DEATH RACE (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language

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Directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson

Written by: Paul W.S. Anderson

Starring: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, Natalie Martinez, Max Ryan, Jason Clarke & Frederick Koehler

A lot of people despise Paul W.S. Anderson, but for my money, the man has made a few legitimately enjoyable films. His remake of DEATH RACE had been in the works since 2002. The script went through many rewrites and changed leading actors multiple times (Tom Cruise was originally slated to star at one point). After his disappointingly lame crossover ALIEN VS. PREDATOR that still managed to make a lot of box office bank, Anderson decided to helm a remake of the low-budget Roger Corman B-movie DEATH RACE 2000. Taking a more “serious” and “gritty” approach to the material, Anderson made a stupidly enjoyable guilty pleasure. This film is the closest thing we’ll probably ever get to a TWISTED METAL movie. While it definitely has noticeable problems, DEATH RACE is a fun ride nonetheless!

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In the distant future of 2012, the U.S. economy has crashed into the ground. This has resulted in: jobs being lost, desperate people trying to make ends meet, and a prison population soaring beyond a breaking point. Former racecar driver Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) has been laid off from his factory job, but his day is about to go from bad to worse because he’s been framed for his wife’s murder. Wrongfully convicted, Jensen finds himself thrown into the brutal Terminal Island Prison. Things begin to look up when warden Claire Hennessey (Joan Allen) makes Jensen an offer he can’t refuse. Hennessey runs a huge pay-per-view gladiator event within the prison called “Death Race.” This “race” puts vicious killers in heavily armored, weaponized cars and pits them against each other on a trap-laden track. If he wants a ticket out of Terminal Prison, Jensen must survive three rounds of combat-filled racing…but not everything is as it seems.

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No matter what piece of crap he might be starring in, Jason Statham always seems to command instant charisma and attitude. If there was a movie about a guy sitting on a toilet for 90-minutes straight, I’d probably watch it if Jason Statham starred in the leading role. With my admitted fandom for this bald British bloke, I’ll say that he makes a good action hero in this film. Though he’s pretty much playing the same tough guy type that he’s become known for, Statham was clearly having fun with the silly material and bulked up to an insane degree to play this revenge-driven racecar driver. As Ames, Statham growls, scowls, and also cracks the occasional one-liner. Joining Statham are a bevy of other familiar faces, some of whom probably only took these roles for a quick paycheck.

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Mainly known for the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise, Tyrese Gibson gets into a totally different type of vehicle as the aptly named Machine Gun Joe. Though his character is a one-note thug, there are a couple of moments that attempt to give him a bit of a personality…including his knack for getting his navigator partners killed and remaining totally unscathed himself. Ian McShane plays the old, wise Coach and isn’t taking this movie seriously at all, which makes for a lot of fun. He whips out wise cracks, pulls funny faces, and tries to have one character driven conversation with Statham that only serves to make his old man character all the more enjoyable. Coach feels like James Whitmore’s librarian from SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION was turned into a cheesy B-flick sidekick and then given to Ian McShane.

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Natalie Martinez plays Statham’s navigator, Case. She only serves as eye candy though, which the film blatantly states in a bit of throwaway dialogue about female prisoners being thrown in to add sex appeal to the already trashy pay-per-view death races. Is it really so hard to believe that TV producers wouldn’t be doing something along the lines of DEATH RACE if society crumbled? We’ve already suffered through Honey Boo Boo for crying out loud. Still, the most surprising faces pop up in the film’s antagonists. Academy Award winner Joan Allen plays conniving warden Hennessey and seems to have taken this role purely for a paycheck, but she also receives one of the most mind-boggling one-liners I’ve heard in any action movie ever. This film is pretty much worth watching for that moment alone. Also, a young Jason Clarke makes an appearance as Hennessey’s smarmily sadistic security guard.

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For all of its fun silliness, DEATH RACE definitely has annoying faults that can’t be ignored. The actual rules of the race itself don’t make much sense in the scheme of the story. Ian McShane’s Coach explains that the first two races really don’t matter because they only serve as a means to slay the competition, which makes you wonder why keep the racing structure to begin with and not have a total free-for-all slaughter. There are also buttons on the track that function as Mario Kart-like activators for defenses and weapons in the cars. This means that DEATH RACE sort of feels like a video game with big actors, fiery explosions, and impressively constructed cars. As silly and stupid as that may sound, there’s dumb sense of entertainment to be found in DEATH RACE’s mindless violence and car-filled chaos. Even though the action scenes aren’t without some distracting shaky-cam and quick editing, they’re mostly well put together and feature plenty of cool demises.

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Despite running a bit too long, having many glaring plot holes, and featuring a closing credits warning that treats its viewers like morons (advising you not to create backyard Death Races of your own), DEATH RACE manages to retain a stupidly simple charm that makes it into a big dumb guilty pleasure for me. If you can turn off your brain for two hours, then you’ll probably enjoy this dose of dumb-as-a-rock action carnage. Not every movie has to strive to be high art. Different genres aim to accomplish different goals. Sometimes. all you want to do is cut loose and watch a stupid action movie with cheesy dialogue, over-the-top characters, dumb writing, and things going boom. DEATH RACE is the equivalent of cinematic junk food. You’re not likely to retain much from it, but it’s fun and satisfying while it lasts.

Grade: B-

ROOM (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language

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Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson

Written by: Emma Donoghue

(based on the novel ROOM by Emma Donoghue)

Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Sean Bridgers, Megan Park & Cas Anvar

2015 has been quite a wild year for movies. I’m deeply interested in seeing how the Academy Award nominations and winners play out early next year. There are tons of fantastic cinematic surprises that have erupted onto the screen during this end-of-year awards season and ROOM is on the top-tier of these phenomenal dramas. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, ROOM is a deeply moving rollercoaster of emotions set on an intimate scale and populated by a handful of well-written characters. It’s also one of the most beautiful and powerful films of the year.

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Jack has spent the first five years of his life hidden away. Jack’s mother, Joy, was abducted as a teenager and has spent seven years locked in the dingy backyard shed (called Room) of “Old Nick” (Jack’s rapist father). Joy has done her best to shield Jack from the awful truth of their single-room life. As a result, Jack has grown up thinking that Room is the entire world. As tensions between “Old Nick” and captive Joy rise to dangerous new levels, motherly survival instincts kick into full force and a dangerous escape is made. Even when they do make it to the outside world, both Jack and Joy will have the harrowing experience of adapting to the outside world after years spent in a confined shed.

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One thing that’s been receiving huge praise from others and that I will continue to praise here is the acting in ROOM. Brie Larson has a solid chance of getting the Oscar for Best Actress and she has earned every bit of it. As Joy, Larson shows love for her son and pain from her circumstances in equal measure. The movie may be centered more around her character’s son, but Larson’s Joy serves as an astounding adult counterpart to the impressive 9-year-old actor. As Jack, Jacob Tremblay delivers one of the best performances from a child actor that I’ve ever seen. He’s simply incredible and remains absolutely convincing through every frame of the film. This was clearly a demanding role and Trembly also portrays the more frustrating aspects of a five-year-old (occasionally driving his mom up the wall with frustration).

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On the sidelines, Joan Allen and William H. Macy are Joy’s distraught parents and Jack’s newfound grandparents. Though William H. Macy doesn’t necessarily have a huge part in the film, he makes the most of the scenes he’s been given and has one especially heartbreaking moment. Joan Allen feels totally genuine as Joy’s concerned mother and Jack’s loving grandmother. Allen fits the part well and delivers quiet, heartfelt moments during the second half of the film. Though he only receives screen time in the first act of the story, Sean Bridgers is infuriating and creepy as “Old Nick.”

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It’s worth mentioning that I haven’t read the novel that ROOM is based on. If it’s anywhere near as powerful or as well-constructed as this film is, then I’ll definitely have to give it a look in the near future. The decision to have this heavy and mature survival story narrated from a five-year-old’s perspective was a risky move, but paid off in spades. Little details stick out to give the viewer clues to the more mature aspects of the story happening among the adults. Jack’s narration gives the film an innocent quality too as he doesn’t fully understand what’s going on around him. While parts of this make for a couple of lines that are bound to elicit gasps and sobs from certain viewers, there are also a couple of well-placed pieces of cute humor that keep the movie from being a completely depressing tear-jerker.

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ROOM uses many different emotions to tell its heart wrenching and powerful story. The beginning has tension as Jack learns the truth and the escape is made. The middle is where most of the heartbreak and tragedy come to a head. The conclusion is a perfect way to end the story as sheer beauty and unconditional love breaks loose. I was on the edge of my seat during the intense first act and was crying on-and-off during the rest of the film (other theater patrons seemed to have the exact same reactions as well). The performances and writing are perfect. ROOM is a deeply moving masterpiece and easily one of the best films of 2015.

Grade: A+

FACE/OFF (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Intense Sequences of Strong Violence, and for Strong Language

FaceOff poster

Directed by: John Woo

Written by: Mike Werb & Michael Colleary

Starring: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Alessandro Nivola, Gina Gershon, Dominique Swain & Nick Cassavetes

If there are two actors who have really been slumming it lately, they would be John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. These two were huge at the height of their career, but have since wound up as washed-up has-beens taking any role that comes across their desks (how else would one explain Cage’s output for the last 5 years?). FACE/OFF is a ridiculous action flick with a really silly premise that allows for a maximum amount of fun, while also providing an excuse for Cage and Travolta to go as over-the-top as humanly possible in their roles…as each other.

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Sean Archer is a loose-cannon FBI agent who doesn’t play by the rules. After the death of his son, Archer has made it his personal mission to take down high-profile terrorist Castor Troy. Archer should feel accomplished once he’s caught Troy (who winds up in a coma), but there’s still a big problem. A bomb is loose in the city (of course) and there’s only one possible (and highly ludicrous) way to stop it from going off. Archer must undergo a shocking super-secret surgery to switch faces with Troy in order to get the location of the bomb out of Troy’s brother. Unfortunately for Archer, the now faceless Troy wakes up from his coma and steals Archer’s face. With their identities switched, the real Archer (wearing Troy’s face) must escape from prison and save his family from Castor Troy (who’s wearing Archer’s face)!

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At the very least, one can reasonably say that this movie’s plot is very silly. You pretty much know what you’re going in for from the get-go. The storyline doesn’t deviate from a predictable course of events with any huge twists or turns. It’s a big dumb popcorn-muncher and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Occasionally, junk food can be just as satisfying than a steak. That is exactly the case with this movie. There are occasional plot holes and silliness abounding, but it’s all in good fun without any pretensions about being taken seriously.

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The best thing about FACE/OFF’s premise is that it provides a flimsy enough excuse for Cage and Travolta to do their best impressions of each other. Kudos to both of these performers, because they do a good job of taking on two completely separate roles. John Travolta plays a pretty bland cop character to begin with, but is allows a lot of wiggle room when he’s crazy Troy. Cage actually is a bit too over-the-top and ridiculous as Troy, but gets significantly better when he transforms into the hero with a villain’s face. The supporting cast is completely forgettable. That’s not a huge problem though, because we all know that the real draw of FACE/OFF is to see Travolta and Cage…well, facing off against each other.

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As fun and hugely entertaining as the action scenes can be, there are definite moments where John Woo gets way too bombastic. There are lots of needless explosions and a cast of people who miss when shooting targets who are a mere few feet away (including both Cage and Travolta). Lots of silly screaming, firework sound effects, and overused slow motion are frequently used. There’s also a hilarious amount of doves packed into five minutes of screen time as well as a Mexican stand-off with more guns than the finale of RESERVOIR DOGS. With all this complaining, there’s far more good to be seen (including an awesome boat chase) than bad. The running time might seem bloated upon the start of the movie, but I can safely say that things never got dull at any point.

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FACE/OFF is exactly what it set out to be. It’s a big, dumb action movie loaded with explosions, over-the-top acting, and a ridiculous story that’s a whole lot of silly fun. Sure, it gets mighty stupid throughout and packs in action movie clichés over and over again, but it’s also a total blast from beginning to end!

Grade: B

THE CRUCIBLE (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 4 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Depiction of the Salem Witch Trials

Crucible poster

Directed by: Nicholas Hytner

Written by: Arthur Miller

(based on the play THE CRUCIBLE by Arthur Miller)

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Joan Allen, Bruce Davison, Rob Campbell, Jeffrey Jones, Peter Vaughn, Karron Graves, Charlayne Woodard

Two years ago, I read THE CRUCIBLE in one of my college courses. I found it to be a fascinating look on the Salem Witch Trials and an equally interesting commentary on the McCarthyism era. It’s really surprising to me that this well-regarded classic has only been adapted into film format only twice. The first was a 1958 French film (ironic, seeing as the story is set in Salem). The second (and latest) movie is this Award-season hopeful that tanked at the box office and walked away with only two Academy Award nominations (neither of which were won). Luckily, a viewer can venture for something outside of mere entertainment. This same kind of person might appreciate a tough piece of art that is just as concerned about delivering a powerful message as it is telling an engaging story. In this case, the story being told is a fictionalized account of the Salem witch trials. The characters are based around very real people, but the play (and film adaptations) remain pieces of historical fiction.

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The film is set in 1692. A group of teenage girls in Salem, Massachusetts have gone dancing around a fire and committed some sort of ritual that might be perceived as black magic. Seeing as this is a Puritan community, dancing is forbidden and the possibility of conjuring spirits just makes matters worse. The girls in question begin to play on the townsfolk’s fear of Satan and accuse other residents of witchcraft, resulting in imprisonment (if they confess) or execution (if they refuse to confess). This is the kind of judicial logic we’re dealing with in this time period.

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John Proctor is a humble farmer who believes that God is good, but Salem would be a far better place if the citizens actually took his core teachings into their hearts. Abigail Williams, the leader of the accusers, had an affair with John and now seeks to get revenge on his wife. The court system is flawed and faith is deadly in this community. As more good people are suffering fates from the false accusations, John tries to find a way to beat the system and prove that Abigail is a vicious liar. The real question is how far he will go to see reason prevail and if it will prevail at all?

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THE CRUCIBLE is one of those rare movies that absolutely makes the viewer angrier and angrier as it goes along. It’s not that the film is awful (though it does have some problems I’ll address soon enough), but you feel for the dire situation that it’s presenting. The effect this film brought on me is nothing short of infuriating (much like the play itself). Arthur Miller was actually responsible for the screenplay and it helps that he’s adapting his own work here. Some scenes were added (at least, I think they were since I can’t remember some of these things going on in the play at all) and it seems that Miller was having a blast working in a bigger playground. A stage only has so much room for sets and actors, but THE CRUCIBLE plays out with plot points that are given sufficient time to develop.

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There in lies the rub of this film. At points, this movie doesn’t feel like a movie. Instead, it feels like a stage play. I mainly feel this came in the sets themselves. At points, the actors appear to be on a sound stage. We don’t see a rig or stage crew members in the background, but it has the same feeling nonetheless. The costumes are also a bit hokey and feel false. Again, it’s not like they look completely fake, but it’s the same effect I got from the set design.

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The running time also becomes an issue. Just because a play might run three hours long (given all the production work and time that you can execute the final product), doesn’t mean a film version should run even close to the same length. There are some portions of THE CRUCIBLE that could have been significantly shortened down or (in a couple of cases) taken out of the final cut completely. This might have made for a tighter running time. It’s a movie primarily full of talking heads, but what they’re talking about brings the real notable quality. The infuriating power that the story radiates (despite these technical problems) makes for a movie with an even more relevant point to make.

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All in all, you might dig this film adaptation if you’re a fan of the play itself. If you thought it was boring when you may have been forced to read it for school, then you might not like it nearly as much. Personally, I thought this 1996 film was stiff around the edges, but the material remains potent enough to make for a decent viewing. Fan of Miller’s work or interested in the Salem witch trials (albeit a fictionalized version of it), you will probably like THE CRUCIBLE. If you’re not a fan of the play and are being forced to watch this in class, then you probably won’t think too highly of it.

Grade: B-

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