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242 reviews in total 
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Evacuate Earth (2012) (TV)
Cheesy and preachy propaganda for spacetravel enthusiasts, 29 August 2014

Can the human race create an arkship that will allow a selected number of refugees to escape a doomed Earth? Apparently so, according to this documentary. The thought experiment involves a roving neutral star on a collision course with our solar system. We've got 75 years before Earth is destroyed, and we must reorganize society, revolutionize our manufacturing capacity, and maintain social order in the face of certain doom for all but a few lucky people.

It's a rather mixed bag, but the concept is definitely intriguing. The worst problem is that this documentary is laughably bad. The dramatic sequences are probably the weakest element; they are horribly melodramatic and very poorly acted, but I suppose they have a certain "so bad it's good" charm. The science is actually better than I expected. I guess if you're a stickler, there will probably be several issues that you can't forgive. For example, as the neutron star approaches Earth, there really isn't much gravitational effect. They do discuss this, but it generally doesn't happen until pretty late in the scenario. Seems a bit unlikely to me. Then again, I slept through most of my physics lectures.

Anyway, as the Earth adapts to this threat, we face several critical questions. Each of them are answered rather quickly and simplistically, perhaps to make way for more dramatic sequences. The balance was all wrong. A few well-placed sequences to underscore the drama would have been much better than the constant use of stock footage, melodrama, and bad CGI. Also, I really don't know that I agree with their story-based approach; I would have preferred something a bit more analytical. They could have asked and explored really deep questions instead of repeatedly showing people unconvincingly panicking in the face of bad CGI. For example, society could go in several different directions, such as dystopian or utopian responses to the threat. It seems as though the creators of this documentary had a specific vision for humanity, and they weren't really interested in exploring any other ideas. I'm not saying that I necessarily disagree, but it's kind of intellectually lazy and preachy.

All in all, this is propaganda for spacetravel enthusiasts. If you're one of them, you'll probably love this, as it will reinforce all your beliefs and congratulate you for forward-thinking vision. If you're not an enthusiast, then you'll probably find it cheesy and preachy. The intriguing questions are answered unsatisfactorily, and any entertainment value is strictly unintentional.

Raw and low-budget character study of a vigilante, 7 August 2014

The plot: After he turns his life around, an ex-con turns vigilante to protect his neighborhood from drug dealers.

I walked into this film not really knowing anything about it, so I expected that it would probably be an urban-themed update of Death Wish. When I saw the Phase 4 Films logo, I lowered my expectations significantly, as Phase 4 has become infamous in some quarters for distributing backyard productions. The production values are actually a bit more raw and low-budget than their usual fare, but it sort of works for the gritty story. The film itself is more of a character study than an outright thriller. It's not exactly Taxi Driver, but it's got significantly more depth than I initially expected, especially once I saw the Phase 4 logo.

The camera work is a bit frenetic during the action scenes, and I think people who were expected bloody carnage may be a bit disappointed. There's more atmosphere -- a strong sense of approaching dread -- than there are scenes of vigilante justice. You can tell that Earl, the protagonist, is conflicted about his path, and the scenes of quiet, angry contemplation were fairly well done for a low budget film. Earl's girlfriend begins to tell him about her day, and he sits there in his car, stewing over a minor incident in which a teenager casually disrespects him. Eventually, Earl gets out of the car while his girlfriend is in mid-sentence, confronts the teenagers, and then tries to smooth things over with his girlfriend. It's obvious that he's going to have to make a decision about his lifestyle soon. Earl is an angry man, and you're never quite sure where his anger is going to lead him.

Earl is an interesting guy, and I was never bored. I'm not quite sure to whom I would recommend this film, however. What it lacks in exploitative violence, it makes up for in depth. I suppose, to some extent, you might compare it to John Sayles' work in low budget exploitation films, elevating them to higher levels. It's also got some elements of early Spike Lee or John Singleton urban dramas, and if you miss those, maybe you'll enjoy this.

ETXR (2014)
7 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
Shallow New Age nonsense about a techno DJ, 2 June 2014

The plot: A DJ receives extraterrestrial messages through his bland and generic techno music.

I'm not the biggest fan of techno, but I do like it. I was a bit skeptical of the plot; any time you get a synopsis like this, it usually means you're in for 75 or 80 minutes (these are B movies after all) of bland and generic music and a throwaway plot wrapped around it. This was no exception, but it did seem to have airs toward at least aiming a bit higher than the usual horror comedy or hipster drama. There's some talk of extradimensional telepathy, collective consciousness, and transcending to a higher plane of consciousness, but, really, it's all just meaningless mumbo jumbo that doesn't affect the film's plot at all.

This is a fairly shallow, by-the-numbers thriller that unfolds exactly like you think it will. There's one or two sort of trippy scenes, but they're kid's play compared to experimental films or art-house mindscrews. I was hoping for more along those lines, and I was left disappointed. Instead, it played out like the stereotypical paranormal thriller, where the government, big business, and terrorists are obsessed with taking the revolutionary, pseudoscientific invention away from a brilliant but quirky scientist. This time, we also get a techno DJ and his apparently useless friend along for the ride, too.

The invention itself was somewhat interesting, but it turned out to be a huge MacGuffin, a plot device that exists only to drive conflict between the people who own it and the people who want it. Characters constantly talk about how important it is, how it can change everything, etc, but it never really does much of anything throughout the film. For a film that teases you with rather weighty metaphysical questions (such as "How would society change once you force it to a higher state of consciousness?"), there really isn't much to this film. It seems more interested in playing bland techno, showing two girls dancing with each other, and low-budget special effects.

If you're expecting something wildly original, intelligent, or mindblowing, I think you're just going to be as disappointed as I was. If you walk into it with low expectations, a fondness for mainstream dance music, and a desire to see bad actors make out with each other, maybe you'll enjoy this more than I did. I can see how this might become a cult film among fans of raves, but that's about it. Anyone else is probably going to be unimpressed.

Buck Wild (2013)
2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Troma-inspired idiocy set in Texas, 2 June 2014

The plot: Four friends go on a hunting trip in Texas, only to run up against Chupacabra zombies.

Well, there isn't a lot to say about this film. It's pretty stupid, but I was still amused by some of the scenes. Much of the humor depends on your being an immature, easily amused film nerd. If that's you, then you might like it, too. Just be aware that it's not really action-packed or fast-moving. Despite the bizarre premise, it's not really the most original horror-comedy ever made. It clumsily adopts and mocks every cliché the writers could think of, though not on a terribly intellectual level. It's quite inhibited compared to Troma's sheer insanity and gleeful offensiveness, but there's definitely a bit of inspiration from that infamous studio.

Normally, my tolerance level for these films is quite low, but this one had just enough stupidly amusing scenes that I stuck it out. Also, I liked the end credits song. If you like this sort of nonsense, then I suggest you check out DeadHeads, another recent zombie comedy that was similar in some ways.

9 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
Cheesy Humanoid Underground Dweller, 24 May 2014

The plot: A naive reporter finds a bigger story than she was expecting when she visits a underground homeless camp in the abandoned subway tunnels of New York City.

This is a very low budget film. Unfortunately, it's not one of those inventive independent films that makes up for its lack of budget with bold, new ideas and a maverick spirit. Instead, it's pretty much what you'd expect from a direct-to-video Danny Trejo film: a cool villain, a weak story, and a bit of violence. For some people, that will surely be enough to carry the entire film, but if you're not a Trejo fanatic, you can probably skip this one.

The biggest problem is that the homeless people generally don't look very homeless. I'm not saying they have to smell like urine and mumble incoherently, but these people are way too pretty and healthy for me believe that they've actually suffered. One of them has what looks like a brand new guitar. I'm not even sure that I could afford that guitar. You don't have to go all method and make the actors live in a homeless community for a week, but more realism wouldn't have hurt.

Some of the characters were pretty cool. Of course, I liked Danny Trejo, and, of course, he played a badass villain. He was sort of interesting: part ubermensch, part cult leader, and part Occupy Wall Street protester. I'm not sure how well all those things mix, especially when he'd segue from discussing the plight of the homeless to some Nietzsche-inspired rant about how the weak deserve their plight. Still, for Trejo fanatics, it's enough to make the film watchable, and he delivers it with his trademark hostility and danger. As soon as he enters, it's easy to believe that he's the most dangerous man in any room.

The rest of the characters weren't so interesting. Most of them were underwritten and depended on cultural archetypes to give them weight: the crazy homeless guy, the burnt-out ex-cop, the pushy reporter, etc. As long as you don't mind a film full of stock characters that never really transcend their stereotypes, it's fairly survivable. A few of them are well-spoken and even fairly well acted (I liked the crazy homeless guy), but most of the dialogue ends up being clichés, especially after the midpoint. Prior to that point, it seemed like they might be verging on something interesting or insightful, but then they just wander into hack screen writing 101 and never leave.

The plot is fairly traditional, and it holds no real surprises. It's the same film that you've seen time and time again, only this time its set underground. If you just want to see Danny Trejo act like a badass, this is a fair choice. If you want more than that, I'd say skip it. I like films about underground societies, but this one really didn't work very well. For an artsy, quirky take on the subject, try Kontroll, an amazing Hungarian film. For a more fantasy-based take, try Nail Gaiman's Neverwhere. I'm not a huge fan of Gaiman, but even the worst of his work is better than this.

Germ (2013)
3 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
An uninspired zombie film set in central New York, 17 April 2014

The plot: After a satellite falls in central New York, the hapless townspeople are transformed into ravenous zombies.

As far as zombie film plots go, this is hardly an original one. I doubt most people watch direct-to-video zombie films for original ideas, so we can probably overlook this issue. Less forgivable is the acting and directing. After the first ten minutes, I was ready to turn this off, but I decided to give it a chance. After all, this was made not too far away from where I live, and I was curious what a Syracuse-area zombie film would look like.

I'm happy to report that the film does get better after the first excruciatingly bad minutes, but it's still an uphill battle. We're introduced to quite a few characters, none of whom are especially interesting or memorable. The acting is about what you'd expect for a direct-to-video zombie film, but it should be more-or-less tolerable for genre veterans used to lowering their standards.

Once the zombies appear, the pace quickens a bit, but the action scenes are really no more interesting or memorable than the characters. Zombies siege a house, zombies siege a car, zombies siege a police station -- these are not quite inspired scenarios. If you're just looking for a bit of zombie action and low budget gore, this will hold you over until the next direct-to-video zombie film arrives, but there's little recommend about this particular entry in that crowded arena.

For a film that I originally thought was unsalvageable and boring, it eventually did turn into a slightly more interesting film. The problem is that it never really peaked any higher than mediocre. I doubt anyone outside of the central New York area will be as amused by the novelty of its setting, and this is really the only reason why I finished it. If you really want to see New Yorkers terrorized by monsters in low budget horror films, Larry Fessenden, Jim Mickle, and Larry Cohen are better choices.

+1 (2013)
1 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Triangle starring the cast of American Pie, 5 April 2014

The plot: During an out-of-control party, a group of college students experience a timeline disturbance that causes duplicates of themselves to appear.

The basic concept of this film is interesting, even if it is a bit of a retread of many other recent films, including Triangle, Timecrimes, Primer, etc. Unlike those films, this one stars a group teens straight out of American Pie. If that sounds appealing to you, then you'll probably enjoy this film more than I did.

Like Deadgirl, this film seems to ambiguously address themes of narcissism and misogyny. The kids' party is so over-the-top sexist that it's difficult not to believe that the following events aren't some kind of commentary. However, again like Deadgirl, the amorality of it leaves one wondering whether the film is simply misogynist itself. I'm inclined to take a charitable view of both films, but it's difficult to say with certainty that they are intentionally taking a stance against misogyny.

If you're the sort that enjoys gratuitous nudity, ignores plot holes and other contrivances, and thinks that people read way too much into films, you'll probably enjoy this. It's not bad for what it is, and there are some good scenes. On the other hand, if you're looking for something like Primer, I'd suggest you skip this. It's a bit deeper than you might first think, but that's not saying much. I thought about rating this 6/10, but the ending was a bit weak.

Sweetwater (2013)
70s revenge film transposed into a Western, 2 April 2014

The plot: A psychotic preacher goes too far when he begins indiscriminately murdering innocent people. A manic sheriff and gun-toting ex-prostitute team up to stop him and his followers.

I liked this film, but it's really quite shallow. If you can enjoy a minimalist, high-concept revenge thriller, this is actually pretty enjoyable. Just don't look for anything more than violent action scenes, despicable villains, and violent anti-heroes who would make Clint Eastwood proud.

As I expected, Ed Harris is the highlight of this film. His crazy sheriff is unpredictable, darkly humorous, and fun. The little bits of back story that we were fed make him intriguing, but it's a bit unfortunate that they never capitalized on any of it. I thought that maybe there'd be plot twists and complicated alliances, like a Sergio Leone film, but I guess this isn't that kind of film. No, it's basically a beat-em-up video game where the hero kills all the villain's henchmen and then does a boss fight.

There are quite a few postmodern touches to the film that may annoy old-school Western fans. For one thing, this a modern revenge thriller that's been transposed into a Western setting. As such, I don't think this was really meant to appeal to fans of classic Westerns. Instead, it's going for the Quentin Tarantino crowd, though it could have used more style and quotable dialog. For a poor man's QT film, this is not bad, but I'd recommend the real thing instead.

Historically important, 4 January 2014

This documentary can be split into two parts. The first half is a biography of Fred Hampton, a civil rights pioneer, community organizer, and Black Panther member. The second half is a stunning work of investigative journalism that provides clear evidence that Hampton was assassinated by the Chicago police.

Hampton was called a dangerous revolutionary, but his message was nothing more revolutionary than social justice and equality. While there is certainly a revolutionary aspect to that, it is not the angry and violent rhetoric with which the state wanted to tar him. So they simply assassinated him and concocted a story that portrayed him how they wanted him -- dangerously violent. The facts of the case just don't fit that narrative, however.

Hampton's story is not well known. That makes this film even more important. It is extremely dangerous to think that state-sanctioned political assassinations could not happen or do not happen in the United States. Hampton's death is tragic enough without us learning nothing from it. Fascism can rise anywhere, and it can be as petty as racist cops working for a corrupt city government or as insidious as a federal agency that engages in black ops against its own citizens.

Quirky comedy-thriller, 24 December 2013

The plot: Four strangers trapped together in a stopped elevator share their stories and learn that some of them may ulterior motives for being there.

Elevator Trap isn't the kind of film that I usually watch, but I figured that I'd take a chance on it. It's a quirky Japanese comedy-thriller that unpredictably veers from comedy to thriller throughout the film. Sometimes I really enjoy that quirky refusal to adhere to stylistic convention, but here I thought that the film would be better off as a straight thriller or black comedy. The first half of the film is fairly lighthearted and silly, but it becomes darker as time goes on; eventually it pauses in order to deliver a public service message about suicide.

As with the stories of Agatha Christie, which the film references a couple times, the requisite plot twists may seem a bit predictable to savvy thriller fans who know to expect the unexpected, distrust the obvious red herrings, and automatically suspect the least likely characters. Still, for fans of Agatha Christie, this is a fun homage that plays with the clichés of the genre. I was not able to predict everything, of course, but I did a fair job of mapping out the plot twists once the characters were introduced. Unlike some films that depend on plot twists, I did not notice any obvious plot holes.

The sets are not as limited as the synopsis might lead you to believe, and the list of characters is larger than the few people stuck in the elevator. In fact, probably half of the film takes place outside of the elevator, though many of those scenes are flashbacks. The acting was pretty good. I found the quirkiness a bit forced and the plot a bit predictable, but I'm sure others will enjoy it. If you haven't gotten tired of films about people stuck in an elevator, this is worth a watch.

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