CHRISTINE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for a scene of Disturbing Violence and for Language including some Sexual References

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Directed by: Antonio Campos

Written by: Craig Shilowich

Starring: Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Maria Dizzia, J. Smith-Cameron, John Cullum, Timothy Simons & Kim Shaw

On July 15, 1974, Florida news reporter Christine Chubbuck committed suicide during a live broadcast. Her death has become infamous as a result, with many urban legends regarding the actual recording’s existence. Some people say that it’s still out there, while others believe it’s been destroyed. However, this suicide is not the main focus of Antonio Campos’s third feature. Instead of potentially exploiting the grim subject matter or feeling like a by-the-numbers retelling of a notorious true story, CHRISTINE is a haunting character study. Though a long running time and slow pacing hinder the film’s full impact, this is well worth a look for those who are interested in the story and watching a phenomenal performance from Rebecca Hall.

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Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) is a small town Florida news reporter. She interviews guests, meticulously examines current events, and specializes in human interest stories. Despite her cheery on-camera demeanor, Christine Chubbuck suffers from severe depression and is trudging through a particularly rough patch of life. When station owner Bob Anderson (John Cullum) comes to town in search of big network talent, Christine does everything that she possibly can to work towards the promotion and win the admiration of her crush, anchorman George Ryan (Michael C. Hall). However, Christine’s extreme mood is starting up again and she’s been experiencing severe stomach pain. A series of events will push Christine to make the infamous newscast that she’ll always be remembered for.

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CHRISTINE works as less of a plot and more as an examination of a troubled woman pushed to the point where she feels that her hopeless life is in shambles. The film wisely doesn’t focus on a specific cause for her fate, but instead gives us many small pieces and lets the viewer put the puzzle together for themselves. Many scenes come and go, only to be briefly mentioned later or left alone entirely. These include: a hospital visit, a troubled love life, a strained relationship with her mother, mentions of past incidents (that we never fully know the backstory of) and an increasingly stressful work environment. Craig Shilowich’s script throws Chubbuck’s distressed mental breakdown through the screen straight at the audience, making for an appropriately depressing viewing.

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As the titular news reporter, Rebecca Hall is stunning. Her Midwestern accent is spot on, along with a permeating stare that dares the viewer to look away during the climactic scene that you knew was coming as soon as the film began. Hall’s performance is sure to inspire an unnerving connection with viewers who have suffered (or still suffer) from Depression, while also going to the point of causing the audience to shift uncomfortably in their seats and feel like they’re on the verge of having an anxiety attack. A scene in which a stood-up Christine interrupts a loving couple’s romantic dinner to talk about possibly doing a human interest story on them is intensely awkward and cringe-inducing. Sill, you can’t look away from this fascinating woman who had so much potential and cut herself short.

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The supporting cast members also deliver solid performances. Michael C. Hall is fantastic as charismatic anchor George Ryan and shares one of the more upsetting scenes with Christine late into the film. Tracy Letts is both intimidating and genuinely funny as the asshole boss, who’s working on moving the news from film to video and has also adopted the motto “If it bleeds, it leads.” Maria Dizzia is solid as on-and-off friend/colleague Jean Reed. J. Smith-Cameron is somewhat of a wild card as Christine’s stressed-out mother, who finds herself at odds with her distressed daughter’s latest mood. Finally, Timothy Simons has his moments as weatherman Steve Turner. Each of these characters seems concerned for Christine’s mental health, but they either go about helping her in horribly misguided ways or find themselves shut out by her entirely.

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The film’s 70s atmosphere feels natural in that there isn’t a heavy focus on the technology of the time and the soundtrack isn’t cranked up to Scorsese levels of sensationalism. Instead, this period piece approaches its time as a convincing background for the notorious true story. A moody score further elevates the film’s uneasy atmosphere that becomes increasingly tense as it goes along. CHRISTINE’s only major problem is glacial pacing. The movie suffers from a few dull patches during the first two-thirds. Slower chunks could have been removed for a more compelling experience overall. Christine’s puppet shows at a children’s hospital serve as a tool for the viewer to see her fading hope and crumbling mental state, but detract from the moments surrounding them.

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CHRISTINE is a character study of the titular newscaster who felt that she needed to take her life in a “sensationalized” report. No clear explanation is offered to (or needed by) the viewer, leaving us to put together the pieces of the puzzle for ourselves. Rebecca Hall’s performance is stunning and bound to make many viewers uncomfortable for lots of different reasons. The film’s tragic nature is pretty much guaranteed to leave you depressed and thinking about it long after it’s over. I wish that the pacing had worked a little better, because there are a handful of scenes that drag to an unnecessary degree. CHRISTINE is a dark drama about the events leading up to an infamous news report that made news on other news stations…and nothing’s really changed.

Grade: B

THE BFG (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Action/Peril, some Scary Moments and brief Rude Humor

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Melissa Mathison

(based on the novel THE BFG by Roald Dahl)

Starring: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall & Bill Hader

Though his novels are magnificently imaginative, author Roald Dahl’s film adaptations seem cursed at the box office. This has occurred numerous times over the decades. Even though it found later success through TV airings and is now considered a timeless classic by many, WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY originally flopped in the theaters (though its lesser Burtonized remake was a success). The same fate befell the creepy THE WITCHES in 1990 and cult favorite JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH in 1996. Not even Steven Spielberg seems immune from the Dahl curse, because his adaptation of THE BFG has recently made headlines for bombing. However, that has nothing to do with the quality of this film itself, because BFG (which stands for Big Friendly Giant, get your mind out of the gutter) is a heartwarming fantasy that’s fun for all ages.

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Set in 1980’s London, THE BFG opens with young orphan Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) awake at the witching hour (3 am). Though she’s suspected his presence many times, Sophie has never actually met the “boogeyman” until tonight. This boogeyman turns out to be a big eared, speech impaired giant (Mark Rylance in a motion capture performance) who takes Sophie back to his cave-like home. Unlike other giants in Giant Country, Sophie’s gigantic captor doesn’t eat children. Instead this Big Friendly Giant (or BFG, as Sophie calls him) opts to eat foul-tasting cucumber-like vegetables and catches dreams for sleeping children. Sophie and the BFG become fast friends, but the fearsome brutish giants begin to suspect that BFG is harboring a new pet…and a potential snack for them.

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BFG’s biggest (pardon the pun) highlights come from the many scenes between Sophie and the main giant. Mark Rylance (who won Best Supporting Actor for his other recent Spielberg outing) is oddly adorable as the naïve, well-intentioned Big Friendly Giant. Having known in advance that Rylance delivered his performance through motion capture, I distinctly recognized his face on this giant character for the entire running time…even if huge ears, frail hair, and a thin chin were morphed into his CGI looks. You have to wonder how much time Rylance spent on the set though, because a majority of the film seems to have young Ruby Barnhill acting against creatures and environments that aren’t really there. Huge props to this child actress, because she puts in a far better performance than one might expect from a kid acting by themselves. This story almost entirely focuses on the friendship of Sophie and Big Friendly Giant, while supporting characters seem to exist merely for jokes and plot devices.

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Weak supporting characters don’t lessen the colorful environments and weird-looking giants that Spielberg brings from the page to the screen. This big-screen BFG is very faithful to the source material, which means that there are magical moments, darker aspects (lines of dialogue referring to the other giants feasting on children), and a timelessly upbeat atmosphere to this fairy tale. That being said, it seems like Spielberg was dialing himself back a bit in THE BFG. With E.T. and his other family films as well as Roald Dahl’s books themselves, there was a sense to treat kids with a level of maturity that was rather unheard of at the time. There were dark, scary threats in these stories (on the page and screen) that made the happy, lighter moments shine even brighter. THE BFG tiptoes around a couple of these more intense areas, with the other giants set up as (literal) big antagonists, but Spielberg seems disinterested in these villains and they seem underused as a result.

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Executed with visual flair, charm, and whimsy, THE BFG is a simple and sweet fantasy-adventure that’s bound to entertain kids, captivate grown-ups through impressive imagery, and feels like a throwback to a better time for live-action kid’s entertainment. Although it doesn’t go as far as it could have in certain areas and resorts to fart humor on a couple of occasions (one joke is actually well set up and executed), THE BFG is an all-around good movie. It’s not one of Spielberg’s best films, but it remains an entertaining fantasy that’s likely to please both adults and children.

Grade: B

My Top 15 Films of 2015

List by Derrick Carter

2015 was a great year for cinema. So much so, that I’ve decided not to make a “Top 10 Films” of the year, but a “Top 15” instead. It should be noted that I haven’t seen every single movie that came out during the past twelve months. I’m one man after all and only pay money for and spend time on stuff that interests me. That being said, I reviewed 132 new releases during 2015. There are a few movies that I plan on covering and could have potentially made this list if I had seen them in 2015. These are: THE REVENANT, CAROL, ANOMALISA, and SON OF SAUL. The fifteen titles that did make the cut are flicks that I absolutely loved, plan on adding to my collection, and rewatching many times for years to come. I don’t expect everybody to agree with all of them, but hopefully I’ve recommended a couple of films that peak your interest.

Before getting into list itself, I feel a few honorable mentions are in order. BRIDGE OF SPIES showed that Steven Spielberg has not lost a shred of talent over the years. THE JINX proved to be a groundbreaking true-crime documentary that literally made history. Coming off a string of misfires, Melissa McCarthy delivered her funniest comedy yet in SPY. Finally, on the scary side of things, KRAMPUS is a great holiday horror-comedy that I plan on making an annual Christmas tradition and GOODNIGHT MOMMY is a freaky shudder-inducing little nightmare. Without further ado, I’ll move onto my favorite films of 2015…

15. Black Mass

15. BLACK MASS: Throughout the years, Johnny Depp has become a ghost of his former talented self, but delivered one of his best performances ever this year. He disappeared into the role Whitey Bulger and became a terrifying on-screen monster. The story is a complex one that couldn’t easily be told in the space of a two-hour film. Though I feel it would have been a modern crime masterpiece if 30 more minutes had been tacked onto the final third, director Scott Cooper did a phenomenal job portraying one of the most notorious gangster stories in American history. Depp isn’t necessarily the star of this movie as the rest of the cast is especially strong. Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, and many more round out a great ensemble picture. It might not be a modern GOODFELLAS, but I’d rank it as a modern CASINO. BLACK MASS is easily one of the best real-life gangster films to come out of the new millennium.

14. It Follows

14. IT FOLLOWS: In the vein of the original HALLOWEEN and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, IT FOLLOWS is one of the single scariest viewing experiences that I’ve had all year. I attended a midnight screening at Sundance and everyone was losing their minds in the theater over this film. While it only has a few big jolts, IT FOLLOWS manages to get under your skin and stay there. I found myself getting progressively more creeped out when I arrived home and couldn’t stop thinking about the film. What’s even better about this movie is how it took the more difficult and complicated route instead of merely becoming a supernatural slasher. Instead, the film lets a dread-soaked atmosphere float around the viewer…and like “it” does to the characters themselves, that feeling follows you around long after the end credits have rolled.

13. Going Clear

13. GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF: The best documentary that I watched all year, GOING CLEAR is a fascinating and disturbing look into the inner workings of Scientology. Covering the formation of this so-called “religion” (you won’t blame me for calling it a cult after you watch this doc) to the huge amount of controversy surrounding it to the systematic abuse of its followers and opponents, GOING CLEAR is a harrowing watch. The testimonies from former members of the church are both chilling and heartbreaking. Some masterful editing also allows for brief moments of humor, such as a cheesy Scientology music video and an improvised awards ceremony invented specifically for Tom Cruise. As I stated in my review back in March, GOING CLEAR would almost be ridiculous and amusing, if it weren’t so devastating and terrifying.

12. Hateful Eight

12. THE HATEFUL EIGHT: It might not be Tarantino’s best film, but I loved the hell out of the HATEFUL EIGHT! A far more contained story than Tarantino’s recent Oscar nominees, this is pretty much RESERVOIR DOGS set in the Old West with more suspense. Besides that familiar set up, Tarantino manages to milk a massive amount of tension from each scene leading up to many unexpected revelations, over-the-top gore, and sick humor. I was on the edge of my seat throughout, almost fell out of my chair laughing at one point, and left totally satisfied.

11. Kingsman

11. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE: Nobody expected this movie to be nearly as good as it was. The two best descriptions I can give KINGSMAN are that it’s either the KICK-ASS of spy movies or a very R-rated take on SPY KIDS. The film is wild, crazy, fast-paced and never takes itself seriously. In a year that’s been populated by plenty of superheroes, KINGSMAN is my favorite comic book adaptation of 2015. The church scene alone was one of the most jaw-dropping sequences I’ve sat through all year. The rest of the film is hugely entertaining and has the balls to take risks. KINGSMAN was definitely one of the biggest cinematic surprises I had all year, but it was upended by…

10. Gift

10. THE GIFT: This is the biggest surprise that I had in 2015. The trailer made it look like a generic thriller that had already been done a million times before. However, this can all be chalked up to bad marketing because Joel Edgerton pulled triple duty and put his heart into this well-crafted shocker. The film intentionally misleads the audience through various points before unleashing big bombshells upon them. The ending also left me speechless and contemplating it for days afterwards. This is one of those films that is pretty much guaranteed to generate a discussion with other film-loving friends. THE GIFT is not a predictable black-and-white thriller, but something much deeper and far scarier.

9. MI5

9. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -ROGUE NATION: The MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series has had its ups and downs. The first was good. The second was crap. The third was great. The fourth was fun. However, I don’t think anybody could have predicted that the fifth installment of this high-octane spy series would be the best of the bunch thus far. That was definitely the case as ROGUE NATION unleashed compelling high stakes, brought back old characters as if no time had passed at all, introduced a cool new ones, and had some fantastic set-pieces. In many ways (Bond girl, villain, secret evil organization), MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -ROGUE NATION was a far better Bond movie than the actual Bond movie we received this year.

8. Crimson Peak

8. CRIMSON PEAK: This gorgeously realized film feels like Edgar Allan Poe and Jane Austen penned a novel together and then Guillermo Del Toro adapted it to the screen. Those who go in expecting endless jump scares and a typical ghost story will find themselves either let down or elated by the film being a gothic romance that happens to contain some very frightening ghosts and thick horror elements in its story. Every frame of the film is beautiful to look at and atmospheric beyond belief. There are shots of this movie that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since I originally saw it and I believe it’s among the very best of Guillermo Del Toro’s filmography. Jessica Chastain is also a fearsome force to behold!

7. Spotlight

7. SPOTLIGHT: A tastefully made movie about one of the most disturbing cover-ups in recent history. SPOTLIGHT could have easily gone for shock value and went all out to demonize religion as a whole. Actually, that’s sort of what I was expecting it to do when I walked into the theater. Imagine my surprise at how restrained and respectful this film is. Aided by one of the most realistic looks at journalism that you’re bound to see on film, the movie packs in so much emotion without ever crossing the line into anything that possibly resemble shock value or cheap shots. Instead, the film asks tough questions, brings powerful performances to the screen, and leaves the viewer with a lot to chew on. This is one of the most important movies of 2015.

6. Macbeth

6. MACBETH: Shakespeare has been brought to the big screen in many ways by many different filmmakers. This beautiful, bleak take on the Scottish Play might just be my favorite Shakespeare movie thus far. With dialogue being delivered in a naturalistic manner and some creative licensing thrown into the centuries-old material, this version of MACBETH somehow improves upon the already perfect tragedy by adding unexpected context into the mix. Michael Fassbender is stunning as the title character, but it’s Marion Cotillard who steals the show. Lady Macbeth is actually made into a sympathetic character which is something that I felt could never, ever be accomplished in any take on the play. It’s also worth noting that this is definitely not a Shakespeare adaptation that will be shown in many high school classrooms, which is a very good thing indeed!

5. Sicario

5. SICARIO: In 2013, Denis Villeneuve wowed me with PRISONERS. In 2015, he returned with the complex cartel thriller SICARIO. A movie that never allows you to get comfortable in your seat or breathe normally throughout its entire running time, SICARIO is a grim, bleak, and depressing movie…and all the better for it. This thriller had a number of stand-out sequences, an intense beyond words finale being one of them. Villeneuve knew precisely when to merely imply the dark deeds occurring just beyond a locked door and when to casually showcase disturbing sights in broad daylight. Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin are all fantastic in their parts. It’s likely that SICARIO will keep you thinking about it long after you’ve finished watching it, but just be prepared for that as there’s no glimmer of happiness or hope to be found within a single frame of this film.

4. Ex Machina

4. EX MACHINA: One of the best pieces of thought-provoking science-fiction to come out in a long, long time, EX MACHINA is a brilliantly crafted beast of a film. I loved everything about it when I first watched it back in April. The performances from the leads (likable Domnhall Gleeson, robotic Alicia Vikander, and scary Oscar Isaac) make for a film that’s pretty much a three character play. The uniquely designed house/research facility is almost a character as well, because the sense of claustrophobia and steadily rising tension become damn near nightmarish by the final third. The effects are excellently rendered and the film gets even better upon repeat viewings (little details stuck out more during the second and third times that I watched it). The hauntingly beautiful soundtrack is just the icing on the cake for my fourth best film of 2015.

3. Room

3. ROOM: Difficult and immensely rewarding, ROOM is a drama like no other. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name (which in turn was inspired by a real-life kidnapping case), this film is tense and remarkably uplifting. Throughout the whole running time, the story walks a tightrope between being heartwarming and heartbreaking. It ultimately winds up with the best of both worlds as various audience members (including myself) were crying at various points throughout the film. As sad as it can be, I left feeling immensely uplifted by this beautiful movie about love and courage. Brie Larson (the frontrunner for Best Actress of 2015) and 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay (giving one of the best child performances that I’ve ever seen in my entire life) are both wholly convincing and believable. I cannot praise this movie enough. It’s amazing!

2. Inside Out

2. INSIDE OUT: A family film that’s made more for adults than it is for children, INSIDE OUT wound up being one of the most emotional theater experiences of 2015 for me (pun fully intended). Though it may look sweet, innocent and cute on the outside, the movie packs a lot of emotional truths that will hit older viewers far more than kids who just want to watch a cartoon. It’s also the biggest tearjerker that I saw all year (right next to ROOM). The film is just beautiful and encapsulates everything that life itself in brilliantly creative ways. It also has one of the most mature messages that I’ve ever seen in a children’s film. It’s not only my second favorite movie of 2015, but my favorite Pixar movie thus far!

1. Mad Max Fury Road

1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD: Director/writer George Miller had over two decades to craft his fourth MAD MAX movie to perfection and that’s exactly what he did! MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was easily one of the most adrenaline-pumping, kick-ass movies that I’ve ever experienced in a theater. I loved it so much that I saw it twice within four days on the big screen and it has enjoyed many repeat viewings since its home video release. Though some fans have joked that it’s simply a two-hour chase scene, the story manages to encapsulate far more than that. There are issues of gender, slavery, religion, etc. that all come up in subtle (sometimes, obvious), smart ways throughout the film. The movie never stops to deliver heavy-handed exposition to the viewer and gives enough details so we can simply figure it all out for ourselves. The visuals look incredible as this apocalyptic wasteland was wholly convincing, in no small part due to practical effects, dangerous stunt work, and subtle green screen effects. FURY ROAD has joined the rare breed of perfect summer blockbusters that includes the likes of ALIENS and TERMINATOR 2. Bravo!

2015 was a year that was packed full of releases. Some were amazing, some were good, and others fell lower on the cinematic totem pole. It’s definitely been one of the most interesting years for cinema and I look forward to seeing what 2016 has in store for filmgoers!

THE GIFT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language

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Directed by: Joel Edgerton

Written by: Joel Edgerton

Starring: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Tim Griffin, Allison Tolman & Beau Knapp

Trailers can make bad movies look great and great movies look bad. Such is the world of marketing. When I saw the trailer for THE GIFT, I figured that it might be a fun little thriller, but nothing particularly special. It was Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut and though he’s demonstrated great skill in front of the camera, there were questions as to how his transition to making movies might fare. Color me shocked. Though it may resemble any generic thriller from the early 90’s, THE GIFT has something deeper, scarier, and far more profound running beneath its deceptively simple surface.

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Simon and Robyn have just moved into an upscale Los Angeles house. Simon is a workaholic yuppie sort of guy, while Robyn is a much more kind and depressed individual who’s coping with a recent failed pregnancy. It seems like fate has something special in store for them when Simon bumps into former classmate Gordon. The two hit it off with an awkward, but polite conversation. The next day, the couple find that Gordon has left a present on their doorstep. The thing is that neither of them gave him their address. Gordon becomes a socially awkward friend towards Simon and Robyn, bestowing constant gifts onto them. It gets to a point where Simon decides to cut off the friendship and things get ugly. That’s all I’ll say about this thriller’s plot, because I don’t want to give away any of the nasty surprises that lie in store.

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THE GIFT seems to purposely start off like a standard (but enjoyable) thriller. It’s much akin to something you’d see in the early 90’s (e.g. MALICE, HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, PACIFIC HEIGHTS, etc.). The suspenseful sense of fun lulls the viewer into a state where they think that the whole plot can be predicted in advance. It’s even complete with a couple of (effective) jump scares. Around the halfway mark is where THE GIFT begins to show that its seemingly generic set-up was actually a façade for something far scarier and more intelligent. The screenplay goes into areas you wouldn’t expect it to and approaches these plot points (and twists) with a refreshing maturity. Triple-threat Joel Edgerton (director, writer and actor) decides to take a less-is-more approach, showing only enough to tip-off the audience and never diving into over-the-top violence or exploitation.

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The cast is primarily made up of three characters. Jason Bateman is usually typecast in comedies, but proves to be great in his out-of-the-ordinary dramatic role. Simon appears fairly cut-and-dried in the beginning and then layers begin to peel away as the film goes on. Rebecca Hall’s performance and character is no different. She starts as a nervous and vulnerable wife and then evolves into the moral compass of the piece. Meanwhile, Joel Edgerton stars as Gordon and knows exactly how to play the character. Though he’s socially awkward, Gordon seems like a nice guy at the start. Much like the other two character, major plot points reveal what kind of person he truly is. You’ll find yourself questioning loyalties and whose side you’re on as the running time moves forward. It’s debatable as to who is the hero or villain of this film…or if there are even such things in this grimly realistic shocker.

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What should especially be applauded about Edgerton’s debut thriller is that it treats its audience with respect. While other cheap movies of this ilk might waste time spelling everything out for the viewer or throwing in last-minute clichés to tie everything up with an unneeded bow (ala the final scenes of FATAL ATTRACTION), THE GIFT doesn’t assume that you’re dumb. In this way, the script manages to stay one step ahead of you at all times. Even if you can correctly predict some twists, you’ll be shocked by other revelations. It’s all executed with classy suspense and a wonderfully diabolical ending. I guarantee that the final moments of this movie will linger in your mind and generate interesting conversations on the ride home from the theater.

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THE GIFT seemed destined to be yet another generic thriller, but somehow defies all odds and resembles a modern-day Hitchcock film. This is more intelligent, thought-provoking and well-written than most of the thrillers that come out these days. It’s also one of the year’s biggest surprises and one of my favorite movies of 2015 thus far. Indeed, this film is an unexpected GIFT that’s meant to be cherished as much as it’s meant to make your skin crawl.

Grade: A+

TRANSCENDENCE (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action and Violence, some Bloody Images, brief Strong Language and Sensuality

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Directed by: Wally Pfister

Written by: Jack Paglen

Starring: Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, Paul Bettany & Clifton Collins Jr.

In the grand cinematic scheme, science fiction has been used to tell intelligent, creative stories with relevant social commentary at the center. TRANSCENDENCE frequently tries to get across how much society depends on technology (after all, you are reading this review on an electronic device of some kind). This point has been made in plenty of other films and is kind of overplayed. With an interesting story, the message could possibly be made worthwhile again. TRANSCENDENCE is not an interesting movie. This thriller of science gone very wrong is muddled, ridiculous, and doesn’t do a thing worth engaging the viewer’s interest. It’s a boring, stupid film that wastes a good cast. The real mystery is how first-time director Wally Pfister (who has only worked as a cinematographer) and first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen got this stinker funded on a huge budget. Judging from the near-empty theater I saw this in (a Friday evening), TRANSCENDENCE has a good chance of deservedly flopping.

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Will Caster, Evelyn Caster (his wife), and Max Waters are part of a research team designing the ultimate Artificial Intelligence. This self-aware system has the potential of being more powerful than the combined intellect of everyone in the entire world. The idea is a little creepy and one could see things easily going wrong with this creation. An anti-tech terrorist group (known as Rift) foresees the potential disaster and kills the staff of nearly every A.I. lab in the country. An assassination attempt is made on Will’s life and it leaves him poisoned with a month left to live. Desperate to keep her husband around, Evelyn uploads his consciousness to the A.I. they were constructing. After exhibiting some disturbing behavior, a few people decide there’s a definite possibility that this new sentient system isn’t actually Will.

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TRANSCENDENCE is a film that tries too hard to have focus on deeper issues (including an ending that’s contradictory to everything that has come up to that point). The introduction to the story reveals where things wind up by the end of the story. Thus first-time director and first-time screenwriter pair both ruin the biggest possible surprise that might have come in the finale by showing it in the first five minutes. This is the first sign that Pfister might not be at the same level of skill directing-wise that he clearly demonstrates in cinematography.

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The screenplay handles the supposed deeper message of the movie in a heavy-handed fashion. It’s all about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the groin. The twists the film takes along its way become more convoluted as the story trudges along. The movie runs for two hours and feels so much longer than that. There’s a good space in the middle where nothing much happens and it’s just exposition for the climax. Speaking of which, the ending almost feels like there was this ideology surrounding it that this conclusion would be profound and deeply emotional. I’ve seen people defending it online and one woman was actually crying in my theater during it. She may have been sobbing just because she realized she would never receive those two hours of endurance back into her life. TRANSCENDENCE is a poorly made failure of a film.

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Despite the large budget that graces it, the production values feel very cheap. Most of the CGI is unconvincing. The cast of familiar A-listers are all phoning it in. With this dud, Johnny Depp seems to be in a bit of a cinematic rut. Here’s hoping that his next project boosts him out from this series of bad movies. Rebecca Hall doesn’t garner much sympathy as Evelyn Caster. Paul Bettany is no stranger to big-budgeted wasted opportunities (PRIEST, LEGION) and he isn’t given much to do in TRANSCENDENCE. His role isn’t of much importance, seeing as he disappears for a solid stretch of time. Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy both are wasted too. If anyone shines out, it’s Depp (regulated to a computer monitor for most of the movie) and he’s playing an A.I. so not a whole lot of emotion was required, therefore not a whole lot was given.

Transcend 5

If there’s any consolation to be given, it’s that TRANSCENDENCE might not have had the potential to be a winner from day one. It’s essentially a big-budget remake of THE LAWNMOWER MAN with a couple of preachy messages thrown in. It’s a silly, poorly acted, and boring mess. Thus far, it’s the worst film I’ve seen in 2014! TRANSCENDENCE doesn’t wind up transcending any of its problems and falls victim to being a shitty movie. It’s not worth your money, let alone your time! This is one project that needed to be shut down from day one!

Grade: F

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