Lunar Cycle - July 2019

Since I don’t have as much time to write longer reviews than I used to, I figured I would just post shorter reviews for horror/cult films that I feel deserve your attention. Expect these Lunar Cycle posts once per month.

BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (2001) - *** out of ****

Director: Christophe Gans

Starring: Samuel Le Bihan, Vincent Cassel, Emilie Dequenne, Monica Bellucci, Jeremie Renier, Mark Dacascos, Jean Yanne

Genre: Adventure/History/Action/Horror

Running Time: 137 Minutes

Plot: In 18th century France, the Chevalier de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his native American friend Mani (Mark Dacascos) are sent by the King to the Gevaudan province to investigate the killings of hundreds by a mysterious beast.

Review: An ambitious hybrid of many different genres, BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF is a bi-polar film that shouldn't work - but somehow mostly does. While containing horror elements involving a beast that's terrorizing a province in France, the film is mainly a period piece action B-movie with as big of a budget as its long running time. The characters are all interesting, all looking like suspects or accessories to these animal attacks through a captivating detective arc that makes you question who or what the beast really is. It truly takes a turn by the end, as things are never what they seem to be.

The direction by Christophe Gans is extremely stylish, fitting in well with other action films of the 2000s. It's expertly shot, with beautiful pans and tilts to showcase the scenery and capture the Victorian setting of France. The cinematography pops, as the film is very colorful and beautiful. The action scenes are well choreographed, with a nice use of martial arts and swashbuckling that will keep on entertained. And the horror aspect is well used, as the stuff with the beast is pretty gruesome. And the fight scenes are bloody as well.

The acting is solid across the board. This is especially the case for male lead Samuel Le Behan (played a great hero), Vincent Cassel (playing a weirdo as usual), badass Mark Dacascos, and the beautiful Monica Bellucci who almost steals every scene she's a part of.

If I had any issues, the film is a big too long for its own good. It drags at certain parts and could take audiences out of the movie. I also thought the use of slow motion got grating. I usually don't have an issue with "bullet time", but a film as good as this didn't need an overabundance of it. The beast's CGI isn't the most convincing either. And what was up with the love story that doesn't add much to the story at all? Meh.

But overall, BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF has to be respected for its ambition and mostly successful balance of multiple genres to tell a pretty enthralling story. If you can get over its obvious flaws, the film is a fun time and a mystery worth investing in.

MIDSOMMAR (2019) - ***1/2 out of ****

Director: Ari Aster

Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, Will Poulter

Genre: Horror/Mystery/Drama/Comedy

Running Time: 147 Minutes

Plot: A young couple (Florence Pugh & Jack Reynor) and their friends travel to Sweden to visit a friend’s rural hometown and attend its mid-summer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly descends into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.

Review: Ari Aster’s second feature film within the last two years, MIDSOMMAR is another horror film that will divide the community like last year’s HEREDITARY [also by Aster] did. On the surface, the film is obviously inspired by folk horror - more specifically THE WICKER MAN - where a group of mostly ignorant Americans go to a foreign country and end up being part of a sinister celebration that not all of them will survive. Even when bad things happen in front of them, they’re so wrapped up in themselves that they fail to see why they’re really there and what’s really going on around them. It’s a trope that we’ve seen used many times in horror films, yet it still works really well in MIDSOMMAR. It increases the suspense, tension and sometimes unintentional humor as we wait for these characters to be “part of the celebration” in Sweden, knowing it’s going to be weird, disturbing and all-around captivating.

If you look deeper into MIDSOMMAR though, the film is really a story about loss, grief, and finding true happiness by cutting ties with those who either hold you down or don’t seem to care to comfort during one’s time of need. The story centers around Dani and Christian - a long-term young couple who have been together for four years [a fact that Christian doesn’t even remember] out of convenience rather than because they genuinely want to be boyfriend and girlfriend. Dani comes off as needy and a bit erratic at times, something that seems to push Christian away and make his friends dislike her. But Dani genuinely has bad things happening in her life and just wants to be loved and comforted by her boyfriend, who seems to do that out of guilt and fear rather than genuine concern. As they go on their trip and things happen along the way [I won’t spoil anything major], their relationship starts to fall apart to the point where one of them realizes that the only way to feel happy again is by cutting ties. While I felt that the family tragedies that occur in HEREDITARY hit me harder on a personal level, the relationship angle works well as we sort of see both Dani’s and Christian’s reasonings for wanting to stay together and understanding why it’s just making them bitter, angry and miserable in the long run. Obviously, you’ll feel more sympathetic towards one party over the other by the end of the film, but I liked how real the relationship felt and sort of understood where all the characters stood with it, even if most of them ended up being jerks for the most part. By the resolution, you feel sort of relieved their misery is over - even if the way it occurs isn’t the cleanest.

The direction by Aster is an improvement over HEREDITARY however, as MIDSOMMAR is a gorgeous looking movie with great angle shots, amazing looking scenery and a surprisingly great pace for such a long film. The first hour is a slow burn set up for the rest of the craziness that occurs later, but I never once felt bored or that the film dragged. That’s the testament to a well made movie that knows exactly what it wants to tell and how to execute it. And the gore and deaths in the film are pretty shocking and at times disturbing. There’s one scene involving lungs that made my eyes go wide. Just incredible stuff.

The acting is also solid, particularly by lead Florence Pugh. She was a highlight earlier in the year in the wrestling themed FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY and continues to wow. I felt her anguish. I felt her confusion. I felt her fear. And I also understood her when her story arc came to an end. Pugh pulled it off convincingly and look forward to seeing her in more roles. I thought Jack Reynor was great as Christian, playing a boyfriend who was torn between being there for his girlfriend and just wanting to move on from a situation that was just bringing him down. Will Poulter was solid as the comic relief. And I thought the Swedish actors all played their roles perfectly mysterious. 

Overall, MIDSOMMAR is a bizarre film that’s definitely not for everyone. It’s a slow burn thriller that may feel pretentious to some due to its artsy storytelling and visual presentation. But if you really sit back and realize what the film is really about beyond the scary cult stuff, you’ll enjoy the ride as you watch relationships fall apart while others start being formed in the most disturbing of ways. MIDSOMMAR isn’t a film I could see myself watching a whole lot in my lifetime, but I’m glad I did because it was definitely a two-hour-plus experience that will sit with me for a while.

By the way, I’m crossing a trip to Sweden off of my bucket list. The meatballs aren’t that good.

2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS (1983) - ** out of ****

Director: Joe D’Amato

Starring: Al Cliver, Harrison Mueller Jr., Daniel Stephen, Peter Hooten, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Sabrina Siani, Isabella Rocchietta, Geretta Geretta, Donald O’Brien

Genre: Action/Science Fiction/Dystopian Futures

Running Time: 91 Minutes

Plot: In a post-apocalyptic Texas, a band of warriors fight against a fascist regime that is trying to control of all surviving population.

Review: One of many Italian rip-offs of popular films, 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS is a mixed bag of a film that wants to be as cool as the films it was inspired by, but only made me want to watch each of those films instead. Co-written by George Eastman [of ANTROPOPHAGUS fame] and directed by cult filmmaker Joe D’Amato, 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS wants to be the Italian hybrid of THE ROAD WARRIOR and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but never coming close to matching the quality of either one. Add in a Russian Roulette scene obviously inspired by THE DEER HUNTER and you have a film that wants to be a lot of things all at once.

Unfortunately, putting ideas from random films together in one movie doesn’t mean you’ll have a good story. The characters are pretty much cardboard and don’t have much depth besides “good” and “evil” and the premise is your standard “overthrow the oppressors” type of plot. The dialogue is pretty hilarious and most of the characters seem like caricatures rather than actual people.

However, the film does have memorable moments going for it. D’Amato and Eastman did manage to add in some wacky stuff like nuns getting raped and priests getting crucified in the first five minutes of the film [our heroes actually watch and let this happen before stepping in, which is…something]. We also have a lot of motorcycle and horse riding action involving lots of arrows, guns, fire, hatchets, and other different weapons to give the film some energy. We even have a disturbing moment of guy-on-guy rape, as well as the Russian Roulette scene I previously mentioned. Some will get a kick out of the exploitation vibe of the film, even if these scenes are for shock value rather than to move the story forward.

D’Amato shoots 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS almost as a Western of sorts, trying to pass off Italy for a dystopian Texas. I’m guessing the educational system goes to crap a year from now, since explosives is spelled “EXSPLOSIVES” at one point. The film isn’t all that stylish, but it does manage to maintain a decent flow and use its setting for all that it’s worth. I particularly keep going back to the Russian Roulette scene since it was shot very well and took place in a saloon type place, building tension and shooting nice fight choreography that Western fans would be able to appreciate. D’Amato did admit that Eastman directed the dialogue heavy scenes, which I felt were the weakest of the film. The silly action and over-the-top shock moments were the things that kept my attention. D’Amato has directed better work than 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS, but at least you can tell he’s trying to make a decent film for an American audience.

It’s hard to judge the acting because I watched the cheesy dubbed version. But I’ll probably anything Al Cliver is in because that dude is likable as hell. The actors also handled the action stuff very well and seemed to be having fun making the movie.

Overall, 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS is not my favorite post-apocalyptic cheesefest. 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS and THE NEW BARBARIANS are more my cup of tea. But what 2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS lacks in an interesting story or characters make up for it in memorable moments that will make you so shocked you’ll want to see what’s next. You’re better off watching the films this movie ripped off, but it’s a decent Joe D’Amato film that deserves your attention if you’re fan of the man’s work.

LIFE (2017) - **1/2 out of ****

Director: Daniel Espinosa

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Nguyen, Ariyon Bukare, Olga Dihovichnaya

Genre: Science Fiction/Horror/Thriller

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Plot: The six-member crew of the International Space Station is tasked with studying a sample from Mars that may be the first proof of extra-terrestrial life, which proves more intelligent than ever expected.

Review: Part ALIEN, part GRAVITY with a sprinkle of THE THING
and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, 2017’s sci-fi/horror flick LIFE tries to be as good as any of those films, but not surprisingly coming up short in every instance. LIFE’s downfall is really its screenplay, as it’s commendable for trying to take the best parts of previous sci-fi/horror films and placing them together like a puzzle to create a watchable film. But on the negative side, it also sacrifices character development, as we barely know anything about these characters - at least enough to care whether they live or die. Say what you want about previous B-movie schlock like GALAXY OF TERROR or INSEMINOID. But at least those films had likable characters with personality, making us latch on to them while knowing they’ll most likely be victims to the film’s alien villain. The only character in the film that has a sense of urgency or fun is Rory, but that’s because Ryan Reynolds is given a character close to his real-life persona, instantly making us like him. As an international cast of characters, they all seem to have interesting backstories and depth dying to come out. But the film would rather focus on the alien terror haunting them, making them nothing but fodder. That’s fine when you’ve given the audience one or two people to at least gain our sympathy. Plus, most of them do really stupid things that end up getting themselves and others killed. Some say it’s human nature, but I say it’s just bad writing. It’s a shame too because you have a great cast, especially in Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson, and the script really gives them nothing to do other than play stereotypes we’ve seen done better.

Not all of LIFE is negative though. The film does look absolutely stunning, with beautiful cinematography and a great use of special effects that make you believe we are watching people in space. Daniel Espinosa maintains a decent flow, never making the 103 minute run time feel like it drags. And while the alien creation isn’t the most novel, the CGI for it as it evolves into something deadlier is done nicely and probably would have been made more memorable had LIFE been a better film. I also thought Espinosa managed to build some decent tension and suspense at times, slowly building to the moments where the alien [called Calvin] stalks its prey and feeds on the astronauts. I also appreciated the nihilistic ending, obviously to set up a potential sequel [that probably won’t happen], but it leaves the audience with a sense of dread and shake-your-head syndrome at what’s obviously to happen in the aftermath. And while the actors didn’t have great material to work with, I thought they did enough of a fine job to keep me engaged in what was going on. I felt Gyllenhaal was the strongest actor, as that dude is great in anything he’s in. Reynolds played himself, which is more than fine. Ferguson was a bit bland at times, but she got better as the film went on.

Overall, LIFE is a clone of much better films spliced together. The screenplay is its weakest part, which is a big chunk of the overall enjoyment of this movie. But the acting is solid for the material given, the visual presentation is stunning with some nice CGI, and it has some tense horror moments that more people probably would have talked about if the film was better in its execution. It’s a decent B-movie with an A-list production. Worth your time, at least once, if you like sci-fi/horror in space films.

ANNIHILATION (2018) - *** out of ****

Director: Alex Garland

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong

Genre: Science Fiction/Horror

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Plot: A biologist (Natalie Portman) signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition into a mysterious zone where the laws of nature don’t apply.

Review: Alex Garland’s second directorial feature, ANNIHILATION, is a divisive film that audiences will either embrace for its intelligence or dismiss for its pretentiousness. I, personally, liked ANNIHILATION for the most part for its ambition to convey the many underlying messages the film wants to express. But compared to Garland’s first feature, 2014’s EX MACHINA, ANNIHILATION requires more patience and thought to really get what’s going on. And even when you get answers, new questions pop up. It’s that kind of film and it’s definitely not for everyone.

I won’t spoil the story, as it’s better to go into it not knowing much since everyone will get something different out of it. But ANNIHILATION is based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, where a group of female scientists enter this temporal and chemical flux dubbed “The Shimmer” - a place where all cells and DNA become refracted enough to change the living things that enter it. The film plays homage to other science fiction films, like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, THE PREDATOR and THE THING along the way, leading towards an ending that I’m still trying to wrap my head around. The characters all have sad backstories that influence their behaviors throughout the film, making them feel somewhat human even if they aren’t completely fleshed out. And the events that take place within the Shimmer are pretty memorable if you’re willing to get through a slow burn first half. It’s a film that will make you think about what you just watched once it’s over. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on the viewer.

The direction, though, is spectacularly done in ANNIHILATION. Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy [same team as EX MACHINA] really capture a beautiful movie with vivid colors and interesting shots of things that occur within the Shimmer. The special effects are more good than bad. Simple things, like plants growing into the shape of human beings, are quite lovely. Then you have some things in the final act which looked kind of video gamey and stood out not in a good way. And while people have claimed ANNIHILATION is a sci-fi and horror film, the horror aspect doesn’t have much of a focus here. Yet, there are moments involving this bear that I won’t give away. The film becomes a bit gory and tense during these scenes, giving us nice action that nicely breaks into the more dramatic moments. I think the simple work in EX MACHINA worked better for Garland and Hardy, but I admire their ambition for trying to stretch the limits of their imagination and capture what the novel was probably trying to express through words.

The acting is also very good. I thought all the ladies provided something different within the story. Natalie Portman continues very good acting work in a film that gives her a lot to do and play around with. Gina Rodriguez was very strong in her role as the sassy scientist whose attitude changed quite quickly within the Shimmer. It’s always great to see Jennifer Jason Leigh in anything. Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny don’t get to do much, but are fine. And while a shorter than expected role. Oscar Isaac sure made it memorable. Solid cast in my opinion.

Overall, ANNIHILATION isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I liked it for the most part. The film didn’t wow me like EX MACHINA did, but I hardly call this a sophomore slump. It has interesting ideas that get answered while asking new questions about them. The direction and cinematography are spectacular. And the acting is more than solid here. A lot of people put ANNIHILATION in their Top 10 Best lists for 2018 and I’m not quite sure it would have made mine. But I can see why people would as it’s an interesting film that has something to say. If you’re into slow burn sophisticated science fiction “horror”, then this is the film for you.

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