Wet ‘n’ Hungry Movie Review: Crawl

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Sergej Radović/Paramount Pictures

I don’t particularly enjoy close-up shots of cinematic animals being killed or injured, even if those beasts are the predatory antagonists. And even, apparently, if they are as merciless as the alligators in Crawl. We already know from Piranha 3D that Alexandre Aja knows how to effectively craft a creature feature, but that experience is not sufficient preparation for his latest. Fish faces do not generate empathy in the way that gators do, and a mass of stereotypical beachgoers getting chomped apart in ridiculous fashion is more comical than visceral. Crawl, on the other hand, is a much more intimate affair, maintaining a singular focus on a father-daughter duo stuck at the bottom of a house in the middle of a hurricane. You might find yourself laughing from the consistently clutch timing of the kills, if you can remind yourself that this is just a movie. But man, considering that this doesn’t look all that different from the future, or really the present, of the southeastern United States, it’s hard to sit still.

I give Crawl 7.5 Ripped Limbs out of 10 Chomps.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Death Cure’ Wraps Up the ‘Maze Runner’ Trilogy with High-Octane Action and Personal Battles of Class Warfare

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Joe Alblas/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Aidan Gillen, Ki Hong Lee, Will Poulter, Patricia Clarkson, Walton Goggins, Barry Pepper

Director: Wes Ball

Running Time: 142 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Zombie Makeup, a Few Puncture Wounds, and Some Explosions

Release Date: January 26, 2018

Readers, I must be upfront with you: The Death Cure is the only Maze Runner movie I have seen. I was not yet on a regular reviewing beat when the first two came out, but as the trilogy comes to its conclusion, the assignment has fallen to me. Now, I suppose I could have made time to get caught up on the first two, but I often contend that viewers can watch multi-chapter entertainment properties in whatever order they feel like. The Maze Runner franchise is probably not the best choice for doing so, as it is the type of film series that doesn’t waste any time playing catch-up for newbies. But I decided to experiment a bit and see if any enjoyment could be had amidst the confusion.

The good news is that The Death Cure’s spectacle is exciting and well-crafted enough to be enjoyed devoid of context. The opening action chase sequence of vehicles barreling towards a cliff plays like a postapocalyptic cross between the opening of Fast Five and the tank chase from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It is not as death-defying or as instantly iconic as its predecessors, but it sets itself apart enough to not be overly derivative. Director Wes Ball’s only three feature films thus far are the Maze Runner trilogy, but he has proven himself technically capable to fill in any openings that may exist in the action genre.

As for the story, I was generally able to fill in what must have happened in the first two enough to follow along, and it is not exactly what I was expecting. Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and his crew are dealing with the aftereffects of a virus that has infected most of the world’s population, leaving many zombified while those who are well-off wall themselves in the Last City. Thomas is one of a few who are immune, and he could be instrumental in developing a cure, but he does not exactly agree with the methods of those dedicating themselves to finding one. There is plenty to be gleaned here about the struggle between the 99% and the 1%, and I appreciate that that point is not underlined too hard.

It is also welcome that this series (or the conclusion of it anyway) is not too beholden to the stereotypical “chosen one” YA narrative. Sure, Thomas holds the key to saving humanity, but that fact is accidental, and it does not really have anything to do with what makes him a good leader. As for a (good) quality of this genre that The Death Cure does play into, there is its surplus of quality adult actors (Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Walton Goggins, Barry Pepper) popping up in supporting roles.

Ultimately, The Death Cure is a bit too long. There is no need to flirt with two and a half hours when much of the last act involves one group chasing after another, and then that second group chasing after the first, moving along in a constant struggle to get to the last stand. But while it is a bit thick with narrative, it never lags. This is not particularly groundbreaking cinema, but it is also no cheap knockoff. It is unique enough and content enough to explore its own little world to make it worth a visit.

Maze Runner: The Death Cure is Recommended If You Like: The Hunger Games, I Am Legend, The Action Sequences of the Indiana Jones and Fast and Furious series

Grade: 3 out of 5 Infection Checks

This Is a Movie Review: Bitter Harvest

Leave a comment


This review was originally published on News Cult in February 2017.

Starring: Max Irons, Samantha Barks, Tamer Hassan, Barry Pepper, Terence Stamp

Director: George Mendeluk

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: R for War Violence and Disturbing Authoritarianism

Release Date: February 24, 2017 (Limited)

A film like Bitter Harvest reminds me of cinema’s power to uncover stories that had been lost to history. Unfortunately, it does not also remind me of cinema’s power to transform my whole day into something magical.

The setting is rural Ukraine against the backdrop of the 1932-33 Soviet famine. Young artist Yuri (Max Irons) struggles against starvation to build a better life for himself and his childhood sweetheart Natalka (Samantha Barks). Circumstances conspire to drive them apart – as is typical in times of love and war – as he heads to the city and joins the resistance movement. It is a long road back to their reunion, but any happy ending will necessarily be tempered by the devastation that has wrecked their community. For such an infrequently told story, the beats of storytelling are all too familiar.
Bitter Harvest finds inspiration from earlier tales of war but also struggles to commit to anything. There is a hint at something involving a combatant taking pity on an artistic prisoner in the vein of The Pianist, but that goes nowhere. The final act is an Odyssey-style trek home, but the sub-2-hour running time prevents the epic feel that such an approach would require. There is one scene involving poison and revenge with an entertainingly hallucinatory style, but it proves to be an aberration in terms of positive takeaways.

The forced starvation of Ukrainians is up there among the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, but I doubt that it is very well-known outside Ukraine. So I appreciate that Bitter Harvest is being released so that English-speaking audiences will be exposed to it, but I wish that the actual film dramatized the story better than the epilogue does.

Bitter Harvest is Recommended If You Like: European History

Grade: 2 out of 5 Soviet Memories

This Is a Movie Review: Monster Trucks

Leave a comment


This review was originally published on News Cult in January 2017.

Starring: Lucas Till, Jane Levy, Barry Pepper, Thomas Lennon, Danny Glover, Rob Lowe

Director: Chris Wedge

Running Time: 104 Minutes

Rating: PG for Mild Supernatural Danger

Release Date: January 13, 2017

Have you guys seen the poster for Monster Trucks? I mean, have you seen it?!

A quiet squid-like creature from the bottom of a lake wanders into a junkyard, where he practically becomes an automobile-fish hybrid as he finds shelter in the monster truck built by high school senior Tripp (Lucas Till). This could very easily be the setup for a horror movie in the vein of Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the character design of the squid-thing (dubbed “Creech” by Tripp) is kind of disturbing: long gooey tentacles and a full set of sharp, ever-present teeth. Plus, he subsists on oil, which suggests a sort of Chekhov’s Flammability that is commented upon but never delivered.

But this is indeed a Nickelodeon movie and not a classic Universal monster movie, and it bears the hallmarks of many a kids movie. There are the adults playing teenagers (Till is 26 and could pass for 30, while his tutor/love interest Jane Levy actually makes for a convincing high schooler even though she’s a year older), which is especially exacerbated by all the age-appropriate extras. There is the evil corporation whose actions set the creature loose in the first place and practically owns the whole town. There is the absentee father, plus an authority figure (Barry Pepper as Sheriff Rick) serving as Mom’s (Amy Ryan) new boyfriend. And of course there is the whole “boy and his pet” vibe between Tripp and Creech, with E.T. as a clear supernatural precedent.

Monster Trucks is worth watching if you ironically or genuinely appreciate all entries in this genre, and this particular example is due to spark unusual enthusiasm because that poster image of CreechTruck is just so striking. Does the film live up to that promise? Yes, but only in fits and starts. This is basically Fast and the Furious, Jr., and thus there are a few transcendently gravity-defying moments of Creech and his crew flying through the air. But there is weirdly little time spent freaking out over how strange this whole situation is. Most characters accept Creech’s existence remarkably quickly, which is frankly a sign of maturity. And in fact this movie is rather adult in a lot of ways. That is true in terms of the good (the acting is strong across the board – Levy is her typical delightful self, half of Thomas Lennon’s career is as a ringer in assembly line crap, and Rob Lowe is perfect, though underutilized, as the face of corporate evil), the bad (Creech has as much of a knack for collateral structural damage as any superhero), and the underwhelming, which this not-bizarre-enough head-scratcher all too often is.

Monster Trucks is Recommended If You Like: The Fast and Furious series but wish it were more kid-friendly, Mac and Me, the Evil Dead remake

Grade: 2.5 out 5 Twentysomethings Playing Teenagers