Best films of 2016: my picks

Best Of lists

To be fair I shouldn’t even write this post, I’ve seen a woefully low number of films this past year. So what I’ve done is split it (like last year) into favourites I’ve seen, those on my ‘to watch’ list and proper turkeys.

Enjoy.

FAVOURITES I’VE SEEN

Captain America: Civil War
Famed for their back and forth dialogue, the Russo brothers stepped up from TV to film effortlessly. It also bucked the trend of a smashy ending, which was welcome.
Deadpool
Despite the trailer ruining a lot of the jokes and the positive reviews threatening to put me off, it was still a fun blast and a breath of fresh air in the superhero genre.
Sing Street
As far as coming of age films go, this one is a treat. If you grew up in the ’80s, have been in any way part of a band or creative, this will resonate.
Rogue One
Gareth Edwards has come a long way since his debut Monsters. Here he expands the Star Wars universe in a satisfying way, giving us the familiar but twists and nice new touches.
Doctor Strange
Is it silly to doubt that Cumberbatch would be anything but good for Marvel? His performance was nigh on perfect and helped expand the MCU into new and exciting areas.
Creed
Seems young blood gives old a new lease of life from time to time. In this instance Stallone plays an aged Balboa, training Apollo Creed’s son in this surprisingly engaging story.
The Revenant
The making of this film has become almost as famous as the movie itself. With stories claiming DiCaprio went through utter hell and back to make it. It’s gruelling, but worth watching.
Spotlight
As this came right at the start of 2016 it almost slipped off my list. Not flashy nor showy, but a well-told tale making archive researching seem as engaging as it can.
High-Rise
I’m starting to think I can only take Ben Wheatley films in small doses. They’re way too stylised and I just don’t get them. That said, this film is insanity in a good way. And it’s Hiddleston as you’ve never seen him before. 

TO WATCH LIST

Everybody Wants Some!!
Hell or High Water
Hail, Ceasar!
American Honey
Paterson
The Nice Guys
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Kubo and the Two Strings
Midnight Special
Sausage Party
Green Room
The Big Short
The Hateful Eight
The Girl With All The Gifts
Victoria
Arrival

PROPER TURKEYS
Maybe it’s mean calling these turkeys, but they failed to deliver on many levels, so they get what they deserve.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Hey guys, shall we have any humour in this film? No, let’s keep it as po-faced as possible. Shall we have a plot that makes sense? Nah, there’s no time. Shall we get the audience caring about the characters? Why bother, just smash stuff in the third act. Audiences like smashy, look at Transformers. ‘Nuff said.
Suicide Squad
Ok, I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed. This film could have been as edgy as Deadpool. Instead it’s got a dull as ditchwater plot where almost nothing happens. It’s got too many characters that serve almost no purpose (including the Joker) and I didn’t care about a single one of them. Not even the delectable Harley Quinn, there I said it.
Magnificent Seven
Now I didn’t see the original, but many people I know did. And most said this remake failed to get us caring about any of the characters whatsoever. Embarrassing, given the quality of the cast. For me, I went in cold as a newbie and thought much the same. Magnificent? Not by a long way.

Luke Cage: season one review

TV

Take Captain America and add a dash of Superman and thread Harlem throughout his core and what do you get? Luke Cage. A badass bulletproof hero in a hoodie. Originally a character that turns up in Jessica Jones but now has his own show. And one that feels pretty different from others out there, and indeed, different from other Marvel ones too. From the opening yellow-washed, funk-inflected theme song – that’s simultaneously retro and contemporary – you get a sense that a lot of love has gone into its creation and how important the Harlem setting is to its fabric and structure.

For example, music is vitally important. Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Mohammad put it together and said they were influenced by Wu-Tang Clan, Ennio Morricone and Mohammad’s group A Tribe Called Quest. So we’ve got Western meets ’90s hip hop, with an original track by Method Man too (video below). All of which adds to its identity.

And on the character front, our main man Luke is interesting. Not immediately likeable and some may say stoic and unreadable, but there’s a fire under his surface. He’s a quiet hero, fierce, intelligent, troubled. There’s no spandex or cape and he half shuns the limelight for the most part. In reality, he’s an ex-convict trying to lay low and live his life in peace. But he’s too special to do that for long. He’s bulletproof for one thing, but it’s more than that. He has a strong sense of injustice and the people of Harlem need him to step up and protect them. So far so very Western, right?

Marvel's Luke Cage

And whilst it’s easy enough for him to hurl gangsters about (he’s bulletproof and can heal incredibly fast and has superhuman strength) he does have weaknesses. Namely loved ones, the people that he cares about. Which you’d expect. If you can’t hurt a bulletproof man, hurt those around him. Which is the approach our bad guy Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes (Mahershala Ali) takes for the first half of the season.

And I very much think this is a season of two halves. First is set-up and a bit slow burn, then the second gets more gung-ho, with Luke half on the run from the law and the bad guys at the same time. So an educated outlaw and vigilante with the common people on his side? May as well call him Robin Hood.

Whatever we call him, it’s a good first season for a show and gets better as it goes on. And it’s nice to see Marvel trying new things, but all the while building the MCU on the small screen. We’ve had Agents of SHIELD (decent and still going) and Agent Carter (had its moments but cancelled after two seasons), Jessica Jones and Daredevil (heard both fairly good but haven’t caught them) and now we have Luke Cage. It’ll be most interesting to see what happens in season two.

Rogue One: upping the game

Film

So how on earth do I review a Star Wars film without spoiling it? It’s tough but let’s try. To start with, it’s not called Star Wars colon something, so it already sets itself apart from the others. It’s linked, definitely. But it’s a little rebel of its own, which is kind of great.

Plot wise, I’ll keep it light. Scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) has left the Empire behind, until they find him and recruit him to build the Death Star. His daughter witnesses this and then grows up to be Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a freedom fighter of sorts – who gets recruited by the rebels. They’ve learned of the Death Star and who Jyn is and want to use her to get close to Galen and perhaps kill him. Jyn learns that her father put a weakness in the Death Star and, if they can capture the plans for it, they’ll know how to take it down. Along the way she teams up with rebel Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), former Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), a force-believing monk (Donnie Yen), mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Yen), and former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Trying to stop them is bad Empire chap, Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, doing his best impression of close to maximum crazy).

So we’ve got a story that slots relatively neatly into the middle of the saga – in that the events that led up to the creation of Vadar come first, then this, then the original films (blowing up the Death Star), then the quest to find Luke (the most recent one, The Force Awakens, with Daisy Ridley). Got it? Make sense? Let’s carry on.

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Sticking with story, it’s funny. In that you could argue it doesn’t actually offer up anything new if you put it under a spotlight. We get a gang trying to get one over on the Empire on a planet’s surface while a space battle rages above. This gang is made up of a main guy and girl, a robot, a guy who believes in the force, and a shaggy man-creature who doesn’t say much. Our main character has major issues reconnecting with her father, convinced of the good in him when others doubt there is any, sound familiar?

I could go on, but I don’t want to criticise too much. It’s still, in some ways, more original than The Force Awakens. It might not have the same heft of character; in that you’re missing Adam Driver’s Ben Solo – possibly the most interesting thing to come out of the new films so far. But what you do have is a real sense of spectacle and weight. The battle scenes in Rogue One are visceral and impactful and put me in mind of Saving Private Ryan‘s Normandy beach landings, and the city battles in Jedha conjured up images of Blood Diamond‘s street skirmishes and Children of Men‘s firefights, all of which are high praise indeed. So hats off to director Gareth Edwards (a normal director, not an evil Imperial one) for the sense of immediacy and danger he gets across.

And in general, the film looks gorgeous too (helps I saw it at the BFI IMAX) and Edwards has gone all out in terms of location and scale. You get a real sense of the different worlds that make up this universe. In particular, the Jedi’s homeworld of Jedha (now fallen into ruin) looks epic and suggests an ancient culture now largely gone from the universe. And the film’s finale on tropical planet Scarif – with all surf, palm trees and beaches, feels fresh and different.

rogue-one-star-wars-story

Cast wise, the film more or less belongs to Felicity Jones and Diego Luna – both of whom put in convincing performances. And there are numerous scenes where they exchange looks or moments that, if left for a second longer, could be seen as romantic. But the filmmakers resisted this, which is great. It isn’t that kind of story. This is war and it’s encouraging they didn’t waver and bow to audience expectation. It’s also perhaps testament to the direction, script and cast that, in a stand-alone film (that’s part of an epic saga), Edwards gets us caring about the main characters pretty quickly. There isn’t a huge amount of time to build their stories, but just enough so that their plight means something. There are high stakes.

So all in all, this is a highly enjoyable entry in the saga. It’s got humour, thrills, spectacle and a certain level of inventiveness. It nods to canon without being overwhelmed, and it puts a twist on a number of things we’ve come to expect to see, making them feel a little fresher, but still familiar. Which is no easy task. So it’s a bit like Russian roulette, in that Edwards has pulled the trigger, the chamber has revolved and he’s gotten away with it. Next up to try his luck: Rian Johnson for Episode VIII. Still, after Looper and his past work, I’m pretty optimistic.

 

 

Westworld: season one review

TV

Now I’ve called this post a season one review because, as we all know, Westworld has been renewed for a second go round. Hardly a surprise, given it’s a flagship show on Sky Atlantic, it’s got a sickeningly talented cast (Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood etc), clever, tricksy writers (Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy), strong concept (sci-fi meets Western) and has been a storming hit with audiences (89% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes).

It’s also fresh because it bucks the modern trend of drowning us in nudity and violence (Game of Thrones we’re looking at you) and doesn’t serve up that much story in one go. That’s not to say it’s light on story and character. In fact it’s quite the opposite. This is a slow burn, but one that’s worth your time. And it’s also somewhat rare for a show to start with the number of characters that it does. In that at least four or five of them have key storylines. (So maybe it’s a little like Game of Thrones.)

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For the uninitiated though, at its basic level, Westworld is a theme park, albeit a giant one, where the population are made up of ‘hosts’ (synthetic robots) that are so lifelike that you cannot tell them apart from humans. The park’s purpose is for humans to visit to get away from the world, to fight and have sex and enjoy the wild west. And the series starts with The Man in Black (Ed Harris), who’s been coming to the park for years. He’s no longer interested in the park’s base attractions, but is searching for its centre, the centre of the maze, as he calls it. To give his life meaning and purpose.

We also have various hosts who evolve throughout the story, becoming more human as they go. In particular both Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Wood’s characters are searching for who they really are. Their purpose.

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In fact, most characters are searching for meaning, trying to discover who they really are and why they’re here. Why are they a part of this world? What makes them who they truly are? What makes humans real and hosts not? Tugging the strings and playing God with barely concealed glee is Dr Ford (Anthony Hopkins), who’s treading a fine line between villian and a mysteriously benevolent creator. It would be easy to play him as a straight up bad guy, but Hopkins gives us more, adding layers and nuance to Ford. And by the end of the season you’re still not sure of his motives and whether he’s playing a trick on everyone, as all the best magicians do.

So this show has laid down a big and bold marker; in that it’s fairly different from a lot out there. A bit more thinky thinky and less smashy smashy. But it gets the balance right and answers enough questions to keep season one satisfying, but holds enough back so that season two promises to be worth waiting for.

Walking Dead: season 7 – midway review

TV

It’s funny… the ‘mid season’ break of The Walking Dead seems like it’s splitting hairs calling it mid season, because the show is basically over for a few months. It even had a mini finale and everything (as it always does). Although this means as fans we get left in the lurch, and I often find I half forget what happened in the first half of a season by the time the second half comes around. It feels, at least to me, that the show’s creators have to rekindle my interest. Which they nearly always do (or at least by a few episodes in).

But maybe that’s just me.
Anyway, as usual, I’m off topic before I’ve even begun.

So let’s talk about the first half of season 7, which has been interesting and actually a significant change in terms of the journey of the characters. Indeed, almost fundamental, in that an encounter with a new bad guy has shaken them all to their core. The guy? Negan, the despotic leader of a violent group known as the Saviours, who’s played with relish and gusto by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. And what a way to keep a show fresh. Seldom has an actor that’s been drafted in to play a big character – in such an established story – managed to cause such an upheaval. In the most delicious way possible, of course.

Often it’s the case where actors make the mistake of hamming up the baddie, sneering and moustache twirling until the cows come home. That’s not what you want in this day and age. I mean, this ain’t the 80s or even the 90s. You want menace and charisma in equal measure, and you want him or her to flip between the two on a dime. Which Morgan does as Negan like a natural, it’s delightful.

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And everyone loves to hate a bad guy, right? It’s like we’ve all got Stockholm syndrome when they start abusing the characters that we know and love. But then, that’s what the show’s creators wanted Morgan to bring when they cast him. And boy, did he deliver. It helps that Negan is meant to be the biggest threat old Rick and the gang has ever had to face (at least in the comics, and the show is shaping up that way too).

But just so I don’t get carried away, waxing lyrical on the Negan bandwagon, there’s the main cast to consider, too. Because it should not be underestimated just how fine a performance the majority of them put in. We take it for granted now (as most of them have been around for a good few seasons, and some since the start), but that’s our failing, because they really are outstanding and know their characters inside out.

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And top of that tree has to be Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes, the heart and soul of the show. After Negan more or less breaks him by dispatching a number of notable characters in a highly brutal and visceral way, Rick is left utterly hollow, devoid of any fight he may of once had. And gone is the confidence, swagger and resolute nature that had served him well as a leader up until then. He’s unsure of his path and focused on the safety and survival of the group alone. And the others cannot handle seeing him this way.

It’s not the Rick we’re used to but perhaps the one we need, as the show had become a bit samey in recent seasons. Or you could say that Rick was losing himself and his way, that he needed focus. Maybe Negan, as his nemesis, gives him that? Particularly as he breaks him in such a profound way, that the payoff for us as an audience is going to be that much bigger when Rick finally bests him. As he surely must do this season, no?

And this break has taken us up to a nice point, bringing the group back together. Where for most of the season they’ve been disjointed and fragmented, hiding out in different communities, or on different quests after one another. Originally I had planned to talk more about the ins and outs of the show in terms of plot, but that seems unecessary. I prefer to just offer my general thoughts and feelings on the season so far. And to say that, with the mildly hopeful ending, it seems to have set things up for the second half to be most interesting indeed. Or as some might say, one hell of a shitstorm.

The failure of the modern Star Treks

My musings, Uncategorized

So I’d like a rant, of sorts, about Star Trek. Ever since J.J. rebooted this franchise, dragging it into the modern era, he set a new standard. Trouble is – and this is a problem many blockbusters have suffered in the last decade – his baddies have been under par. Yes, I get that he was rebooting and yes, I get that the focus is always going to be on the new Kirk and the new Spock and the rest of them, but I consider it dropping the ball a little to skimp on your bad guy. Especially in this day and age.

Maybe it’s excusable if corrected after the first film. Which, on paper, seemed to be the case with the casting of one of Britain’s finest for the sequel, Benedict Cumberbatch. Yet he hammed it up to the hammiest degree you ever did see (under J.J.’s direction) and his character didn’t really have enough depth to be a worthy villian (particularly as he was meant to be Khan) and his actions as a character made little sense, if you examined them in any close detail.

Then for the third film, Star Trek: Beyond we got a new director in Justin Lin (of Fast & Furious fame) and the geeky credentials of Simon Pegg on scripting duties.

So I had hope. Sadly, it was misplaced.

For the first film we had Eric Bana as the bad guy, then Cumberbatch, and for Beyond we got Idris Elba. So three guys, all with a specific vengeance they needed to settle. All utterly unknown to the new Kirk and his crew. So you sort of end up having to build the bad guy backstory each time.

And I get that films are standalone and aren’t TV, yet the lines are blurred these days.

Take James Bond as an example; where storylines and characters have continued under Sam Mendes’ watch. A juggernaut of a studio franchise, yet had kept some throughline in terms of evil organisations (although kind of squandered it all for SPECTRE, so maybe my point doesn’t hold up that well).

Anyway, I’m rambling, back to Star Trek.

Now I’m not saying that the ‘big bad’ has to Klingons or Romulans, but it’s getting pretty samey pretty quickly introducing a single bad guy with a weak motivation. There’s got to be other ways to do it?

And also, Pegg and Co… stop nicking stuff from Star Wars. I get that it’s kind of the benchmark when it comes to space adventures, but Star Trek is meant to be geekier, and it feels like it’s gone way too towards gung-ho action. And I say this not as a die-hard Trek fan, but a casual one. I can’t imagine how riled the hardline fans must be.

So my rant isn’t really a rant, it’s more an observation. I find these films fun popcorn movies, good for all the family on a Sunday afternoon and all that, but that’s it. I don’t know why I felt the need to voice this, but I feel Trek fans deserve more, and the characters deserve more.

Otherwise, not only will this franchise not live long, it won’t even prosper. Not even short term.

Hail Hydra. (Ah crap, wrong franchise.)

Permanently exhausted pigeon

Poetry

So I’m at work a zombie, froze and stupefied.
Vacant stare like an airhead as he or she goes to beautify.
Failing at the most basic tasks.
Cos my mind is warm in this bubble.
Here I’m protected and can’t cause much trouble.
It’s the safest chance. 
But the rub is I’m failing to make good use of my clever smarts.
Which got me thinking.
Annoying morning people say the early bird is the one that’ll catch that worm.
So they’re likely to succeed at life if they go and snatch their turn.
Probably sharp each day cos they go to bed and rest their head.
This is something I cannot learn.
And truth be told it’s got me all concerned.

Then there’s those they call night owls.
In the morning they’re quick to darken.
Like an clear sky that suddenly fills with white clouds.
And their faces tell a story.
One that says you should probably pipe down or be prepared to fight now.
Ask for anything before midday then it’s lights out.

Then there’s those in-between.
Aka, people like me.

Permanently exhausted pigeons.
Cos during the day we twist and fidget.
Our minds chirp from lack of sleep like a swarm of crickets.
So be alert.
Or we’ll invade your society gleefully like a horde of misfits.
High functioning insomniacs.
Our brains beat thoughts at us rapid tempo.
Like a drum ‘n’ bass Goldie track.
And we’re about as fresh as a poorly prepared chef.
When all he’s got left to cook with is mouldy fat.
Stressed and on edge, we fight when cornered.
So don’t go backing us into a cul-de-sac.
Cos it’s clear our next mental gear is primal fear.
I’m just stating facts.
And the energy we have when leaving home, I’ll be honest I just don’t know.
Holy crap, I’m kind of surprised we make it back.
And daily life can bore us.
Cos most talk we have with people is just wasted chat.
Our minds elsewhere as we flirt with despair and then fade to black.

But don’t get me wrong.
We can be chirpy mothers too.
Honestly, we yearn for positivity if you catch us in a thirsty mood.
So coax out our best bits and see them bursting through.
And yes, this behaviour is rare, it’s true.
So for this sort of thing to happen we need a fair excuse.
But in the absence of one we’re kind of stuck in this loop.
Eat, sleep, work, and repeat.
At this point we’ve got nothing to lose.
It’s like the opposite of substance abuse.
Because we need life purpose.
It’s time we break free and chase dreams and find a place where life might hurt us.

Doctor Strange: Marvel continue to mix it up

Film

From the opening third of this movie I thought, here we go, Inception on acid with a large helping of Batman Begins. No bad thing, but still… everything draws from something else, so the studio had to make this movie stand out; but also give it that Marvel flavour. Which, happily, they did; with mystic monks bending matter and reality and turning cities into living kaleidoscopes, it’s definitely no cookie cutter approach. Nor should it be, because Marvel – the juggernaut it is now – need to keep pushing the envelope to stay fresh.

Heroes cannot just punch people to solve their problems.

And after all, our hero here is Doctor Strange, so strange is what you want from this character, right? So what follows after the initial sugar rush of monks and warped cityscapes is the introduction of neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch); brilliant but arrogant and living the playboy lifestyle. Then a horrific car crash leaves him with severe nerve damage in both hands. So no more surgery and no more perfect career for our hero. His life is effectively over and he’s broken and angry.

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So he seeks alternative therapies, which eventually lead him to Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One, the ultimate mystical monk. She sees potential so takes him on, but gives him an LSD style crash course trip before he gets to his training proper. And during this time one of the Ancient One’s former pupils (Mads Mikkelsen) has gone to the dark side and is tearing around the place trying to unleash a being from the dark dimension (as we all are wont to do when we’ve had a bad day).

Amidst this we have Strange desperately trying to stop him; whilst awkwardly learning how to be a hero at the same time. It’s from this that most of the humour is drawn. Because, as he’s no fully formed Avenger, the mishaps work a treat; he’s reckless but inquisitive, arrogant but intelligent, a fast learner but a bit of an idiot. So we have an odd hero, offbeat. More the mould of Ant-Man or early Tony Stark than Thor or Captain America. He definitely doesn’t have all the answers. 

He even has a levitating cloak which, in a genius bit of screenwriting, gets its own rather brilliant introduction and, after a few scenes and no dialogue (being a cloak) half steals the film from Cumberbatch. But every hero needs a sidekick, so it works.

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And Cumberbatch is fantastic in this role.

Did I mention that? Half Sherlock but more of an outright hero with more swagger. With bits of John Harrison (a la Khan) in there, but here much more appealing to root for than a tortured bad guy taunting Kirk.

And for the fanboys (and girls) I can no doubt imagine their excitement to have Cumberbatch now part of the MCU, with his version of Strange interacting with the Avengers in future films an enticing prospect. Picture it: even just him, The Vision and Tony Stark sitting down for a cup of tea could be standout scene in any Marvel movie you care to name.

Then there’s the other fact that, with this film including Strange’s use of an Infinity stone, Marvel have drawn much closer links between Earth’s heroes and the Guardians of the Galaxy gang. And Strange could be the glue that holds them all together. With, er, five Infinity stones now in play, we’re moving closer to the end game.

A slight bum note is that, yet again, the baddies are not that fleshed out. Mads gets one proper scene where he explains why he’s doing what he’s doing, but it’s kind of hard to feel much for him after that. Especially as the rest of the time he’s just scowling and running around after Strange. 

But whatever, it’s nitpicking. And with Cumberbatch, Marvel have struck casting gold again, so the future looks rosy. Not that it was ever in doubt.

I guess it’s just a case of saying… Infinity War here we come!

My favourite movies that deal with… Time

Film

Here’s a thing. I recently watched Midnight In Paris and noticed that time travel drove the story along at a gentle pace. Which got me thinking; filmmakers use time as a plot device like, a lot. And why not? It shapes our existence, it may as well shape our storytelling mediums too.

This made me wonder, which time-based movies are ones that have struck a chord with me over the years?

Obviously there’s loads not included in the list below, like Groundhog Day and Time Bandits. Because whilst they’re great films, I don’t really remember them well. So I’ve got to go with what’s shaped me and made me, well, me.

So here they mine. What are yours?

Back To The Future (1985)
The daddy of time travel films. With tracks by Huey Lewis, score by Alan Silvestri, leading pair in Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd and Bob Zemeckis at the helm, it was bottled movie magic.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
Let’s not forget, before Keanu got serious he started his career with stuff like this. It’s such a quotable film and spawned a trilogy which wasn’t half bad either. Remember, be excellent to each other.

Looper (2012)
Bruce Willis, an older version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Not likely. But they made it work in this underrated modern sci-fi directed by Rian Johnson. In Emily Blunt, Paul Dano and others it had a great supporting cast too.

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
Time travel and comedy. The best combination, right? And whilst the sequel was below par, the original came with added John Cusack, so it was a bit of a treat. Sleeper hit too. One no one saw coming.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Funny choice for this list? In that there’s pretty much no time travel until the end. Well it’s such an odd and sweet film I feel it’s earned its place. Go see it. It’s also probably Aubrey Plaza’s best performance to date.

Source Code (2011)
You wake up on a train set to explode. You’re meant to save it. You fail and go back to the start. Duncan Jones’ execution of this story was masterful and had me gripped throughout. Strong Jake Gyllenhaal performance too.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Like Tom Cruise? Well he’s in this. Don’t like him? No problem, he gets killed over and over again. Bit like Source Code in a way. Our hero keeps reliving the same loop until he can figure a way not to die and save mankind from aliens at the same time.

Interstellar (2014)
Got your thinking caps on? Because this one gets heavy. Maybe in space no one can hear you scream but at the cinema many probably did. Because Chris Nolan’s sci-fi tale got rather ‘out there’ in the final third.

Flight Of The Navigator (1986)
I would have been roughly the same age as the lead character when it came out so had that connection. It was a fun buddy movie too, in that the ship had its own zany personality and learnt about humanity from the boy. So like Terminator, but sweeter.

Magnificent Seven: all glory no guts

Film

Ok, I fess up. I’ve not seen the original. There, I’ve said it. Yet another classic Western that’s passed me by. And yes, maybe one day I’ll get round to it, but for now at least, I have to make do with the modern version.

And I say make do because it’s OK.

Not bad, just not that great either. Which, let’s face it, is a darn tootin’ shame given the cast and director. I mean you’ve got Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke and Antoine Fuqua – the dream team, reunited after their success on Training Day. Plus Chris Pratt, everyone’s favourite leading man these days. And Peter Sarsgaard as the bad guy, complete with suitably evil moustache.

Slam dunk, surely? Sadly not. I’ll explain why, but first, the story.

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Should you be unfamiliar with the plot, it centres on sauve man in black, a bounty hunter called Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington); who gets recruited by Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) and other townsfolk as they’re being bullied and oppressed by evil industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), because he wants their gold mine all for his greedy self. So Chisolm – initially after the bounty but his motivation evolves as things go on – recruits six sharp shooters/brave idiots to help protect the town and the whole thing builds to one almighty dust-up come the finish.

Simple right? As we know, simple stories are the best. Now all the filmmakers need to do is add character and they’ll be on to a winner. Make us care about the whole gang, make us see things from the bad guy’s point of view, and perhaps even sympathise with him. Surprise us. Do something unexpected. Take risks.

Unfortunately we don’t really get any of this. Granted, the film treads the path you expect it to, ticking the Western boxes, it looks good enough and is shot well. And yes, people like Denzel can do charismatic with his eyes closed. Yet you need more.

Ensemble films are tough when it comes to building character and, whilst I feel like a broken record here (after saying much the same thing for Suicide Squad), it can be done. Marvel, for example, are great at it. And so are Disney, with J.J. Abrams having a crack at Star Wars. Oh, and the modern Star Trek franchise (Abrams again)

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My point is you can make audiences care about numerous characters in a short space of time, but you can’t rely on gunfights and beautifully framed shots to achieve it alone. Or if you do take that route, you’ve got to pepper the action with character beats. Otherwise it’s just a Western we’ve seen a hundred times before… or a battle scene from Gladiator or Braveheart or Lord of the Rings. Take your pick.

The problem I had is that I kept thinking of relatively modern Westerns I’ve preferred (Tombstone, Open Range and 3:10 to Yuma all sprang to mind), ones where I was hooked on the fate of the characters almost from the off, which is never a good sign in this case, because it just didn’t grab me the same way. I suppose there’s one thing going for this film, in that it’ll never be a franchise as (spoiler!) not all the seven make it through to the end. It is what it is, but it’s a stand-alone story.

Maybe I’m being harsh.

Maybe there was a lot of subtle character development buried deep within scenes that I simply missed. Stuff that really made you care about their fate, you know? Maybe it gets better on repeat viewings. Some films do. Or maybe Antoine Fuqua will just have to chalk this down as a swing and a miss. Or a misfire, wahey.

Either way, it’s worth a watch if you spot it on TV, or fancy a fairly mindless night at the cinema where thinking caps are not required. But no more than that. Sorry Antoine, the wait for you, Denzel and Ethan to strike gold again continues.