Blood Fest


A bunch of friends take a moonlit stroll through the woods.

(2018) Horror Comedy (Cinedigm/Rooster Teeth) Robbie Kay, Seychelle Gabriel, Jacob Batalon, Barbara Dunkelman, Tate Donovan, Zachary Levi, Olivia-Grace Applegate, Owen Egerton, Isla Cervelli, Paul Ogola, Nicholas Rutherford, Samantha Ireland, Tristan Riggs, Rebecca Lynne Wagner, Chris Doubek, Carl Thomas, Lynn Andrews III, Jessica Polk. Directed by Owen Egerton

 

Horror has rules. That has been drilled into the heads of fans throughout the annals of horror films; at least since Wes Craven’s Scream outline most of them for us. Still few genres have as much structural similarities between films as horror does. That has made for some pretty nifty self-referential meta films that remind us that virgins have a better chance of survival and never ever go into the basement by yourself.

Dax (Kay) loves horror movies, a love instilled by his mother (Ireland) who promised him that horror movies give us the opportunity to realize that we are stronger than our own films. Of course, she tells him that moments before she is brutally murdered by one of her husband’s (Donovan) patients who has a similar love for scary movies.

Flash forward fifteen years and Dax is eager to go to a major horror event called Blood Fest promising haunted attractions, panel discussions with filmmakers and horror icons, and a rave-like atmosphere with a horror movie theme. However, his dad won’t allow it (and tears up his precious ticket before his very eyes after a similar warning from his sister (Wagner): “Blood Fest is going to suck.” Little does he know how right she is.

Dax manages to get his hand on a precious wristband and makes it in for the big event and at first it’s everything he hopes it would be as he and his best friends Sam (Gabriel) and hacker Krill (Batalon) at his side. The MC is a well-known horror producer (Egerton) but he has plans for the revelers. You see, the horrors at Blood Fest are real and it will take all of their knowledge of the rules of horror films along with all their resourcefulness and courage to survive the night.

I’m not a big fan of horror comedies. Few of them succeed in balancing the screams with the laughs and this one is no exception but it is more successful than most. The fact is that they don’t go for the over-the-top laughs that bring the comedy into spoof territory, and spoofs are as far as I’m concerned the lowest form of cinematic humor. The scares are never particularly over-the-top either but there’s enough energy in the pacing and from the performers that the movie keeps your attention other than a few points where some exposition is going on.

The performances by the fairly low-budget cast are solid and professional. Chuck star Zachary Levi (also from the upcoming Shazam) has a thoroughly enjoyable albeit brief cameo, while the female cast is mega-sexy without any nudity which is quite a feat when you consider there’s at least one obligatory shower scene and a lesbian vampire make-out scene. Still, that’s just further proof that a woman doesn’t have to show her boobs to be sexy.

The writing is a bit spotty; the reveal is early on in the movie and while the mysterious partner behind the murders is kept hidden until near the end (and veteran horror fans should be able to figure out well before then) and while some of the plot points stretch the boundaries of plausibility to the breaking point (and beyond), for he most part the writing is pretty decent for this kind of film. The dialogue sounds authentic and there is a good deal of affection for the genre and those who love I – and obsess over it. This is a pleasant gem that will probably find a long shelf life on VOD and home video.

REASONS TO GO: Entertaining and generally well-paced.
REASONS TO STAY: A few plot points lack cohesion.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and gore, a good deal of profanity and some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rooster Teeth is a content supplier mainly for YouTube; this is their third feature after Lazer Team and Lazer Team 2. It is actually however the second film released as Lazer Team 2 hasn’t yet received a release date.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews: Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scream
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
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Maze Runner: The Death Cure


How can they be surprised at the bad reviews?

(2018) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, Kaya Scodelario, Dexter Darden, Will Poulter, Jacob Lofland, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Aidan Gillen, Patricia Clarkson, Barry Pepper, Nathalie Emmanuel, Katherine McNamara, Walton Goggins, Dylan Smith,  Jake Curran, Greg Kriek, Liza Scholtz. Directed by Wes Ball

 

There have been a number of dystopian sci-fi trilogies in the young adult book market as of late, several of which have been converted to the silver screen. Divergent, The Hunger Games and Maze Runner all feature young heroes who shoulder the responsibility of changing their society for the better. It makes me wonder if that hasn’t rubbed off on the current generation who recently took to the streets to protest a lack of movement on gun control.

However, while one applauds the passion of the Parkland pack, it’s hard to appreciate the cinematic skills displayed on this, the finale of the Maze Runner series. It’s stupefying in its length – two hours and twenty odd minutes – and seems to be repetitive in its action. We learn the horrifying truth about WCKD – that in a latch-ditch effort to find a cure for the disease that has overtaken 80% of he population they have taken to experimenting on young people who have shown immunity to the disease which turns people into ravening homicidal maniacs – zombiesque you might say – that has essentially wiped out civilization in all but the Last City.

The original group of maze runners has shown up on a variety of sides; Teresa (Scodelario) is a researcher for WCKD and her mother (Clarkson) is the head scientist for them. Minho (Lee) has been taken by WCKD and its head security guy Janson (Gillen); Newt (Sangster) has finally come down with the disease while Thomas (O’Brien) is leading the rescue efforts to pick up Minho before they sail to a deserted island to live away from the madness in peace and tranquility.

The trend of dividing the trilogy finale into two separate movies was not adopted here, likely because the filmmakers did enough padding (for example, the opening train sequence doesn’t appear in the book) and still couldn’t fill up two movies. As usual with young adult adventure stories, kids are heroic (mostly) and adults are evil (mostly) and the adults underestimate the kids and don’t understand them – yes, it’s a bit pedantic but I suppose you have to appeal to the sensitivities of the market you’re after.

Sangster is one of my favorite young actors out there but he doesn’t get much to do here until the end. O’Brien shows tremendous potential but he hasn’t really won me over yet – the character of Thomas is just too cliché which is hardly his fault and yes, he imbues the character with nobility but Thomas is so one-note it’s difficult to assess whether O’Brien can pull off a multi-layered performance yet so the jury’s still out in my case.

There are plenty of pyrotechnics and oceans of CGI images and for the most part it’s executed well and why wouldn’t it be? With production delays incurred due to an on-set accident which put out the lead performer for almost a year, the effects houses were given plenty of time to work on the images. Still the story is so weak, the characters so been there done that and the movie way overlong that recommending this film is simply not in the cards. I am not convinced that this is the death cure but it sure is a cure for insomnia.

REASONS TO GO: The pyrotechnics and special effects were nifty in places.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is interminably long, dumb and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is action and violence, some thematic concerns as well as a smattering of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: O’Brien was seriously injured during the opening train scene when he fell off the top of the train; it took nearly a year for him to recover from his injuries, delaying the release of the film from 2017 to January 2018..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Divergent Series: Insurgent
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Family

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge)


Jack Sparrow in his usual befuddled state.

(2017) Adventure (Disney) Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, Golshifteh Farahani, David Wenham, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Stephen Graham, Paul McCartney, Angus Barnett, Martin Klebba, Delroy Atkinson, Bruce Spence, Adam Brown, Giles New, Danny Kirrane, Juan Carlos Vellido, Rodney Afif, Hannah Walters. Directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg

 

Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me! As a young lad venturing to Disneyland, the Pirates of the Caribbean was always one of my favorite rides. Gore Verbinski adapted the ride’s backstory into a rollicking supernatural adventure that became yet another lucrative license to print money for Disney. In many ways, the film franchise that developed from the theme park attraction has outstripped the ride of its place in pop culture.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) has fallen on hard times. With his beloved Black Pearl reduced to a ship in a bottle, he only commands a land-bound disaster of a boat, the Dying Gull. An attempt to rob a bank – by dragging it through the streets of Saint Martin by a team of horses, certainly a novel approach – ends up disastrously with most of his crew quitting in disgust.

In the meantime young Henry Turner (Thwaites), son of Will Turner (Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Knightley) has encountered the undead Captain Salazar (Bardem) who was lured into the Devil’s Triangle by a young Sparrow and cursed to remain there. Salazar spares Henry to pass on a message to Jack – “death is coming straight for you.”

Jack’s spectacular bank robbery failure has put him in touch with astronomer/horologist Carina Smyth (Scodelario) who has been studying the legendary Neptune’s Trident which supposedly gives the wielder control over all the seas. She believes she has discovered the location of the fabled relic; Jack needs it to protect himself from Salazar, Salazar needs it to restore his life and Henry needs it to restore his father to life so that he and his mother might be reunited permanently.

In the meantime Captain Barbossa (Rush), the former antagonist turned ally, also seeks the Trident for reasons of his own. All of these competing factions will collide on a desolate island; at stake is control of the oceans and of course their very lives.

With Verbinski out of the picture (although he remains in the capacity of a producer), Norwegian directors Ronning and Sandberg who previously teamed up on the epic Kon-Tiki take over the franchise and deliver a movie while not the best in the franchise history is not the worst either. The special effects are right up there with the first film in the series and while the plots are as convoluted as they tend to be in this series there is a little more personal background being revealed here. One of the main characters also has a major revelation that will affect the franchise should it continue on to a sixth film, which Disney seems to have every intention of doing.

I kinda hope that they don’t however. A lot of loose ends are tied up here and this would certainly make a fitting end for the franchise. It might also be a jumping off point for a new series although Thwaites and Scodelario don’t hold a candle to Bloom and Knightley in the parts that they play; the late-film cameo of the two veterans of the first three films only serve to highlight how much better the two were. It’s not that Thwaites and Scodelario are inferior actors, mind you – it’s just that the roles of Henry and Carina are way too similar to Will and Elizabeth that the differences are pretty much too minute to mention. The writer, Jeff Nathanson, definitely could have made the characters a little bit more distinct.

Depp has for better or worse made the role a signature and all the elements are there, but the charm is wearing off. I don’t get the sense that Depp is overly enthusiastic about continuing to play the role of Captain Jack; there’s only so much you can do with the role. He’s colorful, yes, but the part has become a parody of itself. In the first film, Jack was not just befuddled and lurching about like Dean Martin on a Saturday night, but also clever and occasionally vicious as well. You got the sense that his demeanor is something of a means to get others to underestimate him.

Sadly, there’s none of that in Depp’s performance now. Depp has resorted to mugging over acting; it could be that he literally has nothing more to add to the role. I’m certain that the paycheck is enough to entice him to do it and given the box office cold streak Depp has been done I’m sure the salary for these movies is welcome. Jack Sparrow has become a WYSIWYG role, a lovable drunk with all the charm that lovable drunks possess. Sad to say, that charm overstays its welcome when it comes to lovable drunks and I feel like the franchise has reached that point too where the antics become less endearing and more exasperating.

Bardem however was inspired casting. He is without a doubt one of the best in Hollywood at playing villainous characters, maybe one of the best of all time. Salazar would be a worthy adversary in any film but in some ways, his evil is wasted because none of the heroes hold a candle to him. Every franchise needs great villains but they also require the heroes to be the equal of those villains and Captain Jack has become more parody than pirate.

There are some nice action set pieces, particularly one involving a guillotine and another involving zombie sharks (which is teased in the trailer). Often a film franchise feels the need to one-up themselves when it comes to action sequences; wisely, Ronning and Sandberg resist the urge and instead use action sequences that fit the story more than dazzle the eye.

The series feels worn out and without ideas. If the franchise is to continue, I really think that it needs an infusion of fresh blood, no pun intended. Some shaking up needs to be done and the post-credits scene which strongly hints that there will be another film in the franchise, it also teases the return of one of the iconic villains of the series which seems almost a step back. I hope they go in a different direction if they do intend to make another film in the series.

REASONS TO GO: Bardem is one of the finest villains in Hollywood today. The loose ends of the franchise are tied up nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Thwaites and Scodelario are inadequate replacements for Bloom and Knightley. At times the plot seems to be spinning its wheels in a single place.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some action and violence as well as some mild sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The six year gap between films is the longest of the series; the running time of two hours and nine minutes is also the shortest run time of the franchise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Treasure Planet
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: 68 Kills

Maggie (2015)


Arnold Schwarzenegger revisits his political career.

Arnold Schwarzenegger revisits his political career.

(2015) Horror (Roadside Attractions) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson, Douglas M. Griffin, J.D. Evermore, Rachel Whitman Groves, Jodie Moore, Bryce Romero, Raeden Greer, Aiden Flowers, Carsen Flowers, Walter von Huene, Dana Gourrier, Amy Brassette, David Anthony Cole, Mattie Liptak, Liann Pattison, Maris Black, Jessy Hughes. Directed by Henry Hobson

sixdays2016-2

I have not been fortunate enough to raise a daughter. There is something very special about that father-daughter bond from what I’ve seen. While there are some dads who aren’t worth a counterfeit penny, most are quite willing to lay down their lives for their little girls if need be.

Maggie Vogel (Breslin) has a dad like that – Wade (Schwarzenegger) who owns a small farm in the Midwest. Disease has broken out – a pandemic that turns those that contract it into flesh-eating cannibals. They become mindless zombies, if you will. Maggie has been bitten by a zombie and now she has the disease. There is no cure. She will slowly die over a period of several months; the end is inexorable. She’s run away from home, to find herself in a hospital. That’s where Wade finds her.

There aren’t many options and none of them are real hopeful. She can be left in the hospital where she’ll be sent to quarantine, eventually to be given a very painful death. She can go home and stay there until she turns, in which case she’ll get a very painful death. Or she can go home and her father can end her existence in a more humane way. Wade chooses the last option.

Things are breaking down back at home. Wade’s second wife Caroline (Richardson) – Maggie’s mom passed when she was a little girl – and her two kids with Wade Bobby (A. Flowers) and Molly (C. Flowers) don’t really understand what’s going on, although Bobby sort of does. Eventually Caroline packs up the kids and sends them to live with an aunt, joining them herself. While she does understand what’s going on, she doesn’t get why Wade would put their two healthy children in harm’s way for the sake of a daughter who is dying. Wade doesn’t really have an answer for her that she understands.

Maggie hooks up with an old flame back at home, Trent (Romero) who also has the disease. He doesn’t want to go to quarantine – he’s heard that the conditions there are terrifying. He locks himself in his room and only Maggie can talk him out but the local sheriff (Griffin) and his mean-hearted deputy (Evermore) drag him away to quarantine anyway. Maggie knows that she doesn’t want a similar fate for herself.

But the signs are getting more unavoidable. She finds live maggots in her arm. When she cuts open a finger, she feels no pain – and oozes viscous black liquid instead of blood. She regularly vomits up horrifying liquids. She can feel her humanity slipping away. The question is, does Ray have the strength to let go of his daughter and spare her things even worse?

=Zombies are a hot commodity in terms of film and television, with The Walking Dead being the number one show on TV as this is written. However, Maggie really isn’t about zombies; they are barely part of the landscape here. We see little violence involving zombies, although on the few occasions where there is some it is sudden and horrifying. No, Maggie is about death and dying – and given the subject, yes the tone is bleak and grim.

Schwarzenegger is of course first and foremost an action hero but the man is not far from his 70th birthday and action roles don’t really suit him anymore. Given a chance to show his dramatic chops, Schwarzenegger actually shines and comes out with the best performance of his storied career. His Wade is gentle, honest and loyal but he is also very conflicted. He knows what’s best for his daughter, but finds it hard to even consider letting her go, even to the point of possibly letting her suffer. It makes the movie’s denouement even more poignant. I truly hope that Schwarzenegger gets more roles like this in the coming years; he can certainly handle them.

Breslin is already a known quality. She started out as a child actress and became one of the best juvenile actresses in history. As a young woman, she shows she can handle much more layered, complex roles. She has all the skills to be one of her generation’s most successful performers, with the kind of talent that wins Oscars and carries lead roles in important franchise films.

There are plenty of pastoral images that indicate a lifestyle that’s both rural and satisfying. Perhaps there are a few too many of those; at times the filmmaker seems a bit more in love with the style over the substance which is a bit of a shame because the substance here is pretty outstanding. Hobson has a background in making titles and graphic design and certainly his expertise shows here which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but hopefully for future films he’ll give a bit more emphasis to the story.

Oddly, the zombies here are some of the least effective ever seen onscreen. Even during the few attack scenes, they are never as menacing as they are in other presentations. The process of becoming a zombie is given more attention, which is proper and it IS fascinating, but we never get a sense of what the end result is. Becoming a zombie is bad here because it is in other movies for all we know. I would have preferred to see some graphic displays of why becoming a zombie is such a horrible fate. There is a whole lot of weeping over it though.

Also, for a zombie apocalypse, life is going on pretty well as it had before. We don’t get a sense of civilization breaking down whatsoever. But then again, why does it have to? An outbreak of zombie disease doesn’t have to signify an apocalypse, although the zombie inconvenience doesn’t sound nearly as interesting.

There is a lot to recommend this movie, particularly the acting (who’da thought) and the concept, but I think the movie could have been an absolute classic with surer hands at the helm. A little less rumination and a little more action would have benefitted the movie overall.

WHY RENT THIS: This is one of Schwarzenegger’s best performances of his career if not THE best and Breslin is nearly as good.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The zombies aren’t used effectively and the film gets way too schmaltzy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of gore and some disturbing zombie-related images as well as a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Schwarzenegger, who really loved the script, did the movie without taking any sort of payment. The film crew also used the same home and surrounding property of the house in Looper.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are some surprisingly lengthy interviews with members of the cast and crew, as well as an Ultraviolet digital copy of the film on the Blu-Ray edition.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon Prime, iTunes, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.4 million on a $4.5M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life After Beth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Day 3 of Six Days of Darkness!

Train to Busan (Busanhaeng)


Commuters and zombies and trains, oh my!

Commuters and zombies and trains, oh my!

(2016) Horror (Well Go USA) Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim, Yu-mi Jeong, Dong-seok Ma, Woo-sik Choi, Ahn So-hee, Eui-sung Kim, Gwi-ha Choi, Jang Hyuk-Jin, Seok-yong Jeong, Chang Hwan Kim, Myong-sin Park, Eun-kyung Shim, Soo-jung Ye. Directed by Sang-ho Yeon

 

I have always loved trains. It’s a nice way to travel; just watch the countryside pass by or engage with your fellow passengers. I find the sound of the clackety-clack of the rails soothing. However, the trouble with trains is that you are locked on board with your fellow passengers.

Seok Woo (Gong) is a workaholic hedge fund manager whose wife has walked out. He has custody of their cute little daughter Soo-an (Kim) and she’s caught in the middle of their bickering. It is the little girl’s birthday and daddy remembers to buy her a gift…a Nintendo which she already has. Soo-an wants to visit her mommy who lives in Busan (Daddy works out of Seoul) and she figures she can take the train by herself. Seok refuses to allow that and insists on accompanying her. He’s incredibly busy at work with one of his prize biotech stocks beset by what appears to be a massive worker’s strike but when his daughter insists, he reluctantly agrees to go with her to Busan.

Meanwhile, the last person on the train is a young woman with a strange bite mark on her leg. She is clearly terrified and soon has a seizure and apparently dies as a conductor frantically calls for help. Then the dead passenger suddenly returns to life and attacks the conductor and the two begin spreading the disease through the cabin like wildfire.

It turns out that there is a disease that has spread from a leak at the bio-engineering company that Seok Woo has been championing in his hedge fund. That leak is turning people into zombies and not the slow-moving zombies of George Romero; these zombies turn from human to zombie in seconds and they are fast as blazes, faster than the humans in the train. Darkness confuses them (they only react to humans they can see) and they behave and move in herds. As the number of humans on the train dwindle and civilization crumbling outside the train, is there any hope for those left on board the train that haven’t been turned into zombies?

I would characterize this as a cross between The Walking Dead, World War Z and Snowpiercer. You get the swarming zombies who sometimes pile up on top of each other like ants, but you also get the individual zombies that are ravenous and milky-eyed. The zombies are fast and deadly and as the movie goes on, they get even more dangerous.

This is definitely an action-oriented horror movie. There is some gore but they don’t really linger on it. There’s far more running, chasing, fighting and hiding going on than actual zombie battles, although there is some of that. Mostly, there is some social commentary which puts a cowardly businessman as the bad guy, taking over from Seok Woo himself who initially is selfish and sociopathic, although his love for his daughter and his desire to protect her changes him over the course of the movie. I wouldn’t have minded keeping Seok as the bad guy throughout, having one of those rare instances of the same character being both hero and villain.

We’ve seen a lot of zombie movies and zombie TV shows and it’s no secret that Walking Dead is the most popular show on television right now, but that’s mainly because it’s not about the zombies; it’s about the relationships and it’s about surviving in a world that has been obliterated. This ranks right up there among the best of them. The storyline is plausible and even though there are some cliches that begin to cycle in towards the end, it still kicks ass. After all, what more do you really want out of a zombie flick?

REASONS TO GO: Quite a roller coaster ride, if you like that sort of thing. Irreverent without sinking into satire. A bit of social commentary is sprinkled in.
REASONS TO STAY: A few horror movie cliches can be found, particularly in the third act.
FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of zombie violence and gore, a bit of foul language and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first live action film for Sang-ho Yeon who had previously only made animated features.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snowpiercer
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Dheepan

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials


Maze Runner The Scorch Trials

You’ve got to learn how to crawl before you learn how to run mazes.

(2015) Young Adult Sci-Fi (20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Ki Hong Lee, Rosa Salazar, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores, Jacob Lofland, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen, Terry Dale Parks, Kathryn Smith-McGlynn, Lili Taylor, Barry Pepper, J. Nathan Simmons, Alan Tudyk, Lora Martinez-Cunningham. Directed by Wes Ball

It seems that whenever you’re in the middle segment of a cinematic trilogy, there’s always a bit of a letdown; there’s usually more exposition that action and it lacks the kind of energy that marks the first installment, nor the emotional punch of the third. Would that happen to this sequel to the successful young adult science fiction adaptation The Maze Runner?

Following the conclusion of that film, the survivors of the Glade are brought into an underground facility, a way station before being taken to their final destination. No, that doesn’t sound sinister at all, right? In any case, Thomas (O’Brien) hooks up with Aris (Lofland), a survivor of a different Maze (there are apparently many of them) and discovers the truth about the facility – it is wholly owned by WCKD (pronounced “wicked,” possibly the most unsubtle acronym ever), the corporate blackhearts who created the Mazes and they’re conducting medical experiments on the kids who have made it this far.

Naturally, this doesn’t appeal much to Thomas and he takes the rest of his crew – Teresa (Scodelario), Newt (Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Lee), Frypan (Darden) and Winston (Flores) out of the frying pan and into the Scorch. The Scorch is the world above ground, an arid desert with unpredictable weather patterns, terrifying storms and creatures that roam the wasteland by night. A trip to the local mall leads to the discovery that they are victims of the Flare, a virus that turns the victims homicidal and utterly insane.

Thomas and the gang are looking for The Right Arm, an underground resistance group who may be able to shelter them from WCKD who clearly want them back badly; the chief scientist for WCKD, Dr. Ava Paige (Clarkson) has sent her assassin Janson (Gillen) to go fetch Thomas and his tank engine…er, crew.

After being captured by Jorge (Esposito) and his daughter Brenda (Salazar), they get away from WCKD and head out to find Marques, the man who might be able to find the Right Arm. Once again, it’s back into the fire as a happening party turns into a 90s rave and turns into a real bad trip. Once the kids find the Right Arm, however, they are going to find out that there are worse beasts in the wasteland than madmen, and that courage may not be enough to get them all through. Making it out alive may not be in the cards for all of them, but there may be worse things ahead for all of them.

No need to keep you in suspense; this isn’t as good as the first movie. That movie had a kinetic energy that is severely lacking here. Not that there aren’t some superior action scenes; there are, but while Maze Runner felt like a sprint, this is more of a distance run. Most of the same folks that didn’t get snuffed in the first film are back with a passel of new characters as well as the bulk of the same talent behind the camera. The problem with middle films in trilogies is that they are often connectors, linking point A and point B. The middle of a story is never as interesting as the beginning or the end.

O’Brien is a little bit more animated here but the same problem that plagued the first movie plagues this one; Thomas isn’t a very interesting lead character. They try to make him that way with references to his unremembered past but the real issue is that Thomas acts like every teen hero in every cinematic adaptation of a young adult novel ever, and it really is kind of tiresome. There’s nothing here to distinguish it from its competition and even given that the audience this is playing too is a lot less discriminating, they aren’t dummies; they know lazy writing when they see it.

Most of the rest of the cast is adequate to decent; the most promising performer in the first film doesn’t appear here. It’s just that they’re not given a lot to work with; the characters are mostly bland, recycled from other stories and films. None of them really grab your attention much. That’s the problem with having characters who can’t remember their past; there isn’t a lot for the audience to hold onto other than their actions and when you’re talking about actions that are pretty much standard young adult fantasy fare that’s only worse. Even the zombie-like Flare victims don’t measure up to the monsters of The Walking Dead and the special effects here are pretty much standard.

This is bargain basement sci-fi that doesn’t really generate enough enthusiasm in me to really give it much of a recommendation which is a shame because I thought the first film had some potential. Maybe we’ll have to wait until the final installation in the trilogy to see that potential fulfilled but at this point I’m not especially waiting on the edge of my seat for February 17, 2017 to come around – the date that Maze Runner: The Death Cure is set to wrap up the series. Sad to say, I’d be just fine with them wrapping it up here unless they can do a whole lot better next time.

REASONS TO GO: Some fairly well-done action sequences. Attractive leads.
REASONS TO STAY: Really been there-done that. Lacks energy.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence, some thematic elements, a scene of substance use and some mild language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The studio greenlit the sequel two weeks before the first film opened after early reviews and audience scores proved to be overwhelmingly positive.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunger Games
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Intern

Stake Land


Some sizzle for this stake.

Some sizzle for this stake.

(2010) Horror (IFC) Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Danielle Harris, Kelly McGillis, Marianne Hagan, Stuart Radin, Adam Scarimbolo, Michael Cerveris, Sean Nelson, Larry Fessenden, Chance Kelly, Jean Brassard, Phyllis Bash, Bonnie Dennison, Ellis Cahill, James Godwin, Heather Robb, Vonia Arslanian, Gregory Jones, Traci Hovel. Directed by Jim Mickle

One of the things about a good movie is that it will often take things that work in one genre and transfer it into another and create if not necessarily a hybrid, then at least a new take on an old form. Movies like that can occasional inspire entire new genres but more often than not end up as being inspired entries in an old one.

Stake Land takes elements of post-apocalyptic Westerns and zombie apocalypse films and fuses them into the vampire film, adding a big dollop of Cormac McCarthy to the mix. Here young and somewhat naive teen Martin (Paolo) whose name is a tip o’ the hat to George A. Romero’s sole vampire film to date is taken under the wing a vampire killer known only as Mister (Damici, who co-wrote the film with Mickle). You see, a plague that turns people into mindless ravening vampires who are as much zombie as vampire has ravaged the United States. There are a few safety zones but mostly those who can move around are headed for Canada for a community called New Eden which is, as rumor has it, vampire-free. Stories like that can lend hope to the hopeless as the Resident Evil films have shown.

The humans that remain aren’t always any better than the hordes of vampires. Hardcore cults that seem to be somewhat like conservative Christian metaphors seem eager to help the apocalypse along in hopes of scoring brownie points with God, dropping planeloads of the undead into towns in maybe the ultimate terrorism dick move.

 

As Mister teaches Martin how to survive in this world which is often harsh and cruel, they pick up a few strays including a pregnant teen (Harris) that Martin takes a shine to, an ex-Marine (Nelson) and a nun (McGillis). In a movie with an attitude like this one, don’t expect a happy ending although you can be sure it won’t be so bleak that you want to take the disc and smash it against the wall.

Mickle is an adept filmmaker who takes his visual cues from Terrance Malick. This is as good-looking a horror film cinematically speaking as you’re likely to ever see. Filmed in real life industrial wastelands that are essentially abandoned and empty, the look of the film is authentic, of a society that is dying slowly but inevitably and those who remain are desperate to escape, so much so that they’re willing to take rumor to heart.

The cast is largely unknown although some might remember McGillis from some pretty decent films in the 80s including Top Gun, Witness and The Accused, Nelson from Fresh and Harris from Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboots. The acting is essentially solid and the effects mainly practical. In some ways you’ll be reminded of The Walking Dead although that TV series isn’t as dark if you can believe that.

While the movie is for the most part familiar, with elements taken from things as disparate as the Mad Max movies and Near Dark to the aforementioned Walking Dead and McCarthy’s The Road, there is enough here that works to make it worth seeking out, particularly if you’re into post-apocalyptic horror. Hidden gems like this are why guys like me start blogs like this.

WHY RENT THIS: Atmospheric with an appealing post-Apocalyptic aesthetic that trades zombies for vampires.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Nothing particularly innovative here; feels like a bunch of things were cobbled from a bunch of films albeit a bunch of good films.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violent bloodsucking gore and goodness as well as a cornucopia of foul language and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming a fire scene on a studio set, the flames got out of control and burned not only the set down but the studio stage as well. While nobody was hurt and production resumed the next day, equipment was flown in from all over the world to replace that which was lost in the fire.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are production video diaries which also include a Q&A from the Toronto Film Festival screening of the film, as well as a feature called Prequels in which seven actors from the film give some brief insights into their lives just before shooting on the production started.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33,245 on a $625,000 production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Stream/DVD rental/Blu-Ray Rental), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daybreakers
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Penguins of Madagascar