A Trip To The Movies: Review – Eli Roth’s “The Green Inferno” 9.27.15

If you had of asked me back in 2013 two years ago what my most anticipated horror film of the year was I would have said “The Green Inferno”. Unfortunately, it got shelved like many projects do back in the year it was supposed to have been released. This was incredibly disappointing for someone like myself who had been awaiting for writer/director Eli Roth’s return to horror. You see, Roth has been off the map for a while now, mostly involving himself in producing credits in projects like the underwhelming Netflix Original Series – “Hemlock Grove” (2013-2015), Ti West’s equally as disappointing “The Sacrament (2013), “The Last Exorcism Parts 1 and 2” (2010 and 2013 – which one could only imagine Roth made a killing off of) which were mostly dismissable efforts. In fact, the last really great project I’ve seen Roth involved in was his performance in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009). A film in which he landed a pretty considerable role in both starring opposite Brad Pitt as Sgt. Donny Donowitz (referred to as “The Bear” in that film as he always brandished a Louisville slugger baseball bat). What a lot of people don’t know either is that Roth also directed the black and white Nazi propaganda film – “Nation’s Pride” that was shown at the climax of that film. Going back was Roth’s most successful project – the first 2 entries to the “Hostel” trilogy (2005 and 2007). The first film I liked but didn’t love and the second which I liked only slightly less than it. But both of which I extremely admire because love it or hate it, between James Wan’s “Saw” (2004) and Roth’s “Hostel” which came out only a year later in 2005, gave birth to American “torture porn” in American horror. A genre that admittedly I admire but don’t gravitate to unless we’re talking about the films that have come out of the French New Extremity movement of the 2000’s. Films like “High Tension”, “Frontiers”, “Martyrs”, “Inside”, etc, to name a few. Had torture porn elements in them but reached for something much deeper in either making social commentaries on something, or spinning philosophical undertones in them. I consider these pictures to be smart, intellectual, psychological horror. Which is how I more or less felt about Roth’s two “Hostel” films. Going even further back was Roth’s writing/directing debut – “Cabin Fever (2002) – still my favorite of all of Roth’s films and the main reason why I keep chasing his projects from year to year, in hopes of him delivering something that’s even half as good as “Cabin Fever” was. Now come 2015, we see the release of his new (if you want to call it that) film that had been shelved for 2 years. His first writing/directing job since 2007’s “Hostel 2”.

Roth’s new film, which opened in wide release this past weekend and casts no recognizable actors (pretty incredibly considering it came out in wide release and was given very little if not any marketing at all). The plot revolves around a college freshman named Justine (Roth’s real life wife – Lorenza Izzo – an actress new to me but who will hopefully start popping up in more movies to come as her performance is great here) who becomes interested in her campus’ social activism group. As she gets more and more involved with the group she learns that they have been plotting a plan to take a trip down to South America to the Amazon rainforest to stop a company from logging thousands of acres and subsequently killing off ancient Native tribes. The activist group of about a dozen then flies to Peru, and starts their climb into the Amazon jungle, and begin the protest by dressing in logger uniforms and tying themselves to the trees that are set to be cut down. Their protest is somewhat successful as they get the attention of global news media but one of them almost winds up getting killed. After having come down to do what they do, and realizing that their activism could have had deadly consequences, they aboard a plane back to the United States. But their small charter plane gets into an accident and crashes (much like the scene from “Alive” (1993)- a film who one of its many themes is cannibalism) not long after their take off, and they wind up right back in the Amazon and into the territory of the ancient Native people, a group who a big part of their mission involved coming down to protect. It’s at this point, about halfway, and forward in the film where Roth starts bringing us the meat of the story, and things start to go absolutely bat shit crazy.

“The Green Inferno” was a highly rewarding experience for true horror fans like myself, and is the best work Roth has put out as a writer/director since the aforementioned “Cabin Fever” in 2002. Paying equal nods to “Deliverance” (1972), “Cannibal Halocaust” (1980), “Alive” (1993), and “Apocalypto” (2006). Roth here releases both his most terrifying and yet at the same time funniest film to date. It almost felt like it took the horror/torture porn elements of the “Hostel” series and added the comedic element that he combined so perfectly in “Cabin Fever”. When the activist group crashes and finds themselves in unfamiliar territory things go from bad to worse. And anyone that knows Roth’s penchant for going pretty out there with what he does with horror may understand how these subsequent scenes between the naive, upper class, mostly Caucasian college kids and tribes of ancient native peoples play out. I read a couple of blurbs of reviews prior to seeing this where many reviewers called this one of Roth’s more “restrained” films, and boy they couldn’t have been more wrong. The blood and gore factor is congruent with, and maybe goes farther than any of Roth’s earlier work. But what’s even more impressive is his ability to combine his trademark horror elements with comedy, expertly blending the two. It’s also a great social commentary on social activist groups, with Roth seemingly laughing at his own inside joke of what could potentially happen if some of these issues our American people fight for stateside were met firsthand if they were to actually travel to these indigenous countries themselves. Which makes it feel like more like an attack on social activism in general more than anything else. There’s a lot that people might pick out as being some pretty significant shortcomings of the film – it’s somewhat poorly acted, the editing is choppy, the film looks cheaply made, etc. Which is why the film has been met with mostly unfavorable reviews. But that’s not the point of an Eli Roth film. It’s to horrify and terrify you; while balancing it with underlying comedy. And as someone who has a slight hint of what to expect, it worked on several levels, especially in the middle section where the students are held in captivity. It’s a film that caters towards a certain type of audience like someone like myself who revels in full-blown horror. And for others who gravitate to this type of material I can assure you it doesn’t disappoint in what it sets out to do. In a year where the really only good horror film that stands out is “It Follows”. This is the next best piece of filmmaking that I’ve seen outside of it, and is a welcome return to the vision of writer/director Eli Roth’s earlier films. And solely because of that, I would recommend it but mainly only to die-hard horror enthusiasts, as almost anyone else might find this material to be a bit too sick and off-putting in its relishing of its pure unadulterated horror. Mr. Roth, I for one can say I’m thankful to have you back.

[B]

Review: “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” 1.25.15

In what was amongst a dozen foreign films that I had been anticipating that came out last year, comes acclaimed Japanese director Sion Sono’s latest, whom I had really only been familiar with from his 2010 effort – “Cold Fish”, which basically encapsulated everything I loved and do love about Asian cinema. It was a warped and depraved look at one very weak man’s undeliberate affiliation with the Yakuza (Asian Mob). It resembled something akin to Takashi Miike’s “Ichi The Killer” (2001) (still considered in my opinion to be one of the best examples of what is true art house Asian cinema). That and it had some rather funny comedic undertones that aren’t usually found from films of this region of the world. At least from the genre in which it came from. Then came the release of Sono’s newest – the overtly titled “Why Don’t You Play In Hell?”. I had really wanted to see this film with an audience (“Cold Fish” was so bat shit crazy in its depiction of extreme violence and nihilism I could only imagine what it would have been like seeing with a large group of people) but since it had a very short one week engagement here in Portland I never got the opportunity to. That being said, I had this one queued up on my Netflix queue and had been highly looking forward to seeing it as soon as it came out on DVD.

Sion Sono’s newest (I just recently discovered this guy’s been around making films for 30 years) revolves around a rag-tag group of teenagers called the “Fuck Bombers” who go around town with their amateur video equipment trying to capture every crime, fight, or illegal activity that takes place (think J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8”). They’re just like any other novice film crew – their ambitions seem to be much higher than their actual talent. One day they catch a fight among the two Yakuza families in town. And in atypical fashion the families let the cameras roll allowing the kids unprecedented access to their first ringside seat in which they’re able to capture it all on film. Meanwhile another plot device pops up, one involving a flashback where the daughter of one of the heads of the two families, named Mitsuko, who is widely known not just because of her affiliation of being in a Mob family, but because as a toddler she was featured in a toothpaste commercial (the last part surprisingly important as it comes up multiple times throughout the course of the film). During one chance encounter the young Mitsuko comes home one day to find that her house has been infiltrated with the “Ikegami” Yakuza clan. Except her rival mob boss father, head of the “Muto” clan, doesn’t happen to be home, and her mother basically wipes out every member of the clan and leaves the boss of the Ikegami clan for dead. Except he lives. We then jump forward 10 years later…the Fuck Bombers are still trying to find their big break in moviemaking, Mitsuko is currently being held captive by the Ikegami clan as a truce between the two families has been broken, and Muto (Mitsuko’s mob boss father) is trying desperately to rescue his daughter so that she can play a big part in a movie which he thinks will be the ultimate gift to his wife, now serving 10 years in prison for wiping out the almost entire Ikegami clan. Mitsuko does escape and enlists the help of a random guy on the street named Jiro, who she buys out to be her boyfriend for the day in order to try to help ensure her escape. Once reunited with her father Muto who tries to kill Jiro in thinking that Jiro is part of the opposing clan, hoping to save his life she tells her father that the unsuspecting Jiro is actually a famous film director, and is ready to make his “masterpiece” with her as the star, in turn saving his life. Jiro enlists the help of the now twenty somethings Fuck Bombers to try to help him make the film Mitsuko’s father demand he makes or he dies. This is the central story and plot that makes for the rest of the film as Jiro masks as a director and with the help of the Fuck Bombers film crew he sets out to make an amateur film that promises Mitsuko’s mob boss father that this will be the dream role that he’s been waiting for his daughter.

“Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” winds up being a smorgasbord of different ideas all wrapped up into one. Never relenting in its execution or letting us forget that we’re at the hands of one of Asian cinema’s most unapologetic, creative, and original directors right alongside Takashi Miike, Chan-wook Park, Takashi “Beat” Kitano, Joon-Ho Bong, Kim Jee-woon, Yimou Zhang, and Stephen Chow, with a splash of Quentin Tarantino. At the heart it feels like the director’s homage to moviemaking, as once the Fuck Bombers are employed to film the two rival Yukuza clans, we’re thrown into every process of what it requires to make a film. It’s wild and unpredictable (trust me when I say nobody is making films like this guy) and goes beyond the borders of what we know to be even remotely conventional filmmaking. What we have here is essentially a film within a film. As along with the Fuck Bombers film crew the viewer is allowed access into DIY access into the proceedings. It’s a uproariously fun, violent, unrelenting, bizarre, deranged, utterly insane crazy universe that the director creates and stays prominent in feel and tone for its entire running time. My one complaint was where his last film felt more like a serious crime drama thriller, this lays the comedy pretty thick, at times reminiscent of a hyper violent Stephen Chow (“Kung Fu Hustle”) film. Its shift toward this about halfway in comes a little unexpected and in my opinion it could have been just a good of a film without all the underlying black comedy. The last thing I should point out is the entire last half hour of the film is so batshit crazy and excessively violent it makes the bar scene with Uma Thurman from “Kill Bill Vol. 1” (2003) or the ending battle in last year’s “Dead Snow 2” look restrained and tame. So if you’re the type of person like me that’s into this kind of material, especially fans of foreign and Asian cinema, you’ll have a rollicking good time. Everyone else might have a hard time getting into this sort of thing.

[strong B]

Review: “Stonehearst Asylum” 12.14.14

I used to speak director Brad Anderson’s name under the same breath as I did with some of my all time favorite filmmakers. As his one-two punch of both 2001’s “Session 9” and 2004’s “The Machinist” introduced to a new kind of psychological horror director. Particularly with that of the former, which I still consider to be one of my top 10 psychological horror films of all time. Following these two films he made a nice, 1 hour entry to the “Masters of Horror” series, and then for the most part, pretty much bottomed out. His next 3 subseqent films – “Trassiberian” (2007), “Vanishing on 7th Street (2010), and last year’s “The Call”. All wound up being totally duds and were panned by most if not all critics (with the sole exception being “Transsiberian” which got mediocre reviews…fitting for a mediocre film) and gave me and a lot of his other fans the impression that what we had was someone whose career which had started off so promising, had practically vanished and he became just another studio director who makes low quality films at the expense of his audience. Which I viewed as was and still is a complete and total shame. I had just about written Anderson off as a director, but I saw this film’s title among a new release calender that I check monthly for titles to add to my Netflix queue. The film more or less looked like a return to form for Anderson, at least in terms of genre, as the synopsis of the film said that it was a psychological thriller set in a mental institution. Strikingly similar to what I still consider to be his masterpiece in the aforementioned “Session 9” (2002). Though unlike his “has been” type casting of his crop of recent films, this boasted a rather impressive cast in Ben Kingsley, Brendan Gleeson, Jim Strurgess, Kate Beckinsale, David Thewlis, and Michael Caine. The story itself also deriving from an old Edgar Allen Poe story called “Eliza Graves”. So this seemed to be like it could be a possible return for director Anderson as it appeared from the surface that put him back into a position working within a genre that he became a big part of and was instrumental to in the early 21st century.

The film starts out simply enough. We are first brought into a classroom of apparent aspiring young medical students whom are being taught by a professor played by Brendan Gleeson in 1899 at the turn of the 20th century. To help in his presentation of this particular lesson he brings in one of his patients, played by Kate Beckinsale, a woman who is plagued by some sort of mental illness. Gleeson makes the case that she’s uncurable. But there seems to be something much greater going on here that is both aiding and abaiding her specific case. We then flashback and meet a young doctor (played by the great British actor Jim Sturgess), a recent medical school graduate from London’s prestigious Oxford University, who takes a job in the country at a mental institution called the Stonehearst Asylum. Upon his entrance there he meets the asylum’s director and overseer (played by Ben Kingsley, a role reminiscient of the work he did with Martin Scorcese in 2010’s “Shutter Island”). He quickly learns that the asylum operates both very unconventional and unorthodox ways as they see it as being somehow therapeutic to integrate the patients with that of the hospital staff. Sturgess’ doctor first meets and lays his eyes on one seemingly gifted patient (Beckinsale) who appears to be some sort of piano prodigy named Eliza Graves. It almost seems like love at first sight, and the young doctor doesn’t seem to have a care in the world for the young Eliza’s mental illness. And as strange events begin to occur he starts to doubt her mental illness, as he starts to do with the asylum in general, in one of those situations in which things aren’t quite what they seem at the surface. Especially when Sturgess’ character stumbles upon a basement containing one of the asylum’s best kept, deepest, and darkest secret. A revelation that pretty much sets the stage for the events that transpire as the rest of the film plays itself out.

This a mostly unwatchable and forgetabble effort. One that finds itself consistent with much of Anderson’s recent work. A film that felt like it had almost zero originality, by a director who continues to show us that he is more or less a studio director without any remaining semblance of his own sense of individuality. Really the only thing worth mentioning is that the film at least slightly kept my attention by the oddly overqualified cast of seasoned actors. Sturgess is the lead here and makes the most out of the minimally written and drawn out character he is given. Kingsley is also serviceable here as well, but his performance comes across as strikingly all too similar to the role he played in “Shutter Island”. I thought David Thewlis (whom I haven’t really seen in anything since Terrance Malick’s wonderful “The New World” (2007)) and Kate Beckinsale (who admittedly I really like in the “Underworld” series) are both standouts in an otherwise weak script. Michael Caine (who one can only sit back and wonder why he would sign on to a project such as this one) is also nice to see up on the screen and has a pretty considerable role. But again, the weak script and shoddy story narrative make it difficult to highlight some of the films stronger points like the acting. Outside of that I found it mostly flat and not even remotely scary. I also thought it’s underlying message about the mentally ill to be ludicrous and borderline laughable, as someone who works with this population I feel like I’m qualified to make such a statement. Do yourself a favor and skip this one, as well as anything that director Brad Anderson does from this point forward throughout the rest of his apparent continued failing career.

[C-]

Review: ‘Filth’ 10.8.14

Sometimes even despite having 20 titles or more in the “available now” section of my Netflix queue I find myself in a crunch deciding what to move up to the #1 spot. Then there are other times where there’s maybe 5 movies vying for the spot on any given week (the second half of October is looking exceptional for DVD releases by the way). I more or less chose this film amongst the many in the litter because well, there really wasn’t all that much else on my queue that was available that stood out. I like James McAvoy a fair amount but I can’t say I usually choose a film solely based on him being in it. I did like him in the original version of the British TV series “Shameless” and in films like “Atonement” (2007), “Wanted” (2008), and last year’s “Trance”. He’s a very respectable actor. The trailer also stood out as it looked pretty sick, twisted, and depraved. Similar to Danny Boyle’s incredible “Trainspotting”  (1996) which only makes sense given that it’s written by the same author as the film in which that was based on, Irvine Welsh. I’ve read both Welsh’s “Trainspotting” and “The Acid House” when I was a teenager; though never “Filth”, to know enough going into what I more or less should be expecting. Because of my familiarity with the types of characters and stories he writes about. But still, I can’t go so far as to say I had the highest of expectations for it.

The film itself, like most of Welsh’s novels, takes place in Scotland. The story revolves around a Detective in the local police department (played impressively by McAvoy). He is up for a promotion to Detective Sargeant, and goes around doing everything in his power to be sure he lands the promotion, while also engaging in every sort of illegal activity possible to ensure that he won’t. This guy is right up on par with both Harvey Keitel and Nicolas Cage in the “Bad Leiutenant” movies (1992 and 2009). He gets off on things like busting other people’s chops by manipulating them, being a sexual predator and happily commiting adultery, perverse sexual games and masterbation, and participating in copious amounts of drinking and drug use. Yep. This isn’t your average policeman. It’s one that could possibly only exist in the twisted Irvine Welsh universe. The central story line being that a murder takes place. One that offers McAvoy’s character the “in” he needs in order to secure his promotion. The movie then follows the every step of his debaucherous journey. Coming back every now and then to remind us that it’s still a film about a murder taking place and the efforts (or lack thereof) that he tries to make to solve it.

What we wind up with is not so good a film that has a particularly good time with itself. It’s more or less an exercise in style over substance. I personally liked the look of it. It was shot proficiently well enough and used some unique camera angles to convey the drugged and tripped out images on screen. It also had a kind of playfulness and whimsy about it; almost fantasy-like, that I thought served the material well. McAvoy does a great job in his role. A role that I found strinkingly similar to that of Jude Law’s earlier in this year’s “Dom Hemingway”. The kind of role that the director allows the actor to go all out bat shit crazy while performing and relishing in the spectacle of it all. It also boasts a pretty solid soundtrack of recognizable classic rock hits that I had a good time with. All of that aside, the plot gives aimless a new name. It’s incredibly shallow and pointless. That and it totally loses its footing in the 2nd half and goes into “now we’re supposed to feel bad for the guy/sentiment” territory. Sorry but there was zero emotional interest on behalf of myself other than having fun with the character for them to ask me to actually care about him. In fact, all I really wanted to do was to continue to see him drinking, drugging, and whoring himself out until there wasn’t really much left of him at all. That would have been more befitting and appropriate given the tone of the first half. But then again, I did have barely enough fun with the movie despite its aimlessness and shallowness because at the very least it was a shot of adrenaline. Which is much more than I get from so many other movies these days.

Grade: C+