DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive, Continuous Teen Drug and Alcohol Use and very Strong Language

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Directed by: Richard Linklater

Written by: Richard Linklater

Starring: Jason London, Wiley Wiggins, Rory Cochrane, Matthew McConaughey, Sasha Jenson, Michelle Burke, Adam Goldberg, Cole Hauser, Milla Jovovich & Ben Affleck

Movies don’t always need a well-crafted plot or intensely developed characters to be enjoyed. DAZED AND CONFUSED is a coming-of-age comedy that flourishes on capturing teenage life and high school drama, all through the lens of 1976. The cast of characters is immense and the audience doesn’t necessarily receive a lot of time to fully “know” them as intimately as we might like to, but we do get a sense of who these kids are through their conversations and social interactions. Even though the script may not have a traditional narrative in following characters from point A to point B, Richard Linklater’s third feature feels like an authentic slice-of-life captured on film.

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It’s May 28, 1976. Lee High School’s future seniors are excited for a summer filled with underage drinking, philosophical discussions fueled by pot smoke, and an upcoming Aerosmith concert. Randall Floyd (Jason London) is a football player being pressured to sign a drug-free pledge that would alienate him from his friends. Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins) is an incoming freshman who’s trying to avoid being paddled by all of the future male seniors, one of whom (Ben Affleck) is particularly abusive. Kevin Pickford (Shawn Andrews) is a popular student hosting a huge end-of-school keg party. Ron (Rory Cochrane) and David (Matthew McConaughey) are two stoners who enjoy having pseudo-intellectual conversations about history, presidents, and aliens. Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi), Tony (Anthony Rapp) and Mike (Adam Goldberg) are three nerds looking to socialize. All of these subplots collide, along with a few others, over one school-free night in Austin, Texas.

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Seeing as the narrative is all over the place with many interconnected plotlines, I won’t necessarily analyze each and every one of these in-depth. What I will say is that all of these plot threads seem believable. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit to discover out that some of the scenes were taken directly out of Richard Linklater’s personal experiences. There’s an honesty in how the film progresses. Every scene feels organic and none of the interactions between characters feel forced. There are definitely plot threads that I wish had gone on a bit longer (Ben Affleck’s bully left the film too soon and a tiny bit of momentum goes with him). This is a minor complaint though, especially when you consider how well-written the dialogue is and the sheer entertainment factor, both of which are what this film thrives on.

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DAZED also has a solid cast of big names in early roles. I already mentioned Ben Affleck as the school bully and he’s a ton of fun to watch, but Matthew McConaughey steals the show as laid back twenty-something David Wooderson. With a perpetually relaxed demeanor and slightly quirky persona, McConaughey’s iconic stoner is the best character in this film…even though he receives far less screen time than his counterparts. Rory Cochrane receives a lot of laughs as the long-haired, conspiracy-obsessed, pot-smoking Slater. Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp and Marissa Ribisi all have good chemistry as the three nerdy friends. Other big names include Milla Jovovich, Cole Hauser, Parker Posey, and a non-speaking Renee Zellweger.

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It’s a bit depressing that the two main stars of this film haven’t really gone on to do much since this 1993 coming-of-age stoner comedy, those being Jason London as Randall Floyd and Wiley Wiggins as Mitch Kramer. That’s not to say that either of their performances are lacking, because that is in no way the case. Actually, Jason London brings a sentimentality to his story arc as his coach tries to force him to choose between football or his friends. Wiley Wiggins adds innocence to the story as the awkward new freshman experiencing his first night of alcohol, pot, and older girls. It might be argued that these two storylines shine above their entertaining counterparts and the film is all the better for both of them.

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The solid writing and good performances are capped off with a stellar soundtrack (Aerosmith, Foghat, Alice Cooper, KISS, Black Sabbath, and many more) and production values that convincingly bring 70’s suburbia to life (including bad fashion and nice cars). DAZED AND CONFUSED isn’t necessarily a straightforward comedy that’s loaded with set pieces and a traditional narrative. Richard Linklater wanted this film to be AMERICAN GRAFITTI relocated to the 70’s and I’d say that he succeeded on that front. Though certain actors definitely outshine others and I wish that a few plot threads had received more screen time, DAZED AND CONFUSED is a whole lot of fun. Even when the film seems to be wandering aimlessly, I was never bored. As a result, watching DAZED AND CONFUSED feels like hanging out with a handful of very good friends and should be enjoyed as such.

Grade: B+

HART’S WAR (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Strong War Violence and Language

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Directed by: Gregory Hoblit

Written by: Billy Ray & Terry George

(based on the novel HART’S WAR by John Katzenbach)

Starring: Bruce Willis, Colin Farrell, Terrence Howard, Cole Hauser, Marcel Iures, Linus Roache, Rory Cochrane & Sam Worthington

The poster for HART’S WAR would suggest that this is just another WWII movie laced with combat and heroism, but this film is actually a courtroom drama set within a POW camp. There’s nothing wrong with shaking up of the well-worn war movie formula in an unconventional way. For a while, HART’S WAR captured my attention. The film has positives in being well shot and ambitious, but also encounters a lot of shortcomings in wasting a solid A-list cast and jumbling up its narrative into a melodramatic bore.

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Thomas Hart (Colin Farrell) is a privileged intelligence officer who falls into a Nazi trap near the end of World War II. After breaking down under brutal interrogation tactics, Hart is shipped off to Stalag VI-A and is assigned to the enlisted soldier bunks by high-ranking Colonel William McNamara (Bruce Willis). After encountering tensions with his fellow prisoners, Hart finds himself sympathizing for two African-American pilots who are being openly persecuted by the other POWs. When a racist POW turns up dead and Lt. Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard) is accused of murder, Hart is roped into an amateur trial within the camp. Defending Scott, Hart soon finds a darker side to McNamara and is faced with a difficult ultimatum.

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In regards to the wasted A-list cast, every performance in this film is of the exact same quality, which is to say that every actor is stone-faced, uninspired, and wooden. Colin Farrell plays Lt. Hart as a bland protagonist going place to place and interacting amongst talking heads of both sides. Despite Farrell’s efforts to make Hart into a sympathetic protagonist who’s stuck between a rock and a hard place, he just comes off as imitating every other big actor he’s seen in other (better) courtroom dramas and war movies (A FEW GOOD MEN kept coming to mind). Bruce Willis takes a step away from his usual smart-mouthed action movie persona to play Colonel McNamara as a man with two sides, both of which feel clichéd. His final scenes are satisfying, but everything leading up to them is simply dull.

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Terrence Howard delivers brief levity to his role of Lt. Scott. Howard seems to be the only actor to bring a couple of believable emotions to the screen in the space of 125 minutes. The usual (and realistic) speeches about how difficult it was to be black in America during WWII are employed and these are the easily the best scenes in this otherwise stagey production. Marcel Iures plays the Nazi camp commandant as an interesting character who sees his prisoners as somewhat human, but still isn’t above shooting them to prove a point. This mutual respect might have been explored further with a better script. Also in the side characters are Rory Cochrane, Cole Hauser and Sam Worthington as interchangeable faceless POWs.

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The most frustrating thing about HART’S WAR is how good it looks and how there were pieces for a solid story to be told. The way in which this plot plays out makes it thoroughly uninteresting and downright boring. I didn’t care about these characters and I certainly didn’t care how everything would turn out. The film contains a small handful of effective scenes (one of which near the beginning has the POW train under fire from their own side), but the film never maintains a solid momentum to keep things chugging along at a reasonable pace. Add into all of this an A-list cast delivering wooden performances and you’ve got yourself one hell of a stodgy war/courtroom drama. HART’S WAR should have been good. It should have conveyed a sense of honor trying to survive in hopelessness conditions and racial tensions being prevalent in a war that was being fought by many nationalities and races. Instead, HART’S WAR is entirely forgettable.

Grade: D+

BLACK MASS (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Brutal Violence, Language throughout, some Sexual References and brief Drug Use

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Directed by: Scott Cooper

Written by: Jez Butterworth & Mark Mallouk

(based on the book BLACK MASS by Dick Lehr & Gerard O’Neill)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard, David Harbour, Rory Cochrane, Julianne Nicholson, Adam Scott & Juno Temple

Going into this year, there have been a handful of films that I’ve been ecstatically excited to watch. BLACK MASS is one of these films. This biopic crime-drama about Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger certainly had an interesting real-life story to adapt. Of all the gangsters in U.S. history, Whitey Bulger is among the most notorious. Having now seen the film, I feel that it’s almost perfect and might have benefitted from a longer running time. BLACK MASS sports stellar performances from an ensemble cast, a sense of rising tension and should satisfy most fans of crime cinema.

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Kicking off in the 1970’s, Whitey Bulger is a violent gangster running a small-time operation in Boston. FBI agent John Connolly, Bulger’s childhood friend, has returned to his hometown. Connolly is interested in cleaning up the city, particularly the mob, and turns a reluctant Whitey into an informant. However, this plan backfires in a horrifying way as Whitey uses his newfound status to take down rival gangs and rise to the top as a vicious crime lord. While fellow agents are breathing down Connolly’s neck, Bulger is running rampant with crimes that range from drugs to extortion to murder. This movie jumps throughout notable years in Bulger and Connolly’s dark relationship.

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BLACK MASS is told in a faux docudrama style, which intersperses clips of various interviews from Whitey’s former associates. Though this style could potentially wreck suspense in lesser hands, I felt it worked extremely well here as Bulger’s crimes span across 30 years. Obviously, not every little detail could be included, but screenwriters Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk knew which points to hit. I really liked how this film didn’t glorify gangster lifestyle too. Whereas GOODFELLAS sets up its true story in a way where you might become enamored by the benefits in a life of crime, BLACK MASS revels in the dark, ugly underbelly hiding underneath that skin-deep glitz. The violence here is particularly disturbing and grisly, even for a gangster film, as I felt myself wincing during some of the execution scenes. Seeing as this movie focuses on a mob boss who happened to be an informant for a couple of shady FBI agents, we also see the gripping storyline of corruption progressing in the FBI offices.

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Johnny Depp is absolutely amazing as Whitey Bulger. Make-up transformation aside, he disappears into the role of this psychopathic gangster. People who knew the real Whitey Bulger apparently made trips to the set and said that Depp captured how the man walked, talked, and carried himself with frightening accuracy. I don’t doubt it. He’s terrifying in that he seems like a rabid dog who’s always waiting to pounce on whoever might rub him the wrong way. Joel Edgerton (who was fantastic in THE GIFT) also disappears into the slimy scumbag that is John Connolly. You get the sense that Connolly came to the city with a sense of purpose and then all of his morals and ethics were wiped away when he reunited with Bulger. The supporting cast is fantastic as well and each performer stands out for various reasons. Benedict Cumberbatch adopts a convincing Boston accent as Bulger’s senator brother. Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and Corey Stoll star as FBI agents looking to bring down Bulger, while David Harbour stars as a too-far-gone agent. Rory Cochrane and Jesse Plemons are Bulger’s intimidating associates. Meanwhile, Dakota Johnson (as Bulger’s wife), Peter Sarsgaard (as a cokehead hitman) and Juno Temple (as a prostitute) don’t receive a ton of screen time, but all receive memorable scenes. Every performance is stellar.

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Director Scott Cooper (OUT OF THE FURNACE) constructs a rising sense of tension as the story goes from bad to worse over the course of each passing year. This movie jumps between Bulger’s crimes and Connolly’s deceptions in a way that feels slightly procedural, but engrossing nonetheless. Interactions between the characters (including a dinner scene that’s so tense that you could hear a pin drop in the theater) feel genuine. With all this praise, my only problem with BLACK MASS comes in a somewhat rushed ending. I felt that the final minutes (complete with title cards revealing the fates of each character) were somewhat anti-climactic. I wonder if part of that comes from squeezing what might have been a 2 hour 30 minute potential masterpiece into a mere 2 hours (counting credits). It’s a slightly underwhelming spot in an overall great film.

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If you’re a fan of crime cinema (especially films based on real cases), then BLACK MASS should more than satisfy. The movie moves between Bulger’s and Connolly’s storylines nicely, while jumping through the former’s most notorious crimes and the latter’s downward spiral into corruption. This movie has a ton of scenes that I simply cannot get out of my head and doesn’t shy away from grisly details (all for the better). Depp’s performance is possibly a career best as he disappears into Bulger’s skin. Though the last minutes might feel rushed, I pretty much loved BLACK MASS for 95% of the movie. Highly recommended!

Grade: A

A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Drug and Sexual Content, Language and a brief Violent Image

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Directed by: Richard Linklater

Written by: Richard Linklater

(based on the novel A SCANNER DARKLY by Philip K. Dick)

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane

I remember seeing the commercials for A SCANNER DARKLY when it was coming out. It looked to be a trippy sci-fi story with an unusual animation style being applied to it. The film was shot live action and then animated over by a group of various artists. The source material is the acclaimed novel of the same name from famed science-fiction author Philip K. Dick. Sadly, A SCANNER DARKLY is a textbook case of style over substance. The visuals are very cool, but the story being told might have benefitted from a real world approach with a more engaging screenplay. There’s a kernel of an awesome, brooding tale lying within the movie, but it’s undercooked.

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Set seven years in the future, a super addictive toxic pill known as Substance D has turned 20% of America’s population into addicts. One group of law enforcement is working to win this escalating war on drugs and an undercover officer named Bob Arctor is in the middle of a secret operation. He’s living as a tweaker with a group of Substance D users in order to fry some big fish that they might be linked to a few of his friends. In order to keep his identity a secret, he roams around his office environment in a specialized suit (known as a Scrambler) that keeps his identity a secret to his fellow agents. After some unexpected evidence comes in from one of Bob’s friends (also donning a Scrambler), he finds himself investigating himself. Things get stranger as the side effects of Substance D (which Bob has become hooked on to keep up appearances) is having nasty side effects on his brain. As the film’s tagline states: Everything is not going to be OK.

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The ideas behind A SCANNER DARKLY are good ones. I have admittedly never read a novel by Philip K. Dick, but the man seems to have great premises that are most described by fans as hardly ever getting a proper treatment onto film. This piece of unusual animated visual art is a prime example of a concept not reaching its full potential. I did appreciate that the animation on display has a bizarre disorienting effect that puts the viewer into the same unhinged mental state as the junkie characters. The artwork is a neat gimmick, but ultimately the movie should rely on more than just the unique visual process that it went through (taking a production time of over a full year to complete). The script begins with a promising set-up and then wanders without point or purpose for about two-thirds of the run time before concluding on a creative note that echoed a certain 70’s dystopian film (to give a specific title would be a spoiler).

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This admittedly cool conclusion did work in the film’s favor, but it also left me completely unsatisfied that nearly everything else in the storyline was tedious and damn near pointless. The movie plays out like a living graphic novel and there were a few instances (involving some weird hallucinations) that couldn’t have been replicated nearly as well in a live-action format. Besides four brief surreal moments, I can’t think of a single reason why A SCANNER DARKLY was executed in this oddball animated style. It’s a talking heads story done in an experimental fashion and the talking heads don’t have nearly enough remarkable or interesting things to say.

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As far as the cast goes, Rory Cochrane and Robert Downey Jr. were the two stand-outs. Cochrane’s character ultimately winds up (like so many other plot points in this film) being useless, but I got a solid laugh out of the fate of his storyline. Robert Downey Jr. seems to be having fun as a philosophy-waxing junkie that keeps you on your toes. You never quite know what to expect from his character, especially as the film comes to the conclusion. Everybody else is either underused or just plain bland. Woody Harrelson is another worthless character that provides some cheap comic relief and contributes nothing else. Winona Ryder is hugely underused as Bob’s girlfriend and then there’s the man playing our protagonist: Bob. This would be Keanu Reeves. Reeves has become widely reviled for not having much of an acting range and he’s just as wooden here. It’s not aggravating to watch, but I feel that almost any other notable actor could have gotten real emotional responses out of me in what little journey this character takes.

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A SCANNER DARKLY has been a polarizing film since its small release. People either love it or absolutely hate it. I’m stuck in the middle of the road. I enjoyed watching it on a purely visual level, but I’d never subject myself to it again. It’s a beautiful, hollow experience. Pure spectacle around a subject matter that really doesn’t lend itself to spectacle. I enjoyed some aspects about it, but it ultimately suffers from many pointless scenes that play out like filler and an underdeveloped story (which might be attributed to the fault of Philip K. Dick himself). The tagline states that “Everything is not going to be OK.” Sadly that also applies to this movie which is underwhelming to say the least and mediocre to say the most.

Grade: C

OCULUS (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Terror, Violence, some Disturbing Images and brief Language

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Directed by: Mike Flanagan

Written by: Jeff Howard

Starring: Katee Sackhoff, Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane, James Lafferty, Annalise Basso & Garrett Ryan

In 2011, Mike Flanagan made big waves on the horror circuit with a low-budget effort titled ABSENTIA. The film definitely had some problems found in silly effects, iffy acting, and a significantly flawed execution, but it did contain lots of spooky atmosphere. Flanagan returned to make even more waves at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival with his latest scary story, OCULUS, which has hit theaters nationwide. Some of the problems found in his previous film still linger here (though significantly less bothersome), but Flanagan ups the ante all around with this freaky tale of a cursed mirror and a pact between two siblings to destroy it at all costs.

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Something terrible happened to Tim and Kaylie Russell as children. Police didn’t believe their delusions about a cursed mirror and ghostly figures with glowing eyes, so Katie landed in foster care, Tim was shipped off to a psychiatric hospital, and their parents are dead. Years have passed and Tim is released from the hospital, believing it all to be in his head. His sister, Kaylie, is still convinced that the antique mirror is responsible for their screwed up childhood and has acquired it to prove so. Taking precautions and setting up surveillance equipment, the siblings return to their old house to destroy the evil object. It’s not as simple as just smashing the mirror though, because the glass has a way of manipulating those around it. It causes elaborate hallucinations that could easily drive a person crazy. As Kaylie’s plan to destroy the mirror begins to encounter many difficulties, the siblings relive the horror of that night along with questioning what is really around them and what is fabricated by the mirror.

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OCULUS is a good old-fashioned horror film. It doesn’t rely on gratuitous sex, a high body count, or over-the-top gore (though there are some bloody moments). Flanagan focuses on telling a freaky story and creeping the viewer out. He does this very well. The storytelling technique blends the past and present together. Both the current events and the previous tragedy are told simultaneously, crashing into each other with increasing unease. There are clear flashbacks, but also other scenes where it’s hard to tell if the sibling is hallucinating/reliving their memories or if it’s just a cut and dry flashback. This approach was a nothing short of brilliant and it keeps the viewer engaged with the dual plot-threads. The script itself kept me wondering where the film was going to go next, but not due to boredom. Instead, I was wondering what was going to build on what I had already seen, suffice to say that the story itself didn’t disappoint.

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The acting varies from both sets of cast members playing the siblings in different time periods. I actually found the younger child performers, of whom much of the film hinges on, to be more convincing than the seasoned ones. That’s not a huge complaint in regards to Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites as the siblings in the present time period, but it took me a while to buy into them as these characters. Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, the latter of whom actually played Young Josh in INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2, steal the show. Besides Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane as their parents, there aren’t a whole lot of other actors involved that play a big part in the story. It’s mainly about the breaking of a once-happy family and the siblings trying to get revenge on the evil that tore them apart.

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As far as the effects themselves go, there are some clear budget constraints. Most of the film does take place in the house (be it past or present), but ghostly specters of the mirror’s previous victims appear here and there. I dug the looks of some of them. Other times, things looked a tad corny. Seeing as Flanagan had 5 million (which is significantly higher than the 70 grand that he made ABSENTIA on), there’s not really an excuse for this. It’s not a film that relies heavily on effects, but they are employed throughout when necessary.

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The film is professionally constructed in most ways, it looks great (save for some questionable effects work) and the storytelling is phenomenal (save for some so-so acting near the beginning). A big complaint I have to level at OCULUS involves the fact that I never once jumped out of my seat and I could call when certain pop-up scares were going to happen. It’s a creepy movie, but not necessarily a frightening one. It’s the kind of scary movie you might show to non-horror fans in order to terrify them, while you enjoy laughing at their screams and watching a pretty kick-ass story unfold in a mostly unconventional way. The ending is also a real doozy. I called it about a minute before it happened, but I was highly satisfied with how things turned out.

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OCULUS does have some cracks in it, but is well worth looking into for those wanting a well-crafted horror film. The story rocks in the way it’s told. The more than capable child performers are arguably a huge part of what keeps things working as well as they do. I wasn’t necessarily out-and-out scared by OCULUS, but it did creep me out significantly. There was an eerie feeling that stuck as I walked to my car in the night, followed me as I drove home, and is currently hovering over me as I type this review. OCULUS winds up being well worth a watch and also might be one of the better horror films to come out this year! A solid horror film about a killer mirror? Who knew it could be done?

Grade: B+

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