Man Vs.

By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 6, 2019

STREAMING BANNER 2
NETFLIX
Released Nov. 13, 2015
Unrated (equal to rated R for violence, imagery, language, and brief nudity) – 1hr 27min
Directed by Adam Massey
Starring Chris Diamantopoulos, Chloe Bradt, Michael Cram


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Doug Woods (Diamantopolous) is the host of a wilderness survival TV show that has just been picked up by a major network. His crew drops him off in the middle of Canada’s sprawling forestlands with camera gear and meager supplies to film a 5-day trek to demonstrate survival techniques in a real setting. Things start off well enough, but after being woken by a loud crash on his first night, Doug will find that he has more than the elements to endure in order to get out alive.


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Survivorman Vs. PredatorMan Vs. is an elegantly simple concept. While portions of it can be qualified as found footage, as it is in the fashion of the survival reality TV shows that were quite popular about 10 years ago, most of it is in a standard presentation.


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Narrative: As the premise might suggest, much of Man Vs. is a one-man show. After a swift first act gets the protagonist to his isolated location and he establishes his camp, the tension rises in a steady arc toward a harrowing climactic confrontation. There is some secondary conflict introduced throughout the introduction that doesn’t really go anywhere, but the film doesn’t dwell on it much, so nothing is lost by it either. If you were a fan of the shows that the movie mimics, like me, you’ll find a lot of elements from them expertly duplicated and cleverly subverted to create a particularly immersive story.

Acting: Again, it’s mostly a one-man show, so Man Vs. is positioned to live or die on the strength of the lead performance. Fortunately, Chris Diamantopoulos is fantastic here as the survival expert host who finds a lot more to survive than he signed up for. Having seen a lot of Survivorman myself, I’d say that he consciously modeled the character specifically off Les Stroud, as many of his mannerisms, deliveries, and even specific techniques evoke, if not mirror, the famous Discovery Channel personality. Diamantopoulos makes for a charismatic and relatable protagonist who begrudgingly transforms into an impromptu action hero once the situation calls for it.


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“This is gonna hurt you a lot more than it hurts me.”


Appearance: With Man Vs., director/co-writer Adam Massey has three primary jobs lined up for himself. On the first – putting forth a convincing mock-up of a survival TV show – he nails it. It definitely captures the vibe of that genre, and so, the foundation for the film is as solid as can be. Second, it needs to convey a sense of utter isolation to properly develop suspense, and he does this too, with a lot of great shots of the wild sylvan setting that truly establishes a sense of place for our hero. Third, when the action gets thick and the movie needs to shift gears, the action sequences need to get the adrenaline rushing with edge-of-seat suspense, and…it’s not so glowing there. It kicks off with a pretty amazing shot, but it also becomes a lot of chaotic running through the forest. There’s still some memorable bits though, but can no longer avoid the proverbial elephant in the room. The antagonist is a CGI manifestation and, frankly, looks pretty ugly. Not the good kind of ugly either. It’s not laughably terrible, but it’s something of a mood killer. I appreciate the limited budget here, but something practical and obscured may have been preferable to this creature that stumbled out of a SyFy original movie.

Horror Elements: Pretty damn solid. There’s a lot of tension and suspense throughout, and when things get nasty, they’re convincingly nasty. It’s a shame about the creature design though. It’s important to stress that it isn’t a total deal-breaker – at least not for most. For some, it’s going to be an insurmountable obstacle.

Sound: Staying in character with its premise, much of the score of Man Vs., when present, is a dark variation of the kind of music heard in survival TV shows – like a desolate outdoors-y instrumental folk thing. In the third act, it trades that in for a generic action-time vibe.

TL;DR: Man Vs. is a riveting action/horror film that moves along at a quick pace. It’s of particular interest to fans of wilderness survival television, as it maintains an unusually authentic dedication to recreating the experience of those shows. It doesn’t fully realize all its potential in the end, likely due to an ambitious premise that over-stretched a meager budget and a plot that unwisely decided to only increase its scope and scale as the climax went on, but this is still a very solid movie that deserves more attention than it has received.

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The Predator

By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 24, 2018

2018 – YEAR IN RETROSPECT review
Released Sep. 14, 2018
Rated R – 1hr 47min
Directed by Shane Black
Starring Boyd Holbrook, Olivia Munn, Trevante Rhodes, Thomas Jane, Keegan-Michael Key


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The third official sequel to the 1987 classic Predator – when a US special forces sniper (Holbrook) on assignment in Mexico encounters a downed alien spacecraft, he sets into motion a sequence of events that will see him placed into martial custody and the infamous space-faring hunter-killers descend upon his hometown in pursuit of his son. He will team up with a ragtag band of military misfits (Jane, Key, & others) and a rogue government biologist (Munn) to save the young boy and secure crucial technology from the predators that may decide the fate of the human race.


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The Predator is both a rip-roaring callback to over-the-top ’80s action and a surprisingly irreverent satire of both the genre and the series. While it may polarize audiences with its somewhat parodic tone, its sights are set on offering up a fun thrill-ride experience.


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When I say that it may polarize audiences, I mean that it absolutely has. While its core fanbase may be somewhat smaller in scale, the scope of the backlash against The Predator can be considered on par with Star Wars: The Last Jedi or the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot (although the dynamics here appear much different). The top 50 user reviews on popular movie site IMDb range from moderately negative to cataclysmic rants of pure acidic hatred. You could distill the bile flying from the mouths of lifelong Predator fans and manufacture car batteries with it – that’s how bad the reaction is. This site – Terror Spective – launched during the film’s opening weekend, and given the putrid feedback from its fan community, I opted to skip it in favor of covering a different new release, Mandy. Now, having seen this, I don’t regret that decision.


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Do you fear the villains in your sci-fi franchise might be getting a little stale? When in doubt, add a bigger one.


Now, that isn’t to say that The Predator is a terrible movie. The story is certainly a hot mess that doesn’t much hold up to scrutiny and makes a good argument as to how simpler can be better. A lot of things happen throughout the course of the narrative, and many of those things hinge on choices that are ill-advised, at the absolute best. The catalytic decision that sets off the ridiculous chain reaction to follow involves our not-particularly-sympathetic hero, Capt. Quinn McKenna, absconding some Predator technology from the crash site and having it packaged and mailed to himself where, through a lack of forethought, it winds up in the hands of his young autistic son. This just doesn’t hold up to the later revelation that our chief protagonist is a many-times decorated and highly respected soldier, but it is somewhat consistent with the additional reveal that he is a generally careless father – it’s a rather baffling and overly complicated setup for an action epic.

Ok – maybe it is, technically speaking, a terrible movie. Once McKenna and his band of military psychiatric patients roll into his hometown, they are able to procure weapons, vehicles, and even a helicopter – all without attention or confrontation with law enforcement as they blast their way from location to location on Halloween night. That’s just a representation of one of many grand suspensions of disbelief or gaping plot inconsistencies that exist within The Predator. I totally get that this is both an homage and send-up of the uproariously impossible action set pieces of the 1980’s, but many of the classics from that lot kept their stories simple. This movie, in relation, has a narrative that is akin to rolling down a hill in a barrel. There’s more concerns to be had as well, including lines of dialogue that fall like lead weights, some flimsy-looking CGI, and characters that don’t particularly contribute much to the final outcome. Those last two points might be, or likely are, the result of a third act that was quickly thrown together and re-shot shortly before release as both studio executives and test audiences apparently loathed the original climax.


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The film that dares to answer the question “Do the Predators have doggos, and if so, are they good boys?” The answer would be ‘Yes’ to both.


That’s a lot of baggage for one movie to overcome – especially a high-profile sequel eight years in the waiting – but it’s not a total loss. The Predator makes for a fantastic pizza-and-beer flick to be watched with friends, where no one’s full attention is being demanded and everybody can just revel in the absurdity of it all. There are some genuinely fun action sequences to be enjoyed and intentional humor to be laughed at throughout, and I admit that it was at least fun to watch – there just wasn’t much pleasure to be had in thinking about it afterward.

So, the fan community went up in arms over this iteration of the Predator mythos, and for the most part, I understand it. It’s hardly ‘the worst movie ever’, a pejorative that’s thrown around with such frequency that it doesn’t mean anything anymore, but it’s in the running for being the least of the franchise. I’m including the 2 Alien Vs. Predator films in that assessment, because without them, there would be no debate. I don’t regret watching it or shelling out the money for a mere rental, but would not have felt the same way about paying for IMAX after months of eagerly anticipating the new entry of one of my favorite series. Now, after disappointing at the box office too, it will likely be years more before the fearsome extraterrestrial stalkers return to the screen.

The Predator gets a rating of
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Annihilation

2018 – YEAR IN RETROSPECT review
Released Feb. 23, 2018
Rated R – 1hr 55min
Directed by Alex Garland
Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Issac


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Lena (Portman) is a renowned cellular biologist who volunteers for a dangerous expedition into an anomalous region known as ‘The Shimmer’, a place that no longer abides by the understood laws of nature for reasons unknown.


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Annihilation is a very brainy, somewhat abstract, and generally slowburn effort for what is commonly a setup for slam-bang sci-fi/action. While not a rip-roaring ride, by any means, the focus on the characters and how they relate to the premise does allow for moments of genuine horror to shine through, where they may have otherwise been muted.


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With its A-list cast, $50M+ budget, and a concept suited for a high-octane experience, it comes then as a profound surprise just how strange, deep, and dark Annihilation actually is. Not satisfied with presenting much, if anything, at face value, the film builds a bewildering labyrinth of themes, questions, and ideas – all with little interest in offering a hand to the audience to help guide them through it. These types of experiences emerge rather frequently from the indie world, but to get it from a Hollywood endeavor is honestly shocking.

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“Well, this is a very unique piece. I wonder what the artist was trying to say with the…oh, this was a person.”

That’s probably for good reason though, as Annihilation has proven to alienate numerous fans of both sci-fi and horror with its intellectual ambitions, dreamlike narrative, and challenging plot. This is the kind of expensive auteur effort that gives studio executives cold sweats and nightmares, with visions of red ink plaguing their sleep. Perhaps that’s not irrational, as the film likely lost a decent bundle of money in its theatrical run, but that’s hardly the same as being a bad movie.

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This does not appear to be the sort of bear that will be appeased with a mere picnic basket.

That’s because Annihilation is exceptionally well-made. The cinematography and use of SFX make for visuals that are stunning, haunting, or horrific – depending on what the situation demands – that give The Shimmer a true sense of place, which is vital for a story such as this, where the setting is essentially its own character. The actual characters themselves are quite dour and mostly business-like regarding their quest into the mysterious zone, but each have complex reasons for taking upon a veritable suicide mission, and those reasons are far deeper than mere scientific curiosity. It gives much of the film a mournful tone akin to a funeral march – not necessarily fun, but certainly fascinating to watch. These intricate characters are given solid portrayals throughout, as should be expected from a cast of this caliber. At this point, Natalie Portman can effortlessly carry a movie on her shoulders, giving supporting roles more room to breathe and develop. All of this provides an atmosphere where, when the horror elements do appear, they hit with rightful impact.

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Annihilation is very likely the most visually spell-binding horror film of the year (rivaled only by Mandy).

That isn’t to say, however, that Annihilation is an enjoyable ride. If the movie were a person walking down a hallway, it would open the door to every room it passed, barely glancing inside before moving on to the next. It’s important to know before watching that it’s a thoroughly cerebral experience with occasional outbreaks of excitement and expectations should be tempered accordingly. It does maintain a sense of tension and growing dread as it proceeds, so that’s not to say that it’s dull. Writer/director Alex Garland, with his second effort behind the camera after modern sci-fi classic Ex Machina, has crafted a film that is unquestionably memorable and mesmerizing. I wouldn’t consider it fulfilling though, but that doesn’t appear to have been one of its objectives.

Annihilation gets a rating of
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