DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Violence and Action throughout, and an Intense Crash Sequence

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Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Written by: Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill

(based on the DOCTOR STRANGE comics by Steve Ditko)

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen & Tilda Swinton

Fourteen films and eight years later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still going strong. DOCTOR STRANGE is a rather unique addition to this long-running cinematic franchise though, because it injects mystical powers and wizards into the MCU. I thought that GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and ANT-MAN were tough films to sell, but DOCTOR STRANGE seems downright challenging. Fortunately, director/writer Scott Derrickson is more than up to the task. Aided by fantastic performances, astounding special effects, and a smart script, DOCTOR STRANGE is easily the best Marvel Cinematic Universe movie thus far!

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Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant surgeon with a huge ego. After saving lives and carving out an acclaimed career, Strange suffers severe nerve damage in his hands from a horrible car accident. When Western medicine fails him, the down-on-his-luck doctor turns to Eastern mythology. His skepticism turns to amazement upon meeting centuries-old sorceress The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Strange soon finds himself immersed in a world of infinite possibilities, many universes, magical talents, mythical weapons, and dark threats. When evil zealot sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) attempts to bring use The Ancient One’s magic books for evil, it’s up to emerging hero Doctor Strange to save the world.

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Benedict Cumberbatch is a welcome addition to the bevy of A-listers who populate the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As Steven Strange, he starts off as completely unlikable and slowly begins to humble himself through magical teachings. Strange’s arrogance rivals Tony Stark’s cocky attitude, which makes me excited for the possibilities that might erupt when the two eventually meet face-to-face. After being an utter ass for the first third of the film, Strange’s changing attitude and emerging heroism ultimately wins the viewer onto his side. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Karl Mordo, a good-natured wizard who finds himself constantly at odds with Strange’s view of the world.

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Though a lot of hubbub erupted for her part in this film, Tilda Swinton vanishes into the charming role of The Ancient One. Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams plays Strange’s former lover and best friend…providing great comic relief and believable emotion. Finally, Mads Mikkelsen plays Kaecilius, Marvel’s equivalent of Saruman and introduction for bigger threats in the future, as an intimidating presence with insane powers that make for great fight scenes…particularly when one of Strange’s plans backfires spectacularly.

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One has to admire how brilliantly written DOCTOR STRANGE’s script is. Yes, it’s a superhero origin story…but it’s the most compelling origin story to come out of the Marvel Universe thus far. This film stands entirely on its own and doesn’t fully seem connected to the MCU (a good quality), save for a few brief Avengers references and a mid-credits scene that promises more of Strange in future Marvel projects. Strange’s training takes time and introduces lots of complicated concepts that come into play throughout the story (astral projection, relics, other dimensions, spells, etc.). The ways in which we are given this complex information feel entirely natural and provide laughs…as well as sheer awe-inspiring moments.

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In terms of special effects and action scenes, this movie is awesome! I know that word has become commonplace, but it definitely applies to DOCTOR STRANGE’s jaw-dropping sequences of psychedelic head-trips, vibrant colors that look like a rave went to outer space, and an amazing INCEPTION/MATRIX-like battle through New York City that currently stands as one of my favorite action scenes of the decade. This movie is phenomenally trippy and cool the whole way through. Even visuals that might seem cheesy when taken out of context (a giant floating head, spirits leaving their bodies, etc.) all work perfectly within the film’s storyline and with the added weight of the characters inhabiting them. The film’s climax has also reinvigorated my love for superhero movies as a whole. I was slightly fatigued by the massive number of comic book movies hitting the multiplex in the past few years, but DOCTOR STRANGE has ignited the childlike spark inside of me and makes me crave the upcoming Marvel films now more than ever!

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DOCTOR STRANGE is easily my favorite movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It incorporates tons of complicated elements through a smartly written script and mind-blowing spectacle. The characters are all great, even if not all of them receive a ton of screen time. The humor works fantastically and never overshadows the film’s more serious moments. The action is exciting and adrenaline-pumping. The magical aspect delivers some of the most creative, head-trippy imagery to hit theaters in all of 2016! This is big entertainment done right in every conceivable way!

Grade: A+

HELLRAISER: INFERNO (2000)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Gore, Language, Sexuality and Drug Use

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Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Written by: Paul Harris Boardman & Scott Derrickson

Starring: Craig Sheffer, Nicholas Turturro, James Remar, Nicholas Sadler, Noelle Evans & Doug Bradley

It’s downright shameful how mistreated the HELLRAISER franchise is. Unlike other long-running horror series, Clive Barker’s unique vision of Hell and Pandora’s Box offers up endless possibilities for a number of insane stories. The first two HELLRAISERs were great and brought some of the most bizarre imagery to ever come out of 80’s horror. The third film was a lame attempt to turn Pinhead into the next Freddy and it failed miserably. At the very least, the fourth installment was an interesting anthology that wound up being the last theatrical release of the series. HELLRAISER: INFERNO is the fifth installment and the first that went straight-to-video. In an effort to make a quick buck, Dimension Studios started throwing unrelated shelved scripts at the series and a few details were changed around to include Pinhead, the Lament Configuration and Cenobites. This really shows in INFERNO, a film that unsuccessfully tries to combine a neo-noir with the HELLRAISER mythology.

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Joseph Thorne is a loose cannon cop who doesn’t play by the rules. When he’s not solving homicides by day, he’s stealing evidence, doing cocaine and cheating with hookers by night. It’s safe to say that Joseph isn’t a nice guy and his latest case is pushing him to his limits. A bloody crime scene reveals disturbing details as a man was viciously mutilated by hooks. Joseph recovers a mysterious puzzle box found at the scene (three guesses as to what that is) and solves it. He soon finds himself in a game of cat-and-mouse with a serial killer called The Engineer and begins to have nightmarish visions of demons. You can probably guess where this is heading.

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The idea of combining other genres with HELLRAISER is not a bad one at all. In fact, I’d love to see a good noir pulled off with strong supernatural horror. That sort of happened with 1998’s underrated FALLEN and I was hoping for a little spark of that here. However, this is a generic cop movie through and through that just happens to throw a few half-assed Cenobites into the mix. There are long stretches of this film where the horror aspect doesn’t even creep in until the new writer realized that he’d gone too long without a nightmare sequence featuring Pinhead.

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Doug Bradley returns for three scenes as the iconic horror villain (two of these are nightmare sequences) and the rest of the Cenobites are generic looking. There’s a torso version of Chatter (the creepiest Cenobite of the first HELLRAISER) as well as three bland latex looking things (two female and one male). However, all of these demons combined manage to be more likable than the character of Joseph Thorne. There’s a difference between being a rough around the edges protagonist and an all-out unlikable prick. This character is very much the latter. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for his plight, because the whole time you’re hoping that someone will beat the manners back into him.

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Scott Derrickson went on to direct EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, SINISTER, and DELIVER US FROM EVIL after making this flick. You can see a certain visual style that translates through all of his films. Even though INFERNO is bland and mediocre, there’s still a good visual scheme to the whole film. While the first two-thirds of the movie are just a generic cop thriller (complete with clichéd dialogue and all), the last act is where the pacing picks up. As much as I didn’t care for the rest of this film, I enjoyed its final 20 minutes. The whole screenplay could have consisted of the last 20 minutes and I would have been fairly happy with the result. Unfortunately, it’s a long, dull slog to get to that point in the film.

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HELLRAISER: INFERNO is officially the point where I’m getting off this franchise train. While this series has such potential and promise in the right hands, it’s clear that nobody greenlighting these half-assed projects into existence gives a shit. This was literally a case where a generic cop screenplay was picked off a shelf and someone said “Just throw Pinhead in it and it will be fine.” I liked the ending of this film and Scott Derrickson brings across a good visual style, but there just isn’t much else to enjoy about this direct-to-video HELLRAISER installment. Just stick to the first two films (the fourth if you want some closure) and ignore the rest of this franchise. You’ll be happier that way.

Grade: C

SINISTER 2 (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Bloody and Disturbing Images, and Language

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Directed by: Ciaran Foy

Written by: C. Robert Cargill & Scott Derrickson

Starring: James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Daniel Sloan, Dartanian Sloan, Lea Coco & Tate Ellington

Special note: This review contains spoilers for 2012’s SINISTER. If you haven’t seen that film, then buy a copy and watch it in the dark with the volume cranked up to eleven. You’ll thank me later.

Horror is like Comedy in that it’s a genre that’s deeply subjective. Something that terrifies one person might not even phase someone else. I’ve loved the horror genre since I was about eight years old and very few movies have really, truly scared me to my core. SINISTER is on the short list of horror films that affect me on a deeply troubling level. I loved the 2012 shocker and consider it to be a modern masterpiece of the genre. That all being said, I didn’t see how a sequel could possibly work for Scott Derrickson’s original chiller. How could you possibly do a second installment without merely just rehashing the first film’s plot? SINISTER 2 does rehash a very similar story, but the screenplay (penned by the writers of the original film) does attempt to put a few new spins on the material. The result is a mixed bag of a sequel that’s still far better than it might have been in other hands.

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Years have passed since Ellison Oswalt wound up as a sacrificial offering to ancient deity Bughuul. In that span of time, Deputy So & So (Oswalt’s man on the inside) has been fired from his job and taken up work as a private investigator. When he’s between clients, So & So tracks down cursed locations where bloody offerings have been made to Bughuul and burns them to the ground. His latest location (an abandoned church and the site of a particularly grisly sacrifice) may already be comprised as a divorced mother and her two twin sons are inhabiting a house on the property. While Deputy So & So tries to figure out how to prevent a seemingly inevitable slaughter to Bughuul, one of the twins is slowly being corrupted…

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SINISTER 2 takes the HOSTEL: Part II approach in that it essentially tells the same story as the original film, but does so from a different point of view. Much like the second HOSTEL provided insight into the torture club, SINISTER 2 shows how children transform into killers for Bughuul. As a result, the ghosts of previous evil kids are the main antagonists this time around as opposed to Bughuul. Rest assured, the demon does make a few appearances in the form of quick jump scares. The script for SINISTER 2 also sports other interesting concepts (different forms of art serving as offerings), but merely glosses over them. This is especially frustrating when we’re told about an uncertain fate of one character from the previous film and nothing ever comes out of that.

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Deputy So & So served as welcome comic relief in the dread-soaked SINISTER, but takes center stage as the main character this time around. As soon as I realized this was the case, I was bracing myself for something that could wind up being painfully inept. While there are definite awkward jokes, James Ransone does surprisingly well as a somewhat serious leading man. His scenes with Shannyn Sossamon (who I mainly recognize from that godawful ONE MISSED CALL remake) work far better than you would expect. The child actors are competent for the most part, especially the main evil ghost kid (who reminded me of Isaac from CHILDREN OF THE CORN).

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Some might argue that the 8mm snuff films were the scariest part of the original SINISTER (for me, it was the nightmare-inducing conclusion) and the filmmakers attempt to up the ante in SINISTER 2’s recorded massacres. While the first film had a less-is-more approach (merely hinting at the gory horrors in a cringe-inducing lawnmower scene), SINISTER 2 revels in its violence by having alligators devour a family within the first reel. Sure, these kills are more ridiculous, but there’s still a creepy factor to every one of them. The ending of SINISTER 2 is where the ball really gets dropped. Instead of opting for a darker ending (one that was originally intended), SINISTER 2 goes for clichés and a predictable climax with a pretty bow tied on top (as well as a cheesy final jump scare). The effects during these final minutes aren’t convincing either with some of the worst CGI in recent memory.

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Despite all of its problems, SINISTER 2 is not a terrible sequel. Even though it retreads the same basic ground as the first film, it attempts to do so in a different way. I was interested to see the story play out, even with noticeable problems in the plot and execution (pardon the pun). This horror sequel is a definite cash-grab that relies far more on loud noises, predictable pop-ups and an over-the-top slasher-esque attitude as opposed to the disturbing and terrifying tone of the first film. However, I never outright disliked this sequel and found bits of enjoyment in it nonetheless. SINISTER 2 is a flawed, forgettable sequel to a fantastic original horror flick.

Grade: C+

DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Bloody Violence, Grisly Images, Terror throughout, and Language

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Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Written by: Scott Derrickson & Paul Harris Boardman

(based on the book BEWARE THE NIGHT by Ralph Sarchie & Lisa Collier Cool)

Starring: Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez, Olivia Munn, Sean Harris, Joel McHale & Chris Coy

Scott Derrickson scared the ever-loving shit out of me with 2012’s SINISTER. With that film aside, the man really hasn’t got another solid horror flick to his name. EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE came off as a TV court-room drama mixed with a watered down version of THE EXORCIST and suffered from plenty of clichés as a result. In his latest offering, Derrickson goes back to the much traveled road of demonic possession with a different angle this time around. DELIVER US FROM EVIL is essentially a feature-length episode of COPS: Exorcist Edition. This is a disappointing and mostly bland police procedural that happens to have a demonic spin on it. It sounds like the recipe for a winner on the outside, but suffers from clichés from both the horror genre and the cop thrillers. It’s not horrible by any means, but barely passable is hardly the description that anybody wants to hear about a movie they’re paying to see on the big screen.

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Based on the supposedly true experiences of cop-turned-demonologist Ralph Sarchie, DELIVER US FROM EVIL begins with a group of soldiers in the Middle East venturing into a foreboding cave. Faster than you can say Pazuzu, the men are ambushed by a mysterious force in the dark. Three years later in the Bronx, Ralph Sarchie is investigating a series of horrible crimes revolving around satanic rituals and demonic possession. Aided by a renegade priest, Ralph does everything within his power to put a stop to this evil force at work…but will it be enough?

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That’s the set up of this supernatural horror flick and it does have potential. The trailers and marketing material for DELIVER US FROM EVIL looked mighty scary, especially given how freaky SINISTER was. I had high hopes for this film and it just wound up being standard on nearly every level. The one thing that Scott Derrickson excels at is spooky atmosphere. While I was never scared, the visuals were gruesome and reminded me of SE7EN with demonic spirits. Every bloody opportunity in this deserved R rating is taken, although the film never becomes an out-and-out gorefest. I liked that every plot development was being treated with a state of seriousness, even though the script is strewn with clichés around every corner. Speaking of clichés…

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Damn near every jump scare is basically a loud stinger with an animal screeching (whether it be bats, dogs, cats, mice, or even lions in a zoo). It got grating and silly. I mean, shouldn’t the horror genre have moved past the cat jump scare at this point? Also, haven’t cop movies moved past the wise-cracking sarcastic partner? I ask this, because The Soup’s Joel McHale is cast as Ralph’s hardened partner whose always ready with a bad punchline in the face of danger. It may be because McHale has been seen as comedic actor for so long, but I couldn’t buy him as this serious badass police officer with a sense of humor. Eric Bana does a good job as Ralph, but that’s about all I can say about his performance. Edgar Ramirez is the best actor here as the most unusual priest and almost seems to be channeling an action hero style to his character. Every cast member portraying possessed victim does the typical hissy voices and animal characteristics, though the make-up job on them is decent enough.

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A couple of completely unnecessary things pad out the overly long running time as well. The movie takes its sweet time getting to the initial team-up of Bana and Ramirez’s characters. One might argue that it’s entirely too long of a first act. Then there’s the haphazardly constructed plotline of Ralph’s dark past resurfacing (complete with typical visions and canned children’s laughter meant to come off as unnerving). Finally, the tie-in to song lyrics from The Doors is just plain silly and seems to be used only as an excuse for the end credits to use Break On Through. Despite the solid atmosphere and creepy visuals, DELIVER US FROM EVIL suffers from a basic script and completely average execution. This is likely to go down as yet another forgettable horror flick that looked promising, but failed to deliver (pardon the pun).

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One reason for my mere apathetic response I felt at the end of DELIVER US FROM EVIL might be attributed to the complete excess of big screen demonic possession movies as of late (e.g. the awful DEVIL INSIDE, the bad RITE, the good LAST EXORCISM and its terrible sequel, and the passable POSSESSION). I can’t say that’s definitely the case though, seeing as plenty of good horror flicks bring fresh scares to well-worn formulas. Scott Derrickson’s DELIVER US FROM EVIL doesn’t come off as compelling or emotional or even frightening. It’s a film that sputters along from set piece to set piece, but never fully takes off. In some ways, that’s arguably worse than if it had just been an all-out disaster.

Grade: C

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