THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language throughout

Directed by: Patrick Hughes

Written by: Tom O’Connor

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Elodie Young, Salma Hayek & Yuri Kolokolnikov

The trailers for THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD promised three things: Samuel L. Jackson, Ryan Reynolds, and explosions. I like Samuel L. Jackson. I like Ryan Reynolds. I also enjoy explosions. Lucky for me, THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD pretty much delivers on its promises of lots of bickering between Jackson and Reynolds, set alongside occasionally rousing action. THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD is tepidly enjoyable. I wish the overall film was more entertaining and funny, but it’s okay enough for what it is.

Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) was a top-tier bodyguard until one of his targets was horribly assassinated. Ever since that tragic event, Michael has been regulated to bottom-of-the-barrel bodyguard status. Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) is a hitman who’s killed well over 200 people and enjoys his violent line of work. Darius is also the only person who can put brutal Belarusian dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman) behind bars. Darius needs to be at a Netherlands courtroom by a certain time or the international case against Vladislav will be thrown out. A reluctantly bitter Michael is dragged into protecting Darius’ life. Together, the mismatched pair dodge bullets, get chased by cars, and scream profanity at each other. If the bad guys don’t kill them, they might just wind up killing each other…or become oddball friends. You already know how these buddy action comedies tend to work.

HITMAN’S BODYGUARD’s best quality is the chemistry between Reynolds and Jackson. Both of these actors are great at generating laughs and seeing them paired together is pretty damn enjoyable by itself. Ryan Reynolds mostly serves as the straight man and his frequent agitation at the increasingly dire situation is amusing. Samuel L. Jackson spews his expectedly excessive profanity (including a constant use of “motherfucker”). Jackson also seems to be having a complete blast at this deadly, ultra-sarcastic hitman. The film even manages to milk some good character development between Reynolds and Jackson as their reluctant friendship evolves.

On the negative side of things, THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD is noticeably unbalanced in its tone. Gary Oldman plays a stone-cold dictator and his introductory moment includes the brutal execution of a man’s family. In an action-comedy, this entire scene feels too bleak. The film frequently cuts to this main villain being a genocidal dictator who is accused of “ethnic cleansing.” We see photos of mass graves and this all seems mighty depressing for what’s mostly trying to be a light-hearted action comedy. Oldman’s performance is straight-faced and serious too, which certainly seems to throw a wrench into the fun factor. The script’s darker spots drastically put a damper on some of the potential enjoyment to be had.

Besides a tone that seemingly doesn’t know what it wants to be, this film also runs a tad too long in the tooth. HITMAN’S BODYGUARD is just barely under two hours long and it feels like 25 minutes could have easily been shaved off this entire experience for a tighter running time. There’s a love-interest plot between Ryan Reynolds’ character and Elodie Young’s bland Interpol agent that feels tacked on, but Penelope Cruz gets a couple of decent scenes in as Kincaid’s equally violent wife.

HITMAN’S BODYGUARD ranges in its action sequences. A few potentially exciting spots are compromised by choppy editing and shaky camera work. This mainly arrives during the opening 30 minutes and one car chase. Not every action scene is ruined by bad editing though, because there are a handful of cool bits. An early confrontation between Jackson and Reynolds is equally funny and tense as they go at it with fists and guns. There’s also a moment where Reynolds deals with a thug in a hardware store and this very violent (but oddly goofy) sequence ranks as the best fight in the entire film.

THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD is generic in terms of its plot and the tone seems to awkwardly shift between exciting/funny to needlessly dark/depressing. However, there’s still entertainment to be had in watching Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson play off each other in swear-filled verbal sparring matches. The action also squeezes in some cool sequences. If you’re sold on the idea of Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson in a buddy action-comedy, then you’ll likely have some fun with THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD. If that idea doesn’t interest you at all, then you’re not missing out on much.

Grade: C+

KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

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

Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Written by: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein & Derek Connolly

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary & John C. Reilly

KONG: SKULL ISLAND is the eighth film starring the titular giant ape and the second film in Universal’s newly established MonsterVerse (the first was 2014’s GODZILLA). SKULL ISLAND isn’t the tragic view of KING KONG that we’ve already seen in the 1933 classic and Peter Jackson’s overblown remake, but instead is simply a giant monster adventure. SKULL ISLAND is not without a few major flaws, but it’s pretty entertaining nonetheless. If you want to see some crazy creatures, witness giant beasts laying the smackdown on each other, and watch a lot of people die in horrible ways, then KONG: SKULL ISLAND is a fun two-hour-long ride.

The year is 1973. The Vietnam War is coming to an end and times are changing. In an effort to cash-in on the chaotic state of things, would-be crackpot William Randa (John Goodman) secures funds to lead a dangerous mapping expedition to an uncharted island. The mysterious Skull Island is rumored to be a place where myths and science collide. His team of adventurers includes: British tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), Army Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), Photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and a ragtag group of soldiers/scientists. Unfortunately, flying through a turbulent storm to get to Skull Island is easier than leaving Skull Island. The group of mismatched folks soon find themselves battling deadly wildlife, including one pissed-off, building-sized monkey.

SKULL ISLAND nails the most important part of a giant monster movie: the monsters! This film has lots of cool scenes and stand-out sequences of ferocious beasts going at it. This includes: folks being heartlessly killed, monsters fighting people (including a fantastic early confrontation between Kong and a group of helicopters), and monsters fighting each other (in multiple scenes). SKULL ISLAND doesn’t take the less-is-more approach to its creatures that Gareth Evan’s GODZILLA reboot had and it hugely benefits from it. We see lots of chaos and violence, and it sure is fun! The adrenaline-pumping action scenes are sure to make viewers giddy and will likely elicit vocal reactions from a theater audience.

The film has a big silly vibe to it as well and delivers wholeheartedly on that. A great soundtrack (of old-school hits) keeps the energy up during the slower moments of characters traveling and building some possible means of escape. The atmospheric visuals look great, while there are wisely chosen clips of archive footage incorporated into the opening credits (showcasing the passage of time) and there’s even a unique style to the title cards. There was clearly lots of attention to detail in the making of this film, including: the beautiful environments (a mix of Vietnam, Hawaii, and Australia), a flashing camera bulb in a monster’s stomach, and minute facial expressions on Kong’s stern mug.

The look of this rebooted Kong is unique and imposing. He basically has the appearance of a pissed-off gorilla, but not a monster (e.g. the 1933 original and Peter Jackson’s remake). Other beasties populate Skull Island too. Some of these have small memorable moments (like a water buffalo or strange insects, one of which is pure nightmare fuel), while others play a bigger role in the proceedings. Some pterodactyl-like birds felt a little too silly. However, bone-headed lizards that serve as the film’s primary antagonists (showcased in the trailers as “skull crawlers”) aren’t as scary as they could have been, but provide some tense scenes nonetheless. This is especially true of one battle-like encounter, between the surviving humans and a hungry Skull crawler, in a gassy graveyard.

SKULL ISLAND’s problems come in the form of one-note characters. There are lots of folks that venture to Skull Island and therefore, lots of people are going to die. However, the film briefly sets each of these folks up with an obligatory prologue scene and not much else. I wasn’t expecting thoughtful development on every single character, but it would be nice if we cared a little more about a few of them. When shocking deaths occurred, I didn’t feel like there was much of a loss and just thought the visuals/death itself was cool.

Tom Hiddleston gets by on his own charming merits, while Brie Larson is good enough as a peace-loving photographer. John Goodman has a strong set-up and then is sort of brushed to the side as a background character. Samuel L. Jackson is alright as a pissed-off colonel and actually became rather annoying in the proceedings (which seemed intentional). John C. Reilly is enjoyable as the comic relief. Meanwhile, Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham and Thomas Mann are serviceable as Vietnam soldiers thrown into a new kind of jungle. John Ortiz has a bit of a comic relief role, but they also try to give him a sensitive side. This backfires as I didn’t feel a thing for this mixed bag character. The same can be said for Jing Tian and Corey Hawkins as two scientists.

People usually don’t go to a giant monster movie and expect to see strong characters. Instead, you’re going for the monsters. KONG: SKULL ISLAND more than delivers in that department as we see lots of cool creatures, straight-up monster brawls, and people being killed in neat ways. It would have definitely been a better film if the viewer actually cared about the people being eaten, but it isn’t a huge detriment seeing that the style and fun factor definitely work here. KONG: SKULL ISLAND will likely satisfy the craving for big dumb fun and not much else.

Grade: B

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Fantasy Action/Violence and Peril

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Directed by: Tim Burton

Written by: Jane Goldman

(based on the novel MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN by Ransom Riggs)

Starring: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Ella Purnell, Terence Stamp, Judi Dench, Chris O’Dowd, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie & Samuel L. Jackson

To be perfectly blunt, MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN is Tim Burton’s X-MEN. I’m far from the first person to say that and I know that this film is based on a popular series of dark-fantasy books. However, the comparison is definitely valid. Taken on its own merits, there are positive qualities in PECULIAR CHILDREN. However, lots of factors contribute to the film being merely okay as opposed to anything special or a return to oddball form for Burton. This is yet another young-adult adaptation that feels like set-up for a franchise with more interesting installments down the line.

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Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) is an angsty teen who’s recently lost his dementia-ridden grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) to unnatural causes. Abe would constantly wow kindergarten-aged Jake with tales of invisible children, monsters, and shapeshifters, but Jake outgrew those silly stories. In coping with his grandfather’s untimely death, Jake discovers there may be some truth to the old man’s stories. Jake soon finds himself immersed in a “time loop” with weird headmistress Alma Peregrine (Eva Green) and her peculiar children. Dark forces soon threaten Jake, Peregrine and the strange youngsters, putting bravery to the test and throwing Jake into a supernatural conflict that he’s just beginning to understand.

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The good news is that MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN isn’t on the same low quality that many other generic adolescent-aimed adaptations have been. This isn’t nearly as lame as something like DIVERGENT, BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, BEASTLY, TWILIGHT, etc. The slick cinematography, special effects (lots of cool CGI and impressive stop-motion) and sheer amount of creativity make PEREGRINE serviceable enough for older viewers and entertaining for younger viewers who might not be familiar with the books. Burton has occasional moments of great weirdness that feel like they belong in his earlier films. The second half is fun to watch as we see the X-Men, I mean the Peculiar Children, facing off against Lovecraftian monsters.

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Now for the negative, PECULIAR CHILDREN takes an entire hour to set up the basics of its plot and establish the supernatural world that Jake finds himself in. There have been plenty of fantasy adventures that introduced new story elements as the plot moved forward, but PEREGRINE seems to be deliberately taking its time to establish the universe for future films. There are so many rules, exposition-filled conversations, and explanations that it takes nearly 60 minutes to sit through these patience-testing plot developments. What’s even more frustrating is that apparently this film deviates significantly from the source material (according to a friend who has read the books), so this is a problem that lies squarely on the movie’s shoulders.

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As far as characters go, almost everybody seems to be defined by their powers. To bring up the aforementioned X-MEN comparison, there are mutants in that series who are defined by their powers, but there are also plenty of deep backstories and distinct personalities. The same cannot be said of MISS PEREGRINE as these kids are their peculiarities (a.k.a. powers). These supernatural abilities (or as Charles Xavier would call them “gifts”) serve as jokes, defense tools and excuses to further along the plot (e.g. one kid projects his dreams). Asa Butterfield has proven himself to be a talented performer in the past (HUGO, ENDER’S GAME) and seems to be have been handed a bland protagonist here. Jake feels like a character that we’ve seen a million times before and portrayed better.

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Terence Stamp is decent as Jake’s “delusional” grandfather, while Chris O’Dowd is entirely wasted as Jake’s concerned father. He’s understandably worried about his son’s mental health and we never get a concluding scene with his character. Eva Green is hollow as Miss Peregrine, serving almost no purpose other than guarding the children and explaining stuff to Jake (and the viewer). Samuel L. Jackson plays his most over-the-top villain since 2008’s THE SPIRIT as the eyeball-eating mad scientist Barron. It seems like Tim Burton (as so many other directors have) just let Jackson do his own thing in front of the camera. Sometimes this strategy works and other times (like in this film) it falls completely flat.

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Though MISS PEREGRINE definitely has problems, it should be mentioned that I don’t think this is a bad film. It’s just one of the lesser Burton efforts and seems overly familiar in a cinematic landscape that’s already become watered down with young adult adaptations in recent years. PECULIAR CHILDREN is just okay by both Burton standards, adolescent adaptation quality, and pure entertainment. I had fun watching the second half and was utterly bored by the poorly paced first hour. I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to sitting through any future PECULIAR installments in a potential trilogy. However, it would be nice if franchise starters could hold up on their own merits as opposed to feeling like a feature-length commercial for future sequels that might not even happen.

Grade: C+

FARCE OF THE PENGUINS (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 20 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Crude Sexual Content and Language

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Directed by: Bob Saget

Written by: Bob Saget

Voices of: Bob Saget, Lewis Black, Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Applegate, Jamie Kennedy, David Koechner, Whoopi Goldberg, Mo’Nique, Tracy Morgan, Carlos Mencia, Dane Cook, Jason Alexander, Jason Biggs, Norm Macdonald, Brie Larson, James Belushi, Dave Coulier, John Stamos, Jon Lovitz, Gilbert Gottfried, Damon Wayans & Abe Vigoda

If you’ve only seen Bob Saget in the long-running sitcom FULL HOUSE or hosting AMERICA’S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS, you might think he’s a family friendly comedian who constantly indulges in funny voices. You would be dead wrong though, because this man is a very adult-oriented, filthy comedian. Besides pulling a lot of dirty pranks behind the scenes of FULL HOUSE (which have been detailed in entertaining stories from former cast and crew members), Saget also had a penchant for producing disgusting stand-up comedy. He constantly swore up a storm on the stage and though I don’t find him to be hysterically funny, I can see the appeal in his profanity-laden brand of humor.

FARCE OF THE PENGUINS is Saget’s spoof of acclaimed documentary MARCH OF THE PENGUINS. Saget stated that he merely wanted to redub that original documentary, but wasn’t able to get permission from the filmmakers (gee, I wonder why). Instead, this X-rated real life counterpart to Danny Tanner compiled a mountain of stock footage and painstakingly edited it together. FARCE’s story revolves around penguins Carl (Bob Saget) and Jimmy (Lewis Black). Carl is a neurotic mess looking for love and Jimmy is a horny jerk starved for sex. Along with hundreds of other penguins, the two pals trek across the Antarctic for their annual mating season. Elsewhere, penguin Melissa (Christina Applegate) is waiting for “the one.” There are also subplots about a crazy loner (Carlos Mencia), a band of flightless birds that get lost in a barren landscape caused by global warming, and Samuel L. Jackson narrates with gratuitous “fucks” thrown every which way.

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FARCE seems like one of those animal clips from AMERICA’S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS with a larger voice cast, a feature-length running time, and more profanity/sex jokes than you would ever see on network television. Saget was clearly having a good time in making this movie and called out a lot of favors, as demonstrated by a large cast of big comedians (most of whom only pop in for a quick vocal cameo, before taking off running). Sadly, FARCE is an all-around failure that might have been funny if it were fifteen minutes long or if Saget found a way to keep things interesting beyond the one joke premise. Neither of those things happen though, turning FARCE into an all-out endurance test. This movie drags to a point where an 80 minute running time feels over two hours long. By the time the third act arrives (complete with extra scenes throughout the end credits), anyone drunk or high enough to get legitimate joy out of this film will likely be passed out or comatose in their boredom.

Even Saget seems to get bored with his main narrative, because he frequently finds reasons to cut away to other stock footage of different animals through FAMILY GUY-like throwaway lines. These include moments like Jimmy saying “Have you ever seen a walrus scratch it’s balls?” and then we cut away to thirty seconds of various walruses scratching themselves. Does that sound funny? What about the bit where they reference the writer of this movie and cut to an adorable monkey with a typewriter? That actually may have been a funny joke, but then Saget milks that primate footage for two more minutes of screen time. The only two moments that could have elicited chuckles out of me were already revealed in the 90-second-long trailer, Norm Macdonald asking to join in a threesome and Gilbert Gottfried screaming about “freezing his nuts off.”

In terms of lame spoofs, FARCE OF THE PENGUINS is marginally lower than reference-heavy garbage like MEET THE SPARTANS, DISASTER MOVIE, and EPIC MOVIE. Though those big-budget spoofs are abhorrently unfunny, mistake pop culture references for humor, and seem like pimples on the ass of the cinematic landscape, at least they have the decency to keep viewers rolling their eyes in frustration. FARCE OF THE PENGUINS is a struggle to get through and makes it seem like an insurmountable task to keep yourself awake for 80 straight minutes. If you have the desire to see comedians dub over penguins, then you’d be better off watching the FARCE trailer on YouTube and leaving it at that.

Grade: F

CELL (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Content, Terror, brief Sexuality and Language

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Directed by: Tod Williams

Written by: Stephen King & Adam Alleca

(based on the novel CELL by Stephen King)

Starring: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Stacy Keach & Wilbur Fitzgerald

Even people who have never picked up one of Stephen King’s 54 novels are bound to know the man from his many big screen and small screen adaptations. CELL is the latest of these movies. Based on the 2006 zombie novel from King, this film has long been in the works with Eli Roth originally slated to direct and Dimension Studios backing the budget. Years passed. Nothing happened. People moved on with their lives. After a long and troubled production history, CELL has finally been unleashed onto the public. Is it worth the almost decade long journey to the big screen? Nope. Not even close. This is simultaneously one of the worst Stephen King movies and one of the worst zombie films to come out in a long time.

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Graphic artist Clay Riddell (John Cusack) is at an airport, when a mysterious electronic pulse is sent through every active cell phone in the world. Those exposed to the signal (anyone who happened to be on the cell phone) has transformed into a screeching, blood-thirsty “phoner” that wants nothing more than to eat your flesh. After escaping with the help of train operator Tom (Samuel L. Jackson), Clay desperately wishes to reach his family…if only to confirm whether they’re phoners or totally safe. Soon enough, the pair are joined by teenage Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman) and the newly formed trio of survivors make their way across the bloody cell phone apocalypse to rescue Clay’s family. As if things couldn’t get any more dangerous, phoners have formed a hive-mind and are now killing in flocks.

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I wanted to give CELL the benefit of the doubt. Believe me, I tried. I was a fan of the novel upon its release and have revisited it a few times since then, one of those was deliberately in preparation for this movie adaptation. Though it’s not exactly original, the book is a creepy, compelling and entertaining read. That being said, this movie is a complete and utter mess. As an adaptation of the source material, it fails to ignite any sense of suspense that the book carried so well. Part of this results from an obviously low budget that didn’t allow for the large-scale chaos and hysteria that King brought to life on the page. This is glaring in the consistently awful CGI that’s used for plane crashes, fire, explosions, smoke, and hordes of phoners. However, it seems outright useless in places, like when cheap CGI is employed for falling snow. I find it very hard to believe that this production couldn’t afford cheap plastic flakes that look more convincing than an obvious flash animation effect.

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Even when viewed as a standalone creation that’s loosely based on a Stephen King novel (a category in which some of the best King films fall into), CELL remains a boring, stupid slog to sit through. These 98 minutes feels like a chore to endure. The film opens with cheap lazy credits that hinted I might be in for something painful right from the start, but never gains any big momentum to make you feel that the world has fallen into a zombie-filled wasteland. The whole movie basically follows a repeating pattern of characters running into other characters, encountering a phoner flock, and meeting more characters. Some of these survivors happen to be plot points in the novel, but every side character (aside from our trio of survivors) is treated with an equal amount of disinterested blandness.

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John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson starred in one of the best King movies of the 2000’s: 1408. Cusack was even an executive producer on this film. In CELL, both of these talented performers look bored and I got the sense that they knew this material wasn’t working on the screen. Other supporting characters come and go in a forgettable flash, giving a variety of dull or comically over-the-top performances. One shining star in this bleak mess of a film comes in Isabelle Fuhrman (the creepy child from ORPHAN) as Alice. In the book, this character represents an innocence lost in the apocalypse. Fuhrman captures that relatively well, but is frequently swiped to the sidelines so Jackson and Cusack engage in tedious conversations. As far as other side characters go, Stacy Keach looks like he’s in pain as a boring school headmaster, Owen Teague receives about ten lines as a tag along student, and Anthony Reynolds goes beyond the point of over-the-top as a technological savvy survivor.

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For a zombie movie, CELL is shockingly dull and relatively tame in terms of gore. There are only about three or four notable zombie (er, I mean “phoner”) encounters after the airport chaos. These bits mostly include characters running away from zombies or firing guns (complete with Adobe after effects). However, these phoners aren’t exactly that threatening or scary to begin with. These zombies pretty much run in circles and emit electronic sounds from their mouths. While those details worked in the book, they look insanely silly and laughably bad on the screen. The main phoner antagonist, a red-hooded Raggedy Man, also comes off like a lame-brained, half-assed afterthought.

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To add insult to injury, CELL’s mind-bogglingly stupid ending lacks emotion or creativity. It should be noted that the film’s conclusion strays from the original novel and the author himself is partially responsible for this haphazard screenplay. Apparently, King had issues with the book’s finale (which was slightly ambiguous, but sent the story out on an interesting/possibly uplifting note) and attempted to remedy that here. He did about as good of a job as he accomplished in 1997, by “fixing” THE SHINING with a godawful six-hour miniseries starring Stephen Weber. The crappy ending is only more disappointment added onto this big failure of a film that somehow isn’t getting an F…thanks to a Isabelle Fuhrman’s good performance. This is easily one of the worst Stephen King films I’ve seen. It’s down there with THE TOMMYKNOCKERS, CHILDREN OF THE CORN, and THE LANGOILERS. Avoid CELL and stick to the book…or just watch a bevy of better zombie films.

Grade: D-

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