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.

Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is onto something big. The Syndicate. A group of rogue agents from all over the world trained to create disaster and chaos as efficiently as the IMF can stop it. Unfortunately, the CIA and its director (Baldwin) see the IMF as a loose cannon themselves and they pull the plug. So it’s up to Hunt, with a little help from his friends, to finally uncover the biggest anti-spy organization this side of Spectre.

Over the shoulder! No wait, don't fire...that shit is LOUD!
Love him or hate him, Tom Cruise has been on a roll lately with his films. Whether it’s an old school thriller like Jack Reacher or the bonkers time jumping science fiction of Edge of Tomorrow, his last handful of films have been impressively consistent in quality. You can certainly add Rogue Nation to that list. Oddly enough, there is another element that threads through all of the mentioned films outside of the screen charm and stunt performin’ draw of Tom Cruise – and that’s writer/director Christopher McQuarrie. If you take the entertaining action and humor of Edge of Tomorrow and inject it with some of the classic action elements of Jack Reacher, that’s the balance you get in Rogue Nation. It’s a very fun way to go about it and it makes this film feel a bit refreshing after the sheer ridiculousness of the last one.

When it comes to hitting all of the Mission: Impossible elements, Rogue Nation does so in spades. Elaborate theft schemes? Try on an underwater computer card transfer that will have you holding your breath along with Hunt. Rag tag team of IMF agents that have to go rogue to stop a world ending disaster? Hasn’t every film had that? Try death defying stunts like Tom Cruise hanging off of a plane or skipping his way up a pole in handcuffs. At this point, if you stick to the bread and butter of what made this franchise so enjoyable to begin with, it’s hard to go too wrong. The film is brimming with fun and exciting action sequences and plenty of twists and turns along the way. At this point it’s even fun at guessing just when the mask reveal is going to happen. Long time M:I fans are definitely going to find things to love about this film.

The wheels on the cycle go boom, boom, boom.
To add to the fun, director Christopher McQuarrie adds a bit of old school spy thrills. The previous three films have sacrificed a bit of the actual “espionage” for the sake of entertaining action (which isn’t a dig at those films because it works), but Rogue Nation adds in just enough fun twists and turns to make it feel a bit refreshing. While the entire “is she with the good guys or with the bad guys” element for Ferguson does seem a bit cliché, she sells it in Rogue Nation and adds a bit of much needed feminine screen power to a franchise known for just leap frogging around it. McQuarrie also has a knack for using darkness and light in his visuals to add old school flair to the film. The finale is in the darkened allies of London and he uses it to some craft some great atmosphere. The previously mentioned Ferguson gets a stellar knife fight at this moment that might be one of the highlights of the entire franchise – despite not being an over the top stunt.

Once again, the biggest issue that this film has to contend with is the lacking presence of a strong villain. It’s somewhat avoided here, in a similar manner to the first one, by having the plot be the biggest antagonist for our heroes, but it’s still an issue. Sean Harris desperately attempts to make his screen time foreboding and creepy with his performance, but never once was I wholly convinced that he was a true competitor to Cruise’s Hunt – whom at this point is damn near god-like in his ability to survive anything. Along these lines, the added screen time for Simon Pegg was a huge crowd pleaser for the audience around me, but his role seemed significantly catered for that exact reason. It’s not a huge detriment for the film (he’s funny, so there’s that) but there were times when it felt like it could have been fleshed out a bit more instead of the “he’s my friend!” motive.

So dark. So brooding.
Despite some hiccups here and there in the ridiculous plot and some of the lacking character depth, Rogue Nation remains a massively entertaining summer blockbuster worthy of the time of its audience. Long time Mission: Impossible fans are going to love the old school elements that McQuarrie slides in and the newer fans are going to eat up the outrageous stunts and silly humorous banter of the IMF team. It still falls a bit short of Mission: Impossible III, but I’ll be damned if this film doesn’t give it a run for its money.

Written By Matt Reifschneider