THE DARK HALF (1993)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Language

Directed by: George A. Romero

Written by: George A. Romero, Paul Hunt & Nick McCarthy

(based on the novel THE DARK HALF by Stephen King)

Starring: Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Michael Rooker, Julie Harris, Robert Joy, Chelsea Field, Royal Dano & Rutanya Alda

The 90s were loaded with Stephen King adaptations that ranged from great to good and mediocre to downright terrible. There are a handful of efforts from this decade that seem unfairly overlooked (especially when the crappy IT miniseries gets much more acclaim than it should) and George A. Romero’s big screen version of THE DARK HALF is one of these underrated King flicks. Proving to be a faithful adaptation of its source material and translating King’s words into a compelling on-screen narrative, Romero made his second big studio film into a tense thrill ride that brims with suspense, violence, and dark imagination. This is basically King’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) writes highbrow literature under his own name and publishes gritty pulp fiction under the pseudonym of George Stark. When a scumbag discovers Beaumont’s secret writing habits and blackmails him, Beaumont decides that it’s time to lay Stark to rest…complete with a magazine article, interviews, and a fake funeral. When people connected to Stark’s “death” turn up murdered in ways that resemble his novels, it becomes clear that something spooky is afoot. George Stark was an imaginary alter-ego of Thad, but somehow he’s physically manifested himself and wants to exist again. All the while, Sheriff Alan Pangborn (Michael Rooker) suspects that Thad may be the culprit behind these bloody killings.

Of the entire cast, Timothy Hutton easily delivers the film’s best two performances in dual roles. He plays Thad as a quirky writer and it’s obvious that this character was based on Stephen King himself (who loves creating author protagonists because he relates to them). We feel Thad’s frustration as more clues keep pointing back to him as the murderer and he tries to cope with/solve this supernatural scenario. As Stark, Hutton lets his evil side shine. He seems to be constantly snarling, fits in a few one-liners, and is clearly having a blast as a razor-wielding villain who seems like he was pulled straight out of a pulp novel.

On the supporting side of things, most of these characters exist purely to get brutally offed by Stark. They still deliver enough colorful personalities so that the viewer can distinguish who’s being killed at any given time. Amy Madigan shows a believably strained relationship as Thad’s wife, though this disappears when the film takes a more focused Thad vs. Stark approach during the final third. The novel’s ending originally had this relationship come to a depressing end, while the film’s conclusion just sort of ends with a shrug and cuts to credits. Also, Michael Rooker is a welcomed presence as Sheriff Pangborn, even though he seems to exist purely to fill Thad in on the details of Stark’s murders and is noticeably absent from most of the film’s finale.

THE DARK HALF’s script is true to King’s novel, even though certain characters don’t get enough time to really shine. There’s a creepy atmosphere hovering this Jekyll and Hyde tale crossed with a serial killer thriller. The clues behind Stark’s physical manifestation (sparrows, a gruesome discovery in a hospital, etc.) are intriguing and there’s never an eye-rollingly detailed exposition dump. King himself has referred to his favorite stories as tales where the horror just sort of happens with no rhyme or reason. THE DARK HALF follows these fast-and-loose scary guidelines; putting the focus on the string of killings, Thad’s weird mental connection with Stark, and the unavoidable confrontation between two different halves of the same person. It’s also worth noting that this film isn’t a gorefest, but the blood and guts are very effective when they do show up. There’s a stand-out moment in the final minutes that’s an incredible creation of cleverly disguised CGI, stellar practical effects, and gross make-up.

While THE DARK HALF is far from one of the best King movies and it’s not even the best King adaptation from the 90s, George A. Romero’s cinematic treatment of this story is very underrated, fun, and undeniably spooky. Timothy Hutton puts in two great performances, while Romero evokes frights in interesting ways. The set up to a few of the killings are sure to put the viewer on edge and there’s a great would-be jump scare that turns into a hilarious comedic bit. If you want a solid King flick that’s adapted from one of his more unique novels, then I highly recommend giving THE DARK HALF a look.

Grade: B+

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action and Violence, Language, and brief Suggestive Content

Directed by: James Gunn

Written by: James Gunn

(based on the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY comics by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning)

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone & Kurt Russell

Nearly three years after GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY became a surprise hit and smashed box office records, we finally have a sequel. Since director/writer James Gunn helmed Marvel’s first awesome space opera, he returned for this sequel and is already in talks for a third film. Like most sequels, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 is a step down from its predecessor. That’s not to say that this film is one of the worst Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, because AGE OF ULTRON, IRON MAN 2, and THE INCREDIBLE HULK still remain below it. GUARDIANS VOL. 2 is a lot like THOR: THE DARK WORLD in that it’s fun, has great moments and positive qualities, but is not nearly as awesome as it should be.

After slaying a giant power-sucking parasite, the Guardians of the Galaxy (Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Baby Groot) botch a mission by rudely insulting a proud race of gold-skinned aliens. As a result, the Guardians find themselves with a bounty on their head and that attracts the attention of space-pirates. Things are further complicated when Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the gang run across mysterious stranger Ego (Kurt Russell), who claims to be Peter’s long-lost father. This leads to lots of wacky intergalactic action, humorous antics, secrets being revealed, and (as you might have assumed from the title) another rockin’ soundtrack.

As the titular Guardians (of the Galaxy), Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, and Dave Batista blend seamlessly back into their characters, while Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel provide voices. This second installment builds upon the already established chemistry of these characters and lets them do what they do best. Drax still gets major laughs, while Rocket is still the fan favorite rodent asshole. Meanwhile, Baby Groot is both hilarious and adorable at the same time. However, the developing relationship between Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord and Zoe Saldana’s Gamora feels a bit half-assed this time around. Michael Rooker’s space-pirate Yondu and Karen Gillan’s revenge-driven Nebula get more time to shine here and their solid subplots genuinely surprised me.

The film’s new additions, mainly Kurt Russell’s Ego and his insect-like companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff) are both interesting enough. Russell’s natural charisma aids his mysterious character and Klementieff’s Mantis is like a cute little kid in a bug alien’s body. I don’t want to say much about this film’s main antagonist, for fear of spoilers. I will say that I absolutely loved the idea behind this baddie and was willing to forgive a clichéd motivation because of that. It’s also worth noting that the gold-skinned Sovereign aliens and their High Priestess provide great comic relief. Also, a bored-looking Sylvester Stallone appears in a glorified cameo that was shamelessly included as set-up for future Marvel films (something that is a constant detriment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe).

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2’s main problems stem from tedious pacing and sloppy writing. There are arguably too many storylines at play here and, as a result, the movie noticeably feels unfocused. The first third of the film has pacing issues in that I was wondering where things were heading and wasn’t necessarily having fun. There’s a long-winded exposition sequence that’s only tolerable because of Kurt Russell’s charm and nothing else. The film noticeably picks up during its second act and has a very fun final third. Still, it takes a while to recover from the glacial movement and many pointless moments of the first act.

The unfocused approach and all-over-the-place pacing further dilute some would-be emotional scenes during the final act. Certain revelations and plot developments would have made more of a lasting impact, if it hadn’t been for the messy nature of this sequel’s storytelling. That being said, there are still plenty of laughs, action, and great scenes to be had. The opening credit sequence is simultaneously funny, creative and cool. Most of the humor works and the running jokes are sure to get audiences cracking up, especially a couple that are set up far in advance. The film’s set pieces are memorable, with major highlight being a scene from the original film upped to a crazy degree (you’ll know it, when you see it).

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 is a good Marvel movie that could have been a great Marvel movie, if the pacing weren’t slow in the beginning and (too many) storylines weren’t all over the place. I had fun while watching this movie and it had many positive qualities. Certain scenes are great. I like that the film attempted some surprisingly emotional moments, even if they weren’t nearly as powerful as they probably should have been. I also love the villain because the concept is so damn creative and cool. Yet, the more I think about this sequel, the less I like it. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 doesn’t come close to hitting the highs of its predecessor, but remains fun (enough) sci-fi entertainment nonetheless.

Grade: B

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence throughout, Language including Sexual References, and some Drug Use

Directed by: Greg McLean

Written by: James Gunn

Starring: John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Josh Brener, Michael Rooker & Gregg Henry

Work sucks. You probably deal with stupid people on a daily basis and suffer small indignities that pile on unnecessary stress, but things could be a hell of a lot worse. How, you might ask? Well, have you ever had to dodge bullets in your office while using a paper trimmer as an improvised weapon? No? Things don’t seem quite as bad now, do they? THE BELKO EXPERIMENT has this exact scenario play out and turns an office building into a bloody battleground. Directed by Greg McLean (WOLF CREEK) and penned by James Gunn (SLITHER), this film is BATTLE ROYALE in an office building. Though it has flaws, THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is a lot of fun…if office drones slaughtering each other sounds like fun to you. To me, it certainly does and I enjoyed watching this flick.

Belko Industries is a large business that’s located in the middle of nowhere. It seems like a pretty nice place to work (big money, cushy jobs, company cars and paid-for apartments), but all of that changes in an instant. Without warning, a voice comes over the intercom and informs employees that they are now part of a twisted experiment. They must kill two people or face dire consequences. The workers laugh this announcement off as a bad joke, but unexpected metal security doors proceed block off all exits and windows. Still, they refuse to murder and then a few heads explode. The Belko employees will participate in this kill-or-be-killed exercise or their brains will be blown to kingdom come. Things begin to breakdown into thick tensions and bloody carnage as the voice on the intercom demands more bodies…

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT wears its influences on its sleeve. The biggest of these being, of course, BATTLE ROYALE. The script liberally borrows a few plot devices from that film to ensure that things get as bloody as they possibly can, which is a very good thing in a story like this. There’s also a quirky sense of humor as employees attempt to salvage normalcy and remain somewhat civilized in the face of this unthinkable scenario. The office setting, creative killing tools, and little mannerisms all naturally lend a goofy vibe to the proceedings, making a few disturbing scenarios into something downright comical. One of my favorite bits involves a particularly gruesome demise while the company’s promotional video plays in the background.

Despite having 80 employees in the building, Gunn’s script does a solid job of giving many of Belko’s workers time to shine in individual moments. There’s a sense that we’ve all met these people in one setting or another, which makes it even more interesting to watch as they start offing each other. The characters you’d expect to be psychos do become psychos, which could be seen as a problem in the plot’s predictability. Still, the ways that they become unhinged remain entertaining. The film isn’t constant carnage from the minute the killing starts, but begins with small bits of bloodshed and allows for a pressure-cooker of “what would you do?” suspense to build before bursting into an action-packed orgy of chaos. The slower bits and murdery moments deliver equal levels of intensity for entirely different reasons.

John Gallagher Jr. (who recently played a survivor in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE and a psycho-killer in HUSH) plays pacifist protagonist Mike. His constant rationalization of trying to save everybody makes a hero that the audience can root for, while some folks around him seem a little too eager to slaughter their coworkers. Adria Arjona is solid as Mike’s girlfriend and delivers two of the film’s best scenes. Meanwhile, Tony Goldwyn shines as the murder-happy boss and John C. McGinley is great as the office creep (coming off like a psycho version of Milton from OFFICE SPACE). Other cast highlights include: Sean Gunn as a Shaggy-like stoner, Michael Rooker as the scruffy head of Maintenance, Melonie Diaz as an innocent new hire, and Rusty Schwimmer as a security guard. Most of the background characters are colorful enough to stick out too, making their murders and deaths seem like more than just a generic body count.

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT was definitely influenced by other (better) films and is predictable to an extent, but neither of these things really damage the film’s fun. The entertainment factor is through the roof as we watch colorful office drones turn on each other and bite it in various ways. There’s also a sinister sense of humor, even though this isn’t exactly a laugh riot. The film lets its extreme situation naturally build, with effective pacing that puts the viewer in the shoes of these characters. There was a specific scene where I was rooting for one character to brutally kill another character. The film then allowed for a small breath of hesitation to let the audience realize that they had just been put into the same mindset of that character. There’s something special about a film that can accomplish that. If you’re a horror fan, then THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is a gory good time!

Grade: B+

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, and for some Language

GuardGalaxy poster

Directed by: James Gunn

Written by: James Gunn & Nicole Perlman

(based on GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY comics by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning)

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro & Josh Brolin

After months of anticipation, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY has finally arrived. Though primed to be one of the biggest hits of Summer 2014, there’s been a whole lot of speculation about this adaptation of the cult comic book series. I have never read a single issue of GUARDIANS and it would be pure guesswork for me to say if this will surely please diehard fans of the source material, but GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is friggin’ cool. James Gunn (known for his work on cheesy B-flicks like SLITHER and independent films like SUPER) has helmed a crazy good time. This space opera is pure entertainment from start to finish and one of the better Marvel films to date.

GuardGalaxy 1

Peter Quill was abducted from Earth as a young child and has grown up as a space thief, giving himself the nickname Star Lord. After stealing a powerful orb that holds incredible power, Quill has a bounty place on his head. This brings to light two thugs (Rocket and Groot) and an assassin (Gamora) tasked with retrieving the stolen artifact. A warrior, Drax, enters the picture and the band of intergalactic misfits become the Guardians of the Galaxy. They are faced with doing everything in their power to keep the orb from the evil Ronan, a warlord planning on exterminating an entire planet. Aside from each member’s very different baggage, personalities begin to clash as they try to save the universe from almost certain doom.

GuardGalaxy 2

It should be pretty apparent that a movie called GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY mostly relies on the title characters. Before entering the movie theater and even before a trailer had been released, everybody was telling me that Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) was going to steal the show. Judging from the amount of laughter generated from the audience, I’m willing to bet that he’ll be many fans’ favorite character. However, I have to disagree. Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is essentially a living tree alien that speaks three words throughout the entire film (“I Am Groot”). Through some body language and different voice tones, Diesel brings this plant to life. The green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is a female badass that comes off as an action heroine and that’s all she was really meant to be. Peter Quill is Marvel’s version of Han Solo and Chris Pratt is great in the role. My favorite member of the group was Drax. He got the biggest laughs out of me and comes off as a violent version of Spock (taking nearly everything said to him in a literal sense).

GuardGalaxy 3

There are plenty of notable side characters too. Benicio Del Toro reprises his role as the Collector from THOR: THE DARK WORLD, although one can’t help but feel his part was more of a cameo than a full-on side character. GUARIDANS OF THE GALAXY does this with a number of big actors. Glenn Close and John C. Reilly are there for a few minutes. Josh Brolin gives voice to Thanos (who’s primed to be the big bad in the third and most likely final AVENGERS film) and shows up for a small chunk of total screen time. As far as the villains go, Ronan is the major baddie here and feels like the serious threat in an otherwise zany story. I also want to note that Karen Gillan knocked it out of the park as Nebula (Ronan’s assistant, Thanos’ daughter, and Gamora’s sister). Michael Rooker is given a sizable role as a blue-skinned space pirate.

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One thing that has to be admired about GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is how fleshed out the world is. There’s a strong comic series that provides source material and that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been connecting details from the very start, but everything clicks in terms of entirely foreign planets and odd creatures being brought to life on the big screen. Some of the effects are nearly cartoony (mainly involving Rocket and some questionable work in the final showdown), but everything else is visually fantastic. Imaginative as it may be, the comical nature of this story keeps thing rolling at a fast pace. Plenty of laughs are littered every step of the way and none of them detract from the story being told. A couple of moments fall flat, but a lot of the jokes hit right on the mark (Drax had me cracking up).

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Complaints are found in familiar some plot elements though. Aside from the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, GUARDIANS doesn’t completely feel like a Marvel movie and yet suffers from the problems that a few of their other projects have. The plot is predictable in the sense that an origin story is, despite this being totally different from the studio’s usual superhero comic book fare. The characters having internal struggles, but we all know how this is going to play out. It’s enjoyable all the way through, but there was never anything that took me by surprise. One thing that I am getting tired of seeing is the trope of many different artifacts being sought after by heroes and villains. I know it’s a concept as old as time, but Marvel has used it in many of their past films (e.g. the Aether in THOR 2 or the Tesseract in THOR, CAPTAIN AMERICA, and THE AVENGERS). Here’s hoping some different ideas make it into the new AVENGERS movie and the Phase Three films.

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I have no clue as to how GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY will tie into the rest of the Marvel mythos. Despite being in the same cinematic universe populated by the Avengers, this is unlike previous superhero films (even if there are a few similar concepts). It stands fine as a space opera and I wouldn’t mind seeing this turned into its own franchise. The jokey nature is mostly fresh and everyone will have their favorite character of the five colorful heroes. Mine is Drax, though I’m sure the majority will dig Rocket. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is on the higher end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and delivers on being a blast of intergalactic fun that I will revisit many times in the future.

Grade: A-

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