tension, the obstacles at times remind me of The Hunt for Red October except, y’know, funner. The ruses are clever and not completely unbelievable. You believe that, as outrageous as it seems at the time, Dodge has always got a plan, one that relies on both research (keeping an eye on the schedules for civilian traffic for example), experience (he knows how his fellow commanders think) and instinct (adapting on the fly). Looking at it, Dodge is a remarkably sympathetic character. He’s someone who cares about the wellbeing of his crew, and tries to get the best out of them by listening and encouraging them as individuals with individual strengths and weaknesses. He acts the father figure and it works well. You want him and his misfits to win.

The acting is good. Kelsey Grammer is the standout, but everyone brings a level of enthusiasm to their roles that makes them a delight to cheer for. Or cheer against. It’s not perfect. Far from it. Too many stereotypes and typecasts. Rob Schneider is playing exactly the kind of character you’d expect Rob Schneider to play in this film. He doesn’t do it badly per se, it’s why they kept on giving him these roles. But it breaks the suspension a little bit, if you take my meaning. Same with a few other characters but he’s the obvious example. Nothing movie breaking, but perhaps some a little better casting would have been in order.

And then there’s the ultimate question we have to ask about any comedy: Is it funny? Yeah. Yeah, it’s alright. Nothing gut-busting, I didn’t even really laugh out loud. But most of the jokes land right and I enjoyed it all the way through. A few lines fall flat, but nothing I’d write home about. Plenty of screwball and a bit of dry wit. Good stuff.

So yeah, go watch it. Remind yourself of a time when we made military comedies. We don’t really seem to make them any more, do we? Well, Hollywood doesn’t at least. I mean, it’s pretty understandable. America’s basically been in a state of war for the past fifteen years (and it ain’t ending anytime soon). The number of dead and wounded, veterans languishing in bureaucratic nightmares and unable to make the transition to civilian life has skyrocketed. The films being made, movies and series like Hurt LockerJarhead and Generation Kill kinda reflect that. Maybe that’s not a good thing. Maybe we need to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all sometimes. Maybe we need to have a look at the military films of the nineties. Maybe I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.

Ah well, have some fun with Down Periscope at least. The Village People sing at the end.

Reviewing the Old School: Collateral (2004)

We all knew that Tom Cruise was crazy back in 2004, yeah? Well y’know, celebrity crazy. Which is still pretty crazy, but it’s entertaining and eccentric instead of the heartbreaking sight of some poor bastard with no family and no real idea when or where they are asking for spare change from the edge of a needle-strewn alleyway… But yeah, we’d started making jokes about Tom Cruise jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch and arguing about his Thetan levels all the way back in 2004, right?

Why am I bringing this up? Mostly because I remember that being the reason I didn’t watch Collateral straight away. I mean aside from me being a broke-arse teenage high school student (as opposed to all those high school students in their late twenties – hey look at film and television, it’s a serious problem). Tom Cruise had made a bunch of bad films, he’d broken up with Nicole and married whats-her-face (sorry, just googled that and he married whats-her-face in 2006), and he’d gone crazy. That matters to a kid who reckons they’re a film snob while secretly thinking that Shrek was the greatest masterpiece in cinematic history. I blame my dad. I’ve got less of a problem with that now, and apparently Tom Cruise is just super-lovely. One of the nicest guys in Hollywood. Top bloke. But separating Tom from the characters he was playing, it weren’t easy at the time. It wasn’t until this film came highly recommended by a mate that I sat down and watched it.

And it’s good. Really good. The tale of a relationship that develops between an LA cabbie and his charge as they drive from stop to stop. It just so happens that the customer is a contract killer working for a drug cartel, murdering witnesses before a major indictment. Jamie Foxx plays Max, the cabbie in question, the terrified ordinary citizen who desperately wants to get through the night alive but at the same time is smart enough to know how unlikely that is, and does a great job of it. He’s a character that has to constantly push through shock, panic and sheer terror while having a man who’s probably going to murder him also try and befriend him. Tom Cruise plays Vincent, the private sector murderer without a conscience. His hair is greyed to make him look older but it’s bloody Tom Cruise, you can put him in a clown suit made of daffodils and he’ll still bring a powerful presence to the screen when required.

The other actors all do a fantastic job as well. Jada Pinkett Smith plays Annie, a lawyer for the prosecution, appears briefly at the beginning but leaves such a great impression and has such good chemistry with Jamie Foxx that you aren’t at all surprised (and can’t possibly be displeased) when she appears at the end. Mark Ruffalo looks surprisingly different with facial hair as Detective Fanning. Barry Shabaka Henley talks jazz as Daniel with Vincent and Javier Bardem talks about Black Pedro as Felix with Max. Director Michael Mann knows how to get the best out of his cast, and it is a stella cast (Tom Cruise included). The music, the angles, the closeups which reveal intimacy and the wide shots that show isolation.

But this is a film all about conversation, and writer Stuart Beattie writes some really excellent stuff. It’s not the fast-paced banter you’d expect in a Tarantino or Ritchie film, rather it’s a slow boil deconstruction of a decent man’s soul as that man is on the verge of panic while another man puts a gun to his head and tells him to calm down.

The movie is all about the relationship between Vincent and Max, and it’s funny how well Foxx and Cruise pull it off. There’s not much chemistry between them, and that seems largely intentional. There’s always a distance, at first caused by their relationship as client and cabbie and then by Vincent’s pistol. The weird part is how likeable Vincent is. He actually seems like a pretty good guy aside from being very willing to shoot anybody and everybody he runs into. He helps Max deal with an overbearing boss, buys his mother flowers and encourages him to “call the girl.” It’s weird how he tries (tries so hard) to be a good friend. And that’s the thing. It’s the reason why he doesn’t just shoot Max as soon as the luckless cabbie finds out about Vincent’s career goals. Because he’s so starved for human contact that he’ll spend hours trying to connect with a bloke he’s probably gonna top at dawn.

Good stuff. Great film.

Anyway, point is that you shouldn’t always judge a film by the actor playing in it. Now Tom’s come back and he’s done some great stuff in the past couple of years, so I’m not too worried about people prejudging his stuff. Some real shit as well (Oblivion), but a lot of absolutely fantastic (Live Die Repeat) and fun (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, his cameo in Tropic Thunder) roles in the main. He’s a good actor and a good guy.

But, y’know, don’t judge whatever new Nicolas Cage film comes out before you see it? I guess? No, no. You can prejudge Nicolas Cage all you want.

Reviewing the Old School: The Dish (2000)

This is a movie that’s worth it for the ending, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

The third film by Working Dog Productions (second if you don’t count documentaries, and honestly why would you?) and biggest box office success, The Dish was released back in 2000 is a comedy that tells the (‘inspired by true events’) story of the Parkes Observatory (a big bloody radio telescope located in the middle of a sheep farm about twenty kilometres from the town of Parkes) and its quirky Australian technicians in the lead up to the Apollo 11 moonlanding. As well as tracking and relaying signals and communications from the travelling spacecraft enroute to and from the moon, it would also act as the primary receiver of the television signals that allowed the whole world to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s first steps upon its dusty surface.

This is a character comedy first and foremost and the characters are, for the most part, great. Unlike Working Dog’s previous film (and previous review fodder) The Castle, which really only included actors who were notable in Australia (it was Eric Bana’s film debut for Christ’s sake), The Dish‘s leads included notable Kiwi Sam ‘I-was-in-Jurassic-Park’ Neil as Cliff Buxton and American Patrick ‘I-have-one-of-the-most-recognised-voices-in-film-and-television’ Warburton as NASA representative Al Burnett. And they’re good. Neil as Cliff is calm and full of authority, puffing on his pipe, in complete control, trying to keep the peace. It means that on the rare occasion that he does tell someone to quit their bitching or loses his cool there genuine emotional impact. Warburton is quiet but obviously concerned as Al, he feels the weight of the world on his shoulders as NASA’s man on site but tries very hard to keep the stress from showing. Tom Long as Glenn is fantastic, playing a socially inept and slow nerd stereotype, but with such sincerity (I use that word way too much in these reviews, but I can’t be bothered grabbing a thesaurus) that you don’t mind. He gets the girl in the end (or at least asks her out) and it’s not some bullshit about her seeing ‘the real him’ behind the shy chitchat (most commonly in movies after the girl breaks up with some jock dickhead and realises that what she really wants is a nice guy who treats her alright). The girl in question, Eliza Szonert as Janine, is obviously attracted from the beginning of the movie to Glenn’s genuine sweetness and kind nature. Roy Billing as Mayor Bob MacIntyre takes the role seriously and has excellent comedic and dramatic timing, as does Genevieve Mooy as his wife. The only main character that I had an issue with was Kevin Harrington as Robert ‘Mitch’ Mitchell. Harrington’s a decent actor, and Mitch decent for the most part, but his character is the one that’s meant to be creating or experiencing conflict with Al, the American outsider, and I just never quite bought it. Lines yelled when they should have been spoken I think. This may have been actor, director, script or some combination of the three, but as a central character conflict I thought it just didn’t work. Having said that Harrington has excellent timing and delivered some of the best lines in the film.

The film has a large cast, possibly a little too large. All due respect to the actor but Billy Mitchell’s character, Cameron the over-zealous army cadet with a crush on the Mayor’s over-zealous (small L) liberal daughter seems superfluous in hindsight. I expect he’d there to represent a view of the Australian military (even with Australia starting to withdraw forces from the Vietnam War), but he doesn’t provide enough laughs to justify as much presence as he has in the film. Yet all the named characters can be justified, and I can’t really think of any that I’d really want culled. It makes for a cluttered cast-page, but doesn’t really make the film any worse for it. Just longer. I also like how they make an effort to give even the minor characters a little depth. Take the above mentioned Janine. She’s not just “girl who drops off lunch that Glenn has a crush on,” she’s also the security guard Rudy’s sister and a really awful driver. It’s not much, but it’s more than a lot of scripts would have given a character like her.

Rob Sitch does a good job directing, and I particularly loved scenes where the titular Dish and the men inside are simply doing their jobs. The choice of music is excellent, using some excellent 60s hits that never distract from what’s going on in the film, but will get you tapping your foot while it’s happening.

The pacing felt a little off. There are two climactic points in the film. The first takes place around the middle when a blackout briefly knocks out the Dish’s power and the backup generators weren’t primed possibly. Because this is the 1960s, this wipes all the data from the computer and for a whole day they ‘lose’ Apollo 11. They then desperately try and figure out where it is, while “bullshitting” NASA (and the American Ambassador who comes to visit). It’s a fun, desperate scene for the various characters but it drains away any tension for the second climax, where high speed winds threaten the broadcast of the actual moonwalk. I’m not sure how this could’ve been improved, but it never really feels like it was quite as dangerous a risk as they say it was.

Is the movie funny? Yes, yes it is. Not in a laugh-your-arse-off kind of way, more like a quiet chuckle and knowing smile. There are some fantastic moments that really sum up the Australian atmosphere of the film, like cricket on the satellite dish, the frequent cups of tea, the omnipresence of sheep and lamb. The Prime Minister (played by Billie Brown and only ever referred to as “Prime Minister” because John Gorton was not our most memorable PM) only appears for a few minutes overall but does a great job of portraying the well-spoken pub-brawl nature of Australian politics for most of the century. (“We’ve got a saying in the party: Don’t fuck up…” “And?” “That’s it.”)

Less of the humour than you’d expect, however, comes from any juxtaposition between the Yanks on site and the local country Aussies. Al is definitely different, is unused to working in professional environments without dress codes, formalities and chains of command, but he’s never anything but polite and is one of the most respectful people in the film. Similarly the US Ambassador, played by John McMartin, is never mocking in his attitude towards the locals and is simply a NASA-enthusiast is just bloody excited to visit Parkes and watch the landing. And that segues nicely into what this film is about.

Y’see, The Dish is not about culture clash, it’s about vindication. There’s the obvious ones. Al’s presence is vindicated in the eyes of Mitch when he helps them bullshit NASA. Mayor Bob McIntyre is vindicated for lobbying to get the Dish built in Parkes in the first place. There’s the less obvious ones. Bob’s daughter Marie (Lenka Kripac) is a teenage feminist spitting out opinions against chauvinism and imperialism without any real idea what she’s talking about (today she’d have a blog on Tumblr), and she’s surprised when Al tells her that it’s been a delight meeting and talking with her. It’s a small thing, but you get the feeling it’s the first time someone has shown any sort of approval for having strong opinions. The second half of The Dish is full of these vindicating moments, culminating right at the end with the moon walk.

The ending is wonderful. Everyone is gathered around television sets watching Neil Armstrong take the first few steps on the moon’s surface. You feel the emotion of the moment, that feeling of witnessing something truly monumental occurring, one of the greatest achievements in human history. The culmination of years of work, expense, stress, terror and hope, broadcast for six hundred million people to see, with that purest of goals: To prove that humanity could do it.

This movie is not perfect. It’s funny and clever, but there’s a list of flaws that I don’t even have time to get into, but it’s worth it for that ending. That feeling of elation and that feeling of achievement. This is a film about the Australian contribution to the television broadcast, not about NASA or the astronauts. The Cold War, the Vietnam War and the Space Race are never mentioned in the film. This is a movie not about an American achievement but a human achievement. In that final few minutes it makes you proud to be a human.

So, yeah, it’s worth it for the ending.

Review the Old School: Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Let me be absolutely clear about something right from the beginning. My most recent viewing was of the Director’s Cut. The glorious, three-hour-long Director’s Cut. Did this make a difference? No clue, I watched the original cut way back when it came out and I wasn’t about to rewatch the same movie just to find out what parts they cut out. I’m not that masochistic. I have a job. And other shit to write. Moving on.

Directed by Ridley Scott and released all the way back in 2005, Kingdom of Heaven stars Orlando Bloom as Balian (later de Ibelin), the blacksmith for a Lord in France who finds out he’s the bastard son of a well-regarded Crusader recently back from the Holy Land, Godfrey de Ibelin played by Liam Neeson, shortly after his child dies and his wife tops herself out of grief. At first seemingly angry that Liam Neeson is his father (God knows why), Balian soon decides to join dad in the family business of killing the enemies of the leper King of Jerusalem (voiced by Edward Norton). Him killing his half-brother priest may or may not have helped in the decision making. Dad doesn’t make it past Italy, unfortunately, but makes sure to make Balian his heir and a knight before carking it. Balian gets to the Holy Land, hijinks ensue. These included Balian bedding the King’s married sister Sibylla (played by Eva Green), sparing and impressing a Saracen Cavalier (played by Alexander Siddig), killing a decent number of Christians and Muslims, building a few wells and, of course, taking command of the defence of Jerusalem against Saladin’s overwhelming forces after the new King of Jerusalem (spoiler, Edward Norton dies) starts a war then promptly loses it, all while learning the true meaning of knighthood. Good times.

This is a good movie, but it’s far from a perfect one. Orlando Bloom plays the role surprisingly well. There were one or two moments where I felt he was channeling Legolas or Will Turner, but I’d blame some awkward and clumsy moments in the script more than anything (a moment before the final battle when he’s giving everyone a pep-talk stands out). His character was a little too perfect though. It was lampshaded at the beginning of the film that he’d fought for lords before joining his dad on horseback and in the engineers, had participated in the building of powerful siege weapons, but we see him the movie as one of the best fighters, a skilled tactician and an expert in irrigating deserts. I mean, is there anything this guy isn’t good at? Similarly the villains are cartoonishly bad. Or specifically Guy de Lusignan played by Marton Csokas, the man who would be king and fuck everything up. Don’t get me wrong, Csokas plays the role well enough, but he’s just such a fucking stereotype with no motivation beyond “I’m gonna start a war and kill me some Saracens.” This worked with Brendan Gleeson’s character, Reynald de Chatillon, the insane commander of the Knights Templar, but he’s played as the mad attack dog whose entire purpose is cutting down people who don’t deserve it for his twisted faith. Guy is supposed to be the one who stands to gain the most and lose the most, but we see no reason for him to be such an arsehole. He doesn’t seem to want to conquer, doesn’t seem to give any shits about the faith or crusades beyond providing him with support or troops. There’s some vague hope for winning glory on the battlefield, I guess, but it just seems shallow. Maybe I’m not reading enough into the character, but it seemed like he was acting the arsehole simply for the sake of being an arsehole who we can blame him when the Kingdom of Heaven all goes to hell, and the audience can say, “See? Should have listened to Balian.”

The direction is mostly good, Ridley Scott knows how to cut together an epic and visceral battle, the combat is clear, bloody and wider shots are used to great effect. Smaller skirmishes meanwhile are lonelier, more intimate affairs, but their setups (long shot of a single knight at an oasis) reminded me of showdowns in old westerns. There were a few moments where the editing made me cringe. One in particular, where Balian first meets the king of Jerusalem seemed badly and unnecessarily cut together. They start out talking over a chessboard then are suddenly looking at plans for a fort, which Balian gives his advice on, then awkwardly shifts to the king with him. It’s meant to feel like a long conversation but instead just feels like they decided to skip half a sentence. It’s weird and unnecessary. But not common. As for the music, well, the only time I really noticed it was during the big battles when I realised it was the same theme from The Mummy. Take that as you will.

Regardless, the cast is stellar. And I mean, really fantastic, putting excellent actors in even minor roles. Liam Neeson has a major role but doesn’t make it through a third of the film, Kevin McKidd has about three minutes of screentime before being killed off and is billed only as “English Sergeant” and Michael Sheen plays the priest I mentioned above. The one who gets stabbed by Balian not even ten minutes in. A special mention should go to The Hospitaller, played by David Thewlis. While remaining nameless, The Hospitaller actually manages to survive most of the film and plays a sort of mentor and father to Balian. He’s a man of faith if not religion, and acts as conscience for Balian in his harder moments with good humour and sincere kindness.

But the characters I really wanted to see more of were the Muslims. I remember when I first watched this not long after it came out for the first time on DVD feeling that the Muslims were treated unfairly, and they may have been. But rewatching it, I felt like this was one of the best possible portrayals of an Arab conquering Christians that we could’ve gotten out of 2005. The Christian folk who want peace always remark that it requires both the King of Jerusalem and Saladin to maintain the peace. Firuz, his retainer spared by Balian in the beginning of the film, is a good man and remarks that it was because Saladin was his teacher. Saladin, played excellently by Ghassan Massoud, does a solid job as the stoic general, who doesn’t really want to go through the trouble of taking Jerusalem but has his own fanatics to deal with. He shows disappointment when he meets a captured Guy, and good humour after treating with a worthy opponent. Not a perfect portrayal, but two years into the Iraq War and four years after 9/11 from an American director? Not bad. Not bad at all, and I wish we saw more of it.

Strange to think that this was directed by the same guy who’s now in so much trouble over fucking Exodus: Gods and Kings. What happened Ridley? You used to be cool.

Reviewing the old school: Die Hard (1988)

So I wanted to do a Christmas movie this week since, y’know, Christmas. Took me a little while to decide which one, since there are quite a few of them (many of them actually pretty shit). Then I remembered I hadn’t watched the original Die Hard in a while, and the choice was made. I procured a copy, ordered a curry and sat back to watch what remains one of my favourite action movies ever.

Released in 1988, the film stars Bruce Willis as John MccLane, an NYPD cop visiting his estranged wife at her work Christmas party (in an incomplete skyscraper in Los Angeles). Then a bunch of mostly European thieves masquerading as terrorists take all the party guests hostage. Hijinks ensue.

But you should already know all this, because you should have already seen this movie by now. In all honesty this should be on that 1001 Movies to See Before You Die list if it isn’t already. It’s a classic action film that holds together incredibly well nearly three decades later (holy shit Die Hard turned 27 this year). The fight scenes are appropriately brutal, the set pieces are spectacular and the coincidences never feel as contrived as they do in a lot of other films (including, if I’m being honest, Die Hard 2). The music, as well, is fantastic. It’s something I hadn’t really paid much attention to until I rewatched it this week, but it manages to add tension in the necessary scenes and avoids the unnecessary synth-rock that’s left the soundtracks to so many other movies from the 80s so dated. Best of all it manages to keeps a Christmas theme going throughout the film.

It’s little stuff like that which makes this movie so much fun and the it never treats the audience like an idiot. It talks through particular scenes without feeling like it’s spoon-feeding us through Bruce Willis’ conversations with the Hans Gruber (the villain), Al Powell (his lifeline on the outside) and himself (you’re only crazy if there’s someone around to hear you). It also has a surprisingly high opinion of intelligent characters. John MccLane is not an idiot. He’s good at improvising and working through problems. Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is witty and charming, very capable of getting his hands dirty, able to think clearly, rationally and keep an eye on the prize throughout. Idiotic behaviour, however, usually results in the death of that idiot, as we see with Ellis and the FBI agents Johnson and Johnson (no relation). Going in guns blazing doesn’t work, and I wish more action movies would take this lesson to heart.

There are flaws, of course. Holly Gennaro, played by Bonnie Bedelia, has little to do aside from being someone for John MccLane to save. Reginald VelJohnson’s character Sergeant Al Powell tells a story about shooting an unarmed 13 year old boy, meant to garner sympathy for the cops, comes off a little sour given recent events (and probably should have given contemporary events as well). Some guns never seem to run out of bullets until it suddenly ‘matters’. The territorial police commissioner trope, furious about property damage and glass, is a little overdone. As is the henchman who just will not fucking die.

But it’s easy to overlook these flaws. Especially ’cause this movie gave us Alan Rickman. I mean, yeah, Bruce Willis was also a fairly fresh face known for his TV and commercial work propelled to Hollywood fame by this film, but he didn’t play Severus fucking Snape in the Harry Potter films. Without Die Hard Rickman may have remained a relative or complete unknown. And that would have been tragic.

So, yeah, watch this film if you haven’t already. But I expect just about everyone likely to read this already has, so, watch it again I guess? Yeah, watch it again.

Have a Happy Christmas (or Chanukah or Winter Solstice or just a grand public holiday for the many people who don’t celebrate it). Let’s see if I can think of a good New Year movie for next time.

Reviewing the old school: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

I’ve struggled a bit writing this. I hadn’t watched this film in a while, and it seemed like a decent choice for an old movie review. It’s bloody fantastic. Problem is, to be honest, just about everyone probably already knows that. It’s Hayao Miyazaki, often cited as the first of Studio Ghibli’s long run of amazing films (even if the company hadn’t technically started yet). Of course it’s good. Of course it’s been praised, dissected, critiqued and analysed by a million others before. What can I possibly add to the discussion? Fucked if I know, but maybe if I ramble on for a bit I’ll think of something.

So, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (or Kaze no Tani no Naushika). The story takes place on a post-apocalyptic world a thousand years after industrial human society had been destroyed in the “Seven Nights of Fire” (this being a Japanese film, titanic organically grown robots with surprisingly uncreative names were involved). Much of the planet has been claimed by the Toxic Jungle, that releases poisonous spores into the air within and around, and is gradually claiming human settlement after human settlement. Nausicaä is a princess of the kingdom known as The Valley of the Wind (hence the title of the film). Far and away one of the hardest bastards in the film (there is one other character who kicks as much arse and he needed to be voiced by Patrick Stewart to do it), she’s also a committed pacifist with a talent for calming, charming and redirecting the deadly insects that protect the Toxic Jungle rather than following the trend in other human kingdoms to kill everything remotely threatening with fire. Aside from a dying a father, everything’s going pretty sweet in the valley until an enormous airship from a neighbouring kingdom, Tolmekia, crashes into the valley and just ruins everyone’s day. Partly because it was carrying spores from the toxic jungle. Partly because it was carrying a foreign hostage who died after the crash. Partly because it was carrying the… embryo… of one of those giant robotic killing machines that I mentioned destroyed the world earlier, that the Tolmekians want back. Anyway, several hopeful anti-war and environmentalist lessons later, everything turns out relatively alright.

It is a beautiful film. The animation is smooth and hold up well for a thirty-one year old film. The art-style makes intimate moments seem grand and grand moments feel intimate, as well as finding the beauty in in what are honestly some fucking horrific-looking beasts. There’s this scene early in the film, when Nausicaä is searching a cave for resources and she discovers the shell of an enormous insect called an ohm. Like, really bloody enormous. It’s presented like a religious experience, a pilgrim entering a cathedral and seeing light fall upon an altar. A lot of blue and white in this moment. A few minutes later the beast that left the shell behind is a nasty, snarling monster chasing after that character voiced by Patrick Stewart (an unforgivable offense in my book, but Nausicaä’s a far better person than I am). Red eyes and a black shell, stark in the desert outside of the cave. Another minute later and the monster has been calmed and is heading home with a surprising grace. Red has been turned back to blue.

Given this focus on colour, the cinematography, the characters and the message that humanity’s best chance of not killing itself is strong anti-war and environmentalist leadership (not to mention the post-apocalyptic setting), I kept comparing Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to, of all things, Mad Max: Fury Road. No, seriously. There’s a tonne of parallels there that I don’t have the time to go through in order to get this up before a self-imposed deadline, but if I ever meet George Miller I’d be inclined to ask how much of an influence Hayao Miyazaki is on him. I might even write a much longer post on the subject sometime in the future. We’ll see. I’m not saying that if you enjoyed Fury Road you’d enjoy Valley of the Wind. Except I actually am. And vice versa.

So, have I added said something interesting in all of this? Maybe. That last bit sounded good, even if it was a bit short. Fuck it, that’s good enough. Point is, if you haven’t seen Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind before, you should definitely watch it. If you have seen it before, well, you should watch it again.

Leave a comment. Thoughts are always appreciated, ideas for future Old School Reviews will be politely considered.