Wednesday, September 30, 2015

National Geographic Horror Story

‘The Green Inferno,’ Eli Roth’s latest directorial effort, is both a love letter to ‘70’s grindhouse exploitation cinema and a gorehound’s delight.  A contemporary update of Italian cannibal movies such as ‘Cannibal Ferox’ and ‘Cannibal Holocaust,’ ‘The Green Inferno’ is just as shocking and violent, but surely fans of Roth’s body of work (‘Cabin Fever’ and ‘Hostel’ parts 1 and 2) would expect nothing less.
TGI is simply “delicious” in its irony.  A group of young idealistic, tree-hugging college kids travel to the Amazons in Peru to prevent the destruction of an indigenous tribe’s village by an evil oil corporation.  After getting their message viral, the small single-engine Cessna carrying them on their way out crashes and they become captive to the very people they’re trying to save.  And surprise!  They’re cannibals.  They don’t do it like in the cartoons, either.
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Like ‘Cannibal Ferox’ and ‘Cannibal Holocaust,’ TGI plays with our expectations and diminishes our disgust by portraying the victim as despicable villain, in this instance the tree-huggers’ suave Ricky Martin-esque Latin leader and hypocrite-extraordinaire Alejandro (Ariel Levy).  The final scene in which the lone survivor was being interviewed is also eerily similar to the one in ‘Cannibal Ferox,’ no doubt just the way Roth intended it.   Let’s face it, exploitation B-movies such as this isn’t for the faint of heart or queasy of stomach, but if you’re game you’ll find it a “glorious throwback to the drive-in movies of your youth: bloody, gripping, hard to watch, but you can’t look away.”  That was a tweet from none other than the great Master-of-Horror Stephen King, by the way.
Grade: B+
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The Paranoid Chessmaster

Bobby Fischer is the subject of Tobey Maguire’s biopic on the late chess champion considered by many to be the greatest chess player of all time.  While ‘Pawn Sacrifice’ isn’t the first movie inspired by the oft-controversial chessmaster thanks to the 1993 coming-of-age story ‘Searching for Bobby Fischer,’ it is somewhat surprising that it took so long for a movie to focus on the man’s life.
Hollywood loves Cold War allegories, whether it’s the true story of an underdog American ice hockey team upsetting the mighty Red Army team in the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid (2004’s ‘Miracle’) or a fictional one about a washed-out boxer named Rocky Balboa (Sly Stallone) returning to the ring to face the hulking Soviet superman Captain Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, a Swede) and avenge his friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).  The rivalry in ‘Pawn Sacrifice’ between Maguire’s Bobby Fischer and Liev Schreiber’s Boris Spassky is a more subtle one, as you might expect for a thinking man’s game, but it is no less riveting as we see both players prepare and maneuver leading up to their great showdown at the 1972 World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland.
‘Pawn Sacrifice’ adheres to the usual conventions of biopics in its portrait of the complex and at times dislikable chess genius.  Even if he looks nothing like the man he portrayed, Maguire’s Fischer is everything we’ve read or heard about the man: eccentric, insufferable, irascible, demanding, egotistical, offensive, anti-semitic and tinfoil-wearing paranoid.  He may even have been schizophrenic, who knows?  By contrast, Schreiber’s Spassky looks almost dead-on like the Soviet chessmaster and comes across as the more sympathetic and likable of the two.  Graceful and classy, he’s the epitome of good sportsmanship. If you enjoy biopics, movies with the Cold War as backdrop or have even a passing interest in the great game of chess, ‘Pawn Sacrifice’ is not to be missed.
Grade: A-
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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Out of the Glade and into the Scorch

‘Maze Runner,’ the first film in a trilogy adapted from James Dashner’s young adult (YA) post-apocalyptic novels, was a pleasant surprise (review here:  Therefore I eagerly anticipated the next installment, ‘The Scorch Trials,’ which picks up right where the first movie left off as our hapless band of young dazed maze survivors ("Gladers") find themselves hurriedly whisked away by their saviors in a helicopter out of the WCKD research facility from which they were monitored by white coated scientists as if they’re nothing more than lab rats running around in a.... maze.  To their surprise and dismay, the world outside is revealed to be a desert wasteland (the "Scorch") in stark contrast to the lush green glade from which they emerged, such that you can easily picture roving bands of lawless, homicidal marauders motoring around in dilapidated vehicles thrive in such a setting.
As in the first film, not everything is as it seems.  In the world of ‘Maze Runner,’ deception is the main currency, as Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his friends find themselves on the run once again from the evil organization WCKD led by the ruthless Ava (Patricia Clarkson) through the unforgiving landscape of the "Scorch."  As if this isn’t bad enough, the Gladers must also evade and fight off zombie-like “Cranks” and the forces of nature (abrasive sandstorms) in their arduous trek through the "Scorch" in search of ‘The Right Arm,” a group of resistance fighters who have been a thorn in WCKD’s side.
While ‘Maze Runner’ combined "Lord of the Flies" social conflict with a deep and satisfying mystery to good effect, this follow-up is a more straightforward action thriller and chase movie.  It also shares the same anti-authority/rebellion/good-versus-evil themes as other popular YA series like 'The Hunger Games' and 'Divergent.' Nonetheless, if you can manage to see 'The Scorch Trials' for the popcorn movie it strives to be, you will find it to be an enjoyable enough diversion.
Grade: B+
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Irish Goodfellas

‘Black Mass,’ the “true story" of the rise and subsequent fall of south Boston Irish mob boss and “Winter Hill Gang” leader James “Whitey” Bulger, is the latest movie starring Johnny Depp, who needed a hit after such recent misfires as ‘Transcendence’ and ‘Mortdecai.’  In portraying the notorious kingpin whose role as an FBI informant to help bring down the Italian mafia in the ‘70s and ‘80s later scandalized the Bureau, Depp delivered what may well be one of his best method acting performances to date.
Deathly pale, gaunt and sunken-cheeked with slicked back hair (and a receding hairline), Depp’s Whitey Bulger resembles something between the Grim Reaper and LOTR’s Gollum.  The Grim Reaper simile isn’t far off, because behind his calm fa├žade is a ruthless and cold-blooded killer, a calculating fox (or wolf) who perfected the art of making one feel at ease and lower his guard before putting a bullet in his head.  ‘Black Mass’ is the tale of how the FBI, through one of its agents (John Connolly, a childhood friend of Whitey’s), practically gave Bulger free rein in his criminal activities while doing him the favor of eliminating the Angiulo Brothers, his main competitors of the Italian mafia.
With a stellar cast including Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kevin Bacon plus a fine screenplay from Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk based on a non-fiction book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, BM not only makes for a fascinating character study but also a compelling gangster film in the best traditions of ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Scarface’ and ‘Goodfellas.’
Grade: A

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Monday, September 14, 2015

3 Simple Rules

The “found footage” genre has been overdone even before the most recent ‘Paranormal Activity’ installment, and I must admit when I first saw the trailer of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest release ‘The Visit,’ I rolled my eyes and dismissed it as nothing more than another desperate attempt to turn around a sinking career which suffered one setback after another with such critical flops as ‘The Village,’ ‘Lady in the Water,’ ‘The Happening’ and ‘The Last Airbender.’  Regardless, I went to see it anyway because: (a) it’s “horror” and (b) it’s an M. Night Shyamalan movie.  And who knows?  Maybe there’s a trademark Shyamalan WTF???!!! twist at the end.
‘The Visit’ does have a twist, but it’s more subtle and less jarring than one would expect from Shyamalan.  That’s not a bad thing either, because ‘The Visit’ is refreshingly different from any of his previous films.  While the movie possesses some scary moments, it is also rather funny.  On the surface, ‘The Visit’ seems to address the creeping infirmities and frailties of aging that we must all face someday, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously or wrap itself in sentimentality like Michael Haneke’s ‘Amour.’  Told from the POV of two young teens visiting their “nana” and “pop pop” for the first time because their mom ran away from home when she was 19 and never reconciled with her parents, ‘The Visit’ worked for me largely due to the fine performances delivered by its two unknown young stars.
Ed Oxenbould and Olivia DeJonge are simply a joy to follow as Tyler and Rebecca, the precocious siblings witty beyond their years, even if their maturity lags somewhat behind.  One is a snarky overachiever who's making a documentary of the visit in order to bring her mom some closure (or "elixir" as she calls it) after leaving on bad terms so long ago, while the other is a goofy improv rapper and former pee wee football safety who, well, you just have to see for yourself.   With ‘The Visit,’ Shyamalan demonstrated that he still has a few tricks up his sleeves even if it falls short of a true comeback.  Stay tuned.
Grade: A
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