CON AIR (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language

Directed by: Simon West

Written by: Scott Rosenberg

Starring: Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Colm Meaney, Danny Trejo, M.C. Gainey, Nick Chinlund & Dave Chappelle

Even though the 80s was home to lots of cheesy R-rated action flicks, the 90s seemed bound and determined to churn out increasingly ridiculous action entertainment. Originally released in the same month as another outrageous Nicolas Cage action vehicle FACE/OFF, CON AIR is a crazy ride. It’s stupid and ludicrous, but it’s also funny and enjoyable. The material’s cheesiness lends to the entertainment factor as we get one hell of a cast, competently directed action, and unrealistically high stakes. If you want explosions and Nicolas Cage (in a mullet, trying to pull of a bad accent), then CON AIR is for you.

After killing a man to protect his wife, Army Ranger Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) has been handed a ten-year prison sentence. Being a good guy at heart, Poe quietly serves his time and waits to go home to his loving wife and daughter (who doesn’t know him yet, but still writes him adorable letters). When he’s granted parole, Poe boards the massive prison aircraft Jailbird. Things go awry when the evil madman “Cyrus the Virus” (John Malkovich) and the rest of the dangerous convicts wind up taking over the plane. If he wishes to ever see his wife again and hopes to save some lives in the process, Poe will have to carefully help take down the prisoner-hijacked plane. Meanwhile, U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) attempts to stop folks from simply blowing up the plane.

CON AIR is stupid, ridiculously stupid. There’s the whole prisoner revolt sequence, which seems to rely on an unlikely series of coincidences (with a prisoner smuggling gasoline on board) and a series of easily-accessible levers. As if the hijacked airplane wasn’t enough for the plot’s high stakes, they also throw in a subplot about Poe’s cellmate being diabetic and all of the syringes on the plane being smashed. To boot, the laws of physics are frequently defied and you know what? All of this stupidity and the sheer ridiculous nature of the film are the bombastic fun to watch! This is a big dumb popcorn movie and doesn’t aspire to be anything more than that.

As the heroic Poe, Nicolas Cage has horribly wooden line delivery and evokes a cheesiness that remains unrivaled in his filmography. Cage’s serious moments are hilarious and they’re not supposed to be. He also sports the worst mullet in the world and tries to pull of a terrible Southern accent (which downright disappears during a few scenes). As a so-so supporting character, John Cusack sweats on the ground level and gets involved in the finale when the action leaves the confines of the plane. Colm Meaney plays a hot-headed higher-up and adds to the tension as he seems just a tad too trigger-happy.

The convicts are the real show-stealers though, because each one of these colorful characters adds something memorable to the film. Ving Rhames plays intimidating gangster henchman Diamond Dog, while Danny Trejo (who was once a real-life convict) has the role of a rape-happy thug. M.C. Gainey is a huge highlight as hyperactive pilot prisoner “Swamp Thing” and delivers one of the cheesiest jokes in the entire film. There’s also a miscast Dave Chappelle as junkie “Pinball.” Steve Buscemi stars as serial killer Garland Greene (whose murders make the Manson Family look like the Partridge Family), coming off as both creepy and unexpectedly funny. John Malkovich gives the best performance in the film as “Cyrus the Virus.” He’s such an entertaining baddie and his death scene is probably one of my favorite action deaths ever (as it goes on for a while and he bites it in three increasingly over-the-top ways).

In terms of action, CON AIR never once gets repetitive. There are one-on-one fights, plane crashes, car chases, explosions, midair combat, and showdowns in various locations. The film is also shot in a way wherein the viewer can make out what the hell is going on and which characters are giving/receiving the blows/bullets. To say that the film gets over-the-top in its action would be a huge understatement as one scene has a broken propeller flying between Cage and Malkovich…to break up their confrontation in the most insane way possible.

CON AIR has lots of goofy details and obvious flaws. There’s the silly performance from Nicolas Cage and the colorful prisoners (who all contribute to the humor and action). The film’s soundtrack seems downright strange in places (Trisha Yearwood’s “How Do I Live” is incredibly out-of-place for this film, but still received an Oscar nomination) and the same guitar riff is played around a hundred times throughout the score. For all of its faults and stupidity, CON AIR is fun and succeeds at being entertaining from start to finish. If you’re into action movies (especially ridiculous ones) and you haven’t seen CON AIR, you owe it to yourself to sit through this one!

Grade: B

CELL (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Content, Terror, brief Sexuality and Language

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Directed by: Tod Williams

Written by: Stephen King & Adam Alleca

(based on the novel CELL by Stephen King)

Starring: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Stacy Keach & Wilbur Fitzgerald

Even people who have never picked up one of Stephen King’s 54 novels are bound to know the man from his many big screen and small screen adaptations. CELL is the latest of these movies. Based on the 2006 zombie novel from King, this film has long been in the works with Eli Roth originally slated to direct and Dimension Studios backing the budget. Years passed. Nothing happened. People moved on with their lives. After a long and troubled production history, CELL has finally been unleashed onto the public. Is it worth the almost decade long journey to the big screen? Nope. Not even close. This is simultaneously one of the worst Stephen King movies and one of the worst zombie films to come out in a long time.

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Graphic artist Clay Riddell (John Cusack) is at an airport, when a mysterious electronic pulse is sent through every active cell phone in the world. Those exposed to the signal (anyone who happened to be on the cell phone) has transformed into a screeching, blood-thirsty “phoner” that wants nothing more than to eat your flesh. After escaping with the help of train operator Tom (Samuel L. Jackson), Clay desperately wishes to reach his family…if only to confirm whether they’re phoners or totally safe. Soon enough, the pair are joined by teenage Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman) and the newly formed trio of survivors make their way across the bloody cell phone apocalypse to rescue Clay’s family. As if things couldn’t get any more dangerous, phoners have formed a hive-mind and are now killing in flocks.

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I wanted to give CELL the benefit of the doubt. Believe me, I tried. I was a fan of the novel upon its release and have revisited it a few times since then, one of those was deliberately in preparation for this movie adaptation. Though it’s not exactly original, the book is a creepy, compelling and entertaining read. That being said, this movie is a complete and utter mess. As an adaptation of the source material, it fails to ignite any sense of suspense that the book carried so well. Part of this results from an obviously low budget that didn’t allow for the large-scale chaos and hysteria that King brought to life on the page. This is glaring in the consistently awful CGI that’s used for plane crashes, fire, explosions, smoke, and hordes of phoners. However, it seems outright useless in places, like when cheap CGI is employed for falling snow. I find it very hard to believe that this production couldn’t afford cheap plastic flakes that look more convincing than an obvious flash animation effect.

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Even when viewed as a standalone creation that’s loosely based on a Stephen King novel (a category in which some of the best King films fall into), CELL remains a boring, stupid slog to sit through. These 98 minutes feels like a chore to endure. The film opens with cheap lazy credits that hinted I might be in for something painful right from the start, but never gains any big momentum to make you feel that the world has fallen into a zombie-filled wasteland. The whole movie basically follows a repeating pattern of characters running into other characters, encountering a phoner flock, and meeting more characters. Some of these survivors happen to be plot points in the novel, but every side character (aside from our trio of survivors) is treated with an equal amount of disinterested blandness.

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John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson starred in one of the best King movies of the 2000’s: 1408. Cusack was even an executive producer on this film. In CELL, both of these talented performers look bored and I got the sense that they knew this material wasn’t working on the screen. Other supporting characters come and go in a forgettable flash, giving a variety of dull or comically over-the-top performances. One shining star in this bleak mess of a film comes in Isabelle Fuhrman (the creepy child from ORPHAN) as Alice. In the book, this character represents an innocence lost in the apocalypse. Fuhrman captures that relatively well, but is frequently swiped to the sidelines so Jackson and Cusack engage in tedious conversations. As far as other side characters go, Stacy Keach looks like he’s in pain as a boring school headmaster, Owen Teague receives about ten lines as a tag along student, and Anthony Reynolds goes beyond the point of over-the-top as a technological savvy survivor.

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For a zombie movie, CELL is shockingly dull and relatively tame in terms of gore. There are only about three or four notable zombie (er, I mean “phoner”) encounters after the airport chaos. These bits mostly include characters running away from zombies or firing guns (complete with Adobe after effects). However, these phoners aren’t exactly that threatening or scary to begin with. These zombies pretty much run in circles and emit electronic sounds from their mouths. While those details worked in the book, they look insanely silly and laughably bad on the screen. The main phoner antagonist, a red-hooded Raggedy Man, also comes off like a lame-brained, half-assed afterthought.

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To add insult to injury, CELL’s mind-bogglingly stupid ending lacks emotion or creativity. It should be noted that the film’s conclusion strays from the original novel and the author himself is partially responsible for this haphazard screenplay. Apparently, King had issues with the book’s finale (which was slightly ambiguous, but sent the story out on an interesting/possibly uplifting note) and attempted to remedy that here. He did about as good of a job as he accomplished in 1997, by “fixing” THE SHINING with a godawful six-hour miniseries starring Stephen Weber. The crappy ending is only more disappointment added onto this big failure of a film that somehow isn’t getting an F…thanks to a Isabelle Fuhrman’s good performance. This is easily one of the worst Stephen King films I’ve seen. It’s down there with THE TOMMYKNOCKERS, CHILDREN OF THE CORN, and THE LANGOILERS. Avoid CELL and stick to the book…or just watch a bevy of better zombie films.

Grade: D-

1408 (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Material including Disturbing Sequences of Violence and Terror, Frightening Images and Language

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Directed by: Mikael Hafstrom

Written by: Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski

(based on the short story 1408 by Stephen King)

Starring: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, Tony Shalhoub & Jasmine Jessica Anthony

Stephen King is a mixed bag on film. Some of his plot points don’t properly translate from page to the screen (the ending of DREAMCATCHER being the biggest pet peeve of mine), while other stories aren’t that good to begin with (TOMMYKNOCKERS). 2007 proved that great adaptations of the famous horror author’s work could still be made for the big screen. We received two King short stories turned into films and both were stellar. While many cite THE MIST as being one of the best King movies of all time, I actually think 1408 (which came out a few months before THE MIST) is the better of the two. Taken from a short story in the collection EVERYTHING’S EVENTUAL, 1408 is essentially THE SHINING on a small-scale with more psychological scares thrown into the mix. I’ll argue this cinematic take on the material actually tops the original short story as well.

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Mike Enslin is a paranormal investigator with a best-selling line of books (with titles such as 10 Haunted Graveyards, 10 Haunted Hotels, etc.). Despite constantly spending his nights in supposedly haunted locations, Mike is a complete and utter skeptic. He doesn’t believe a word that he writes and feels that all of this supernatural stuff is all a bunch of spookhouse bullshit. However, Mike is in for a rude awakening when he makes a visit to the prestigious Dolphin Hotel and stays in the notorious Room 1408. Allegedly, the room is responsible for 56 deaths and no guest has lasted more than an hour within its walls. Mike enters the room…and all hell breaks loose as he finds himself stuck in a waking nightmare from which there doesn’t seem to be any escape.

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The key difference between 1408 and many other ghost stories of its ilk is that this film isn’t simply about a haunted location. Instead, the room serves as an ingenious plot device to dive into the tragic past of a broken man. Mike finds himself being not only confronted by ghosts and spooky occurrences (including the room morphing and changing around him), but also the events that led him on the path of being a cynical skeptic. It’s not as if any of the plot points and revelations made about this character feel cheap or out-of-the-blue either, because the movie brilliantly sets these up from the very beginning. Little details and bits of dialogue come back in a big bad way, which are only further highlighted by multiple viewings (this is a horror film that I saw numerous times on the big screen).

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To carry what essentially becomes a one-man-show for a majority of the running time, John Cusack mounts himself perfectly as Mike. He plays the cynical asshole role with such bravado and conviction that I find myself forgetting that I’m watching Cusack every single time I stick this movie in. The character of Mike Enslin isn’t only a jerk though, but also has a huge vulnerable side to him. Cusack really brings this out during a couple of moments that begin as spooky and ultimately become heartbreaking. The supporting cast is noteworthy as well. Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack and Tony Shalhoub all make the most of their brief moments of screen time (mostly seen before the story enters Room 1408).

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Besides the acting and screenplay, 1408 also manages to be very, very scary. Of course, there are jump scares. I mean, just look at that plot synopsis and you’re bound to expect jump scares. However, the jump scares in this movie always come from something that’s legitimately scary and threatening. We don’t get any fake-outs (that I can remember) of a simple loud noise or something that’s only meant to jolt you out of your seat and nothing more. The ghosts in this film (of which we see a handful) have pretty cool effects going on in that they almost look like fading projections and there’s also a memorable scene in a vent that’s freaky beyond all words. What’s pretty amazing about 1408 is how it makes little supposedly mundane details (a key hole, some paintings, a peep-hole, a baby crying in the next room, etc.) into something completely terrifying. The film caps all of this off with stellar sound design (including a perfect soundtrack) and a well-timed sense of humor that never outweighs any of the horror.

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1408 is probably the most underrated Stephen King adaptation out there. This isn’t simply about a haunted hotel room, but goes into far deeper psychological areas. Cusack dominates the screen in one of his most demanding roles as Mike Enslin and the hotel room becomes a character unto itself. This film is basically about one man confronting his past and pain in a frightening way that manifests itself through a hotel room. In my honest opinion, 1408 is one of the best Stephen King movies ever!

Grade: A+

MAPS TO THE STARS (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 51 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Disturbing Violence and Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Language and some Drug Material

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Directed by: David Cronenberg

Written by: Bruce Wagner

Starring: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon & Evan Bird

David Cronenberg doesn’t make easy movies. That’s just a given. After humble beginnings with body horror (SHIVERS, THE BROOD, VIDEODROME), Cronenberg went through a cinematic transformation during the late 80’s. This filmmaker, who had mastered the art of making audiences uncomfortable, decided to focus on the more cerebral side of terror with the likes of DEAD RINGERS, CRASH, and SPIDER. When the new millennium hit, Cronenberg decided to further evolve with two crime dramas (A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, EASTERN PROMISES). Though I can’t attest to loving every one of his films (I find SCANNERS to be vastly overrated), I dig most of Cronenberg’s work to some degree. Since his last film (COSMOPOLIS) was absolutely abysmal, I worried that his filmography might be going off the rails with MAPS TO THE STARS. My fears have been put to rest….kind of. This film is very hit-or-miss with slightly more hits than misses.

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Agatha is a scarred woman visiting Los Angeles. In the city of dreams and celebrities, she hits it off with a limousine driver/budding actor and is hired as the personal assistant to actress Havana. Havana is a spoiled, washed-up brat who constantly does her best Joan Crawford impression by screaming at the top of her lungs and acting crazy. Her therapist is Dr. Stafford Weiss and happens to be father to spoiled child actor Benjie. Benjie is making waves as he loathes his younger co-star on the set of a new film, commits criminal acts, and pretty much acts like a slightly toned-down version of Justin Bieber. Did I mention that Havana and Benjie also see ghosts? Because that happens too. The plot is as coherent as the general set-up that I’ve just described. There’s not so much of a story here as there is a group of insane people in Hollywood.

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The acting is bland as cast members put no discernible emotion into their dialogue. A few of these characters are pretty interesting in spite of the lifeless performances. It should be said up front that not a single person is likable, but I was intrigued to see what would happen to each and every one of these characters. Julianne Moore screams and goes really over-the-top, but that works for the spoiled brat she’s playing. John Cusack and Olivia Williams are woefully underdeveloped as Benjie’s parents, but the character of Benjie is fascinating. Mia Wasikowska is wooden, as is Robert Pattinson (who isn’t given a lot of screen time). These cast members certainly aren’t helped by messy dialogue that gets downright silly in spots.

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If nothing else, MAPS TO THE STARS tackles interesting points about the darker side of Hollywood. While not-so-subtle ghosts of the past are used in a tacky way (literal ghosts), the culture of spoiled child actors is tackled with gusto. I sort of wish that Cronenberg had dedicated a whole feature to that section of this movie as it’s more than timely and relevant given the asinine stunts that Bieber, Cyrus, and Lohan have pulled in the past decade. Cronenberg seems to be taking on too much in the space of a single movie though, which is aided by a handful of pointless moments. There was really no reason to have Robert Pattinson in this movie aside from one scene near the end. An entire subplot of Julianne Moore’s character trying to get a role doesn’t have much to do with the grand scheme of the film either.

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MAPS TO THE STARS moves at a very deliberate pace. There are good scenes, most of which feature the Bieber doppelgänger. However, I couldn’t help but feel that parts of this film were half-assed. This is mainly seen in a shrug-worthy finale that showcases truly terrible CGI (I’ve seen better effects on the Syfy Channel) and a closing scene that seems included only for the sake of shock value. The biggest issue with the slow pacing is that it feels like MAPS is building up to a big pay-off and that never happens. It’s the equivalent of hearing a long joke that sounds really funny and is concluded with a lame humor-killing punchline.

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While I’ve probably made MAPS TO THE STARS sounds like a boring movie in most respects, there’s something interesting about the whole film that kept me hooked into it. I never once rolled my eyes at the bad acting or slow pace, but I found myself oddly compelled through just how strange this movie was. There are a lot of flaws, but MAPS certainly isn’t all out terrible or even bad. There are a lot of topics to be dissected within this film, but they aren’t necessarily executed as well as they should have been. This is not Cronenberg’s worst (that dishonor still firmly belongs to COSMOPOLIS), but it remains far from his best. MAPS TO THE STARS is an okay oddity that really didn’t disturb me, shock me or make me laugh (parts are clearly satirical), but remains gripping in its own weirdly indescribable way.

Grade: C+

ADULT WORLD (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sexual Content and some Drug Use

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Directed by: Scott Coffey

Written by: Andrew Cochran

Starring: Emma Roberts, Evan Peters, John Cusack, Armando Riesco, Shannon Woodward, Reed Birney & Catherine Lloyd Burns

ADULT WORLD is one of those movies that comes off as completely standard stuff. It’s not going to blow your mind and I didn’t hate it, but this coming-of-age comedy is a strictly mundane affair. The three big names (Emma Roberts, Evan Peters, John Cusack) headlining the cast only strengthen the feeling of this being a wasted opportunity. The film is a tonal mess and the plot is strung together in a series of uneven events. It’s a movie that doesn’t know where to take a stand and how to properly tell an engaging story. There’s a would-be unconvincing message that doesn’t fit with the supposedly upbeat tone. ADULT WORLD is very much of victim of nobody really trying and yet for all that, it’s not terrible. This is just a disappointing bore.

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Amy has just graduated from college and is convinced that she’s going to become the next famous poet. However, the constant stream of rejection letters and her dependence on her parents (who are understandably fed up with her lack of a job) would say otherwise. Amy is forced to swallow the humble pie and take the only job where she can find work, the sex store “Adult World.” On her daily adventures in Adult World, Amy becomes good friends with co-worker Alex and forcibly throws herself into the role of protégé to washed-up writer Rat Billings. That’s pretty much all the plot the movie covers right there. It tries to mix in comedy with drama and winds up with a pretty uneven film that just exists.

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ADULT WORLD is very much part of what some people call the mumblecore movement, even though it does feature bigger names than that subgenre of filmmaking usually has. It’s got the shaky camera work and feels like it’s very natural in the dialogue, but that’s part of the problem. This is a movie and it focuses far too much on one annoying character that I would run away from if I met her on the street. Evan Peters is alright as Amy’s potential love interest, but there isn’t a whole lot of development thrown his way. John Cusack is only solid performance in that he feels like a fleshed-out guy. He’s a washed-up poet living a miserable drunken existence and doesn’t care about Amy’s success, even though she’s throwing herself at his feet. Then there’s Emma Roberts as Amy. She’s proven herself to be wickedly talented in the past (e.g. IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY), but she’s plain bad here. Add in that her character doesn’t realistically learn a lesson and the conclusion plays out as if everything’s working out for the sake of the movie coming to an end. By that time, it was all becoming a chore to sit through and I welcomed the end credits.

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At one point, Rat Billings (Cusack as the only decent character) points out that if everything’s great, then nothing is. The bad is what catapults the great things into being so great. The same can be said for films like ADULT WORLD. It’s an independent production starring some big names, but comes off as a movie that isn’t great. In a small sense that can be taken as the very message Cusack’s character throws in a half-assed manner at Emma Roberts. This movie only makes everything else around it seem that much better. I wouldn’t recommend ADULT WORLD, unless you’re looking for some background noise or something to fall asleep to. Harsh words, but true.

Grade: C-

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