Movie Madness

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Category Archives: Off the Beaten Path

The Burning, an Underrated Slasher Classic

madmen-riptI got into horror films at a young age. Thanks to a coworker of mine at the movie theater I worked at, I too wanted to say I had seen all of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers’s cinematic crime sprees. I started with slowly getting used to the dark corners by cutting my teeth on Michael. Despite getting the unnecessary attention from my parents, I continued to explore the classics of the macabre. I tackled The Exorcist on Halloween and absorbed all of Freddy and Jason in the years that followed. I quickly developed a desperation to find anything that could rattle my cage. I dug deeper and deeper, expanding my horror threshold for something new.

The past few years, it has been a real struggle to find any horror movie that really spooks me and wins me over. Excluding recent flick The Conjuring, straight-up horror doesn’t woo me anymore. I’m still watching many titles praying to uncover a gem. When I find something, it’s a feeling not unlike completing a 5k fun. A horror movie that captivates me is a diamond in the rough. Wading through a lot of crap to find them is necessary, but so worth it when a gem catches you.

the-burning-reviewLast weekend, I popped in a summer-camp slasher flick from 1981 into my Blu-ray player. I didn’t have in high expectations, but I was instantly blown away.

On the surface, The Burning appears like a generic teenage slasher flick. And it is. But what makes it so fresh is how original it was when you consider it was one of the first flicks in the sub-genre. It came out a year after Friday the 13th, riding its coattails. In The Burning, we learn the unfortunate fate of cantankerous camp director. After being burned alive from a prank gone wrong, the story moves a few years forward to a nearby camp. The usual shenanigans ensue until a group of teenagers head out for an overnighter. But Cropsy, the long-thought dead camp caretaker has returned to exact revenge. And so begins the violence and carnage.

I planned on buying this shortly after it started. I couldn’t get enough of it. Having seen it days ago, I’m still thinking about the film. I’m so glad I finally discovered this film and simultaneously shocked I never saw it sooner. The biggest downfall is the film sheds light on how sub-par today’s horror films are. I saw this right after rewatching the entire Saw franchise. I can’t keep the films straight. Jigsaw does not age as well as you’d hope (I love him anyway).

The Burning reignited my love of horror films. Horror films I somewhat enjoyed now feel weak in comparison. The love will be short-lived, however, since the next few movies will likely fail to meet expectations. If you enjoy the slasher movie sub-genre, see this. I give it a solid 4 out of 5 stars.

Any Day Now

anydaynowI’ve always enjoyed Alan Cumming. Not just as Nightcrawler in X-Men 2: X-Men United, but as a person. I loved seeing him pop up in shows and movies or at award shows. He’s one of those actors whose mere presence makes something more interesting for me.

When I saw the trailer for Any Day Now, I don’t even think I watched the entire thing. I didn’t need anymore convincing. Add in the fact that Garret Dillahunt from Raising Hope was in it, and I was desperate to see the film. Having finally seen the film, I can honestly say it exceeded even my highest expectations. I’m completely stunned and blown away by the masterpiece I just saw.

Any Day Now stars Alan Cumming as Rudy, a drag queen performer struggling to get by in the late 1970s. His neighbor, a drug addict, has a mentally handicapped child she barely raises. When Rudy drops by one morning to demand the blaring music be turned down, he finds the boy, Marco, cowering in the corner alone. Rudy quickly learns that Marco’s mother was arrested and left the boy alone in the apartment, making him a ward of the state. With Rudy’s big heart, he tries to help. With the help of Rudy’s new lover and attorney Paul, Rudy attempts to gain legal custody of Marco while the mother finishes out her sentence. Rudy, Paul, and Marco become a family, but they meet with constant resistance. Rudy and Paul become scrutinized and discriminated because of their sexuality, turning their passion and care for Marco into a massive uphill legal battle.

From beginning to end, this movie is fantastic. I instantly fell in love with the characters and was completely absorbed in it. In a world where it is so easy to multitask or give something half of your attention, this film grabbed ahold of me and would not let go. Cumming is absolutely breathtaking as Rudy, a character he is born to play. His deliver and conviction ground the story when it could otherwise turn to schmaltz. Dillahunt continues to add layers to his ensemble. Once know for mostly cold, emotionless villains, he has exploded with such comic nature in Raising Hope.  In this film, his role is of the realist. He does a tremendous job growing and developing Paul through the movie to give us a rich and deep connection to the character.

I have to say, I’m glad I saw this movie alone. Had anyone been with me, I would have likely bawled my eyes out as the film reached its climax. The love that Paul and Rudy show for each other and for Marco is so heartwarming it was euphoric. Here is a film that shows both the injustices that the LGBT community has suffered in decades past while hinting at how little things have changed. I have never enjoyed seeing couple of men together more than these two. Their chemistry is so authentic.

This film is an absolute must see. Cumming is a revelation and Dillahunt is amazing. And with a story so rich in story and character, I’d rather see more films like this than the milquetoast blockbuster selections at the local multiplex. Had I seen this when it was in theaters, it would have been on my best of the year list easily. As it stands, it may end up on my best of the decade list. 5 out of 5 stars

Killer Joe

I’ve always been a fan of cinema that pushes the envelope. I sought out films like Salo or 120 Days of Sodom and proudly own a copy of A Serbian Film. These films, both extremely graphic and disturbing in nature, also exist as art. No one wants to watch Monica Bellucci get raped for 8 minutes in Irreversible, but Gaspar Noé and other European directors want to create film that challenges you and forces you to really think about what is happening on-screen.

In America, films are not given the same opportunities to explore the darkness each of us holds within us. American film history is rife with examples of the public, the government, and the industry itself censoring and limiting the expression of these artists. So when a movie stirs up controversy about its explicitness, I naturally want to see it. I want to see the films banned in the United States and other countries. I’m not looking for titillation or porn, I’m looking for cutting edge stuff. Think of me as James Woods in Videodrome without all the Cronenbergian elements.

Death to Videodrome. Long live the new flesh.

Death to Videodrome. Long live the new flesh.

I’ve seen many of the NC-17 rated films and have seen the most memorable X-rated films multiple times (A Clockwork Orange, Midnight Cowboy). So I leap at the opportunity to see one of these films on the big screen. I never made to see Shame, when director Steve McQueen boldly released it with an NC-17 rating, but I’ve seen it multiple times since its arrived on video. I saw Bertolucci’s The Dreamers for the simple fact it was NC-17, and if it weren’t for the creepy guy snickering behind me, I would have enjoyed the film a lot more.

When I visited Chicago last September, I made a point to see films my local theater had yet, and likely never, would show. The first film I saw was Compliance, a disturbing thriller based on real crimes. A man would call into fast food restaurants and convince whoever answered that he was a cop and force the staff to degrade and sexually abuse and humiliate a younger girl on staff. Like many disturbing films, it fell on the soft side too often and relied more on gimmick than story.

MV5BMjI0MDQyMTU1OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODc5Njg3Nw@@._V1._SY317_CR0,0,214,317_The second film I watched was the unabashedly NC-17 rated Killer Joe. I went mostly out of curiosity (and the review it for my girlfriend who was desperate to see it). The next 100 or so minutes were a blast. Here was a down and dirty Texas murder story based on the play of the same name. Sure, there was nudity and graphic violence, but the story kept your attention and never took a backseat to spectacle.

Killer Joe finds loser Chris (Emile Hirsch) owning $6000 to some people none too pleased that he can’t pay it back. With the help of his father Ansel (the always enjoyable Thomas Haden Church), Chris hires a cop that kills people on the side. In walks Killer Joe Cooper, played ferociously by Matthew McConaughey. A Dallas cop that is as ruthless as he is calm. Chris wants to collect on his mother’s life insurance policy and wants Joe to do the job. Problem is since Chris can’t afford to pay him upfront, Joe decides Chris’s younger sister would be an excellent retainer. From there, the story shows us just what Joe’s intentions are as we pull back the curtain on this extremely dysfunctional family.

1292358458-fried-chickenEven at it’s most graphic, the film has a voice worth hearing. The sprinkling of dark humor allows for the film to really roll around in the filth the story describes. The climactic scene involving some fried chicken is not something easily forgotten. Director William Friedkin is no stranger to controversy. Having directed The Exorcist back in 1973, he knows how to keep the story compelling. And compelling it is. I’m so happy that the Blu-ray kept the film intact, unlike the DVD that has a more sanitized version.

I’ll watch this movie over and over. It’s one of my favorite films of this year. Mostly because I’ve never seen McConaughey play a character so interesting. The film is not for kids, and possible not even for some adults, but it’s a movie that really stands out from the films I’ve seen this year. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Fired Up!

Many of you saw and loved director Will Gluck’s Easy A last year. And who could blame you, it was fast quips and very smart, with a star making performance by Emma Stone. With his next film Friends with Benefits days away from debuting, I want to look back to his first directing effort. A film that was overlooked by audiences and mismanaged by the studio that requested it.

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Fired Up! stars Erik Christian Olsen (Not Another Teen Movie) and Nicolas D’Agosto (Rocket Science) as Nick and Shawn, two football jocks who spend their free time chasing girls all over Gerald R. Ford High School. One night, Nick has an idea that would greatly increase the amount of ladies they could bag. Instead of football camp in the unrelenting heat of El Paso, they would attend cheerleading camp with Carly (Disturbia‘s Sarah Roemer) and the high school’s squad. After convincing everyone except Carly, they join the girls and head to cheer camp. What ensues is a raunchy (quite raunchy for PG-13) teen comedy as the boys bag all the girls and experience the camp from an outsider’s perspective.

The film features colorful minor characters that keep the comedy from stalling even at the end. From Dr. Rick, the pre-med douchebag, to Sylvia, the girl that says whatever she’s thinking, each role fleshes out the cheer camp world. All aspects are represented, leaving nothing on the cutting room floor.

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The biggest scene stealer is John Michael Higgins, a veteran of the Christopher Guest style of comedy. His Coach Keith is a man of unfettered energy. When he speaks, it’s a hilarious quote. From his misspelling of fired up to his birthing story, Coach Keith has enough jokes to make a spin-off a sound idea.

Fired Up! came out in February 2009, a time when studios are dumping their excess inventory hoping something sticks. So far that year, Taken and Paul Blart: Mall Cop were the only things that were generating a lot of business. Friday the 13th would debut strong and fall hard the second weekend while He’s Just Not That Into You continued its slow climb to sleeper hit status. Opening opposite Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail, Fired Up! was doomed from the start. It didn’t help that critics hated the movie. It came and went from theaters quietly without much notice.

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Despite its lack of profitability, Fired Up! is one of the best comedies of 2009. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to experience it in the theaters. I stumbled upon it at a video store one night when I was hanging with my sister. When we were done, we were both pleasantly surprised. It has gone on to be one of the movies we quote to each other on a regular basis.

It wasn’t a successful movie, but looking at it you understand where Gluck discovered his pacing and comedic timing for the characters. Written by Freedom Jones, a pseudonym since no one really stepped up to taking credit for it (and many writers took a crack at the screenplay), the film had difficulty being released. It had to be submitted 18 times to get its PG-13 rating; most films resubmit less half that many times if they resubmit at all. Seeing the unrated version on DVD and/or Blu-ray, you can see just what was bugging the MPAA.

Though it isn’t one of my top ten favorite comedies, it’s in my top 20. It is a terribly funny movie that I love to watch over and over again. I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys their teen comedies a tad more raunchy than run-of-the-mill. 4 stars out of 5.

The Serpent and the Rainbow

Wes Craven has had a long career. The man who started with Last House on the Left made a gem in 1988 that I regard as one of my favorite Wes Craven movies. Why? Because it’s based on a true story, and the subject is terrifying.

The Serpent and the Rainbow opened in the late Eighties to little fanfare. Based on Wade Davis’s journal of the same name, Bill Pullman plays Dennis Alan, an anthropologist sent all over the world to gather potions and creams for pharmaceutical companies. His most recent trip takes him to Haiti, an island notorious for Voodoo and witchcraft. Dennis must retrieve a sample of a “zombie” drug. The drug ceases all external appearance of life for 12 hours, only to bring the person back to life. But this resurrection equates to being buried alive since Haiti’s primitive medical infrastructure can’t help but bury them quickly. Dennis’ employers want this drug as their latest anesthetic.

Almost immediately, Dennis senses something ominous all around him. A man he’d seen in a vision on an earlier expedition is real. Peytraud is a man not to be trifled with. From the first encounter, Dennis knows this man is out to get him. He learns about the zombie that turned his employer to the drug and get out before Peytraud can harm him. Marielle, a local psychologist and witness to the man’s undead self leads Dennis around Haiti, exposing him to the culture and sites as he works to find the undead man and someone who can make the powder needed to complete the zombification of others.

Right away, Dennis’ stay becomes plagued with problems. Apart from the obvious white American in a mostly Black Haitian culture, his ignorance of Voodoo often finds him in bad situations. And each night, Dennis has nightmarish visions of being buried alive, attacked by a zombie bride, and Peytraud looming over him, only to find out later is all under Peytraud’s control.

The strength of the film is in its convincing lead Pullman. He comes across as a fish out of water, but none the less eager to learn of the culture. When he finally finds a man to create the potion, he diligently learns what it entails.

The nightmarish sequences are genuinely frightening, elevating as the plot reaches its climax. Each one plays to another fear of Dennis. Some are more bizarre while others cause him to question the very reality he lives in. Is he safe from all this? What is Peytraud’s intentions with him?

Despite not being a well-known film, The Serpent and the Rainbow is frightening story based on Wade Davis’ own travels to the region. Though Davis’ has said openly he doesn’t care for the film, it still succeeds where it counts. It isn’t a perfect film, or a completely accurate film, but it is scary. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Black Book (NOT Little Black Book, that god awful Brittany Murphy movie)

Paul Verhoeven has a wacky track record. He made Robocop, Total Recall, the smarter than expected Starship Troopers, and the disgustingly uncomfortable Showgirls. With a list like that, guessing what any of his other movies are like is a crapshoot. After a break from Hollow Man, Verhoeven went back to Europe to make Black Book.

Black Book stars Carice van Houten as Rachel Stein, a Jewish woman hiding in Nazi controlled Netherlands at the end of World War II. When her hiding place disappears, she lives on the run. While doing so, she learns of an opportunity to make it out of Nazi controlled territory. When her attempt ends with her family killed and her as the sole survivor, she finds her way to the Dutch Resistance. They take her in and give her a job, but their plans require her assistance. Now she must go undercover to learn as much as she can about the Germans’ movements and plans to better suit the Resistance’s cause.

Verhoeven outdoes himself with this one. A man who isn’t afraid to put sexuality in his films, here he exercises restraint. Instead of being a foreign language Nazi-Showgirls hybrid, he puts the weight on emotional intimacy. Yes, there is sex and there is nudity, but it isn’t gratuitous. It moves the story along (with exception of the hair dye seen that is). Being a foreign film and not an American film, the sex isn’t stylized to look like erotica. It emphasizes the sex and gore of the movie only for emotion purposes. A concept many movies today don’t do. Like, why is that girl running around nude in My Bloody Valentine 3D?! It served no purpose.

Rachel is a broken woman, a singer before the war forced silent because of her beliefs. And seeing her family die, she carries a lot on her shoulders. Van Houten excels at showing her fear and determination in her face. Sebastian Koch (who plays the Nazi she seduces) conveys a tragic hero throughout the film. He’s a Nazi, but he isn’t a monster. He has compassion and consideration, unlike many of his peers. When the war comes to an end, Koch’s character sees a whole different side of things, which Koch demonstrates with conviction.

I love this movie. It would have won had it been nominated for Best Foreign Language at the Academy Awards the year of its release, but it wasn’t chosen. This is a great epic film. It has love, espionage, murder, war, and betrayal (everything a period piece epic needs to succeed). The story is rich and explores a place where we often don’t visit in WWII movies. I think this movie is vastly superior to Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tarantino. I just have trouble enjoying anything he did more than the Kill Bills (AS ONE FILM) and Pulp Fiction.

If you enjoy big budget war-dramas, this is your next rental. It’s in a foreign language (I feel the need to stress this), but that only makes the film more credible. Plus, you all need to watch more foreign language movies (but that’s another post all together). 4.5 out of 5 stars

Rubber

There have been movies in the past about inanimate objects that come to life and kill. A killer doll named Chucky gave us 5 (that’s right 5) movies. John Carpenter brought a car named Christine to life. Small Soldiers brought real action figure fights. And who could forget that freaky clown doll from Poltergeist? In the vein of these comes Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber.

Rubber centers on Robert, a tire. Now before you think this is one of those animated movies, hear me out. Robert is a brandless tire that does nothing that a normal tire couldn’t do. Except, he can move on his own…and blow this up with his mind. We follow Robert as he goes on a killing spree. He starts with bottles and ends up killing people.

All the while, a group of about 10 people sit on the outskirts of the town where this mostly takes place. While there, they are free to see the film as it unfolds on the other end of their binoculars. But they aren’t watching just Robert, but they are also watching the sheriff and his men as they attempt to track down and kill Robert.

Every year, I come across a bizarre movie or two that is so outside the Hollywood system and convention that I simply must see it out of insatiable curiosity. Last year, it was the brilliant mindfreak Antichrist. A few years before that was Teeth. I don’t know where I find these movies, but they all deserve a wider audience than what they get.

With Rubber, we get an experimental film that flirts with the label of being avant-garde. Having a movie revolve around a simple tire and putting most of the criticism in the audience that embeds itself in the film, it’s a miracle this isn’t a complete disaster. But somehow, the movie makes it to the finish line mostly intact. The film does wear a bit thin after an hour, but with the brisk runtime of 82 minutes, it isn’t too much of a problem.

The film is a great homage to grind-house films, from recent updates of the genre to the originals. Made for a simple $500,000, it shouldn’t take a lot to get some decent part of the production budget back. This film is absurd intentionally. A form of “film for no reason”, the surrealism turns over on itself and makes the film a convoluted guilty pleasure. With impressive effects (how do they get the tire moving and make the tire look actually alive?!) and filled with buffoonery, Rubber isn’t for everyone. But to those who give it a chance, just might be pleasantly surprised. 3 out of 5 stars

Spartan

Every cinephile has his favorite screenwriters. For me, David Mamet is up there. A man who makes plays and films, sometimes making the same thing in both mediums. Here, Mamet takes a simple concept and delivers a complex and engaging thriller.

Val Kilmer stars as Scott, a member of an elite task force that cleans up the government’s messes. His new assignment is retrieving the daughter of a high-ranking government official. Quickly, the simplicity is gone as things become more bureaucratic and complicated, forcing him to go beyond conventional means to bring her home.

Filmed in 2004, a good deal before the similar sounding Taken, the film hasn’t lost any of its provocative nature. Where Taken was an action film about the vengeance of a father, Spartan focuses on the controlled hands of those skilled men and women tasked to accomplish extremely difficult missions. What starts as a missing person, ends up with the girl (Veronica Mars‘ Kristen Bell) in the underground world of human trafficking, leading the government to send Scott far outside of the U.S. and the norms of his chain of command.

The film’s strength is in its writing. Though you still have questions about the characters at the end, the cloak of uncertainty only elevates the action. Is this actually happening or does Scott have so much forethought and commitment that he knows how this trick or that trick will get him what he needs? Val Kilmer is sublime as Scott. He fits the role so well that it’s a shame his star isn’t higher today. Backed by a very strong cast ranging from Ed O’Neill and William H. Macy to Derek Luke and Clark Gregg, the film succeeds on all fronts. Spartan is a brilliant thriller that deserves a larger audience. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Bronson

Most people discovered Tom Hardy this past year in the brilliant Inception, but he has been around for a while. He was in the forgotten Star Trek: Nemesis, bit parts in many British films, and Bronson. And with Bronson, Hardy steps out as an actor of pure tenacity.

Hardy plays Michael Peterson, a petty criminal who becomes Britain’s most violent criminal. The film follows Michael Peterson as he transforms into Charles Bronson, his fighting name. He wasn’t raised by poor parenting, but none the less he finds violence becomes a part of him. Searching his name on Wikipedia or Google will yield some of his greatest hits, and they were indeed brilliant in its maniacal grandeur.

Hardy disappears into the role. In this film, he doesn’t just train his voice for the role, but every part of his body responds as it should for the real Bronson. In one particular scene, Bronson threatens a lowly prison worker. His quick hostage dissolves into him stripping naked, rubbing body paint all over himself, and taking on 5 guards in the buff. Despite his obvious disadvantage, he holds his own against the guards longer than expected. This character is pure bad-ass. A character who is so hardcore that it frightens you. And Hardy and director Nicholas Winding Refn expertly convey the lunacy of this real person. A bio pic that’s The Shawshank Redemption crossed with Natural Born Killers. A great film and the arrival of Tom Hardy. Highly recommended for action fans or fans of gritty British crime films. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

The Station Agent

I don’t know why it took me so long to see this movie. Now that I have, I would love to experience it all over again. Twice recently I’ve finished a movie only to leave it in my Netflix queue for another go around. First Buried, now The Station Agent.

Peter Dinklage stars as Fin, train enthusiast who inherits an unmanned train depot when his friend and employer dies. There he meets an energetic hot-dog/coffee truck salesman named Joe. Joe immediately becomes fascinated with Fin and over time they form an unlikely friendship. Along the way, both men pine for Olivia, a woman who is as lost as they are. Fin looks to live a life of isolation and trains. Joe is lost in a dead-end job as a his father slowly recovers from sickness. Olivia is trying to get over an unhealthy separation from her husband. Together, they become close friends.

Director Thomas McCarthy, who went on to direct the well-nuanced The Visitor, does a brilliant job of allowing silence it’s due. Today’s films are so obsessed with filling every frame with something, but McCarthy crafts a film, which he also wrote, that lets the characters sit so we can feel their helplessness and isolation. A brilliant film that I would probably retroactively put on my Best of the Decade ’00s list (the film was released in 2003).

Yes, Peter Dinklage is a dwarf. You quickly forget that as the film goes on. He  is so powerful that his presence is larger than life. He proves himself as capable or even more so than any modern-day actor. This is his breakthrough role that should have given him an Oscar nomination, but that year was already tight with Jude Law, Sean Penn, and Bill Murray all up for the same award. A brilliant and perfect film. 5 out of 5 stars.

Barry Munday

I’m a big fan of Patrick Wilson. For some reason, ever since Phantom of the Opera, I’ve fallen in love with anything he does. He started to be just the pretty boy character actor, but a couple of times, he has reached for a role and it’s paid off. Barry Munday is such a role.

Patrick Wilson stars as Barry Munday, a womanizer with ridiculous facial hair and an impressive hit-to-miss ratio with women. But after a father catches a his daughter (potential minor) seducing Barry, he whacks a trumpet to Barry’s genitals. He wakes up later with no knowledge of the events immediately prior to the attack, or…his testicles. Now, a man with a huge libido, has lost all his spunk (no pun intended).

Just as the scars are starting to heal, a lawyer informs him that he has impregnated a woman he has no idea he slept with. What follows is a remarkable transformation of Barry as he deals with his impending parenthood.

The film was not at all what I expected. I was imagining a film told all in flashback about his best conquests. But the humor still comes easily. The film gets a bit dark at times, but the script and cast really go the extra mile for it. Judy Greer, another actor (I try to use the gender neutral version as much as possible) I love, completely embodies her character Ginger. When Barry is at his most sincere, Ginger is her most biting. Their relationship develops a bit unnaturally, but the end of the film leaves you with a warm, fulfilled feeling. I recommend this film to people who prefer Knocked Up to be a bit more sophisticated. 3 out of 5 stars.

Devil

I admit, I wrote this movie off quickly after its initial release. Now that it has been released on Blu-Ray and DVD, I gave it a shot and found a highly effective genre movie.

Unlike M. Night Shymalan’s recent films, this concept sticks. Devil is about 5 strangers stranded in an elevator. Each time the lights go off, another one of them dies. Despite the PG-13 rating, the film cleverly uses space and quick shots to build tension and keep the film moving at a brisk pace.

The cast, mostly of little known actors, do a great job of arousing suspicion and making each other look more guilty as things progress. The film is a take on the story The Devil’s Meeting; where the Devil visits on those most devious of people (thugs, pickpockets, gold-diggers) and takes them one by one to the underworld.

The beauty of the movie is its lack of spectacle. It’s a solid B-movie style film with a simple and effective plot. The script and direction keep your attention and rarely gives you a break. Clocking in at about 80 minutes, the film is a quick ride that will definitely have you reconsider getting stuck in an elevator. 3 out of 5 stars