LIGHTS OUT (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Terror throughout, Violence including Disturbing Images, some Thematic Material and brief Drug Content

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Directed by: David F. Sandberg

Written by: Eric Heisserer

Starring: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Maria Bello, Billy Burke & Alicia Vela-Bailey

In 2013, fresh-faced filmmaker David F. Sandberg made a phenomenal short film, titled LIGHTS OUT, that became an internet sensation. Apparently some studio head watched this creepy video and gave 5 million dollars to Sandberg, because there’s now a feature-length LIGHTS OUT hitting theaters. I was both hesitant and excited when buying my tickets for this spooky summer horror flick. The trailer was impressively scary and Sandberg clearly had a knack for creating nightmarish images, but memories of DARKNESS FALLS, MAMA, and 2011’s DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK danced through my head. Judging from my own reaction towards this film and the vocal responses from audience members around me, LIGHTS OUT will be terrifying for filmgoers who haven’t seen a lot of horror films and a fun time for seasoned genre fans!

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Twenty-something Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) has effectively distanced herself from her overly oppressive and mentally disturbed mother, Sophie (Maria Bello). When Rebecca’s stepfather (Billy Burke) dies, her younger brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is left solely in unstable Sophie’s care. Though it might appear that two people are living in Sophie’s home, that’s not quite the case…because a dangerous entity also resides in the house. This monster is blood-thirsty and can only appear/attack in the dark. Rebecca tirelessly tries to get Martin out of her mother’s house before it’s too late!

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LIGHTS OUT kicks off on a hugely positive note, with a prologue that delivers effective scares in a big, bad way. This opening sequence in a warehouse echoes a distinct moment from the 2013 short film and becomes borderline terrifying for five minutes. Sadly, it also served as the scariest part of the entire film and the rest of the story never quite achieved the same level of well-crafted horror again. There are loads of jump scares spread throughout the shakily paced 81 minutes. These range from great to a blatantly cheap (the movie doesn’t follow its own rules), but the film truly shines in its quieter, more suspenseful frights.

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Though clocking in at 81 minutes, LIGHTS OUT still feels slightly stretched in its short running time. There’s only so much you can do with a premise like this. In order to add 78 extra minutes to what began as a three-minute short, the screenplay constantly dabbles in melodrama (which may work for some filmgoers, but felt like lazy filler to me) and a mind-boggling exposition dump that lays out the entire plot for the viewer. There’s no reason that Rebecca should know certain information, other than the script needed it to happen through a box of files, conveniently placed recordings and a few grainy flashbacks. The origin of this darkness creature (which has already been spoiled in the film’s marketing) is a bit silly to say the least. Even the tooth fairy from DARKNESS FALLS seems slightly more creative than clawed darkness-dweller “Diana.”

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The plot calls for these characters to walk through dark places, while fully knowing there’s a monster lurking around every corner. This means that lots (and lots) of aggravatingly stupid decisions are made by characters we’re supposed to care about, resulting in some of the most annoying horror victim logic I’ve seen in years. A dumbass turns off a light to see a creepy silhouette and then proceeds to mess with the light switch for a full minute before coming to the conclusion that this might be a bad idea. Teresa Palmer uses a flashlight that constantly needs to be cranked, because it would make too much sense to grab a normal flashlight. There’s also the cliché of a character hearing a sound in a mysterious room and making her way down a shadowy hallway to investigate…even though there’s a whole lot of darkness for Diana to hide in.

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In spite of dumb characters, silly scenes (namely, that damn exposition dump this film never fully recovers from), and never quite reaching the terrifying level of its prologue, LIGHTS OUT is fun in a gimmicky way. Out of the many horror films that feature darkness-dwelling threats, LIGHTS OUT probably stands out as the best (not exactly a huge compliment considering the competition is DARKNESS, DARKNESS FALLS, and DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK). The film has quality scares and occasionally embraces creativity in its creepy premise (a scene with a gun is a cool highlight). Overall, LIGHTS OUT is a solid gateway horror flick for those who haven’t seen too many horror films and will probably serve as a fun, flawed ride that’s in one ear and out the other for genre fans.

Grade: B-

THE 5TH WAVE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violence and Destruction, some Sci-Fi Thematic Elements, Language and brief Teen Partying

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Directed by: Jonathan Blakeson

Written by: Susannah Grant, Akiva Goldsman & Jeff Pinkner

(based on the novel THE 5TH WAVE by Rick Yancey)

Starring: Chloe Grace Moretz, Nick Robinson, Ron Livingston, Maggie Siff, Alex Roe, Maria Bello, Maika Monroe & Liev Schreiber

In a world where HUNGER GAMES has ended and DIVERGENT is on the brink of concluding, Hollywood frantically searches for its next big young-adult franchise. The latest attempt at grabbing teenage eyeballs has come in the form of THE 5TH WAVE. Based on the first in a trilogy of young-adult novels (of course), this film follows a by-the-numbers dystopian plot aided by stereotypical teenage romantic clichés. So, do I loose movie critic points if I say that I actually didn’t mind it as much as other recent young-adult movies? This is definitely no HUNGER GAMES, but it’s also far better than DIVERGENT or the latest MAZE RUNNER. Essentially, this is the tween equivalent of INDEPENDENCE DAY and there’s fun to be had in that.

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Cassie Sullivan is your average 16-year-old girl. She goes to school, likes boys, and is constantly texting on her phone. All of this comes to an end when a UFO begins to orbit the earth. First, the aliens take out our technology and electricity. Then, the aliens (uncreatively called The Others) bring a huge earthquake followed by a plague to wipe out most of humanity. To make matters even worse, the Others start taking over human hosts BODY SNATCHERS style. Soon, only small groups of survivors are left intact. With the help of mysterious farmer Evan, Cassie finds herself on a dangerous journey to rescue her younger brother. Meanwhile, Ben (Cassie’s crush) and Sam (Cassie’s aforementioned brother) train to fight a new kind of war against the Others.

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You can definitely tell that THE 5TH WAVE is yet another in a long line of young adult novels being turned into potential blockbuster franchises. However, this film is currently tanking at the box office, so it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see the two follow-up novels hit the big screen. I’m bummed about that, because THE 5TH WAVE is pretty entertaining. It definitely has its fair share of problems and I could easily understand why someone would outright hate this movie, but it worked okay for me. Part of this might come from the bleak sense that humanity has ended. In a series like DIVERGENT or MAZE RUNNER, the tone somehow never seems to appropriately meld with the apocalyptic setting. 5TH WAVE doesn’t shy away from scenes of destruction or questionable morals brought about by the end of humanity. It’s oddly refreshing in that way.

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As Cassie, Chloe Grace Moretz is a suitable enough lead. She’s a stronger female protagonist than Tris (from DIVERGENT), but far from a Katniss Everdeen. She only occupies half of the running time though, as the other half is devoted to Sam and Ben (also called Zombie) going through intense training. Nick Robinson (the older brother in JURASSIC WORLD) is serviceable enough in the role of Ben. I actually found Maika Monroe’s gothed-out and tough-as-nails Ringer to be the most interesting character in this military storyline. Liev Schreiber delivers the best performance of the entire film as a military commander with more up his sleeve than meets the eye. The worst character comes in Alex Roe’s Evan. The combination of Roe’s wooden line delivery and sheer blandness of Evan slow down the film every single time he’s on the screen.

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THE 5TH WAVE does border on potentially venturing into a horrible Stephenie Meyer-esque love-triangle of sorts. The target audience for this film are tweens after all, so we have to get an obligatory slow-motion shot of Alex Roe bathing shirtless whilst Chloe Moretz gazes lustfully at him. However, what kept me invested in this story was the far more interesting aspect of people fighting body-snatching aliens. The film realizes this and keeps moving straightforward onto this plot, avoiding any painful melodrama that might have occurred in other hands (ala Stephenie Meyer). The effects are mostly high-grade, resulting in the scenes of destruction looking great and fights/chases being competently executed. The only glaring misuse of CGI comes in the aliens resembling glowing Brain Slugs from FUTURAMA, but they’re mostly kept to the dark.

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In true first-part-of-a-trilogy form, THE 5TH WAVE does end on a “To Be Continued…” note. This is unfortunate, because I’m actually interested to see what happens next in this budding franchise (not enough to pick up the books, but enough to sit through two more big-screen installments). If the box office and negative reception are any indication, that’s not likely to happen. True, THE 5TH WAVE is just another failed franchise in the making, but it happens to be executed with more care than other recent installments in financially successful young adult franchises (e.g. INSURGENT, THE SCORCH TRIALS). If this film sounds interesting to you, then I’d say to give it a rent or catch a matinee.

Grade: B-

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal Violence, Graphic Sexuality, Nudity, Language and some Drug Use

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Directed by: David Cronenberg

Written by: Josh Olson

(based on the graphic novel A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE by John Wagner & Vince Locke)

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Peter MacNeill & Stephen McHattie

David Cronenberg made waves with his unique brand of body-horror (SHIVERS, THE BROOD, VIDEODROME) and a number of dark psychological thrillers (DEAD RINGERS, CRASH, SPIDER). This filmmaker seems most comfortable when he’s making difficult films that are sure to be a hit on the art-house circuit, but won’t likely connect with the general public. However, Cronenberg has also crafted a handful of mainstream hits. Next to his remake of THE FLY, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE just might be his most accessible movie. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, VIOLENCE isn’t a bloody shoot-em-up from start to finish as its name implies, but rather a dark drama with spurts of graphic bloodshed. Those expecting a simple action thriller will find themselves disappointed, while those hoping for something deeper will be rewarded.

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Tom Stall has made a good life for himself in a small peaceful Indiana town. He is a loving husband, a devoted father to his two children, and runs a little restaurant. One night, everything changes when two convicts attempt to violently rob Tom’s diner. With quick reflexes and a steady trigger finger, he kills both men. This has him lauded as a local hero by the townsfolk and news, but Tom is the quiet type and neither wants credit, nor the attention. There might be a reason for Tom’s reserved manner about the incident as some shady people, including a dead-eyed man, show up claiming that Tom is actually someone named “Joey.” As the Stall family’s encounters with these threatening men begin to reach a frightening peak, it’s clear that Tom might not actually be who he says he is.

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HISTORY OF VIOLENCE is definitely a story with pulp conventions. As a result, there are some clichés (e.g. a kid being used as collateral), bits of cheesy dialogue, and the plot doesn’t exactly head in areas that we couldn’t correctly guess from miles away. However, the way that David Cronenberg treats this familiar material makes all the difference. More an examination of violence rather than just another action-oriented gangster tale with gun fights and explosions, there’s a dark emotional honest core at the center of VIOLENCE. The film takes its time to examine not just the restaurant incident’s effect of Tom (who’s slowly becoming a more confrontational individual), but also how his teenage son’s escalating conflict with a bully as well as Edie, Tom’s wife, watching her picture-perfect life crumbling around her.

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As Tom Stall, Viggo Mortensen transforms into a small town guy with a dark secret. Once his character’s shadowy past comes to light, Mortensen does a brilliant job in showcasing Tom’s (or is it Joey’s?) darker side in a natural way that doesn’t feel out-of-place in the context of the story. Maria Bello is excellent as Tom’s wife and not simply a damsel in distress, but a woman faced with a life-changing revelation and must make difficult decisions as a result of that. In the villains department, the movie showcases great talent. Stephen McHattie (the smallest of the bad guys) has a memorable three-scene role as the thug who holds up Tom’s diner. Ed Harris is downright frightening as the dead-eyed man who’s stalking the Stall family. William Hurt doesn’t reveal himself until the final third of the film, but more than makes up for that with a sinister performance.

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Though it’s far more restrained than those expecting a blood-soaked action flick might hope, Cronenberg delivers graphic gory visuals in his real-world approach to the pulpy material. When someone gets a bullet through their skull, we get a brief shot of their face blown halfway to hell and them choking on their blood. In another instance, someone’s nose is beaten to a gory crater. These scenes definitely don’t make up a majority of the story, which is all about build-up and the effect that these violent incidents are having on the lives of the Stall family, but they exist. The only moment that really felt exaggerated and silly to me was an unrealistic sex scene that comes right the hell out of nowhere during the second half. Otherwise, Cronenberg executes this somewhat clichéd material with a steady hand, heavy atmosphere, and careful attention to detail.

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A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE might disappoint some people in not being a violent action-packed tale from start to finish, but instead being a dark slow-burn drama with shocking bursts of bloodshed. Cronenberg might not have made a straight-up genre picture or psychological head-trip this time around, but he told a story that seems all too frightening and relevant in our current times. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE examines just how thin the barrier between a calm simple day and bloody chaos really is, as well as the life-shattering effects that violence can have on both victims and perpetrators.

Grade: A-

THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: NC-17 for some Graphic Sexual Content

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Directed by: Kirby Dick

Written by: Kirby Dick, Eddie Schmidt & Matt Patterson

Starring: Kirby Dick, Becky Altringer, Darren Aronofsky, Jamie Babbit, Maria Bello, Atom Egoyan, Mary Harron, Wayne Kramer, Kimberly Peirce, Kevin Smith, Matt Stone, Michael Tucker & John Waters

My hatred for the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) burns with the white-hot rage of a thousand suns and I respect nearly everyone who stands up to them. You may know of the group as they are responsible for dictating which films are appropriate for what age group through a backwards system. In 2005, documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick put together a highly ambitious project that would shed light on the reclusive movie ratings board. THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED thoroughly examines the organization that determines which movies are G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17 and points out the hypocrisy in this deeply flawed system.

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Fed up with the silly actions and illogical secretive nature of the MPAA, filmmaker Kirby Dick recruits a private investigator to find out the identities of the ratings board members. While Kirby’s investigation intensifies, we are shown interviews from various filmmakers, critics, and former MPAA raters about the double-standard of sex being more taboo than bloody violence. There’s also a special examination spent on the dreaded NC-17 rating (formerly X) that prevents a film from going into nationwide theatrical release at any of the mainstream theaters. A special focus is on specific directors speaking up about their experiences with receiving an NC-17 and going through complex appeals process.

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The way in which Kirby Dick goes about proving valid points against the MPAA are extreme to say the least. He straight-up hires a private eye complete with hidden cameras and stake-outs. Though it’s very entertaining to watch, one could argue that the ethics behind this approach are a bit questionable. I do agree that names of the MPAA board members need to be made public, but could draw the line at flaunting their personal information (revealing the ages of the children and digging through their trash). At times, it seems like Kirby is going too far. I know that some may disagree, but he could have condensed this information down into a small piece near the conclusion.

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As far as Kirby does go, the big complaint I have regarding THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED is that it offers brief throwaway glimpses of other problems with the MPAA (including ridiculously strict piracy laws and possible propaganda). These are coincidentally both brought to light to in two separate clips of one interview with a guy who seems to be straying off topic onto completely different things. Either Kirby might have devoted a more time to these topics or he could have cut these pieces out entirely because they seem out-of-place.

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Interviews with filmmakers and former MPAA board members more than make up for this documentary’s faults. These snippets are far more revealing and interesting than anything that Kirby or the private investigators offer. Most hilarious are Matt Stone’s experiences about the puppet sex scene in TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE and John Water’s possible reasons for A DIRTY SHAME receiving an NC-17. Filmmakers shed light on the MPAA’s prejudice towards pubic hair, gay sex, or a film’s overall tone being “too extreme” for an R rating, but other potentially harmful stuff skates by with a PG-13.

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There are annoyances in Kirby Dick and the private investigators going too far and unrelated interview clips, but this is a very well-executed and important documentary nonetheless. THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED is highly recommended for those who want to know more about the mysterious all-powerful MPAA and essential viewing for those who blindly judge movies simply by their ratings. I know some people who don’t bother watching an R-rated movie (let alone one with an NC-17) based completely on the MPAA’s decision to dictate what’s appropriate for certain ages. If you want to be informed about double-standards of a broken system that’s not likely to change any time soon, then this is a must-see. In spite of a few faults, THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED is one of the most important documentaries about filmmaking ever made.

Grade: A-

BIG DRIVER (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: Mikael Salomon

Written by: Richard Christian Matheson

(based on the novella BIG DRIVER by Stephen King)

Starring: Maria Bello, Joan Jett, Olympia Dukakis, Ann Dowd & Will Harris

When I looked at the October’s upcoming titles a few months back, I was surprised to see two new Stephen King adaptations on the way that were both from his latest anthology FULL DARK, NO STARS. A GOOD MARRIAGE opened up on VOD earlier this month to very negative reviews and BIG DRIVER premiered on the Lifetime Network last night. That channel carries a huge baggage around its TV movies for good reason, most of them are absolute garbage. I actually watched and was planning on reviewing their remake of FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC and its sequel PETALS IN THE WIND. I quickly gave up on reviews for both, because I didn’t have anything interesting to say other than repeating the words melodramatic crap over and over. BIG DRIVER on the other hand is far from melodramatic crap and I’d attribute that to real talent behind the scenes and a great performance from Maria Bello.

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BIG DRIVER follows author Tess Thorne. She’s just spoken at a library event at a tiny town in Massachusetts. After following some friendly advice and taking a shortcut through a desolate forest road, Tess hits a bit of junk in the middle of the street and winds up stranded with a flat tire. A good Samaritan seems to come along in the form of a boisterous redneck truck driver, but his intentions are evil. Tess winds up raped, violated, and left for dead in a sewer grate. Deeply traumatized by the experience and feeling a little piece of herself die inside, Tess goes through the steps to get revenge and find peace of mind. It’s a rape-revenge tale as done by Stephen King and it aired on basic cable. I can safely say that I never saw either one of those coming a few years earlier.

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Three of the cast and crew behind BIG DRIVER actually worked with Stephen King material prior to this TV film. Maria Bello starred as Mort’s wife in SECRET WINDOW. Mikael Salomon directed two episodes of TNT’s underrated mini-series NIGHTMARES & DREAMSCAPES, while Richard Christian Matheson also wrote the teleplay for the best episode of that same series. These three are a winning combination that work extremely well together. Salomon’s visual style is unusually professional and gritty for a made-for-the-small-screen film, let alone a Lifetime movie. Maria Bello does a fantastic job as Tess, conveying every bit of sadness and rage brewing in her character as the latter outweighs the former by the second half. The best part is Richard Christian Matheson’s script though. He finds creative ways to put us deep inside Tess’s psyche, including brief visions of her mentality and her talking with a character from her books (as well as the clever usage of a GPS voice).

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BIG DRIVER is a grimy experience that encapsulates uncomfortable subject matter. Seeing that this is on TV though, certain cuts had to be made in order to air it. While only one major moment near the climax does show restraint, the film gets away with a lot for a small screen rape-revenge flick. A few problems poke up in a couple of unneeded plot threads, especially the absolutely wasted used of Joan Jett. It seems like the filmmaker just went “Hey, we could get Joan Jett!” and Matheson wrote in one scene to include her, but that was the amount of care put into Jett’s inclusion. While the rape scene is still brutal, it’s mercifully short and doesn’t revel in excess (this is far from I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE territory). I actually found it refreshing to get a rape-revenge story that focuses so much on the characters psyche and doesn’t wallow in being a gory exploitation B-flick. It was a neat way to see an otherwise tired and trashy concept done right.

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I would rank BIG DRIVER second on the mercifully short list of rape-revenge flicks that I’ve sat through in their entirety. The only one that I think is higher up would be the remake of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. Both are entirely different films though. This was a surprisingly good Stephen King adaptation that doesn’t feel like it belonged on TV (of all things, Lifetime). It’s very ironic that this TV movie actually wound up being better than A GOOD MARRIAGE from what I’ve heard (which is currently on VOD, in select theaters, and being compared to a stereotypical Lifetime movie by many people). BIG DRIVER is far from your typical Lifetime movie (due to pushing the boundaries and commendable talent behind it) and not your average King adaptation (due to putting a new spin on a well-worn formula). If you’re at least remotely interested, then give this one a chance.

Grade: B

GROWN UPS (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Crude Material including Suggestive References, Language and some Male Rear Nudity

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Directed by: Dennis Dugan

Written by: Adam Sandler & Fred Wolf

Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade, Rob Schneider, Salma Hayek, Maria Bello, Maya Rudolph, Blake Clark & Steve Buscemi

Adam Sandler has easily become one of the most picked-on figures in Hollywood. It seems like I’m jumping on the band wagon by turning Sandler into a punching bag, but I originally liked this comedian. HAPPY GILMORE, BIG DADDY, and ANGER MANAGEMENT are probably my favorite films that Sandler has been involved in as a comedic actor, but the man can also really act in serious roles too (see PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE). It’s absolutely infuriating to see Sandler rely on lowest common denominator humor and phone in damn near every movie he’s been involved with in the last decade. Who thought JACK & JILL (ranked one of the worst movies of all time) was a good idea? How about THAT’S MY BOY (also ranked one of the worst movies of all time) or BUCKY LARSON: BORN TO BE A STAR (which Adam co-wrote)? GROWN UPS is no exception. It’s not that the film is out-and-out unwatchable, but rather that it’s bland beyond belief and plays out more like a horrible feature-length episode of a bad sitcom.

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The so-called story of GROWN UPS revolves around a group of childhood friends reuniting for a weekend of fun after their old basketball coach dies. That’s the whole plot in a nutshell. Each friend has their own separate issues, some more than others, and the tone can’t seem to make up its mind about either being sappy family friendly film or a gross-out affair. The really awful thing about either one of these is that they both feel forced. It’s all been-there done-that humor. Plenty of jokes involving bad hair (courtesy of Rob Schneider), sex with old women (also courtesy of Schneider), farts, breast milk being drunken by a four-year-old child, and somebody getting hurt with no real repercussions. Comedy is a subjective art form, but everything here has been done to death in previous films or is at the level of a Junior High kid’s sense of humor.

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One thing I kept thinking while watching GROWN UPS was about the lack of continuity in the story. It played out more like a series of SNL skits that were all thrown together in a single movie. A webisode format on the official Happy Madison website would have been a more effective way of getting these scenes out (although the material would still be just as lame). What’s even more insulting to the viewer is that everything feels half-assed as far as this being a full-length movie. Some inherent conflicts are set up between a couple of characters and then resolved about two minutes later. A skillfully crafted film might exploit these potential sub-plots for all they were worth and make a coherent plot around it of sorts. Not GROWN UPS and not Adam Sandler, he’s far more concerned about getting back to slow-motion scenes of David Spade falling face-first into a cow turd (not only seen once, but twice).

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The cardinal sin with GROWN UPS is that it doesn’t seem like anybody’s putting any real effort into being funny. It’s a comedy without laughs or a story to speak of. I have a theory that this was all a ruse set up as an excuse for the Happy Madison crew to hang out. The viewer is paying the price for to watch some of these admittedly funny (in the right roles) actors just phone it in. This includes everybody, even an underused Maya Rudolph (seen in a brief part in MACGRUBER with far more laughs than this film) and even more underused Steve Buscemi (appearing for three scenes total). When the movie tries to be sentimental is when it really goes down, because it showed a brief promise that there could have been a decent story inside of GROWN UPS. It all seems like a rushed, phoned in, forced, and false comedy on every affront.

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GROWN UPS wasn’t funny in the slightest. It would have been right at home as a bad TV movie on NBC complete with a laugh track, because everything is just so tame and lame. Some of the crude material gives it the PG-13 rating (mainly due to the disgusting breast milk scenes), but it’s just not anything new or remotely entertaining. Most of the devoted followers of Adam Sandler claim that the hatred for him is unneeded, but Sandler used to be funny and he isn’t anymore. I didn’t think some of his earlier work was good (e.g. BILLY MADISON), but things like HAPPY GILMORE and BIG DADDY entertained me. As he’s progressed in his (unfortunately) successful career, Sandler has become content with playing it easy.

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The jokes in GROWN UPS are obvious, forced, or just plain lame. There’s no story to the film and nobody’s trying with this material. It’s one of the worst comedies I’ve seen in the past five years and the hatred for Sandler is very much warranted if this is the kind of crap he’ll keep pumping out. GROWN UPS is a waste of everybody’s time with the possible exception of the all-star cast. They probably got paid handsomely for their farts.

Grade: D-

Derrick Carter’s Top 10 Films of 2013

List by Derrick Carter

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Trance, Ender’s Game, Simon Killer, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, Rush, Captain Phillips, Stoker, and Side Effects

10. Dallas Buyers Club

10. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB: This film may not be entirely true to the events that it’s based on, but DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is the kind of the movie that makes you re-evaluate just how you’re living your life once the end credits have begun to roll. Matthew McCounaghey and Jared Leto give two of the most heartfelt performances of the year. It’s not a movie that you’ll want to watch on repeat (mainly due to the fact that it’s a film about a man fighting an incurable disease and the war the FDA launches on him), but it’s certainly a powerful one. This is a movie that drained me emotionally by the end of the film, because I was feeling the same frustration at the injustice of how the characters were being treated. Excellent film and I’ll be surprised if both Leto and McCounaghey don’t get Oscar nods.

9. Maniac

9. MANIAC: 2013 was a fantastic year for cinema, but it was a bit of a pathetic year for the horror genre. The best wide-released horror flick was YOU’RE NEXT (which is missing from this list and isn’t even in my Honorable Mentions). There’s always independent and foreign horror to satiate the need to be frightened. MANIAC is a remake that outdoes the original in every conceivable way, whilst also adding the element of seeing the entire film literally through the eyes of a serial killer. What could have wound up being a cheap gimmick becomes a wholly disturbing and chilling experience that will leave you struggling to get a good night’s sleep for a long time after.

8. Place Beyond The Pines

8. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES: There are gripping stories, moments that shock you, and conclusions that leave you emotionally devastated. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES contains all of the above in a narrative that could be seen as almost an anthology format. It’s a story that follows three different characters that are forever shaped by the choices of someone else. Tragedy is one of the most accurate words I can pick when describing this film. Also, it should be noted that the final moments of the film (fueled with a haunting score) had me crying like the first time I saw AMERICAN HISTORY X.

7. Frozen

7. FROZEN: It seems like ever since Disney switched to the computer animation format, they lost the spark of what made their former efforts so magical. Gone were the musical numbers. The sense of timeless fairy tales seemed to be replaced with potty humor and pop-culture references. Recent films like TANGLED and PRINCESS AND THE FROG tried to recapture that flame that gave Disney films like THE LION KING and BEAUTY & THE BEAST. Somehow, against all odds, FROZEN winds up being the best Disney film in about two full decades. The songs are catchy and have stuck with me since my viewing experience. The script also gives memorable characters, while mocking certain Disney clichés and delivering a timeless, wonderful tale. FROZEN is truly something special!

6. American Hustle

6. AMERICAN HUSTLE: Capturing the essence of the 70’s from set designs, costumes, a very cool soundtrack, and Bradley Cooper’s unforgettable perm, AMERICAN HUSTLE told an intense and very entertaining crime story without ever delving into the ultra-violence that the subgenre usually contains. It was a bold move on the part of David O. Russell, but he’s crafted a fantastic film that let the A-list cast run loose and wild to my delight. This is a movie about people double-crossing each other and by the time everything begins hitting the fan, it’s unlikely that you guessed much of what was in store for you as a viewer (including one very neat cameo).

5. Gravity

5. GRAVITY: You can’t get much more epic than the setting of space itself and that’s exactly the canvas that director/writer Alfonso Cuaron (who held off on directing this film until technology was advanced enough to get across his vision) uses for this tale of survival. It’s spectacle, but cinema comes in many forms. It’s not all about important statements, human drama, character studies, or entertainment. Sometimes, a film just needs to be a ride and this is what GRAVITY was. A huge roller-coaster of a movie and I enjoyed it as such. It’s been a tad overhyped at this point, but GRAVITY still remains on my top 10 of 2013!

4. Worlds End

4. THE WORLD’S END: The final part of the “Cornetto” trilogy (also consisting of SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ) is my favorite of the comedic trifecta. Some human drama is thrown into this sci-fi comedy which makes for some unexpectedly emotional moments (much like in SHAUN), which in turn make the laughs that much more heartier. Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright have closed off their so-called trilogy in grand style and though it’s sad to see it come to a close, I can’t imagine a better way to conclude the so-called Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy. Jokes are brilliantly set up in advance and the chemistry between the cast is so convincing and enjoyable to watch that you may even forget there are robots that show up later on (I certainly did).

3. Prisoners

3. PRISONERS: Few movies have ever made me as uncomfortable as this one did. I was uneasy for the entire running time and for good reason, PRISONERS quietly builds suspense and keeps itself one step ahead of the audience. It’s unflinching in its violence, but also shows restraint when it needs to. Some of the more shocking moments in the film come as to what’s implied rather to what’s shoved into the viewer’s face. This script was supposedly passed around from many directors and tons of different casting choices. The end result is so flawless that it makes one wonder if how it even would have stood a chance with anybody else involved. Heartbreaking, intense and concluding in the most provocative way possible. PRISONERS is the best thriller I’ve seen since Fincher’s GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.

2. Wolf Of Wall Street

2. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET: Give Leo the award. Just give Leo the award already! The man is proving himself to be a chameleon of acting (in the same way Gary Oldman is). In THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, Leonardo DiCaprio skillfully slips into the skin of drug addicted, sex addicted, all-around rich scumbag Jordan Belfort. Far from an unpleasant watch, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is easily the most entertaining film I’ve seen in all of 2013. I haven’t laughed harder at a movie all year (the scene involving Leo and Jonah Hill high on Quaaludes is one of the funniest movie scenes I’ve ever seen in my life). The three-hour running time seems to rush right past, showing the best pacing I’ve seen in a movie this length. Overall, just see it. I loved this movie and it’s one that I plan on buying the moment it hits home video!

1. 12 Years A Slave

1. 12 YEARS A SLAVE: It’s pretty surprising that there’s never been a proper film depicting the horrors of slavery until 2013 (ROOTS doesn’t count). This is a heartbreaking movie that tore my emotions apart and had myself (along with a sold-out movie theater) crying heavily during multiple points in the film. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is the kind of film that you never forget once you’ve seen it. It will stick with you and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes required viewing during History classes for its unflinchingly realistic look on the dark stain in American history. The acting from everyone is top-notch, as is every single aspect with this film. I can’t say that I enjoyed this movie at all, because it’s not made to be enjoyed. It does show one man’s struggle to retain his humanity and survive a 12-year-long period in slavery. Hard to watch, but ultimately rewarding in many ways, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is a masterpiece through and through!

PRISONERS (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 23 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Content including Torture, and Language throughout

Prisoners poster

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Written by: Aaron Guzikowski

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo & Paul Dano

Imagine that you’re living a parent’s worst nightmare. Your children just vanished, less than a block away from your home. Someone took your kids and they might still be out there…alive…somewhere. How far would you go to get your children back? Would you become the equivalent of the very monster that abducted your offspring? With every second that passes, the likelihood of your child surviving this ordeal shrinks and those questions become very hard to answer. These are the kind of tough positions that the unrelenting thriller PRISONERS puts you in. If there was ever a film to be described as putting its viewer through the wringer, this is it.

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It’s Thanksgiving and the Dovers are visiting their close friends, the Jones family. At one point, the younger daughters (one from the Dover family and one from the Joneses) go to retrieve a whistle from the Dover’s household. Hours later, it becomes apparent that the girls are missing. Desperately, both families look down their street and through their homes for the children, only to wind up empty-handed. A foreboding RV was seen on the street right around the time that the girls were abducted and the investigation begins.

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Right off the bat, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman in a riveting performance) and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal delivering an amazing performance as well) are at odds with each other. The RV is found with a mentally incapable 20-something behind the wheel. The RV doesn’t have a shred of evidence and the suspect is released. All of this is happening while Loki investigates all the sex offenders nearby for a possible clue. What he uncovers is a disturbing discovery and a shrinking list of suspects. Meanwhile, Keller takes justice into his own hands and abducts the potential suspect in order to try to make him talk. Things get horribly disturbing and dark from then on. Nothing is quite as it appears to be and little details that happen in the early on come back in huge ways by the time the story is wrapping up.

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To say that PRISONERS is disturbing would be a vast understatement. This is far from a graphic or sadistic movie, but it’s devastating on so many levels. Even with a nearly three-hour running time, the movie never gives you have any room to breathe! I was uncomfortable from the moment the girls disappeared to the absolutely unpredictable finale. So many things are laid out for the viewer and even when a major twist is revealed, it isn’t explicitly spelled out. This is a smart movie that constantly plays off the audience’s expectations. After all, intensity of what might occur can be more chilling than what actually does happen at the end of some scenes.

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Then there’s the thick atmosphere of the film. The weather itself factors largely into this as there isn’t a single ray of sunlight in the entire movie. It’s always cloudy, rainy, snowy, or a combination of the three. Either way, it makes for an unnerving setting, even when a conversation between two characters in a car is playing out. That’s another thing about PRISONERS that’s notable too. When something as simple as a dialogue exchange is nail bitingly chilling, it says something for the quality of the movie. Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal both deserve some kind of award for their performances. The twists that PRISONERS takes in the final hour left me gasping more than once or staring wide-eyed at the screen in disbelief. Let’s just say there’s no real way of predicting how everything will play out.

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PRISONERS is the best thriller I’ve seen since David Fincher’s GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. It’s an intense, chilling, and frequently disturbing crime-drama that feels like a tightening a noose around the viewer’s neck. This is what a thriller should be. It’s quietly thrilling and leaves you thinking about it long after. A haunting experience if there ever was one and it might wind up being the best film of 2013!

Grade: A+

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