Tuesday, September 17, 2019

3 From Hell (2019)

Directed by: Rob Zombie
Notable cast: Sherri Moon Zombie, Bill Moseley, Sid Haig, Richard Brake

3 From Hell is a movie that requires some context to fully understand, so it’s necessary to briefly summarize how we got here first. Rob Zombie’s first movie, House of 1000 Corpses, tells us of the Firefly clan, a family of Texas psychopaths who trap tourists searching for the local spooky legend, an ex-Nazi scientist named Dr. Satan. In 1978, seven months after the killings depicted in the first filmSheriff Quincy Wydell leads a raid on the Firefly house. This kicks off the second film, The Devil’s Rejects, and the ensuing firefight kills most of the serial killing family and leads to the capture of the family matriarch who’s subsequently tortured to death by Wydell. Two members escape and act as our effective franchise protagonists. The first is Otis Driftwood, played by Bill Moseley (who’s own genre star-making performance in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 made him a natural fit in Zombie’s TCM inspired world) who is a murderer, rapist, and self-aggrandizing taxidermist with a nihilist streak. The other is Baby, played by the director’s wife, Sherri Moon Zombie in her signature role, who is a deranged, dangerous, childish, and a game playing killer with a tenuous grip on reality at best. The two are joined eventually by Captain Spaulding (Haig), an evil clown and purveyor of “The Museum of Monsters and Madmen”, who sent victims to the Firefly’s by spreading the legend of Dr. Satan and, as we also find out, is Baby’s father. After The Devil’s Rejects (a self-branded moniker) are finally captured and confronted by Sheriff Wydell, they escape again just to drive straight into a wall of police, and the firefight (set, reasonably on the nose, to ‘Freebird’) ends the violent, terrible lives of the three human monsters. It’s a neat, perfect capper to what is a horrid, unblinking examination of the human capacity for evil. There are no heroes in this story, only bad people and worse people, and most couldn’t imagine we would ever revisit anyone from the family.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Freaks (2019)

Directors: Zach Lipovsky, Adam B. Stein
Notable Cast: Lexy Kolker, Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, Amanda Crew, Grace Park, Ava Telek, Michelle Harrison, Matty Finochio

The mystery box film has been something I’ve always enjoyed. Even when M. Night Shyamalan essentially claimed the entire genre as his own for a while, I’ve always appreciated a film that toys with its audience on what it’s doing or where it’s going. With the way that modern marketing has gone though, these are a style choice that’s a gimmick more than anything else. Thinking back to how JJ Abrams has maneuvered the Cloverfield franchise or his own Super 8, the way that the film industry makes the questions such a punchline can ultimately undercut the experience of the film. Audiences are immediately looking for the twist. This is what makes Freaks relatively special. Even the trailer that Well Go USA released gave us just enough about the basics of the film, but the final product plays with the details throughout so that it takes two acts before the audience even starts to put things together. It’s an incredible and powerful experience of cinema. The film ultimately ends up going into some familiar territory, but the manner that it gets there is riveting and incredibly well executed. For a mystery box film, it’s a wallop.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Haunt (2019)

Directors: Scott Beck, Bryan Woods
Notable Cast: Katie Stevens, Will Brittain, Lauryn Alisa McClain, Andrew Caldwell, Shazi Raja, Schuyler Helford, Phillip Johnson Richardson

If you were to judge it based on its overall marketing, Haunt is the kind of film that should have dwindled away on VOD. There is a strong movement for “haunted house” horror films. Not the ones about ghosts, but the theme-park style haunted houses that people love to visit around Halloween time. Some of these have been good, Hell House LLC for example, and some have been less than good. Either way, there seem to be more and more lately as the genre continues to grow. When Haunt was announced it didn’t make much of a splash overall in most of my circles. It was getting a limited theatrical release which was the same day as VOD. Even though horror fans were most likely to see it, it’s the kind of film that to get a release without much fanfare.

There is one angle that made it a fascinating addition to that subgenre. Haunt was written and directed by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods and it’s produced by Eli Roth. The directors/writers proved they could modernize old school horror to a very successful extent with their written material for A Quiet Place and Eli Roth is relatively smart in the producer’s chair in bringing up talent. Fortunately, the combination proves to be very effective and Haunt ends up being one of the best films for the haunt movement and one of the best finds of the year.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Eerie (2019)

Director: Mikhail Red
Notable Cast: Bea Alonzo, Charo Santos-Concio, Jake Cuenca, Maxene Magalona, Mary Joy Apostol, Gabby Padilla, Gillian Vicencio

Initial trailers made me relatively excited for Eerie, the Filipino horror film that was recently picked up and released via Netflix in the US, but then the weird publications started to get a hold of it. Headlines that claimed it was too scary for regular audiences and how people had to sleep with the lights on started to make their way across social media and it immediately turned me off of it. Not that those kinds of claims indicate a film is good or bad – another Netflix release, Veronica, was a film I quite enjoyed that received the same treatment, but clickbait articles like those sour me a little. Having a bit of free time to review a few films for the year that I had not seen was the main reason I decided to partake in Eerie after some of that overzealous hype had worn down. Although there are certainly some creepy set pieces to be enjoyed in the film, the overly predictable nature of the plot and its adherence to so many tropes of the ‘ghostly girl’ sub-genre make it a rather mixed effort. For every interesting piece of execution, it follows it up with a mediocre one. For young horror fans, more casual film watchers, or those simply not versed in the sect of Asian ghost stories, Eerie might be appealing. For the rest of us, it’s a rather hum-drum addition to the genre.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

It: Chapter Two (2019)

Directed by: Andy Mucshietti
Notable cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Bill Skarsgård, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean

It: Chapter Two serves as a really good reminder of why people remember and celebrate the childhood half of the story. That may seem harsh, but if anything, this movie does deserve praise for making the material as interesting as it’s possible to make it. The adaptation of the story and some of its more esoteric elements are at the very least bold and interesting. I’m a long-time devoted King reader, and I grew up with the Tim Curry miniseries, but I’m going to take this film strictly on its own merit. For a record of my potential bias, the miniseries doesn’t really hold up, and probably wasn’t that good in the first place, and the book is definitely upper tier King but admittedly kind of a mess. Especially the ending…

Itsy Bitsy (2019)

Director: Micah Gallo
Notable Cast: Bruce Davison, Elizabeth Roberts, Arman Darbo, Chloe Perrin, Denise Crosby, Treva Etienne

Maybe it was just fate. Perhaps there's the snapback of quality that is happening right now that comes every decade or so, but the creature feature genre is getting a hefty dose of ‘hell yeah’ in the booming horror scene. Earlier this year Aja and Raimi dropped a fantastic and efficient killer gator flick to theaters with Crawl and just last month saw the release of the Kickstarter funded and Shout!/Scream Factory distributed killer spider flick, Itsy Bitsy. It’s the latter film that’s the focus of this piece and, quite frankly, it deserves the praise. Although the film has certainly been on my radar for most of the year, particularly after the very effective trailer dropped a few months ago, Itsy Bitsy hasn’t had the word of mouth response in my circles that it rightfully deserves since it’s release on VOD last week. The fact remains, Itsy Bitsy is an efficient and effective throwback creature feature that pours on the tension, spikes it with some grotesque moments, and delivers on its simplistic and intimate premise. In a world where the stupidity and self-awareness of SyFy original monster films reigns, Itsy Bitsy is a serious and well-crafted piece of genre cinema aiming to take back the sub-genre.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Don't Let Go (2019)

Directed by: Jacob Estas
Notable cast: David Oyelowo, Storm Reid, Byron Mann, Mykelti Williamson

Don’t Let Go is a Blumhouse Tilt movie that snuck into theaters last week to little fanfare. Much like other movies released under the Tilt name, this film has a lot of bold ideas and a reasonably young, fresh talent expressing those ideas. Like a couple of other BH Tilt movies, namely The Belko Experiment, The Green Inferno, and Upgrade before it, this plot is well navigated territory with a slight genre tint to help it stand out. Does it work as well this time as it did for those? Not quite and that’s too bad.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Red Peony Gambler 4: Second Generation Ceremony (1969)

Director: Shigehiro Ozawa
Notable Cast: Junko Fuji (Sumiko Fuji), Hiroyuki Nagato, Kyosuke Machida, Bin Amatsu, Hosei Komatsu, Shunya Wazaki, Tatsuo Endo, Shoji Nakayama, Hitoshi Omae, Kenji Takamiya, Misa Toki

“I wish you good luck from the shadows.”

By now the formula is established. The first three Red Peony Gambler films share a common structure and narrative that solidifies the identity of the series, but by the third film it was starting to wear thin – even if that film ends up being quite the impressive little period yakuza film. For the fourth film of this franchise, with the subtitle Second Generation Ceremony, the series takes a somewhat unique direction that differentiates it from its predecessors. One part of me enjoys the film for a relatively refreshing approach to telling the next chapter of Oryu’s saga as a wandering yakuza gambler. The other part of me found the film somewhat of a chore to sit through with its sluggish pacing and occasionally overbaked plot. Although it’s a flawed film, Red Peony Gambler 4 is still a decent film, but it doesn’t find the balance and effective thematic depth of the three films prior.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Ne Zha (2019)

Director: Jiao Zi
Notable Cast: Lyu Yanting, Cao Yalong, Wang Zheng, Chen Hao, Zeng Hongru, Yang Wei, Zhang Jiaming

One of the more fascinating pieces about the rise of the Chinese film industry over the last five to ten years is how incredibly unpredictable the entire thing is as a whole. Films that would seem to check off all of the boxes to soar in the box office flounder and yet other films come out as massive surprises. Of the latter category, Ne Zha might be one of the most astounding. China has been slowly putting together an animation film plan over the last few years to build an audience there and recent foreign box office successes like Disney’s Coco and a re-release of Spirited Away have laid the groundwork for a domestic giant to arise. As it turns out, that film is Ne Zha. Ne Zha took China by storm, generating astronomical box office numbers and becoming something of a legend seemingly overnight, enough so that international distribution label Well Go USA took notice and quickly generated a theatrical release for the film in the US. A surprising move since, well, it’s a foreign language animated family film. Still, now that the film his been unleashed on the unsuspecting US market, it’s safe to say that, yes, Ne Zha is a blast. The animation is fun and tight, balancing traditional cartoon choices with lush CGI detailing, and the story and narrative find a strong balance between the family-friendly moments and key fantasy action set pieces. This landmark animated film takes the best of the blockbuster formulas that China has learned from Hollywood and given it a delightful and distinctly Chinese spin. The results are a rip-roaring ride of laughs, action, and bigger than life fantasy morals.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

Director: Alfred Sole
Notable Cast: Linda Miller, Paula Sheppard, Niles McMaster, Jane Lowry, Rudolph Willrich, Mildred Clinton, Michael Hardstark, Brooke Shields

The first time that Alice, Sweet Alice came into my awareness was probably a decade or so ago when a painting of the masked villain of the film popped up on my social media feed. The painting itself was fantastic, a modern exaggeration of the characteristics with bold yellows, reds, and blues. If I could remember the artist, they deserve some credit and I spent a good deal of time trying to find that picture again to very little luck. The message was clear though, I needed to see the film. At the time, there was only a shoddy version of the film available via Amazon Prime streaming and this is where I first experienced it. Too often Alice, Sweet Alice gets thrown into the lot of “forgotten slashers” on a variety of internet lists and, despite its fair share of cult cinephiles that champion the film, it tends to be despairingly overlooked. It doesn’t deserve to be. Alice, Sweet Alice is one of the true diamonds to be found in the genre. It toys with the expectations of the viewer, delivers on its off-beat quirks, and still manages to layer in a lot of thoughtful material both in the visuals and narrative to give the film punch on multiple watches. On top of all of that, this latest (and greatest) Arrow Video Blu Ray release lives up the strength of the film itself.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Ready or Not (2019)

Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett
Notable Cast: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien, Henry Czerny

Horror and comedy are two great tastes that taste great together. In a broad sense, it’s because they rely on the same psychological concepts to play out. They’re both about the building of tension and lean on resolving that stress in a surprising way. Ready Or Not enters a long lineage of this sub-genre and does so in a fun way. Perhaps not wholly unique, but it’s fun and it has style. It draws a specific line juxtaposing a gore heavy, violent and hard “R” slasher sensibility with a sardonic, low-key, borderline disaffected sense of humor and then rides that line for nearly all its worth before getting out and walking away. In other words, it’s a pretty perfect movie for the end of the summer and wonderful counter-programming to the standard August dumping ground fare.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

47 Meters Down: Uncaged (2019)

Directed by: Johannes Roberts
Notable cast: Sophie Nélisse, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju, Sistine Stallone

Shark movies have a long and storied history in the world of horror. Arguably the first-ever blockbuster was Jaws, the most famous of them, and our fine finned friends have remained a popular film antagonist since. I never saw the original 47 Meters Down, so I really had no idea what I should be expecting in this film, plus the marketing has been a bit on the underwhelming side, so I went into this film with deeply lowered expectations, and apparently that’s the way to see it, because I really had quite a good time with this. Shark films tend to either be silly and campy or attempt something a bit more serious and grounded… though damned if I can think of a shark movie that used the latter approach and was worth watching, post-Jaws. This movie definitely doesn’t attempt anything in the vicinity of serious, luckily.

Critters Attack! (2019)

Director: Bobby Miller
Notable Cast: Tashiana Washington, Ava Preston, Jack Fulton, Jaeden Noel, Dee Wallace

For years, one of the things I clamored for was a revival of the Critters franchise. Growing up with the original two films and being there for the releases of the generally dismissed third and fourth entries, there has been a soft spot in my heart for the series and their strange blend of humor, horror, and science fiction. Imagine my surprise when it was announced that not only were we getting a new limited series called Critters: A New Binge that was going direct to Shudder, but there was also going to be a new film. I was ecstatic. Was this going to be the revival that I had wanted for so long?

I suppose you can call it a revival. There was both a new series and a new film, but, alas, neither are particularly good. For this review though, the focus will be on the new film, Critters Attack!, but make no mistake – both A New Binge and Attack are worse than anything the previous four had to offer. What are the chances that would happen? Pretty fuckin’ good now that both are released.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Kitchen (2019)

Director: Andrea Berloff
Notable cast: Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson

What does one do hot off of a writing Oscar, especially after writing something as instantly seminal as Straight Outta Compton? Writing and directing a female-centric period mob drama based on a DC/Vertigo comic would not have been my first guess, personally, but I do respect the unexpected move. Bold in its casting, The Kitchen exists as a dramatic acting showcase for both McCarthy and Haddish, typically better known for their comedic chops. The setting is interesting, and the concept of the story is infinitely engaging, potentially… with so much lined up in The Kitchen’s favor, it seems strange that it just never quite comes together.  

The Brink (2017/2019)

Director: Jonathan Li
Notable Cast: Max Zhang, Shawn Yue, Yue Wu, Janice Man, Tai Bo, Cecilia So, Yasuaki Kurata, Gordon Lam, Derek Tsang

One of the bigger names erupting from Hong Kong in the last handful of years has been Max Zhang. Although he goes by a few iterations of his name, his face and his talent are unmistakable. Earlier this year, his character from Ip Man 3 was spun off in Master Z and before that, smaller roles in films like SPL2 (aka Kill Zone 2), Rise of the Legend, and The Grandmaster solidified him as one of the HK’s next big stars. Fortunately, one of his more recent starring vehicles, the focus of this review, is finally receiving its US debut on Blu Ray and DVD. The Brink is a classic HK story told with modern flair and a choice for drenching its cast and sets in water and balancing brutal action sequences with the tried and true plot of a wild rogue cop on the trail of a gangster. The action is dynamic and entertaining, the performances are delightfully old school, and the choice of setting is inspired. Action fans will not want to miss this martial arts gem.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Line Walker 2: Invisible Spy (2019)

Director: Jazz Boon
Notable Cast: Nick Cheung, Louis Koo, Francis Ng, Huang Zhizhong, Jiang Peiyao, Zhang Yichi, Yuning Liu, Hui Siu-Hung

Who out there remembers Line Walker? Anyone? Despite being – from my understanding – based a popular TV show and an outright box office success in China, the film made relatively no impact in the US. Don’t feel bad if you don’t remember Line Walker. In the US, the film made one of those ninja quiet debuts on Netflix and essentially ceased to exist for western audiences. It’s not a huge issue because let’s be honest, Line Walker was enigmatically ‘meh.’ With the talent, it should have been a rip-roaring time. It’s not. Since it was a huge hit in China though, that only meant a sequel was coming. Naturally, it’s a “name only” sequel featuring most of the same cast and the same director, but it’s a brand-new film. If you’re like most of the US, don’t worry if you haven’t seen Line Walker because you’ll be able to jump right into Line Walker 2: Invisible Spy with no preparation. Fortunately, it’s also a film that’s an overall step up in quality. It’s still an outlandishly convoluted film, hammering down on its modern spin of heroic bloodshed themes, but it’s sprinting pace, fantastic cast, and outright astoundingly fun action make it worth the watch.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Divine Fury (2019)

Director: Kim Joo-hwan
Notable Cast: Park Seo-joon, Ahn Sung-ki, Woo Do-hwan, Jo Eun-hyung, Choi Woo-sik, Kim Si-eun

Had The Divine Fury been made in any other country besides South Korea and been made in any other time, the film would have been a hokey genre affair with a tagline like “First he brought the fight to the octagon, now he brings the fight to Satan!” To be fair, that is essentially what this film is in a nutshell. At the basics, it’s about a star MMA fighter who finds himself side by side with a Vatican priest fighting off a horde of demons possessing a bunch of people in Seoul. The brilliant maneuver that The Divine Fury brings to the floor is that it takes itself shockingly seriously and it’s impeccably executed. It’s stylish as hell (pun intended), packs one hell of a genre-bending punch (pun also intended), and still manages to deliver a story with soul (is that three for three?). Perhaps it’s because my expectations were tempered by the idea of an action horror film with MMA and exorcisms, but The Divine Fury achieves its tasks with far more excitement and impressiveness then it has any right to accomplish.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Bravest (2019)

Director: Tony Chan
Notable Cast: Xiaoming Huang, Jiang Du, Zhuo Tan, Zi Yang, Hao Ou, Yong Hou, Xiaotian Yin, Jason Gu, Zhehan Zhang, Ge Gao

As the push in the Chinese industry draws closer and closer to that of Hollywood, so does their approach to film making. The latest big-budget blockbuster-style film to make it to the US is The Bravest, a large spectacle film that attempts to find that perfect balance between action and dramatic heft. For those more familiar with Hollywood style films, the best comparison for The Bravest is combining the mass destruction and disaster films of Roland Emmerich and the “true story” action films of Peter Berg. For better or worse, depending on the scene, the film sways heavily between the two and it makes for both a highly entertaining film – occasionally from unintentional humor – and one that is perplexing in how poorly developed it is.

The Nightingale (2019)

Director: Jennifer Kent
Notable cast: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Harriman

Jennifer Kent set the horror world aflame for a moment in 2014 with The Babadook, a movie that made a children’s book beyond scary and made parenthood seem like the most real horror show in history. In the intervening years, it’s grown into an LGBTQ+ icon movie, and seen a second life in that symbolic way. No matter your take on it, the movie garnered an unusual amount of attention for a small, foreign, indie horror film. In a similar way, I do expect The Nightingale will have an unexpected and far reach, though as the film is less metaphorical and more about our current culture through a mirror darkly, I won’t even guess what that reach will entail. I certainly feel like I know what the intended effect is, and by that measure The Nightingale is an extremely effectively made film. It’s also one that’s impossible to properly talk about without just talking about it, so although I will make every effort to avoid spoiling many specific story beats, it would do the film an equal disservice to completely avoid talking about the themes and message present here.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Shadow (2019)

Director: Zhang Yimou
Notable Cast: Deng Chao, Betty Sun Li, Ryan Zheng Kai, Wang Qian-Yuan, Hu Jun, Wang Jing-Chun, Guan Xiao-Tong, Wu Lei, Feng Bai

Zhang Yimou made a bold choice to deviate away from his usual artistic ways to make The Great Wall. Now, I’m not sure I’m to the point where I want to fully defend what he was attempting to do in creating a popcorn flick, but it was a bold choice to make that film. It alienated most people and many of his fans were ready to throw him under the bus almost immediately. With that in mind, it’s not shocking that he would try to make amends to his fans and supporters by making another film that’s relatively consumable for a worldwide audience and still heavy on the artistic and symbolic side. One that could easily be sold as “from the director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers.”

The result is his latest artsy wuxia, Shadow. Yimou gets to once again struts his knack for visual flair and dynamic storytelling in this high brow genre flick and he once again plays around with the nuances of right versus wrong within its narrative. Shadow is a film that establishes a slow build for most of its run time, methodically placing its characters and plot in ways to create a sense of unease in the audience. By the time it reaches its finale, Shadow swiftly and elegantly pierces through the narrative with heavy questions and weighty themes. It’s not his most exciting film from a thrills and spectacle stand point, nor does it quite hit the emotional character strides of many of his early films, but Shadow has a rather unique balance that provides an entertaining conspiracy film, a wuxia epic, and an intimate character study.