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+

DERAILED (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Disturbing Violence, Language and some Sexuality

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Directed by: Mikael Hafstrom

Written by: Stuart Beattie

(based on the novel DERAILED by James Siegel)

Starring: Clive Owen, Jennifer Aniston, Vincent Cassel, Melissa George, Addison Timlin, RZA, Tom Conti & Xzibit

DERAILED, based on James Siegel’s novel of the same name, is a typical thriller. You’ve probably seen enough similar films to establish a good idea of where things are heading before the movie reaches its halfway point. This being said, it’s truly amazing how some quality actors and a couple of decent twists can make standard material into something far more enjoyable than it should be. DERAILED is more of a guilty pleasure than a solid piece of cinema or quality thriller, but I mean this in a way of back-handed praise. I had a fun watching this in the only way that a cinephile can enjoy a relatively well-executed B-flick.

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Charles Schine is a loving husband, caring father and troubled businessman. Through the simple mistake of missing his usual train, Charles meets a good Samaritan named Lucinda. Despite both of them being married and parents, Charles and Lucinda decide to go against their better judgment and have a fling that becomes an affair. Before the two can go through on the actual affair portion of their fling, a violent stranger breaks into their hotel room with a gun. After beating the crap out of Charles and raping Lucinda, this thug, LaRoche, decides to blackmail both of the potentially unfaithful spouses for all that they’re worth. With stakes increasing and danger taking its toll, Charles must resort to drastic measures in order to protect his family and Lucinda.

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I respect that a significant amount of time was set aside to develop Charles as a likable character who makes a costly mistake. Clive Owen was a great choice for the role and shows a side that we rarely see from him. I usually picture Owen as a badass or tough guy, but his DERAILED character is a bit of a wuss and emotional wreck. He gets the crap kicked out of him on multiple occasions, which makes the shift in his overall shift in attitude that much more satisfying later on. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jennifer Aniston was embarrassingly miscast as Lucinda. She isn’t given a whole lot to do other than be a cowering, scared damsel in distress, but Aniston doesn’t exactly show a range of emotions to be a compelling character. This is made up for in the villain of the piece. Vincent Cassel seems to be having a blast playing LaRoche, injecting a cruel playfulness in his evil that makes him a lot of fun to watch. As LaRoche’s side thug, Xzibit shows up with a perma-scowl and his performance is enjoyable as well. Cassel and Xzibit chew the scenery together like it’s going out of style.

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The story in DERAILED is overly familiar, but key moments are effective. One suspenseful sequence in which Clive Owen is stuck in a very comprising situation, all while a cop patrols nearby, milks every bit of tension that it can out of this threatening scenario. A couple of the smaller twists did actually surprise me. However, there are arguably a few too many surprises and the final few become increasingly far-fetched. A big plot revelation that happens close to the final third is also way too predictable. So much so that I had correctly guessed the outcome of this show-stopping plot twist in the initial plot set-up. It’s not that big of a shock, especially when certain comedies have made fun of this clichéd twist plenty of times (e.g. IN BRUGES and FANBOYS).

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This all being said, there’s silly fun to be had in DERAILED. The main plot is definitely too predictable for its own good and Jennifer Aniston was miscast. Neither of these problems derail the movie (pun fully intended). There are a solid moments and a couple of twists did catch me off guard, even if they do get pretty preposterous by the conclusion. Clive Owen shows a softer side that I’ve never really seen in his acting, while Vincent Cassel dominates the film as the snarky villain. DERAILED comes recommended as a guilty pleasure thriller. It’s suspenseful fun, but just remember to turn off your brain before watching.

Grade: C+

ESCAPE PLAN (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Language throughout

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Directed by: Mikael Hafstrom

Written by: Miles Chapman & Jason Keller

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, Curtis Jackson, Sam Neill, Vinnie Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio & Amy Ryan

From 1980’s to 1990’s, cheesy R-rated action films captured the hearts and minds of Americans. There was nothing like gathering the family together around the TV to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger deliver bloody violence. The hilarious one-liners were just icing on the cake. Sylvester Stallone was also a star of ludicrous glorified B-flicks. Since those times have passed, the mainstream action genre has gone on to play it safe (e.g. NON-STOP) in order to attract the widest possible paying demographic. ESCAPE PLAN tries to recapture the spirit of those crazy rides and winds up with mixed results.

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Stallone plays Ray Breslin, an ex-lawyer turned prison escapee. It’s Breslin’s job to break out of high-security prisons and expose their weak points. His latest assignment is a top-secret supposedly “escape proof” facility. This hellhole is known simply as The Tomb. A major problem for Breslin is that his correspondent isn’t the man he was supposed to meet. Instead, this sadistic warden doesn’t believe a word Breslin says. It seems as if Ray will be left in the maximum-security prison to rot, but he makes a fast friend in Emil Rottmayer. Rottmayer is an Austrian-accented criminal played by none other than the accomplished thespian Arnold Schwarzenegger. Together Stallone and Arnold er…I mean Breslin and Rottmayer must use ingenuity and brawn to escape from The Tomb!

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ESCAPE PLAN starts strong and ends strong. Things become tedious in the middle. It’s as if the director Mikael Hafstrom (1408) and the screenwriters forgot they were supposed to be making an action film with two high-caliber ass-kickers. The script packs in a lot of unnecessary details and a totally contrived subplot. Because of this, ESCAPE PLAN comes off as disjointed. I didn’t care about the silly plot twists that have been seen in plenty of other movies. I didn’t care about the backstory of Stallone or Arnold. In a film like this, the audience expects to see the two middle-aged action stars kicking ass and taking names. The movie didn’t deliver that until past the hour mark. By that point it was nearly too little, too late in the game.

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There are some really enjoyable sections of ESCAPE PLAN though. The first 30 minutes are interesting and (as mentioned before) the last 25 are action packed. Both the reveal of where the prison is located and its exact purpose are pretty neat. There are two good actors among the so-so performers too. Vinnie Jones (SNATCH, MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN) appears as an unrelenting guard and has arguably the best fight scene in the entire film squaring off against one of our heroes. The real scene-stealer is Jim Caviezel as the ruthless warden. Caviezel knows what kind of film this is and seems to be loving every minute of it. He’s a calm, collected, cocky villain. This is the kind of bad guy that makes the audience root for him to bite it in the most painful way possible.

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ESCAPE PLAN could have benefitted from a few more rewrites and about a 95 minute running time. Arnold and Stallone seem tired and the script doesn’t give them much to work with for half of the film. It’s a bit of a wasted opportunity, but there’s enough entertainment value to recommend this as a time-killer. We’re never going to get back the Arnold Schwarzenegger who had no qualms about ramming his fist into someone’s stomach and breaking their goddamn spine. It’s also doubtful that we’ll ever see the “First Blood” Sylvester Stallone again too. At least, it’s nice to see two former greats together, even if the film is just barely serviceable.

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After all, this is the kind of movie where bullets graze our heroes, but never miss the bad guys. It’s the kind of film where if you turn off all cognitive thought, then you might have fun. It’s got big problems, but if you can live in a cinematic world where Sylvester Stallone is a lawyer, then you will probably enjoy ESCAPE PLAN.

Grade: C+

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