“Rob Zombie’s 31″(2016): Everybody In Hell Loves Popcorn

Rob Zombie as a filmmaker has always been confounding. After a middlingly watchable Texas Chainsaw Massacre rip off House of 1,000 Corpses, Zombie followed things up with The Devil’s RejectsRejects took the two most interesting actors from Corpses and his wife Sheri Moon Zombie off on their own psychotic rampage that actually asked some intriguing questions about police brutality and vigilantism while also being a weirdly endearing yet intense ride of a horror thriller throwback to the likes of Tobe Hooper and Sam Peckinpah. Then he made a terrible Halloween remake that removed the mystery of Michael Myers, a sequel to that which went completely off the rails into stupid country and an experimental horror film Lords of Salem that felt like a redneck horror concert trying to be a Kubrick film. So, every time I go into a Rob Zombie movie, I don’t hope for the best. The only hope is that he’ll at least have something different. That was my only pipe dream going into his latest film 31.

31-sheri-moon-zombie

Saban Films

Unfortunately, those hopes were pretty much dashed by the time 31 gets past the set up. Basically, five people in 1976 – Sheri Moon, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Meg Foster and Kevin Jackson – are on a road trip when they’re kidnapped by mysterious dudes dressed in skeleton outfits. They’re brought to some mysterious opera theater where people in Victorian white wigs – lead by Malcolm McDowell – force them through a game called 31, which involves them wading through a maze within 12 hours as random psychopaths dressed as demented clowns try to kill them gruesomely. So it sounds like a Rob Zombie idea. His films are often distinct, mainly for their grimy cinematography and an extremely bleak outlook on humanity. None of his work is mainstream. Hell, even his best film The Devil’s Rejects got mixed reviews at the time with good reason. 31 is just as vindictive, violent and vulgar as the rest of his filmography… but that’s not enough anymore to even get much of a reaction.

31-clowns

Saban Films

One can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Most of Rob Zombie’s style has become old hat at this point. It’s become expected after this long that the average Zombie film will feature any of the following at some point:

  1. A 1970s setting
  2. Excessive non-sensical cursing
  3. An eclectic soundtrack with tunes from 1950s-1970s
  4. Excessively dark lighting
  5. Extreme violence
  6. Carnival-like production design
  7. Carnie style redneck villains
  8. Exploitation film wipe transitions
  9. Sheri Moon in a grating role
  10. One entertaining enough performance

All of this is on full display in 31. Hell, even the last one is there for the one mildly redeeming element that is Richard Brake as the clown final boss of this horrific circus. 31 peaks quite early with a direct monologue to the camera from Brake as our cold open. Sure, it’s just as poorly written as all of the other dialogue here, but Brake’s intimidating stare and the black & white cinematography manages to show off the violence with some decent enough restraint. It’s more about the moral implications of our villain rather than an excessively violent barrage of heinous actions. There’s an indication that this entire enterprise is just a job for him. He just clocks in and out, with nothing really personal about his kills beyond the entertainment of how elaborate it can be.

31-richard-brake

Saban Films

Unfortunately, Brake doesn’t pop up again until the third act, leaving us with the same generic type of redneck clown characters Zombie usually trots out. They keep espousing the same generic barrage of colorful language that Rob Zombie LOVES all of his characters to espouse. Zombie’s writing still feels like it hasn’t progressed beyond finding dirty words and writing them down like a 14 year old who just learned them. There’s nothing exciting, new or semi-interesting about anything being said here. Zombie wants to be a Quentin Tarantino with his “creative cursing,” but he uses it as a crutch in the exact same twangy dumb way he usually does. All these different killers even feel like juvenile ideas for Todd McFarlane toys, from Pancho Moler as a Chilean little person dressed like Hitler to EG Daily as the worst Harley Quinn cosplayer ever. One never feels invested in these or our main characters since they’re all just fodder for poorly framed gore and by the end, we’re left wondering “Who cares about any of this nonsensical grimy bullshit?” It’s part of what makes 31 feel like Zombie on autopilot.

31-malcolm-mcdowell

Saban Films

Even at his worst, Rob Zombie took risks. Halloween 2 was a risky move that blew up in his face. Lords of Salem even managed to be something relatively outside of the usual narrative structure of Zombie’s films. 31 features the usual beats, never reigniting them. It paints the auteur theory in a terrible light when Zombie just seems to be so one note. The film even ends in a fashion that’s fairly reminiscent of The Devil’s Rejects on a structural, thematic and emotional level, only without the mad suicidal joy or propulsive perfectly used music. The few new additions are brief stabs at social commentary that amount to a hill of beans, especially with the aristocratic commentary involving Malcolm McDowell and his cronies that bark out the odds of our heroes’ survival occasionally.

31-popcorn

Saban Films

“Creative Bankruptcy” is a harsh term, but one can tell that Rob Zombie has officially hit it with 31. After roughly a decade and a half of making films, Zombie hasn’t really progressed. Especially with a production significantly made up of crowdfunding, one would figure that this could be a chance for Zombie to have a vision unfiltered by studio hands. No one there to stop him from making what he wanted. So apparently what he wanted to do was this: a lesser retread of The Devil’s Rejects. For years when walking into a Rob Zombie film, I always hoped I’d eat crow and see him make another great film again. See him do something that proved Rejects wasn’t a fluke. Unfortunately, he seems to keep proving that this is unfortunately the case. Damn that optimism. Not appropriate for a repetitively cynical filmmaker like Zombie anyway.

Rating: 0.5 out of 5 Mangled Corpses

31-poster

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“The Magnificent Seven” (2016): Samurai Seven Revisited Revisited

Yup. Gotta get it out of the way. The Magnificent Seven – for all its genuine positives – is the latest example of the modern remake trend. Remaking a classic 1960s western that in of itself is a remake of one of the greatest films ever made. Then again, this plot has been done in so many other films, from Three Amigos to A Bug’s Life. So, director Antoine Fuqua has an uphill battle to prove he could pull something different. Something interesting. Something that took the context of a western and added something truly memorable or innovative to justify its existence. Does it succeed? … Eh.

lee-byung-hun-seven

MGM

That’s the trouble with the new The Magnificent Seven. It’s a pretty by the numbers remake of the original structurally. The same plot line of a village that’s in trouble, seeks out help, seven men of varying backgrounds come together to teach them how to defend themselves, everyone bonds, many die. It’s a time honored story, but there’s little new life in any of this. The things that feel somewhat new work. Lee Byung-hun in particular is the newest element in the form of an Asian man trying to make a life for himself via dueling competition alongside Ethan Hawke. Their relationship is one of the few subtle aspects of this adaptation, reworking aspects of James Coburn’s character while feeling enough like his own man. Plus, his knife work is far more engaging visually than much of anything Coburn does. Same goes for the soft spoken Native American member played by Martin Sensemeier and the serial killer crazy scalp collector played by Vincent D’Onofrio. Their issues recall moments from the original film, but never enough to feel slavish while add their own moments of impact.

the-magnificent-seven-pratt-denzel

MGM

But everything else? Most of it is just… serviceable. Antoine Fuqua as a director continues to show his competence, with the occasional fun action moment or well constructed western horse wrangling. But there’s nothing here that feels unfamiliar to the western genre. No sort of step up with any moment that makes this remake stand out. The Magnificent Seven tries a few things in casting to differentiate itself, mainly in terms of casting Denzel Washington as our sort of Yul Brynner stand in, which only achieves about medium level Denzel quality. Not bad, just nothing that stands out. A few engaging dramatic moments, one or two badass action turns and his deliberate delivery that shows off his charm. Yet, it’s constantly contrasted with Chris Pratt pulling a Clint Eastwood style stoic badass approach that feels wrong for him. He has a few funny moments, but nothing to take full advantage of his comedic range. If this proved anything, it’s that Pratt isn’t someone who can save underwritten material. It’s sadly too similar to Pratt’s bland hero performance from Jurassic World, no matter how much the film tries to light him like he’s The Man With No Name.

the-magnificent-seven-haley-bennett

MGM

As for the rest of The Magnificent Seven, it’s slim pickings. Ethan Hawke plays a passable western drunk with a predictable character arc. Oh, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo plays a Mexican who’s only real role is… to be the Mexican. Nothing that interesting or memorable there. Haley Bennett pals around with our main group as a sort of unofficial 8th, one who wants to be a part of the fight yet is constantly doubted, leading to obvious point markers to her inevitable arc that we can all see coming. There’s also Peter Sarsgaard as the remorseless villain, who’s the only one to completely fail, especially when compared to the amazing performance of Eli Wallach in the original version. Instead of being a cold calculated vindictive bastard that wants this town to lose even its core beliefs so he can break them down, Sarsgaard is a one dimensional evil character that lacks any authentic menace.

magnificent-seven

MGM

The Magnificent Seven is ultimately an extremely faded out reworking of what worked before, much like a copy of a copy would naturally be. Back in the 1950s-1960s, westerns were a dime a dozen. The cheapest type of film to put together and make a buck off of. Now, it’s an uphill battle to get a western made or seen at all by modern audiences. While the original managed to stand out by taking a solid formula and making it its own, our modern The Magnificent Seven takes the road more traveled with a few pinches of modern blockbuster spectacle added in. The former – while not a great film – managed to stand out amongst a crowded heap of others. The latter barely bothers to distinguish itself amongst a sea of mediocre remakes and reboots beyond its high profile ensemble cast & a glossier tint to the typical gritty western aesthetic.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Lonesome Trails

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