The Magnificent Seven

There are some films you go to, where your expectation is that they will be adequate. Magnificent Seven is overdue a decent remake, and this was a film I could see with my daughter. I didn’t expect it to have the same impact watching the original did for a 7 years old, but it looked like a decent way to spend a couple of hours.

The casting is pretty solid – Washington does the role of leader solidly, Pratt does his amiable rogue schtick effectively and Ethan Hawke is probably the best of the bunch as the ex Confederate sharp shooter. Revisiting Westerns is problematic with modern sensibilities, particularly for a film that just wants to get on with the entertainment. It opts to deal with the racial issues of the time by having diversity in the seven (and of course they all come to have respect for each other through combat). But you get the sense it is not really at ease confronting these and quickly moves on.

As for the entertainment aspect, it handles that effectively. There are some moments of comedy, some cool deaths, and fast paced action scenes. It makes a change from car chases. But it lacks any of the charm of the original, and ultimately you don’t care about about the villagers or the cowboys. The sense of sacrifice and redemption that was central to the original is lacking, almost as if they’re embarrassed by it, and it isn’t replaced by anything.

Purge: Election Year

The Purge series has become quite interesting as it has developed. It started with a fairly ludicrous idea, as the frame for some straightforward violence and redemption. In the second, and arguably best, instalment, it developed its own aesthetic. The idea of the Purge as a Holiday, with all the attendant outfits, language, customs and paraphernalia developed. We got a Purge look – macabre masks and make-up with a dose of creepy violence.

Rather than retread the same night of survival and personal discovery theme, Election Year takes a bold step to up the allegory and make it full on commentary on American gun fetishism, treatment of the poor, white privilege, and role of religion in politics. Elizabeth Mitchell’s Presidential hopeful is making the removal of The Purge the central theme in her campaign, and the heavily religious NFFA portray it as central to American identity. I mean, it’s no Animal Farm, but you’ll get the message here.

Such political allegory in horror used to be quite commonplace (all hail They Live!). But reading the comments on IMDB one is struck by how unaccustomed to it people are, and also how worthwhile it is. The complaints are all of “white stereotyping”. No, I’m serious, people think this is a thing to be upset about, eg:

“It would be okay if the director were able to make it more subtle, but since the movie is dumb proof, the persistent displays of “LOOK HOW WHITE PEOPLE ARE CORRUPT AND BAAAAD! LOOK HOW GOOOOOOD THESE POOR IMMIGRANTS AND DARK-SKINEED PEOPLE AAAAARE! LOOK HOW EVERYONE WHO COMMITS MURDER IS CRAZY – EXCEPT THE ONLY SANE, GOOD GUYS WHO KILL THEM.”

“White men are stereotyped to a new level. The hero is a white blonde who cares about “poor people” and uses terms like “over represented”. More poor people are heroes talk. A room full of rich people say that they need to stop the poor from destroying them- all white men, no one Jewish, no one black, no one middle eastern- just those evil white men”

“Too much of a social message in The Purge 3. I would have liked to see more of the actual purge/sci-fi itself. The film could be interpreted as a G O P vs Dem social messages.”

You get the idea. This is probably the same people who complained that casting women as Ghostbusters in the remake “ruined my childhood”. While Purge: Election Year is very far from a great film, (it is cliched, not that well acted and in the end doesn’t ask complicated questions), the absence of other popular films taking on a similar role in the current situation in the US makes it worthwhile.

Don’t Breathe

[Probably a bit SPOILERy but not too much]

This horror/thriller from the director, Fede Alverez, who did the remake of the Evil Dead (yes, I don’t know why either) uses post-recession Detroit as the backdrop for a home invasion gone wrong thriller. Three young thieves, seeking to escape Detroit, are using security keys to target houses. There is the lure of a big score at the home of a blind, ex war vet. Like last days for a police officer, we all know the ‘just one last job’ never ends well. Of course it goes wrong, and the vet isn’t quite as incapable as they’d anticipated. But neither is he as innocent and the house harbours a secret.

In this respect Don’t Breathe is very similar to 2015’s less well known Intruders. That featured someone a home invasion, someone house bound (through agoraphobia), the tables turned on the three burglars, and a secret in the basement (do all American houses have something dodgy in the basement??). Indeed, it’s not just similar but aside from a few twists, almost identical.

But it’s well shot and the tension is almost maintained at the sort of pace that makes you realise you’re hunching you shoulders in an uncomfortable manner. There’s one unpleasant, and probably unnecessary scene that seems more akin to the horror side of Alvarez’s canon. It works best instead as tightly focused thriller, and although it gets a bit laboured towards the end with one too many false endings, it’s effective and relentless.

Hell or High Water

Finally another decent movie has come along in 2016. The last film that I would have heartily recommended was Eye in the Sky. This summer has been a bust, so I was thankful for David Mackenzie’s perfectly paced Texan drama. It follows two pairs of men: Chris Pine and brother Ben Foster, who are robbing a series of Texas Midland banks, and Texan Rangers Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham pursuing them. Within both pairs there is dry, sparring humour and a believable basis for a relationship. All four play it perfectly, and the minor characters all add the right level of shade.

The story follows the bank robbers over the barren, post recession Texan landscape. Mackenzie doesn’t over-indulge this setting, although it is masterfully shot, nor does he play it for pure action. It isn’t pure Southern gothic, it’s played fairly straight without stylistic flourishes. It’s as much Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry as it is True Detective. I’m not sure it has that much to say about the human condition – it’s just a beautiful, thick slab of Americana.

The Barracuda 100 films of the 21st Century

You will probably have seen the BBC list of top 100 films of the 21st Century. Like all such lists it generated a lot of debate. It contains a lot of great films, a lot of films I haven’t seen (I’ve done about half of them) and a lot of films I don’t want to see. It was a bit, well, film critic in its taste (erm, unsurprising as it was compiled form film critic choice, but you know what I mean). Genres, such as horror or action, tend to be dismissed by critics.
It got me thinking how my list would compare. Now there are a lot of gaps in any list I would create: I watch a lot of films but I don’t watch a LOT of films, so there are many great ones that I’ve missed. Secondly I was raising my daughter for much of the 00s so my cinema going experience was often limited to Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squequal (not a contender). Thirdly, I’m biased towards certain types of movies. So what you have is not so much 100 Greatest Films of 21st Century but 100 Films Martin has Seen that He Remembers and Thought Were Good.
In compiling the list I deliberately didn’t select films because of what they might represent in cinema terms. For example you might argue the Kings Speech was a vey influential film in that it made studios realise that people over the age of 50 went to the cinema also. I also allowed myself repetitions, rather than one film standing for a genre (so for example there are three examples of what is labelled French Extremism in my list because they’re all good movies). My only criteria were that they were good films, well made, which I can recall and would recommend. Coming up with 100 films is quite difficult, so some in my list I wouldn’t deem “great”, but rather just good, neat films.
While I doubt you’d like all of my list, my bet is that you’d have more enjoyment watching them than the BBC list. But you might not learn as much about cinema. I haven’t ordered them, because that would require too much internal debate.
For what it’s worth then, the Barracuda Top 100 Films of the 21st Century:

12 Years a Slave
21 Jump St
25th hour
8 mile
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
A History of Violence
A Prophet
The Act of Killing
Anchorman
Anvil: The Story of Anvil
Ashes of Time Redux
Atonement
Battle Royale
Before Sunset
Best in Show
Blue Ruin
Bombon el Perro
Bourne Identity
Brick
Burn after Reading
Calvaire
Calvary
Coherence
Confessions
Dark Water
Dead Mans Shoes
Dead Snow
Descent
Dogtooth
Eye in the Sky
Frank
Gladiator
Grand Budapest Hotel
Harry Potter Deathly Hallows pt 2
Headhunters
Hidden
High Tension
Hugo
Hunger Games
Hurt Locker
I Saw the Devil
Ichi the Killer
In a World
Inception
Inglorious Basterds
Inside Llewyn Davis
Inside out
It Follows
Ju-on: The Grudge
Juno
Kill Bill v 1
Kill list
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Kumiko Treasure Hunter
Lady Vengeance
Lego Movie
Let the Right One In
Leviathan
Little Miss Sunshine
Locke
Lost in Translation
Mad Max: Fury Road
Martyrs
Minority Report
Mulholland Drive
Nebraska
Never Let Me Go
Nightcrawler
Notes on a Scandal
Oldboy
Only God Forgives
Only Lovers Left Alive
Pan’s Labyrinth
Persepolis
Poetry
Raid
Rain
Rec
Searching for Sugar Man
Sexy Beast
Shaun of the Dead
Shrek
Sicario
Son of Saul
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter.. and Spring
Straight Outta Compton
Tale of Tales
Tale of Two Sisters
The Drop
The Witch
These Final Hours
This is England
Touching the Void
Up
Versus
Voices
Watchmen
Whale Rider
Wild tales
Wolf Creek

Suicide Squad

I’m pretty sure that future historians will trace the fall of modern civilisation to the moment when people began to speak reverentially of “the Marvel universe” or “the DC universe”, as if it was the Manhattan project of literature. I mean we don’t talk in sonorous tones of “the Eastenders universe”. Before I went to see Suicide Squad, I knew it had been declared a disaster. Apparently Marvel have got this universe thing wrapped up, but DC is a mess. Indeed I went to see it partly hoping for a clusterfuck, there’s a certain joy in watching (and reviewing) such a film.

And it is certainly a very flawed film. There are plot holes so large you wince at their nakedness. The main foe, The Enchantress (played by Cara Delevingne), is about as menacing as someone in the office who has learnt belly dancing and wants to show you their moves. There isn’t much chemistry between the gang, and there is so much idiot-lecture exposition you wonder if these characters have indeed wandered in from a different universe.

But it’s also got some good points. It has a Warriors style gang look and feel. It’s more ‘street’ than any DC or Marvel film (with the exception of Deadpool). Smith is cool and sufficiently human to give his character depth. But it’s Robbie’s film – Harley Quinn gets all the best lines and scenes, and she plays it with the right level of danger, sympathy and comedy. Both Robbie and Smith understand the type of film they’re in – playful nonsense. Leto on the other hand thinks he’s playing Macbeth. Thankfully his appearances are relatively scarce, because every time he is on screen you are desperate for the scene to end. It’s a shame the “universe” demands that he and Quinn are a couple, because a much better ending would be if she put her baseball bat to effective use.

I sometimes see commentators pondering how to ‘fix’ the problem of the poor DC adaptations. The underlying assumption here seems to be that we have to keep making them, as if some law has been decreed. We could just make other types of films you know. In psychology this is known as cognitive inertia – you keep perpetuating the same behaviour despite the lack of success. But the production cycle of Hollywood is already fixed for the next 5 to 10 years on DC and Marvel adaptations. And I guess that is the appeal of the ‘universe’ approach – it is comfortable and reassuring, both for film execs who can plan their hits for the next decade, and audiences who know previously what world their entering. But that’s why they’re boring too.

Suicide Squad is a mess, but it’s a reasonably enjoyable mess. I preferred it to any of the Avengers or X-Men movies. It’s just not as good as other movies.

Lights Out

For each of us, not all genres are created equal. Horror is one of my preferred genres, so I’ll happily watch a formulaic horror with a 5.1 IMDB rating, whereas I’ll criticise a rom com with the same score for being cliched. And a musical had better be brining 8.5 to the table before I’ll even consider it. So when I say Lights Out is a good film, it’s with this bias.

It isn’t particularly original – it tells of a family haunted by a malevolent spirit. As the title suggests, the spirit – Diana – can only exist in the dark. This gives plenty of room for creepy scenes, jump shocks, tense search scenes. The jump shock is a hackneyed technique, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still effective. It is over-used, and films without much else going for them rely on it. Lights Out is neatly done, tightly scripted – it has a lot of resemblance to 2013’s Oculus (although that featured haunted mirrors, so wins).

As with The Babadook, it could be read as an allegory for depression, but it doesn’t forget it’s a horror film first. It doesn’t have any of the atmosphere, or originality of The Witch, say, but it’s a scary 90 minutes, and yeah, maybe I left the landing light on that night.

Remember

Atom Egoyan’s film was actually a 2015 release but it had a delayed outing in the UK, and I’ve only just come across it, so here it is. The film details Alzheimer’s sufferer Christopher Plummer on a revenge road trip across North America, co-ordinated by his fellow old-homes resident Martin Landau. Both are survivors of Auschwitz, and four individuals have been identified as the possible Nazi commander who killed their families. There is not enough evidence to prosecute, but Landau’s Max assures Plummer’s Zef that he will recognise him.

In my review of Son of Saul I touched upon the dilemma facing Holocaust movies – the demands of the subject are incompatible with the requirements of cinema. Son of Saul tackles this through cinematography, immersing us directly in Auschwitz. Remember addresses it by bowing to the narrative arc of cinema, and satisfying these needs to create an engaging, intelligent and tense road movie. It creates this film effectively first of all, and this allows the layers of further mean to be developed. These include the nature of memory, and our identity. Most significantly, we will soon be in a time when there are no Holocaust survivors left – how we remember, and what we as a society choose to remember is the question this film raises.

It does this deftly, and without a heavy touch. You can watch it as an enjoyable, unusual thriller and be satisfied. Nabakov argued thats “Nothing is more boring or more unfair to the author than starting to read, say, Madame Bovary, with the preconceived notion that is a denunciation of the bourgeoisie…we should study that new world… having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. When this new world has been closely studied, then and only then let us examine its links with other worlds’. The artefact has to stand on its own before we consider the meaning and intentions it raises. Remember does this perfectly.

Star Trek Beyond

I am old enough to remember going to the cinema to see the first Star Trek film in 1980. And that in itself was a reboot of the TV series which was nearly always on rotation on TV. I bumped into some mates from school at that screening and the feeling afterwards was a bit “it was allright, I suppose”. The intervening period has seen those films grow in affection for an audience who views them as almost beyond criticism. The truth is they weren’t very good, lacked much action and rather lumbered along.

If that gang of 13 year olds had been given this movie to view, it would have been our favourite film ever (until the next Chuck Norris flick anyway). As it is, the Star Trek franchise is trying to wiggle a niche of its own inbetween Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy and all the other Marvel nonsense. With Star Trek Beyond it seems to have realised this quite successfully. It eschews the fashionable ‘darkness’ so beloved of many films, it has a few moments of humour but it doesn’t attempt the knowing meta humour of Guardians or Deadpool. Instead it’s quite old fashioned, it opts for the character ensemble in space, some decent set pieces and corny messages about unity being important.

There are no cutesy aliens in this, no meme moments, but the interplay between the characters as they come together on an alien planet to defeat the evil Krall, is well played. Bones, Spock, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov (Anton Yelchin’s last role) all capture the originals and look comfortable now in these roles. Even Simon Pegg isn’t too annoying.

Ultimately it’s what you want from a summer blockbuster – big, loud, fun, but not something you’ll bother with a second time, or spend long pondering. Given the turkeys of Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad though, this now seems like high watermark for summer films. My verdict would be upgraded from the 13 year old’s version to “yeah, it’s allright”.

Finding Dory

An odd thing has happened with Pixar movies, they have transformed from being smart kids movies with something in them for adults, to grown up movies disguised as kids films. Dealing with identity issues on retirement (Toy Story 3), coping with your growing irrelevance as a parent (Inside Out) and now caring for a relative with dementia in Finding Dory. I mean, would any grown ups go and see movies on these themes if they weren’t coated in the sugar pill of a light hearted animation?

In a world where a braying, bullying man-child is a serious contender for the most powerful job in the world, it is perhaps no surprise that the best medium for dealing with complex, grown up issues is children’s movies. Finding Dory is not quite up there with Pixar classics, but it has enough “dad, are you crying again” moments. It is an actual sequel in that it continues a story rather than just retelling the same one. But Pixar movies work best when we are introduced to a new world, and this one is already familiar so lacks the joy of all the small gags about how things work in this world (eg fish holding their breath to look out of the water). The plot relies too much of jumping one tank to another to really be engaging. But it cleverly maintains the animation style of the original with improvements in clarity. As if to illustrate the point about where they could have gone with the animation, the preceding short “Piper” is so realistic you wonder at what point all actors will be made redundant.

The Pixar formula of increasingly adult themes in a child’s body type movies may be nearing its end though I feel. There is a harsher, more chaotic blend around the corner I suspect that will appeal to kids more, but maybe their parents less.