Amidst the fusion of historical beauty and natural greenery, Edinburgh contained some characteristic cinemas that keep the flame of independence films alive and the continued sustenance of tent pole fare. And like the city itself which has deeply rooted ironies in its history, one of the films that I saw in my travels is itself ironic. Throne of Blood is a Japanese adaptation of Macbeth, which is strongly tied to Scotland. How amusing that in certain moments, the film captures the essence of the country. And the cinema that it was being screened at is a microcosm of the capital, which is a fascinating melding of the ancient and contemporary into something that is initially counter-intuitive but on reflection is pleasing to the senses for its majestic alluring nature.
The Magnificent Seven (2016)
The Magnificent Seven is a frustratingly empty and hollow experience. On the one hand, it has ideas that are conceptually fascinating and signify an all-encompassing nihilism that differentiates itself from the charm and melancholia that defined the original 1960s film. However, this ultimately proves to be fruitless in the face of the movie basking itself in a blanket of moral certitude. Moreover, the film never quite recovers from its first ten minutes.
The picture’s opening pre-title sequence is outstanding as a piece of beautiful, tense and striking cinema as it depicts the brutal and savage consolidation of power by the nefarious Bartholomew Bogue who is played with cold blooded steeliness by Peter Sarsgaard. He and his men burn down a church and murder some of the townsfolk who stand up to him. The most visually impressive shots come in the aftermath of this massacre as each shot is filled with a natural radiance which gives the violence a potent edge and emotional resonance. These moments are punctuated with the score, which is like striking hissing cobra with its tense musical stings that come from its use of flutes and minimalist acoustic work. The score marks the final work by the late James Horner with significant contributions from Simon Franglen who finished the film’s music.
Crucially, the opening sets up a potentially tantalising primary theme of the villagers permanently losing their religiously preached morality and consequently, they lose something of themselves in the ensuing efforts to save their village. However, this never explored and is only given cursory lip service by characters without any weight or significance. Worse yet is the film’s loathsome’s inconsistency with its use of violence. Sometimes, it is gut wrenching and lingering. Nevertheless, most of the time, the violence is used as means to deliver sadistic punchlines and crowd pleasing moments. This discrepancy is particularly bothersome in the film’s action filled climax.
There are entire scenes where the violence stirs the emotions and others where it becomes absurd and juvenile. An example of this would be a scene where Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio) is tragically killed by a banished Comanche warrior called Denali who pierces Horne with three arrows as he desperately tries to reach his foe in combat. This moment is juxtaposed with the death of Joshua Faraday. (Chris Pratt) His demise is a preposterously drawn out affair of impossible and laughable proportions. The injured Faraday is shot countless times while on horseback. He eventually falls to the ground, only to get up again. When up, Faraday struggles to light up a cigar, which the surrounding horsemen help him with before he proceeds to fall once more. Then he gets up again and throws a small piece of dynamite that takes out the remaining men.
The film’s most problematic qualities work harmony in final moments of the picture which showcases Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) confronting Bartholomew Bogue in the ash heaped Church about the things he did to his family in the past. The latter is close to killing the former with a small gun, however, is shot by Emma Cullen (Haley Bennet) who miraculously comes in at the last minute to save Chisolm. The moment marks an important moment for the young Cullen as she shot the man who killed her husband earlier the film. However, the film nor Bennett in her performance shows any sense of being affected by the incident.
This is a shame as the picture seemed to be placing Cullen as the microcosm of the town and in essence the exploration of the primary theme. However, the film final moments which shows the graves of the members of the titular seven serve only to venerate the group as opposed to reflecting on the ensuing effects on the town and the moral ruin it may have wrought.
Hell or High Water (2016)
Hell or High Water is layered and textured film that harmonies deft cinematic craft, a fascinating primary thematic exploration and small incidental moments that result in the movie feeling authentic, humorous and sharp. The picture charts the course of two bank robbers who systemically steal from select banks to preserve their family farm and the resultant investigation and attempts to capture the pair by two Texas Rangers.
The ascetic strength of the picture manifests itself in naturally raw and patient shots that capture the Texas set environment in all its overly boiling, rusty and mountainous detail. The most notable example of this comes in the final’s act as there is a race against time for the two rangers to catch up with the banking robbing brothers before they reach a particular bank.
Through a clever use of quick cuts, director David Mackenzie creates a frantic sense of a car chase without the two vehicles being close to one another. Moreover, one shot along a high road overlooks a picturesque landscape that has large patches of green bushes that stretch on for miles. The moment is a microcosm of Mackenzie’s direction, which combines a blend of the intimate and epic, with a sense of the background of a frame being paramount in visually conveying place and meaning.
At the heart of Hell or High Water is the idea of an eternal cycle of violence for the purpose of gaining land. In the second half of the picture, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) while lying in wait with his partner Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) talks about his heritage and how their land was savagely taken. He equates the banking system as the modern day equivalent to what his ancestors went through in losing their land.
The theme takes on far greater significance in the last five minutes of the film when Hamilton expresses the following to Toby Howard (who is one of the bank robbers who got away scot free.) Despite his noble intentions of wanting to preserve his home for his sons, there will burden that they will have to carry knowing the violent means that were used to perform this act of paternal love and class mobility.
Throne of Blood (1957)
Despite the absence of William Shakespeare’s expressively poetic language and gut wrenching soliloquies, Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is still a compelling and haunting interpretation of the bard’s famous tragedy. This is primarily because of the mesmerising visuals. From its thick patches of fog to rain-drenched and windy forest terrains. Kurosawa use of weather provides the picture with an all-encompassing dreamlike atmosphere. These scenes are accentuated by the stark black and white photography, the extensive use of medium and long shots as well as excellent framing.
Moreover, these atmospheric moments provide the film with a unique prism that the story is being told through. When conversing with his wife part way through the film, Taketoki Washizu (Macbeth and played by Toshiro Mifune) speaks of his experience with the evil spirit as though it was a dream in which he has finally awaken from. One could read Washizu’s experience as a vivid nightmare that was caused by him being lost in an endlessly wet, windy and wild woods.
However, a more literal reading of the film reveals that the Washizu’s rise to power is a result of paranoia in the face of survival in troubled times. His wife, Lady Asaji Washizu (Lady Macbeth) who is played with precise and terrifying stillness by Isuzu Yamada tells her husband that his best friend, Yoshiaki Miki (Banquo and played by Minoru Chiaki) will betray him by telling what transpired in the forest, which will cause the King to kill him. Additionally, in an interesting new wrinkle, she also reveals that Lord Kuniharu Tsuzuki (King Duncan and played Takamaru Sasaki) murdered the former Lord. Washizu defends the act by saying that he did it out of survival.
In this way, the film feels very Hobbesian in its depiction of a savage state of nature where any man can be killed on a whim in the name of survival. The screenwriters also lessen Washizu’s ambitions; he becomes a Lord of a garrison as opposed to a ruler of a nation, which ultimately gives credence to the Hobbesian reading as the societal structure hints at Civil strife, the conditions of which the English Political Philosopher wrote his treatise, Leviathan under in the 17th century.
Finally, the film is punctuated by a powerful and lingering central performance from Toshiro Mifune. Mifune balances, manic energy and fury with a captivating inner turmoil. The scene that encapsulates these strings of different emotions is when he kills a messenger who tells him that failed to kill Miki’s son. At first, Washizu lunges at him with frightening anger as he stabs the messenger. Then he slowly turns away from the flinching body and is keeping his eyes on it in a manner akin to Predator watching on its prey. Through the course of the scene as messenger slowly succumbs to death’s cold embrace, Mifune’s facial expressions change from satisfaction to guilt over his actions to outright fear.
The Revenant (2016)
The Revenant is a perplexingly peculiar film. On the one hand, it fundamentally adheres to the essential axioms of the cinema, which is visually conveying the story, themes and emotions of its characters. While also delivering on the experiential nature of the medium in two ways. The first is in an impressively constructed battle sequence. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu conveys the sheer brutality and chaotic nature of war with his free roaming camera as it pans across the various terrains that are engulfed in the conflict. The second is the sheer agony and subsequent attempts to survive by the main character Hugh Glass in the aftermath of a vicious attack that he has undergone at the hands of a grizzly bear.
One does get a distinct feeling that Glass feels less like a character than a vessel for suffering. One could argue and indeed admire this aspect insofar as it being a representation of realism, in regards to Glass’s life-threatening injuries lasting the near entirety of the running length. Moreover, this could give credence to the primary theme, which could be inferred as empathy within nature, proving that the distinctively human quality can even emerge under the most extreme conditions where survival is crucial.
Nevertheless, even outside of these moments of protracted anguish, Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance proves to be a one-note exercise in toughness. It is not a captivating or nuanced, and it is a shame that DiCaprio won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in this film when there are a plethora of excellent performances that have been overlooked. Such is the nature of this picture, an astoundingly well crafted and ascetic delight with a problematic central performance that feels inauthentically bold.