STANDOFF (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language throughout

Directed by: Adam Alleca

Written by: Adam Alleca

Starring: Thomas Jane, Laurence Fishburne, Ella Ballentine, Jim Watson & Joanna Douglas

I would have probably skipped out on seeing STANDOFF, if it hadn’t been for a fellow movie reviewer friend (Matt Reifschneider at Blood Brothers Reviews) recommending it. With a good deal of skepticism, I decided to sit down to what I fully expected to be a silly B-movie. Color me surprised, because STANDOFF is a damn good thriller. The premise is simple, but engaging. The dialogue is occasionally cliched, but the over-the-top acting keeps the viewer entertained. Even though this film isn’t brimming with action, the plot’s tension is constant. All of these positive qualities (and flaws) combined make for a surprisingly solid indie flick.

Bird (Ella Ballentine), a 12-year-old girl, is visiting a graveyard with her aunt. In order to kill some time, Bird is taking random pictures and she unwittingly snaps some shots of sadistic hitman Sade (Laurence Fishburne) executing a job. Sade sees that the little lady has witnessed his latest hit and gives chase, with the intention of offing the kid. Luckily, Bird comes across the country home of depressed war veteran Carter (Thomas Jane). Carter and Sade both fire off a bullet into each other and retreat to different floors of the house. Carter is protecting Bird upstairs and Sade is trying to find a way to kill them from downstairs…and, now, we have a movie.

STANDOFF’s title is not misleading in any way, shape, or form, because 95% of this movie is a tense standoff between Jane and Fishburne. This simple premise seems like it could have easily given way to boredom or become ridiculously unbelievable after a certain space of time, but STANDOFF keeps its tension rolling with new revelations and clever character development. Most of this movie is made up of a verbal battle of wits between a grizzled antihero and desperate (and deadly) hired killer. It’s almost like a mini-Western that’s set within the space of a single house. If that idea interests you, then you’ll likely enjoy this film.

STANDOFF was clearly made with budgetary constraints. I’d wager that a good portion of this film’s price-tag was spent on securing Jane and Fishburne for their roles, and then locating a house that would serve as a good location. First-time director Adam Alleca (who originally wrote this screenplay while he was in college) wisely uses the production’s limitations to strengthen STANDOFF’s small-scale storytelling. Details about Carter’s past are verbally pieced together by Sade and the viewer discovers more about both characters from these interactions. We see what a complete murderous scumbag Sade is (after all, he’s trying to kill a little girl) and we discover that Carter is already a damaged person.

STANDOFF’s atmosphere has an almost stage play vibe (in a similar vein to Quentin Tarantino’s HATEFUL EIGHT), because it’s set in a single location with a small cast of characters. I could easily envision this as a play before it was a movie, but that’s a positive quality as this would have been a great play to sit through. The constant interactions between Jane and Fishburne are a blast as both actors straddle the line between being entertainingly over-the-top and dramatically sound. At the end of the day, I bought both of these characters as realistic and also enjoyed that there was an exaggerated edge to both of them. Two smaller supporting characters also happen across the house, but their roles make up about ten minutes of screen time. This is mostly a cat-and-mouse game between Jane and Fishburne.

STANDOFF’s weaknesses arrive in a handful of lines that sound cliched. Though Ella Ballentine seems like a convincing child actress for the most part (she was great in THE MONSTER), she’s handed some hokey dialogue. Also, there are a couple of dumb character decisions made on the part of Sade. One specific scene asks the viewer to make a big logical leap that this desperate hitman is also pretty stupid and doesn’t recognize an open opportunity when it’s standing right in front of his face. These flaws keep STANDOFF from being a great movie, but it still remains as a damn fine thriller…especially from a first-time filmmaker.

If you’re looking for a hidden gem (of which there are too many to count in the modern overcrowded film market) and enjoy single-location thrillers, then STANDOFF will satisfy your cinematic cravings. Laurence Fishburne’s crazed villain and Thomas Jane’s gruff antihero are both a blast to watch. The single location serves as a tense setting for a bloody battle of wits. Though this film isn’t top-tier indie fare or near perfect filmmaking, STANDOFF is very entertaining stuff. This one comes surprisingly recommended!

Grade: B

1922 (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: Zak Hilditch

Written by: Zak Hilditch

(based on the novella 1922 by Stephen King)

Starring: Thomas Jane, Molly Parker, Dylan Schmid, Kaitlyn Bernard, Brian D’Arcy James, Neal McDonough, Bob Frazer & Patrick Keating

Going into 31 Days of Horror 2017, 1922 was easily one of my most anticipated films to watch this month. Netflix has been killing it with their original content lately and the trailer for this adaptation of a Stephen King novella looked to be eerily effective. It’s also worth mentioning that this year’s Stephen King adaptations have already delivered in IT: Chapter One and GERALD’S GAME (another Netflix original film). I was hoping that 1922 might live up to those already high standards. While the film is undeniably flawed and about 20 minutes too long, 1922 mostly satisfies as a creepy ghost story with loads of atmosphere and a great performance from Thomas Jane as one mean son-of-a-bitch.

The year is 1922 (bet you couldn’t have guessed that from the film’s title) and gruff farmer Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) is hitting a rough patch in life. His unhappy wife Arlette (Molly Parker) is attempting to sell her 100 acres of property and kick Wilfred’s annoying ass to the curb, along with taking custody of their teenage son Henry (Dylan Schmid). In an effort to hold onto his property and his wife’s property, Wilfred convinces his overly gullible son to help him do away with the ol’ ball and chain. Unfortunately for Wilfred, the deceased Arlette doesn’t seem willing to let him live in peace. It appears that a curse now has its hooks around Wilfred and everything he loves. Rats start biting cows and people, things go to shit in all sorts of ways, and Wilfred suspects that Arlette’s decaying specter is coming for him.

Thomas Jane has previously starred in two other Stephen King adaptations (the well-received MIST and the not-so-well-received DREAMCATCHER). In both of those films, he played a good guy protagonist. In 1922, Thomas Jane plays a complete and utter asshole. Jane doesn’t succumb to the idea that a crackerjack farmer would automatically be an idiot too. Though he talks with a thick accent and doesn’t seem like the wisest man around, the character of Wilfred James is a scummy, conniving man who we have the unfortunate (or fortunate) view of following. Because Wilfred is such an irredeemable piece of human garbage, watching his well-deserved downward spiral is pretty damn fun and satisfying.

Therein, 1922 encounters a few flaws. This script was based on a novella (which inherently seems like it’s more suited to being a feature film than an elongated short story), but at the end of the day this story feels like an episode of TALES FROM THE CRYPT that’s been stretched to fill 101 minutes. That’s not to say that 1922 is bad, because it is a rather entertaining and occasionally impressive flick. The first half is especially interesting as we see how far Wilfred goes to cover up his wife’s bloody murder as a simple easily explained disappearance. This main character is diabolically clever in his evil deeds. However, the film does noticeably overstay its welcome during the second half, when events should have arguably been reaching the height of their terror.

On the positive side of things, 1922 packs loads of spooky atmosphere and freaky images. This film has the scariest rat scenes since WILLARD and Arlette’s ghostly apparition is present throughout various shots. There are certain scenes where you catch her out-of-focus form or shadowy outline in the background, which smartly places the viewer in the same uneasy mental state as the increasingly paranoid Wilfred. The more over-the-top scenes with Arlette’s bloody spirit placed front-and-center are a bit much, especially when one of these scenes arrives in a spot when there’s still a remaining 30 minutes to go. I also felt that the ending concluded this film in the best way possible, though the novella ended in a more ambiguous manner (evoking something like Edgar Allan Poe’s TELL-TALE HEART).

If you’re a fan of Stephen King and enjoy ghost stories, then I’d imagine that you’d probably enjoy 1922. This film has lots of great visuals, a spooky atmosphere, and Thomas Jane delivering a stellar performance. There is debatably not enough content in the source material to fill the entirety of the running time, but at least the film is entertaining. While there are undeniable problems that I have with 1922 and it’s easily the weakest of 2017’s three King horror adaptations (DARK TOWER doesn’t count), 1922 is worth a look.

Grade: B-

BEFORE I WAKE (2018)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violent Content and Terror including Disturbing Images

Directed by: Mike Flanagan

Written by: Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard

Starring: Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Jacob Tremblay, Topher Bousquet, Annabeth Gish, Dash Mihok, Scottie Thompson & Justin Gordon

Mike Flanagan has quickly established himself as a rising talent in the horror genre. He’s made waves with ABSENTIA, OCULUS, HUSH, and the far-better-than-expected OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL. In spite of his many accomplishments (ranging from impressive to miracle-working), one of Flanagan’s movies has been frequently delayed in its journey to theaters and is currently gathering dust on a studio’s shelf. Suffering multiple release date changes before being delayed indefinitely, BEFORE I WAKE is a horror-fantasy that has seemingly been released everywhere but the USA. I had to import a copy from Canada to write this review. So, is this film worth the wait or is there a clear reason why the studio is holding off on releasing it? The answer to this question, like the film itself, is a bit of a mixed bag.

Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane) are grieving parents who wish to move on by adopting a foster child. This lucky kid is Cody (Jacob Tremblay), an eight-year-old boy who’s been dealt plenty of short straws in life. The new parents take an instant liking to this well-behaved youngster, but it turns out that Cody comes with some baggage. While Cody sleeps, his dreams physically manifest around him. This seems wonderful at first with beautiful butterflies and the couple’s deceased son returning for a bit of unexpected therapy. However, this gift also has a dark side as it turns out that Cody’s nightmares are potentially deadly. Jessie and Mark must figure out how to put a stop to Cody’s bad dreams before they wind up killed or eaten.

BEFORE I WAKE has an undeniably cool premise that is aching for imaginative visuals and (literal) nightmarish imagery. However, this story takes a long while to get going. This has been billed as a straight-up scarefest (much like Flanagan’s other efforts), but that’s not necessarily the case. BEFORE I WAKE feels like a Guillermo Del Toro produced fantasy-horror flick rather than an all-out horror movie. Almost 45 minutes pass before the film’s momentum really gets moving and that feels like far too long of a wait, even though this time is dedicated to developing characters. I rarely complain about this in my reviews, but this story had way too much character development. Scenes of exposition and family bonding detract from the film’s main dream/nightmare plot.

After nearly half the running time has passed, the film finally starts moving at a brisk pace and employing a few neat twists along the way. The nightmarish visuals are appropriately creepy and I really dug the design of a skeletal boogeyman nicknamed “The Canker Man.” BEFORE I WAKE also took a few ballsy turns before diving into an appropriately fantastical third act. One of these scenes is so unexpected that Flanagan deserves serious props for drastically shifting off the beaten path and then not taking an easy way out on this plot point. The beautiful imagery is cool to look at, while the darker moments appropriately seem to be yanked right out of a child’s nightmares.

The best performance of the film belongs to Thomas Jane as new father Mark. He comes off as a likable, down-to-earth guy and I was rooting for him to survive this dream-logic fueled plot. Meanwhile, Kate Bosworth is a deliberately flawed character and this comes into the play throughout the story. Bosworth tries her best to make Jessie worth rooting for and this mostly pays off by the end of the film. However, the viewer may find themselves really struggling to like her during the first two-thirds of the running time. Jacob Tremblay (who delivered some of the best child acting ever in ROOM) is solid enough as innocent, unintentionally dangerous Cody.

As I mentioned before, BEFORE I WAKE is more of a dark fantasy than it is a flat-out horror flick. It will constantly be labeled under the latter genre because of its director and the nightmarish imagery. However, this film really pays off on its grim fairy tale vibe with a hugely satisfying conclusion. The first half of this script uses blatantly annoying foreshadowing in conversations between characters, but the final pay-off remains great. I thoroughly loved this movie’s ending. It takes things out on a high-note and there’s something to be said for just how smart the writing is during the film’s final minutes.

BEFORE I WAKE has likely been shelved because the story takes a bit too long to get going and it’s more of a fantasy than the horror flick that’s already been sold to the public. The film has problems in its muddled pacing during the first half, suffers from obvious foreshadowing early on, and Kate Bosworth’s character is downright unlikable for a solid chunk of the film. When this movie fully takes off halfway through, it’s a major step-up in quality and imagination. There are lots of neat images throughout the nightmare sequences that will surely please horror fans and the final third is pretty great. Temper your expectations when this one eventually hits US shores and you’ll likely enjoy it for the decent horror-fantasy that it is.

Grade: B-

THURSDAY (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 27 minutes

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

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Directed by: Skip Woods

Written by: Skip Woods

Starring: Thomas Jane, Aaron Eckhart, Paulina Porizkova, James LeGros, Paula Marshall, Michael Jeter, Glenn Plummer, Mickey Rourke, Shawn Michael Howard & Gary Dourdan

THURSDAY is the first film from director/writer Skip Woods, a man who has become slightly notorious for writing a lot of bad movies (HITMAN, SABOTAGE, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, etc.). Long before that reputation was born, he cut his teeth on a low-budget 1998 crime-thriller-comedy THURSDAY. To put things in context, the late 90’s and early 2000’s had a surge of Tarantino wannabe films. Some of these efforts were good and others were bad. Though it opens with promise, THURSDAY falls on the bad side of the fence. To be honest, I was pretty excited to watch this film. The trailers had me sold on the idea that maybe Skip Woods made a great movie before slipping into mediocrity. The cast even had a couple of big names (who weren’t huge at the time): Thomas Jane and Aaron Eckhart. A sense of humor mixed with bloodshed made this look like it would be a blast. I couldn’t have been more wrong, because THURSDAY is bland, mistakes ugliness for cleverness, and comes off as a lazy Tarantino imitator.

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Casey Wells (Thomas Jane) is a reformed criminal trying to do his best to stay clean in suburbia. His past comes back to haunt him when former best friend/drug dealer Nick (Aaron Eckhart) pays a visit. Despite outward appearances, Nick’s seemingly friendly visit is not as innocent as it originally seemed, because he stashed a suitcase full of heroin in Casey’s home. Disgusted by his friend’s behavior and determined to stay clean, Casey dumps the drugs down the garbage disposal…just as various menacing people start showing up and asking about Nick’s special package. Casey finds an ordinary Thursday in suburbia beset by gangsters and crooked cops. If Casey wishes to live long enough to see Friday morning, he’ll have to reignite a lifestyle that he tried to leave behind.

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THURSDAY was brimming with potential. The premise had the makings of an entertaining, tense, and funny crime-thriller. The film opens with promise as we get a prologue that showcases Nick and two cohorts attempting to buy coffee at a convenience store…only for the transaction to take a stark bloody turn. It’s a shocking, darkly hilarious opening that promised I would be in for one hell of a ride and then the movie proceeds to go downhill from that point forward. The two biggest reasons for this rapid decline in quality can be attributed to dull writing and bland characters.

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I didn’t care about Casey, even though Thomas Jane seemed to be giving his all to make this reformed thug into a compelling protagonist. We aren’t given many reasons to like him, other than he fell in love with a small-town waitress and inexplicably grew a conscience. The viewer only knows both of those things, because we’re given jarring flashbacks that abruptly come right the hell out of nowhere and pad the running time. Though he’s putting on a smarmy attitude that seems appropriate for the despicable character, Aaron Eckhart’s Nick is noticeably absent for most of the film’s proceedings too. All that leaves the viewer with is Casey and a parade of various thugs marching through his front door.

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To be fair, Paula Porizkova is effective enough as disgusting psycho-bitch Dallas, who tortures Casey in a wholly unexpected way. With better writing, this particular scene could have come off as tense and borderline terrifying…but the way it plays out feels like Skip Woods thought this would be purely shocking for the hell of it. Porizkova still remains far more convincing than James LeGros playing hick hitman Billy Hill (a.k.a. Hillbilly, get it?). Mickey Rourke shows up for a few minutes as an intimidating presence, but receives no satisfying pay-off. Meanwhile, Glenn Plummer is downright embarrassing as a Jamaican hitman/wannabe rapper (providing two of the film’s most annoying plot holes).

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Though it runs under 90 minutes in length, THURSDAY is a chore to sit through and doesn’t even bother to wrap up all of its set-up with a believable finale. When it comes to the film’s final 10 minutes, the viewer is likely to get the impression that Skip Woods simply threw his script at the wall and said “whatever!” The rest of the story isn’t exactly original either though, because nearly every scene seems ripped off from a better movie and potentially great ideas are underdeveloped. Besides the convenience store prologue, the film’s biggest highlight is a social worker coming to the Casey’s house in the middle of bloody chaos. Parts of that sequence struck a solid balance of humor and tension that actually worked. If only the rest of the film had been as clever or well-executed. As it stands, THURSDAY seems to be loved by some viewers for its shock value, but I feel the entire film is a lame Tarantino rip-off that doesn’t hold up on its own merits.

Grade: D+

THE PUNISHER (2004)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 4 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Brutal Violence, Language and brief Nudity

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Directed by: Jonathan Hensleigh

Written by: Jonathan Hensleigh & Michael France

(based on THE PUNISHER comics by Gerry Conway, Ross Andru & John Romita, Sr.)

Starring: Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Will Patton, Roy Scheider, Laura Harring, Ben Foster, Rebecca Romijn & John Pinette

Marvel failed to birth a PUNISHER film franchise during the late 80’s, so they gave it a second try in 2004. Though this early 2000’s incarnation is a more “realistic” take on the Punisher’s origin, it failed to spawn the potential franchise that the studio and viewers were hoping for. Despite that disappointing turn of events, the film still stands head and shoulders over the 1989 Dolph Lundgren version. Instead of feeling like a straight-up comic book movie, THE PUNISHER has the tone of a gritty revenge-thriller…despite its main character’s claims that his motives are not fueled by vengeance.

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Frank Castle is an undercover FBI agent whose latest sting has resulted in the death of Bobby Saint, the son of powerful mafia lord Howard Saint. In order to avenge his scumbag son’s death, Saint orders the execution of Frank Castle’s entire family. This results in every single one of Frank’s relatives being wiped off the face of the earth in a bloody ambush, least of all his wife and son. Little does Saint know that Frank barely survived the vicious attack and is now fueled by an overwhelming desire to punish the Saint crime family for all of their wrongdoings. Frank sets up a carefully calculated plan of revenge, all while trying to dodge colorful assassins at every turn.

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To state the obvious, Thomas Jane is a far better Punisher than Dolph Lundgren could ever hope to be. Jane manages to maintain the character’s tragic brooding nature along with his bad-ass action hero persona. It’s a hard combination to balance, but he pulls it off damn near perfectly. When I think of The Punisher, Thomas Jane is always the first incarnation that pops into my head. Facing off against him is John Travolta as the evil, soulless Howard Saint. Though Travolta can get a little hammy in places, he’s so good at being bad. Saint is a villain that you love to hate and you can’t help but take gratification when things are (sometimes, literally) falling apart around him.

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The side characters are where this PUNISHER becomes a bit of a mixed bag. Ben Foster and John Pinette play comic relief neighbors to Jane’s sullen Punisher. Though the script eventually tries to craft something deeper out of them, their presence feels forced and unneeded. Rebecca Romijn receives slightly more to do as the potential love interest for Castle, but her eventual arc feels slightly half-assed and underwhelming. It seemed like the film was building towards something big with this character and then forgot what it was by the time the final scene arrived.

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The foes that Frank faces off against are far more interesting and entertaining to watch than any of the three apartment dwellers. There’s the Russian (a huge, silent, and seemingly unkillable foe) and the short-lived, but memorable, Harry Heck (an assassin who also fancies himself a musician). The former delivers the best fight scene of the entire film, while the latter has a memorable shoot-out that ends in one crazy punch line. Will Patton also receives a significant amount of screen time as Howard Saint’s number-two man and I ultimately liked where they went with his character (even if it seems slightly silly by today’s standards).

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What should be praised about 2004’s PUNISHER is that it actually takes time to develop Frank Castle as a family man before getting into fiery combat sequences and bloody revenge. It’s all the better for it because I was rooting for Frank, even as he was committing rather monstrous acts that make you question whether he’s better than the bad guys. Though the film has some significant downtime between action sequences to watch Castle slowly transform into the unforgiving Punisher, the finale is truly something to behold. Viewers who find themselves fidgeting through the movie’s slower moments will be rewarded with an explosion-filled climax that’s littered with corpses. That’s a very good thing in THE PUNISHER universe.

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This reboot of THE PUNISHER can get a tad over-the-top and silly in places (John Travolta’s ultimate fate is completely ridiculous), but remains an enjoyably dark revenge-thriller. This is a film for those who want a straight-up violent action movie featuring Marvel’s equivalent of Batman (though this vigilante has no qualms about killing bad guys in particularly brutal ways). THE PUNISHER is an entertaining good time and miles better than its 1989 competition (though I have yet to see the 2008 reboot).

Grade: B

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