HACKSAW RIDGE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 11 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Intense Prolonged Realistically Graphic Sequences of War Violence including Grisly Bloody Images

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Directed by: Mel Gibson

Written by: Andrew Knight & Robert Schenkkan

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Corr, Teresa Palmer, Rachel Griffiths, Richard Roxburgh & Luke Pegler

World War II was a horrible time in human history that contained many fascinating true stories. One of these stories is that of Desmond Doss, the only conscientious objector to ever receive the Medal of Honor during WWII. Working off a well-crafted script from Andrew Knight (who previously wrote 2015’s substandard WWI drama THE WATER DIVINER) and Robert Schenkkan, director Mel Gibson delivers a triumphant movie about unbelievable courage, inner strength and the horrors of war. Like many WWII films, HACKSAW RIDGE isn’t exactly the most pleasant movie of the year as there are harrowing moments of carnage and scenes of breathless tension. For those who want to see a rousing story of an unlikely hero, HACKSAW RIDGE is one hell of an emotional ride.

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Raised in Lynchburg, Virginia, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is a deeply religious man who finds himself tested by the arrival of World War II. Despite seeing what the horrors of World War I did to his alcoholic father Tom (Hugo Weaving), Desmond can’t sit idly by while others are fighting the war for him. To the dismay of his loving fiancé Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), Desmond volunteers to fight in World War II…but there’s just one stipulation. He refuses to touch a weapon. This puts Desmond in a tough spot with his superiors and in greater danger on the shores of “Hacksaw Ridge” during the Battle of Okinawa. Instead of taking life, Desmond Doss intends on saving it.

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HACKSAW RIDGE is split into two distinct halves. The first half focuses on Desmond’s home life, the events that drove him to enlist, his deeply held religious beliefs, and the turbulence he encounters at boot camp for his pacifist stance on the war. The second half is where the Battle of Okinawa comes into play and we actually see Doss at work in some of the most heroic acts that have come from one extraordinary human being. The first half allows the viewer to get to know the characters and presents a layout of the story, so we totally sympathize from where Doss is coming from.

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The slower first portion was a smart move, because it also causes the audience to let their guard down and makes the violent second half that much more shocking. Soldiers we’ve followed through boot camp are killed in mere seconds, whilst we root for Doss to save as many as he possibly can. The Battle of Okinawa sequences are gory, intense and assault the viewer’s sensibilities. Those three qualities are absolutely called for in a film about World War II. Okinawa was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War and Mel Gibson does his damndest to capture the sheer terror of it all. Lots of smoke obscures figures in the distance, causing many threats to go unseen. The Japanese kamikaze tactics are shown in shocking fashion. The battle scenes don’t shy away from severed limbs, rat-eaten corpses, and graphic wounds. The details are appropriately horrific and make Doss’s courageous acts of bravery seem even more heroic in comparison.

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In the role of Desmond Doss, Andrew Garfield delivers his finest performance yet. I mostly know him as Peter Parker in the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN movies, but Garfield disappears in the role of good-hearted Southern boy Doss. He slips right into the part and I completely forgot that I was watching a performance until the end credits rolled…and we’re treated to actual footage of the real Doss. Vince Vaughn gets lots of laughs and great scenes as Doss’s strict drill sergeant. His performance reminded me of a less-harsh R. Lee Ermey. Sam Worthington is mostly regulated to the sidelines as frustrated and undermanned Captain Glover, but receives a couple of powerful moments in the final third. Luke Bracey is well-cast as a soldier who understandably opposes Doss’s “cowardly” ways, Teresa Palmer is great as Doss’s understanding fiancé, and Hugo Weaving is outstanding as Doss’s abusive father.

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Taken purely on a technical level, Mel Gibson has crafted one hell of a war film. The battle sequences look realistic, pack serious tension into the bloody chaos (to the point where I was on the edge of my seat multiple times), and seem massive in scope. Detailed cinematography adds a beautiful look to the proceedings, while intricately layered sound design adds a believable sense of confusion to the combat scenes. If I have any complaints they come from an out-of-place dream sequence and the sudden ending. I expected this film to run longer than it actually did, but that gripe might be taken as a positive for how amazing and compelling this movie’s quality is. I wanted it keep going beyond the end credits.

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HACKSAW RIDGE is a compelling, deeply emotional war movie. The performances are stellar across the board, with Andrew Garfield disappearing into the role of a real-life heroic character. The story’s two-act structure ultimately makes the entire film feel more realistic and moving. The combat sequences are rough and horrific, as they should be. The film also looks and sounds amazing on a technical level. With his fifth feature, Mel Gibson has brought cinematic life to an incredible true story that’s bound to move even the hardest of hearts. If you’re into history, war films or just great cinema, HACKSAW RIDGE is must-see!

Grade: A

LIGHTS OUT (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Terror throughout, Violence including Disturbing Images, some Thematic Material and brief Drug Content

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Directed by: David F. Sandberg

Written by: Eric Heisserer

Starring: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Maria Bello, Billy Burke & Alicia Vela-Bailey

In 2013, fresh-faced filmmaker David F. Sandberg made a phenomenal short film, titled LIGHTS OUT, that became an internet sensation. Apparently some studio head watched this creepy video and gave 5 million dollars to Sandberg, because there’s now a feature-length LIGHTS OUT hitting theaters. I was both hesitant and excited when buying my tickets for this spooky summer horror flick. The trailer was impressively scary and Sandberg clearly had a knack for creating nightmarish images, but memories of DARKNESS FALLS, MAMA, and 2011’s DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK danced through my head. Judging from my own reaction towards this film and the vocal responses from audience members around me, LIGHTS OUT will be terrifying for filmgoers who haven’t seen a lot of horror films and a fun time for seasoned genre fans!

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Twenty-something Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) has effectively distanced herself from her overly oppressive and mentally disturbed mother, Sophie (Maria Bello). When Rebecca’s stepfather (Billy Burke) dies, her younger brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is left solely in unstable Sophie’s care. Though it might appear that two people are living in Sophie’s home, that’s not quite the case…because a dangerous entity also resides in the house. This monster is blood-thirsty and can only appear/attack in the dark. Rebecca tirelessly tries to get Martin out of her mother’s house before it’s too late!

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LIGHTS OUT kicks off on a hugely positive note, with a prologue that delivers effective scares in a big, bad way. This opening sequence in a warehouse echoes a distinct moment from the 2013 short film and becomes borderline terrifying for five minutes. Sadly, it also served as the scariest part of the entire film and the rest of the story never quite achieved the same level of well-crafted horror again. There are loads of jump scares spread throughout the shakily paced 81 minutes. These range from great to a blatantly cheap (the movie doesn’t follow its own rules), but the film truly shines in its quieter, more suspenseful frights.

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Though clocking in at 81 minutes, LIGHTS OUT still feels slightly stretched in its short running time. There’s only so much you can do with a premise like this. In order to add 78 extra minutes to what began as a three-minute short, the screenplay constantly dabbles in melodrama (which may work for some filmgoers, but felt like lazy filler to me) and a mind-boggling exposition dump that lays out the entire plot for the viewer. There’s no reason that Rebecca should know certain information, other than the script needed it to happen through a box of files, conveniently placed recordings and a few grainy flashbacks. The origin of this darkness creature (which has already been spoiled in the film’s marketing) is a bit silly to say the least. Even the tooth fairy from DARKNESS FALLS seems slightly more creative than clawed darkness-dweller “Diana.”

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The plot calls for these characters to walk through dark places, while fully knowing there’s a monster lurking around every corner. This means that lots (and lots) of aggravatingly stupid decisions are made by characters we’re supposed to care about, resulting in some of the most annoying horror victim logic I’ve seen in years. A dumbass turns off a light to see a creepy silhouette and then proceeds to mess with the light switch for a full minute before coming to the conclusion that this might be a bad idea. Teresa Palmer uses a flashlight that constantly needs to be cranked, because it would make too much sense to grab a normal flashlight. There’s also the cliché of a character hearing a sound in a mysterious room and making her way down a shadowy hallway to investigate…even though there’s a whole lot of darkness for Diana to hide in.

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In spite of dumb characters, silly scenes (namely, that damn exposition dump this film never fully recovers from), and never quite reaching the terrifying level of its prologue, LIGHTS OUT is fun in a gimmicky way. Out of the many horror films that feature darkness-dwelling threats, LIGHTS OUT probably stands out as the best (not exactly a huge compliment considering the competition is DARKNESS, DARKNESS FALLS, and DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK). The film has quality scares and occasionally embraces creativity in its creepy premise (a scene with a gun is a cool highlight). Overall, LIGHTS OUT is a solid gateway horror flick for those who haven’t seen too many horror films and will probably serve as a fun, flawed ride that’s in one ear and out the other for genre fans.

Grade: B-

TRIPLE 9 (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language throughout, Drug Use and some Nudity

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Directed by: John Hillcoat

Written by: Matt Cook

Starring: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Gal Gadot, Clifton Collins Jr. & Teresa Palmer

I’ll apologize in advance for sounding harsh towards this movie. Dammit, TRIPLE 9 could have been something special. Look at that cast! Watch the red band trailer! Read the plot description! This sounds and looks like an all-around awesome flick in the vein of Michael Mann’s HEAT and Martin Scorsese’s THE DEPARTED. Yet, TRIPLE 9 is a deeply underwhelming experience. There’s a fantastic movie hiding somewhere in this hodge-podge of solid performances, iffy writing, and stand-out moments mixed with well-worn clichés. Still, the end result is a decent crime-thriller that settles for being okay and never reaches any of its full potential.

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The city of Atlanta has become a bullet-filled battleground between suicidal cops and murderous criminals. Certain individuals are playing both sides of the law. Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Franco (Clifton Collins Jr.) are two cops trying to bring in some extra cash on the side. The corrupt pair are working for sadistic Russian mobster Irina (Kate Winslet) alongside career criminals Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Russell (Norman Reedus) and Gabe (Aaron Paul). These ragtag thieves attempt a high-stakes heist, which goes south in a bad way. They manage to escape, but not before causing a very public scene.

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Fresh-faced cop Chris (Casey Affleck) and grizzled detective Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson) become obsessed with these masked robbers. Meanwhile, the gang plans another high-stakes heist that needs one long distraction. This comes in the form of a Triple 9 call, meaning that a cop would need to take a bullet and possibly bite the big one for their heist to work. Marcus decides that Chris would be a perfect candidate for this scenario, but things don’t quite go according to plan.

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Great moments are hidden within TRIPLE 9’s messy screenplay. The opening heist is intense, while a street chase gives a glimpse into how action-packed this movie might have been with better writing behind it. TRIPLE 9’s big problems mostly boil down to a lazy, shoddy screenplay. Mind you, the film isn’t entirely clichéd and predictable. There’s enough here to keep someone entertained. The screenplay only lacks in bringing smart thrills, fleshing out clever twists and distinguishing itself from hundreds of other corrupt cop and heist films out there. I won’t give away specific plot points, but the story frequently sets up high stakes and almost never delivers on them. This is especially true of the anti-climactic finale. It felt like someone didn’t want to have events play out naturally and simply rushed the final scenes so the movie would be over in a hurry.

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Since the writing is a mixed bag of “meh,” the characters in TRIPLE 9 aren’t much better. Even with A-list talent behind them, I didn’t care about most of these people. Because these characters are mostly wooden, the grisly violence that stacks up as the film moves forward didn’t have as much of an impact as it probably should have. I felt more pity towards a silent security guard’s gruesome injury than I did for most of these cops/criminals’ deaths. The two biggest highlights of the cast are Woody Harrelson as an underutilized (but memorable) detective who has seen his fair share of shit and Clifton Collins Jr. as a scummy stone-cold psychopath.

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Anthony Mackie’s Marcus is played as a disappointingly one-dimensional crooked cop, unlike Chiwetel Ejiofor’s crook with a sympathetic reason driving his despicable actions. Kate Winslet (known for playing much more upbeat roles) lets her evil side shine as a sadistic Russian mob wife and chews the scenery like it’s going out of style, making the most of her limited screen time. Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus have both shown they have great talent in other projects, but are totally wasted here as two throwaway thugs. In a sense, TRIPLE 9’s A-list ensemble cast feels like a detriment. The screen becomes overcrowded with stars being squandered in poorly written roles.

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Only one performance sticks out as noticeably bad and that’s Casey Affleck as head-strong good cop Chris. We know we’re supposed to root for Chris. How do we know this? Because he’s the only main character who isn’t a total corrupt, amoral scumbag. To be fair, Affleck wasn’t given much to work with. This character feels like a cardboard cut-out of a protagonist, but that’s still a piss-poor excuse for his bland performance, seeing that every other cast member managed to make the most of their walking clichés.

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TRIPLE 9 has its moments and keeps things interesting enough to be considered an okay crime-thriller. However, there was such potential shining in every second of screen time and none of it was fully realized. Aside from a handful of great sequences and solid plot twists, TRIPLE 9 never does anything truly remarkable or notably special to stand-out in an overcrowded genre of cops, robbers, and Russian criminals. Okay, maybe that last detail isn’t in every crime-thriller, but that makes this even more underwhelming. TRIPLE 9 is a decent enough way to kill two hours, but you might as well watch any number of superior crime-thrillers instead.

Grade: B-

CUT BANK (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Language

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Directed by: Matt Shakman

Written by: Roberto Patino

Starring: Liam Hemsworth, Billy Bob Thornton, John Malkovich, Teresa Palmer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Bruce Dern & Oliver Platt

CUT BANK is a movie that I discovered through its trailer. I previously had no idea this film even existed, in spite of it receiving a VOD release earlier this year and playing a couple of big film festivals last year. The well-cut trailer intrigued me as to whether or not this might be an undersung gem of 2015. So, throwing caution to the wind, I ventured out to the nearest Redbox and spent a dollar to see this flick. It seems that this is one of those many cases where the trailer is better than the movie its advertising, because CUT BANK is a film suffering from both an identity crisis and a bland script. The end result comes off like someone trying really hard to imitate the Coen brothers and not quite understanding what makes their movies work so well to begin with.

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Dwayne McLaren and his girlfriend, Cassandra, are recording a video in their small town of Cut Bank, Montana. Their little video shoot goes awry when they accidentally capture footage of a deadly crime in progress. The postman has been shot and killed by a mysterious stranger. Dwayne, who has been desperate to get out of his small town, sees this murder video as a possible ticket for a lot of money. However, the clumsy Sheriff Vogel is investigating the crime and finds that the simple crime is much more complicated than it originally appeared to be. While all of this is going on, creepy redneck Derby Milton is hunting, with deadly determination, for a mysterious package (that has disappeared with the mailman’s body). Through a series of events all of these characters will wind up encountering each other and not all of them will walk away alive.

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CUT BANK has a Coen vibe to it, whether that was intentional or not. However, it doesn’t quite have the story to back that up. Once an obvious plot revelation has been revealed in the first third, it becomes pretty apparent where everything will head. The screenplay doesn’t dissuade from that predictable route. One thing that CUT BANK does attempt to do is tell it’s crime story with a sense of humor. There are tense moments as well as attempts at comedy. However, the mash-up of these two genres doesn’t work nearly as well as other, better attempts that have come long before this film (e.g. anything from the Coens or Tarantino). Even with the tonal imbalance set aside, the main two protagonists in this story are ridiculously bland. Liam Hemsworth and Teresa Palmer just don’t sell their characters well, though the writing doesn’t do them any favors either. The likes of Billy Bob Thornton (who recently impressed in the first season of FX’s FARGO) and Bruce Dern (who received a Best Actor nomination for his performance in NEBRASKA) are handed equally boring roles. Thornton acts grumpy (what else is new?) and Dern acts even grumpier. That’s about all there is to their performances.

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This movie actually hits its stride in two subplots. John Malkovich is enjoyable to watch as the incapable Sheriff encountering his first murder on the job, which leads to scenes of him throwing up at crime scenes. A couple of Malkovich’s scenes also have him acting alongside Oliver Platt who plays a conniving businessman. However, Platt’s scenes only amount to about five minutes of total screen time. The best character and performance come from Michael Stuhlbarg, who’s unrecognizable as the central baddie. His character is the reclusive Derby Milton, a quiet hillbilly with a mean psychotic temper. Milton is just looking for his parcel and the mystery surrounding what exactly that is has a quirky pay-off, but not necessarily a satisfying one.

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CUT BANK is a weird, but predictable, movie that seems to be trying too hard to emulate the Coen brothers. It’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN by way of FARGO and doesn’t manage to measure up to either of those films or stand by itself. The tonal shifts don’t work nearly as well as the director and writer probably intended them to and the performances are mixed across the board. The best pieces of the film come in Malkovich, Platt, and Stuhlberg. Even then, I can’t fully recommend the whole 90-minute experience for those three performances alone. If you stumble across this on late-night cable or while scanning Netflix out of boredom, then you could do far worse. However, I wouldn’t recommend going through much effort to watch this middle-of-the-road thriller.

Grade: C

KILL ME THREE TIMES (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Bloody Violence, Language and some Sexuality/Nudity

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Directed by: Kriv Stenders

Written by: James McFarland

Starring: Simon Pegg, Alice Braga, Callan Mulvey, Teresa Palmer, Sullivan Stapleton, Luke Hemsworth & Bryan Brown

Simon Pegg plays a hitman. That one sentence alone might sell you on seeing this film. KILL ME THREE TIMES is an Australian crime-comedy that is being sold as a sort of anthology film, but it’s really not that at all. Instead, this movie plays out like a Guy Ritchie crime-comedy mixed with a Tarantino dark sense of humor, but it’s not nearly at the level of both of those filmmakers. KILL ME THREE TIMES is too tongue-in-cheek and forced on occasion, but should satisfy those who want to kick back and kill some time with a goofy flick that doesn’t have a shred of originality to it.

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Charlie Wolfe is a cheeky gun-for-hire whose latest assignment is Alice, the abused, unfaithful wife of a powerful man. What should have been a fairly routine job turns into something else entirely as Charlie discovers that he’s not the only one in town who wants this woman dead. A dentist and his conniving wife/secretary also enact a plan to kill Alice for some unknown reason. As Charlie’s mission, motivations, and objectives all fly off the rails, the whole job turns into a plot full of double-crossing, explosions, blackmail and blood. Think a more over-the-top, humorous take on BLOOD SIMPLE and you’ve pretty much got this movie in a nutshell.

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KILL ME THREE TIMES kept me interested in the plot. Even though it isn’t original at all, the screenplay twists and turns in enjoyable ways that actually surprised me during a couple of scenes. Some plot revelations are a little too far-fetched, but not to an annoying level. There’s far more violence than I was actually expecting going into this film (which is a plus) and a handful of really clever jokes that did get me laughing. The funniest of which is probably be a severe scenario of wrong place, wrong time with a shady cop. Out of all the actors in this movie, Simon Pegg is easily the best as Charlie Wolfe. This was clearly an easy paycheck for him, but Pegg seems to be having fun as a sarcastic asshole hitman. The rest of the cast members aren’t bad, but their characters are certainly overly familiar. There’s the crooked cop, the wimpy would-be murderer, said wimp’s conniving wife, the innocent battered housewife, and so and so forth. I can’t really fault any of the performers for not adding fresh blood to these age-old character tropes, because the cast really didn’t have that much to work with in the first place.

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The lack of originality is really this film’s biggest problem. I’ve seen this exact same plot, comical tone, and convoluted screenplay all before and done by better filmmakers. There’s a wannabe Tarantino tone to the whole film that seems forced. The first 15 minutes also take a little while to get into. The film acts as if there’s this anthology structure to the whole script, but there isn’t. It’s the same sort of blended storyline approach that Guy Ritchie used in films like LOCK, STOCK & TWO SMOKING BARRELS, SNATCH and ROCKNROLLA. There’s not a separate beginning or ending to any of these supposed three stories, so why did the film use title cards indicating there was? These are complete with the labels “Kill Me Once,” “Kill Me Twice,” and of course, “Kill Me Three Times.” That structure doesn’t fit well and becomes an all-out distraction as if the movie is announcing how much time it has left (a title card appears about every 30 minutes). This creative decision feels messy and unfocused.

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Though it’s overly derivative without a single original bone in its body, KILL ME THREE TIMES is fun considering that you take it as an okay time killer. Simon Pegg is funny as Wolfe. The rest of the cast members do the best they can to bring their stereotyped crime movie clichés posing as characters to life. The jokes mostly hit their marks and there is entertainment to be found here. The would-be anthology structure does get distracting, but there’s enough good to satisfy fans of silly crime-comedies. You should know by now whether this film is up your alley or not.

Grade: B-

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