Sunday, August 30, 2015

Into the Grizzly Maze (2015)

Director: David Hackl
Notable Cast: James Marsden, Thomas Jane, Piper Perabo, Billy Bob Thornton, Michaela McManus, Scott Glenn

There seemed to be an unusual amount of hype during the production of Into the Grizzly Maze. Who could blame them? This film seemed to have a revolving door of prior A-list actors attached (or previously attached) to it and it was going to be the second film from horror director David Hackl – who had to pull off something better than his first film Saw V. After a slew of name changes, Into the Grizzly Maze dropped on home video a few weeks ago and I was there. Unfortunately, this film is far more perplexing than it is good. For the first half of the film I desperately tried to figure out how such a Sy Fy original film concept could garner such hype, but the film does have its ‘so bad it’s entertaining’ elements that are worth it for B-movie fans. Just make sure you keep the right mindset when going into it.

Rowan (Marsden) is returning home to small town Alaska. His brother Beckett (Jane) is a cop there still and he wants to avoid him at all costs if need be, mostly due to a shady past. However, when a series of brutal murders by a rampaging bear begin to happen in the woods, Beckett needs to find his brother and his wildlife researcher wife before the bear does first…and he might need the help of an arrogant hunter (Thornton) to do so.

"What movie am I in again?"
Killer bear movies are not nearly as common as one would hope and yet, here we are with two of them in 2015. Whereas Back Country focused more on tension than horror with its bear hijinks (that don’t start until the third act really), Into the Grizzly Maze is all about going for broke on killer bear slaughters and cliché horror elements. While this makes the film wholly enjoyable in a sort of slasher way – if you replaced the bear with Jason Vorhees, we might have had a fun new Friday the 13th film, it also misses out on the man vs nature angle that could have made this film both entertaining AND potent with its concept. The film makes note to give it some sort of ‘nature gone amok’ reason with poachers, but it basically only throws that out there to give some reason for the killer bear. The rest follows a slasher pattern right down to the “surprise” twists.

It doesn’t help Hackl struggles a lot as a director with this. He is obviously a horror director and focuses on the brutal gore (although the hand on the chainsaw is pretty legit) instead of the tension and suspense of having our heroes lost in the forest maze with limited artillery and a massive killer bear. His editing is often awkward around the bear - as is the CGI gore that they put in the bear’s mouth – and it’s not until the finale that we really feel any fear of the bear. The film is beautifully shot, outside of the previously mentioned sub par CGI bits, and the cinematography of the forest scenes is quite effective in feeling overwhelming. However, this is a bright spot in a lot of mediocre things.

Perhaps the biggest and most perplexing thing about Into the Grizzly Maze is just how they managed to attract such a talented cast: Thomas Jane, Billy Bob Thornton, James Marsden, Scott Glenn. This film is stacked. And almost all of them suck. It’s hard to admit, particularly when I love damn near everything Tom Jane is in, but the script is pretty poorly constructed with the various characters and the dialogue is often just as silly as the back stories. James Marsden supposedly gets the best arc, but the way that they go about it is not nearly as interesting as it might have been and poor Tom Jane and Billy Bob are hurled as the two warring sides of how people view nature – and neither get the proper time to dig into their roles.

Only you an prevent forest fires.
All in all, Into the Grizzly Maze was a genre film so packed with potential that it almost had to implode on itself. It has its merits as an unintentionally funny film (seeing Tom Jane axe a bear in the butt had me in the giggles a bit) and it seems like the film that might garner a cult following in a handful of years in its glorious B-movie ways, but really it’s just a Sy Fy original killer bear flick that happened to garner a bit of a budget and even more hype. 

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970)

Director: Kenji Misumi
Notable Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Tatsuya Nakadai, Reiko Ohara, Masayuki Mori, Peter, Ko Mishimura, Ryunosuke Kaneda

If you go back through the reviews for the previous twenty films in the Zatoichi franchise, you’re likely to find a theme: these films adhere fairly strictly to a formula. For some of the films it’s a detriment, but for others it allows the film to add smaller nuances and style on top of the foundation. In the case of the previous film, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, it was a blessing. This is what makes Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival one of the most unique, fascinating, and often perplexing entries into the series. Essentially, the formula goes out the window. In its place is a film that’s a loosely threaded together series of ‘occurrences’ for our blind swordsman hero. Some that work and some that don’t. It makes it one of the more ambitious entries, but far from the best.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) desperately wants to do good in his life. When a good deed gone wrong gets a maniacal swordsman (Tatsuya Nakadai) on his trail, he finds himself pushing forward in a different manner. This also puts him at odds with a very powerful yakuza boss (Masayuki Mori) who respects Zatoichi, but will do anything to make sure he doesn’t interfere with any of his future plans. Also there is some stories where Zatoichi falls in love, saves a woman from sexual servitude, and helps a young man find a way to be a true man. Whatever.

Gardening takes a dark turn.
The biggest hurdle to overcome in Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival is the sort of stream of consciousness flow that the narrative contains. It’s not unusual for the film to start off in one direction, take a wicked left turn and go another direction, only to take a wicked right turn and come back to the original path. There is a slew of secondary characters that litter its story (most of which are irrelevant, but fun) and the film has no qualms in taking rapid shifts of tone at a moment’s notice. A bath house assassination attempt, for example, goes from suspenseful to slapstick comedy to shockingly violent to silent – all in one sequence. The humor throughout many of these pieces is a bit hit or miss (an issue that has recently hindered many other films in the franchise) and there are some subplots that simply needed to be cut out for the sake of deepening other ones. An entire portion of the film is dedicated to Zatoichi helping a young man, who tries to lay on the sexy moves on our hero at one point, learn “to be a man.” While it leads to some of the better dialogue that the film has to offer about Zatoichi’s character, it’s unneeded weight on a film that desperately needed to add time to the romantic subplot that actually plays a role on the main story.

A villainous attack.
The film is essentially carried by the visual storytelling of director Kenji Misumi. His last film in this franchise was a massive disappointment and his final one here certainly showcases a man with a knack for strong visuals – even if the rest of the film tends to be more wishy-washy than normal. There are dozens of iconic moments littered throughout the film, a scene where Zatoichi buries a young woman, the previously mentioned bath house fight ends with a great blood in the water piece, and the finale is outright insane with its extras and the lake of fire that erupts, but the film rarely capitalizes on some of the serious moments of subtle character work that Katsu and the rest of his cast bring to the table. The two villains of the film are both fascinating characters in their own right, but the film spends so much time showing Zatoichi dodge horse piss and other random things that it misses out on some of those opportunities to strike when the iron is hot.

Bath time was always tough.
All in all though, Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival is a pretty entertaining entry even if the film is significantly flawed. It’s easy to see why fans tend to love it for its quirky moments and daft plotting. However, compared to the more serious and hard hitting emotional entries of this franchise, this one falls short. It’s just too scattered and uneven to work the magic elements that are so obviously pieced throughout the whole film. If viewers are aware of its inconsistencies, it’s a film easy to forgive due to its charm and outlandishness. Just make sure you go into it with the right mindset.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Notable Cast: Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney

It’s not very often that the fifth entry into a major franchise is one of the best ones (in the case of Fast Five it was and still is the best one), so walking out of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation I couldn’t help but feel pretty satisfied. While I still wouldn’t consider it the best of the franchise, that accolade still remains with JJ Abrams third entry, Rogue Nation delivers another round of energetic and outrageous spy action…albeit with a bit more humor and a bit more of a classic espionage approach to the entire thing. The results are another fun – and surprisingly sound – adventure flick that will appeal to longtime fans as well as new ones.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sinister 2 (2015)

Director: Ciaran Foy
Notable Cast: James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Daniel Sloan, Dartanian Sloan, Lea Coco

It’s been three years since the release of the extremely well executed and atmospheric Sinister in theaters and the Blum House horror machine rolls on with the sequel, Sinister 2. While the initial trailers seemed spooky enough, the missing component of director Scott Derrickson was going to be a huge hurdle for this film to overcome, but I felt confident that as long as the film kept the right combination of atmosphere and mystery to the mix that this film could succeed. Unfortunately, atmosphere and mystery are the two things that Sinister 2 does NOT carry over from the original. In their place are a generic film filled with awkward plot progressions and uninteresting characters that, in its defense, tries to add in some decent pieces, but ultimately fails at damn near every turn. One more potential franchise down the quality toilet.

Deputy So-and-So (Ransone) is now an ex-deputy after the events of the first film, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying to piece together the mystery of his friend’s death at the hands of the deity Bughuul. This leads him to a new house where a young mother (Sossamon) is hiding with her two boys (the Sloans) from her abusive husband (Coco). Now it’s up to him to put together how Bughuul works and save the family before one of the boys becomes a slave to the ‘child eater’ and kills them all.

Even the kid is yawning...
If there is one word that can be used to describe Sinister 2, it would be ‘awkward.’ You’re going to read that word again and again throughout this review because, quite simply, this film is a perfect example of it. Oddly enough, there are some intriguing things and focuses used in Sinister 2 that might have crafted a decent sequel and horror film. I love the idea that the audience gets to experience the psychological spiral of what happens to a child once they are chosen by Bughuul and the film even hints at the fact that there are multiple threads of these deaths that happen all around the world and it’s not just the single thread that was being followed in the first film. These ideas are sound and, in many ways, could have produced a decent flick.

Sinister 2, however, is not that film. The first film thrived on the atmospheric visuals and audio to deliver its scares and sense of dread. Neither of those things are strong enough in this film to carry it. It tries to replicate many of the elements that worked like ghostly children, the sequence of home movies within the movie, and the looming presence of Bughuul (whom thankfully has not become a slasher killer…yet), but none of it works. The pacing is awkward as the two stories mesh together in forced ways with an odd romantic thread that just sits so wrong and the heavy handed and over the top approach to the child custody battle makes little or no sense. The abusive husband is a hilariously over the top asshole and it just seals the deal. It doesn’t help that our protagonists are not all that interesting, despite some fun performances from them. Ransone stole a few scenes in the first film in what should have been a plot progression role, but his character cannot hold an entire film. He seems to spout exposition awkwardly and his chemistry onscreen with the others doesn’t work like it needs to. All in all, the film’s plot and core just don’t flow.

So what if the plot is forceful and awkward, we still have plenty of scares, right? Wrong. Sinister 2 tries to recreate a lot of what worked in the first film (like everything else), but without the foundations of the mystery and characters that connect with the audience it stumbles at every turn. Bughuul remains more of a presence in the film, but his few moments of screen time feel like yawn inducing rehash and the expansion of the ghost children tends to feel at odds with what we were presented with in the first film - I was under the impression that they were terrified of him, not his little scare slaves. Even the ‘home movies,’ which progressively made the first one so frightening and culminated in one of the most delightfully well executed jump scares in the last twenty years, are horrendously jammed into this film and result in a lot of unintentional laughter. In particular, there is one that involves alligators that had the theatrical audience laughing as a whole. Not something you want to hear in a horror movie meant to scare.

Sinister 2 is simply an awkward film experience that tries to tread new ground while remaining true to the elements that worked the first time around. The execution is not there. It’s awkward to sit through, some of it doesn’t make sense, and the scares are non-existent. There is a lot of potential in this franchise, but Sinister 2 has no idea how to handle it.

Written By Matt Reifschneider