The Walking Dead: Season 5, Episode 1 – “No Sanctuary”

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Last night cable’s most popular program, The Walking Dead, returned with an action-packed season 5 premiere, albeit one which fell victim to many of the most obnoxious TV tropes.

Once upon a time, The Walking Dead was a show where anything could happen, and your favorite character might bite the dust at any moment. I knew those days were over at the start of last season, when a strain of swine flu started exclusively killing off extras, leaving series regulars mostly unharmed. Not much has changed in season 5, as the core group of heroes were saved miraculously again and again, while extras (and not just Walkers) were killed off by the dozens.

Not only has the tension been nearly eliminated by making the main players essentially immortal, but “No Sanctuary” started season 5 off in a way that stamped out all the tension that season 4 painstakingly built with its slow reveal of the cannibal compound known as Terminus. Roughly 7 episodes of season 4 were spent gradually drawing the curtains on Terminus, with the finale showing that Rick and company had finally met their match, and might not make it out alive. Not only do they make it out alive, but they do so with plenty of time to spare before the end of the first episode, and they barely break a sweat doing so.

One moment that I’d like to draw attention to, as it was particularly ridiculous, was the way that Carol (Melissa McBride) blew the door wide open with a gas tank, a few bullets and a well-placed bottle rocket. Honestly, Rambo would have blushed at the sheer odds against this plan actually working. I have nothing against a fun action sequence, but my suspension of disbelief can only stretch so far.

Despite a weak attempt to humanize the residents of Terminus by phrasing yet another moral paradox regarding the human condition after the zombie apocalypse (“You’re either the butcher, or you’re the cattle”), I am beginning to feel that this show may be running out of ideas. The characters have been put through the ringer over and over, and have faced their own dark sides more times than I can count. I’m just not sure how many ways they can communicate the same idea – that only by embracing your dark side can you survive this world – before it all starts to sound like a broken record.

Regardless of the seeming lack of originality or the indestructibility of the characters, the ratings continue to grow, which leads me to the horrifying conclusion that there is no plan to ever end The Walking Dead. It will go on and on, and become more and more ridiculous until it cracks under the weight of its own nonsense. And despite my frustration, I will probably be there to watch it all crumble.

Bob’s Burgers: Season 5, Episode 1 – “Work Hard Or Die Trying, Girl”

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Back for its fifth season, Fox’s underdog animated comedy Bob’s Burgers continues to show originality, charm and wit with its premiere episode, “Work Hard Or Die Trying, Girl”.

The episode begins in Counselor Frond’s office at Wagstaff Elementary, in the middle of a conflict between the Belcher family and Gene’s ex, the obnoxious Courtney Wheeler and her father Doug. The nature of their conflict unfolds Rashomon-style, with each Gene and Louise Belcher and Courtney Wheeler recounting – from their own perspective – how they ended up performing competing original school musicals on the same night.

Gene’s show is his passion project Die Hard: The Musical, which is rejected at the school audition and ends up going underground, becoming a one-man performance in the school’s boiler room, as masterminded by Louise Belcher (for profit, of course). Courtney’s play is the suspiciously similar Working Girl: The Musical, which becomes a full-blown production with Courtney’s jingle-writing father Doug pulling the strings. When it is discovered that both plays are occurring simultaneously, and when Gene’s play steals much of Courtney’s audience, tensions rise.

In the end, the children solve the conflict by combining their projects and drumming up a brand new musical at the last second titled Work Hard Or Die Trying, Girl, in which characters and plots from both 80’s films are cleverly brought together for a musical finale.

This episode continues the show’s trend of injecting original songs into each episode with greater and greater frequency. The music throughout is catchy and the lyrics are clever, and most importantly, funny. I have a feeling audiences will be talking about the Work Hard Or Die Trying, Girl scene for years to come – much like the Planet of the Apes: The Musical and The King and I: The Musical scenes on network neighbors The Simpsons and Family Guy, respectively. In fact, I have long felt that Bob’s Burgers has always represented the best elements of those two giants, but with its own very unique style and heart. Hopefully, loyal audiences of Bob’s Burgers will continue to grow, and we will be able to enjoy this very special show for years to come.

The Grey (2012)

The Grey (2012) is a fantastic wilderness survival film from director Joe Carnahan about a group of oil workers whose flight home to Anchorage crash-lands in the godless, frozen Alaskan wilderness, where the survivors are forced to fend off a pack of blood-thirsty wolves. The media campaign for this film had me (and most others) believe that it would be a slick B-movie; full of action and destruction, where the power of testosterone would be enough to conquer nature itself (star Liam Neeson is seen in the trailer taping a knife to one hand and several broken bottles to the other, just before fighting a huge wolf off with his bare hands). I was pleasantly surprised to discover that The Grey was much, much more than that.

As it turns out, The Grey is an extremely dark and hopeless story – a rarity in Hollywood – from the opening shot to the closing credits, The Grey is a meditation on death. In this film, as in reality, death comes to everyone for different reasons – sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently, but one thing is for sure – death comes to us all eventually. The important thing is what we live for before we die – and this is where The Grey really flourishes, as it also turns out to be a pretty fantastic ensemble character study – another rarity. Ottway (Liam Neeson) is undeniably the main character, but each one of his fellow survivors are carefully developed and given a unique sense of purpose and camaraderie in the film. The acting was wonderful all around and I really got the sense that every actor had a great understanding of their character, which made it difficult to let go each and every time a character bit the dust.

As for the horror elements, they are handled pretty admirably. There are a few jump-scares, which are usually considered to be the cheapest horror gimmick, but were used sparingly and effectively here. Most of all, once the wolves appear on screen for the first time, an overwhelming sense of suspense and dread looms thick in the atmosphere of the film for most of the running time, which I absolutely loved.

On the technical side of things, the wolves themselves were presented using a mix of trained animals, animatronic puppets, and CG to somewhat mixed results. These wolves happen to be bigger and meaner and scarier than any real animal could have been, so I understand why CG was necessary, and though it wasn’t the best animation I’ve seen, I actually thought the appearance of the wolves was very frightening. The cinematography, handled by Masanobu Takayanagi  was absolutely perfect. The Grey is one of the only winter films that actually made me feel cold just by looking at it. His cinematography was equally effective at enhancing the horror elements as well – what could be scarier than sitting by a campfire in the dark woods, and only being able to see the warm breath of dozens of killer wolves float above the horizon as they encircle you and your friends? Not much. The sound design was incredible too, with crunching ice and howling wolves surrounding the audience and building a wild, imposing atmosphere – this is a film that is really worth seeing in theaters. The score, composed by Ridley Scott regular Marc Streitenfeld, is used minimally, but does a wonderful job of accenting certain emotional scenes.

Overall, I loved The Grey, and feel that fans of similar dark ensemble thrillers such as John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) will feel the same. In fact, Ridley Scott served as a producer on The Grey, along with his brother Tony, and it may not be a coincidence that one character in the film wears a hat with the letters “WY” on it (could it be a reference to Weyland-Yutani, the evil mega-corporation from the Alien films?). All speculation aside, The Grey was an excellent film that managed to be uniquely dark, and yet tender, personal, terrifying, and touching all at once. Despite the fact that (without giving any spoilers away) the ending is a tad anti-climactic, I give The Grey a near-perfect 4.5/5.

The Wages of Fear (1953)

The Wages of Fear (1953) is easily one of the most thrilling films ever made. As an existential study, the film explores the disparity of power between the extremely wealthy and the hopelessly poor, and begs the question: “What stands between a hopelessly poor man and hope/freedom/wealth?” The answer may be fear itself. But fearlessness proves to be an equally dangerous quality. One thing’s for sure though, The Wages of Fear stands the test of time as one of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s finest and most fearless films.

This is a film where the main character  (Yves Montand) is despicably sexist, vaguely racist, disloyal, disrespectful, spiteful, violent and unkind – and the audience still ends up glued to the edge of their seats, fearing for his safety throughout the second half. The characters in this film are deeply flawed, yet fully fleshed, and will have you rooting for them despite how unlikable they behave.

The story follows several European ex-patriots  with shadowy, mysterious pasts, who find themselves stranded and penniless in a dusty, squalid South American oil town. Out of work, they are unable to afford to go home, or anywhere else for that matter. They spend their days pestering the owner of the local bar until an oil well explodes nearby, injuring and killing several locals, as well as providing an unusual opportunity for four men to turn their lives around. These four men are hired to drive two trucks, each carrying a half-ton of nitroglycerin, across 300 miles of bumpy dirt roads and winding cliffs, so that the oil company can blow out the fire burning up their oil well. Any man who survives the trip walks away with a check for $2,000 (over $16,000 today, if you adjust for inflation).

The ensuing ordeal is essentially an hour-long stretch of pure adrenaline and suspense where anything can happen. Impossible obstacles are plentiful, people show their true colors in shocking ways, and life and limb are quite literally put on the line in the name of hope. With one thrilling set piece after another, The Wages of Fear is  the granddaddy of all manly, high-speed action thrillers. It is a bit like History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers mixed with Speed, although it is a massive disservice to The Wages of Fear to even entertain those comparisons. This is the film that Michael Bay has been trying to make his entire career, and will fail repeatedly to do so. Neither art house nor popcorn blockbuster, yet somehow both, The Wages of Fear is a true masterpiece from its opening shot to its shocking ending. 5/5.

Troll Hunter (2010)

Troll Hunter (Trolljegeren) is a 2010 Norwegian horror-comedy film, made in the ever-popular “found footage” style that’s been making audience members nauseous since The Blair Witch Project. Troll Hunter actually has a pretty similar set-up to that infamous film, as we follow a group of enthusiastic young documentarians hoping to interview locals about bear poaching, and who wind up involved in something much, much bigger.

As for the film-making style, Troll Hunter doesn’t really offer much that hasn’t been seen countless times before. In fact, the use of the first-person “found footage” style actually serves to reveal the biggest weakness of Troll Hunter, which is its lack of character development. Use of the cinéma vérité style usually helps to build tension and suspense because we not only care about what happens to the characters, but we feel as if we ourselves are in the movie with them. Unfortunately for Troll Hunter, the documentarians never manage to be more than young and enthusiastic. We never learn more about them, as they are pretty much just used here as the audience’s window into the more interesting aspects of the film (i.e. the Troll Hunter himself, and of course, the trolls). I feel like the scary parts of Troll Hunter would have been a lot scarier and more engaging if these characters were fleshed out a bit more, but what we got was still plenty satisfying. Let us move on.

Troll Hunter does have one absolutely great character – the title character – played totally straight-faced by Otto Jespersen, who I’ve learned is quite a famous stand-up comedian in Norway. As Hans the Troll Hunter, Otto provides many of the film’s funniest scenes simply by sharing his knowledge of trolls so matter-of-factly, in opposition to the documentarians’ energetic skepticism. He is a master storyteller – reeling the audience in with his detailed accounts of the history, behavior, biologic variation, and curious habits of Norwegian trolls. By the end of the film, I really wanted to believe in the existence of trolls, and the film-makers made it easy to believe – even if just for an hour and a half.

This really was the greatest strength of Troll Hunter. As an American, I am not fully familiar with the Norwegian mythology regarding trolls (a non-issue which will inevitably be solved with an unnecessary American re-make of Troll Hunter) but writer/director André Øvredal does such a good job of relating what is in the myths, and what is “true” – adding to the mythology with his own “real world” details – which make the trolls in this film almost plausible, not to mention lovable (especially for their apparent dumb-as-dirt behavior).

The trolls themselves really are wonderfully designed – very whimsical and charming, despite their imposing size and nature. The CGI was fantastic, and the effects wizards brilliantly took full advantage of the mythology (they only come out at night) and the film-making style (many shots of the trolls utilize the green night-vision camera effect), to make the trolls look even more realistic. It must be understood that computer generated creatures always look more believable in shadowy scenarios than in daylight. This is the reason why the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, a film made in 1993, still look leagues better than more advanced CGI characters in movies 18 years later. Lighting is important, and Øvredal’s team certainly understood that.

Overall, despite being a bit slow at times, and regardless of the general lack of character development, Troll Hunter was really a delight to behold. The Norwegian forests and mountains were the perfect mystical backdrop for the trolls to live in (an aspect which hopefully won’t be lost in the re-make). The script was full of humorous dialogue and situations – especially the moronic methods used by the bureaucrats to hide the existence of trolls, which I don’t want to spoil, but it involves a pretty good Polish stereotype. The trolls were really fantastic, fully-fleshed monsters, and I only wish there was more of them in the film. I fully enjoyed being immersed in the world of Troll Hunter, and I highly recommend you see it as it was originally conceived, before it is remade for Americans who refuse to read subtitles. 4/5.

Oh, and if you’re still not convinced, there’s this:

I Saw The Devil (2010)

I Saw The Devil is a 2010 South Korean thriller which received an unbelievable amount of hype for three major reasons: first, it was directed by one of Korea’s finest action-thriller directors, Kim Jee-Woon (The Good, The Bad, The Weird; A Bittersweet Life). The last two reasons that fans were beside themselves with excitement for I Saw The Devil have to do with the cast. This movie marks the first time that two of Korea’s biggest lead actors – Choi Min-Sik (Oldboy) and Lee Byung-Hun (The Good, The Bad, The Weird; A Bittersweet Life) – have been in a film together, not to mention that they would literally be going toe-to-toe for nearly 2 1/2 hours on screen. I suppose it also didn’t hurt the hype machine for I Saw The Devil that it was initially banned from public theaters in Korea for delivering too highly on its promise of edgy, violent thrills. Nonetheless, despite all the rave reviews I read while it was on the festival circuit, I waited until I Saw The Devil made its way to Netflix’ “Watch Instantly” page to take the time to view and review it.

To summarize the plot without giving too much away, I Saw The Devil is a story about a sadistic serial killer (Choi Min-Sik) whose latest victim happens to be the daughter of the chief of police, and the fiancee of a secret agent (Lee Byung-Hun) whose taste for revenge brings out his inner sadist. Pretty simple.

As for my feelings, I cannot deny that this film was well cast and well directed (especially the action-heavy scenes, which Kim Jee-Woon excels at), but it was definitely not without it’s issues. For starters, I wish that they had taken some time, maybe even through flashbacks, to establish Byung-Hun’s character’s relationship with his fiancee before they rushed to kill her off. I felt that the audience was just sort of told that they loved each other and that her loss is significant, even though I felt almost nothing watching her die (and I’m totally not crazy – I promise). It doesn’t help that Lee Byung-Hun is just so damn stoic through 95% of the film, he’s practically an emotionless droid. I suppose it’s a good thing that Choi Min-Sik is extremely talented at playing over-the-top melodramatic characters, which helps to balance Byung-Hun’s very subtle, almost wooden dramatic performances (though on the rare occasion we see him emote, it never disappoints).

Although it is a minor gripe, I must bring up a laughably melodramatic scene early in the film, where the police force is looking for the body of the fiancee. You see none of the expected order or professionalism from the team – they literally stampede the crime scene as if it were a Rock concert and trip over one-another to get a look at a body part, which they then fumble and drop on the ground while trying to carry it off. It was almost as if this were the first murder to ever happen in Korean history, which I’m fairly certain was not the case.

Moving on, I also found myself scratching my head at how often other unrelated murderers and serial killers kept popping up in this movie. I suppose they had to make things more interesting to draw out the running time and introduce new elements of danger, but really – every other person that either of the main characters run into just happens to be a serial killer. Either that, or there is a whole network of serial killers buddying up all over Seoul, which psychologically, just doesn’t satisfy me. I guess I wouldn’t complain about it so much if it had actually helped to build the tension in the film, or if these other killers had actually done anything more besides distract from the main point, but alas that was not the case. They were dead ends script-wise, and with a running time over two hours, they could have easily been edited out entirely.

The most important thing for a film like this to be successful, is that it has to be thrilling – it has to build crazy amounts of tension, emotion, fear, pain, and excitement, and it has to work all these elements to a satisfying climax. I Saw The Devil was really only semi-successful in this mission. For me, up until about the last half-hour, the tension just wasn’t there the way it should have been. We don’t really get an emotional context for Byung-Hun’s revenge, like I said earlier, and there’s not really much context for Min-Sik’s murders either. I understand that as a serial killer, he does these awful things mostly out of habit and isn’t really driven by any sort of reason, but he just seems so indifferent most of the time that you wonder how long he’s been doing it – and why he hasn’t been caught already. The fact that Byung-Hun plays his part so straight and stoic is a problem too – we see him do more and more terrible things to Min-Sik, and we understand that he is becoming a monster, but we never see it on his face! If he weren’t such a machine – if he let that humanity show more often – we would feel a lot more tension, because a machine is hard to sympathize with. A machine is not risking much. We are led to forgive the actor for being so wooden when it is later revealed that the only way he could persist and continue to face off against the serial killer was by swallowing his emotions, but regardless of the fact that this is a valid excuse, his performance only managed to tone down the tension, which is not the intended effect, I’m sure.

All in all, regardless of how violent and disturbing they attempted to make  this film, I was somewhat underwhelmed and disappointed with I Saw The Devil. I wanted to be on the edge of my seat, but no matter how much action and violence was displayed before me, I was almost always on the edge of not caring. Lee Byung-Hun redeems himself in the end, and once Choi Min-Sik decides to care about what’s going on, and not just treat the film’s events as an unfortunate inconvenience, he pulls through with a really dynamic performance as well. The ending of the film packs a great punch, and involves one of the best death traps since Saw. Also, we are left with the sense that revenge is never a neat package that ends with one person getting what they deserve – its effects ripple outwards infinitely, which was communicated effectively here.

Given credit for great performances, a fantastic ending, and a capable eye behind the camera, I Saw The Devil does its best to overcome the mediocrity of its thrills, its poor pacing, and its excess of mis-placed villains, but when everything is weighed out, it falls shy of the hype. 3.5/5.

Hobo With A Shotgun (2011)

Hobo With A Shotgun is a Canadian exploitation film, based on a fake trailer made as part of a contest for Tarantino/Rodriguez’s 2007 Grindhouse project. Just as Robert Rodriguez’s own fake trailer for Machete went on to become a (fairly disappointing) full-length film, Hobo With A Shotgun has become a fully-fleshed (and then brutally de-fleshed) 86 minutes of wall-to-wall gore and obscenity.

Coming from director Jason Eisener, the same guy who brought us the fantastically over-the-top Treevenge, it is safe to assume that the aim here is to offend by any means necessary. Nothing is safe, and no line goes uncrossed. With that being said, I had a hell of a fun time watching this movie, but everyone might not feel the same, like for instance if you have no sense of humor (you’ve been warned!).

Plot-wise, just as the title suggests, this is a movie about a Hobo who owns a shotgun. Initially, the Hobo (Rutger Hauer!) is saving up money to buy a rusty old lawnmower, in order to follow his dream of owning a landscaping business. However, upon riding the rails into Hopetown/Scumtown/Fucktown (Halifax, Nova Scotia!) and seeing the awful state the place is in, the Hobo decides instead to purchase a shotgun and clean up the place, much to the delight of the audience.

Hobo With A Shotgun is a movie which relishes in the obscene and the outlandish, and is more than a little insane. Scumtown is running rampant with murderers, rapists, child-molesters, hookers, corrupt police, and even a team of demonic assassins known as The Plague. The head honcho of them all is The Drake, a fashionable lunatic with the personality of a circus ringleader who beheads anyone that disagrees with him. The Drake’s two sons Ivan and Slick, played here as an extreme take on the 80’s jock type of movie nemesis, wear Letterman jackets and sunglasses, ride a fancy Canadian sports car, powder their noses frequently, and publicly maim and murder anyone who looks at them sideways. This is what the Hobo is up against (not to mention his own insanity), and his only ally is a hooker with a heart of gold.

Overall, it was obvious that everyone involved in this film had a blast making it, and for the most part, I felt the same way about watching it. The performances are fun and campy, the cinematography is edgy and colorful in a way that would make Dario Argento happy, and the humor is very, very dark. As a huge fan of Peter Jackson’s early work, as well as the better Troma releases, the frequent and heavy use of splashy, borderline cartoonish gore brought a huge smile to my face. Everything is played for laughs here, but I was glad that it did not come off as too self-aware or ironic, and is played as more of an homage to ridiculous grindhouse cinema, rather than a parody of it.

The one thing that I was surprised to find rubbing me the wrong way was the gratuitous obscene language used by most of the scum, especially Ivan and Slick. Am I getting too old to appreciate foul language? I don’t think so. I guess I just felt that out of all the ploys to offend the audience – whether via violence, child-endangerment, misogyny, or a total lack of sympathy for any living thing – the foul language seemed to ware thin the fastest, and gave the sense that the filmmakers were much more immature than their other talents would suggest. At the same time, I suppose the idea was to make it easy to hate the villains, and their eye-roll-inducing immature dialogue indeed helped with that. I just felt that the movie could have been just as awesome and over-the-top without using quite as many curse words or sexually violent language.

At the end of the day, this is a minor drawback for a movie that otherwise tickled every cult cinema-loving bone in my body, delighted my eyes, and burned my soul. A more-than-solid 4/5.