SEVERANCE (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

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

Directed by: Christopher Smith

Written by: James Moran & Christopher Smith

Starring: Danny Dyer, Laura Harris, Tim McInnerny, Toby Stephens, Claudie Blakley, Andy Nyman & Babou Ceesay

Combining goofy comedy and straight horror is a tough feat, even for the most seasoned filmmakers. While Drew Goddard excelled with 2012’s THE CABIN IN THE WOODS and Wes Craven captured lightning in a bottle with SCREAM, loads of other visual storytellers have tried and failed to craft films that are equally scary and funny. Enter Christopher Smith, who directed the not-so-good subway creature feature CREEP and the excellent medieval horror tale BLACK DEATH. In SEVERANCE (his second feature), Smith combines wacky hijinks that would feel at home in one of the better episodes of THE OFFICE with a brutal slasher flick. So far, SEVERANCE is one of the most entertaining movies that I’ve sat through for 31 Days of Horror 2017.

The sales division of Palisade Defense are stuck on a boring team-building weekend in the remote mountains of Hungary. When a toppled tree forces their bus to stop, dickhead manager Richard (Tim McInnerny) forces his employees to hike to their “luxury lounge” (code for a “rundown shack”). Soon enough, the stressed-out employees suspect that something sinister is afoot. Their suspicions are confirmed when a few bodies turn up and booby traps are uncovered. A group of heavily armed psychos are hellbent on killing the Palisade employees one-by-one. If the unlucky Palisade office drones wish to survive, they’ll have to go through the ultimate team-building activity: a life-or-death game of cat-and-mouse.

SEVERANCE kicks things off in full comedic mode as happy music plays over a guy getting disemboweled and the over-the-top office stereotypes make their presence known. When I refer to these characters as over-the-top office stereotypes, I mean that in the best way possible because you likely have coworkers that remind you of these characters in some way. The way that the Palisade employees feed off of each other is hilarious to behold as the first third packs some of the biggest laughs in the entire film. That’s not to say that the rest of SEVERANCE isn’t amusing, because there’s almost always a sick sense of humor present. However, things get darker as the plot progresses forward.

Some reviews have described SEVERANCE as “THE OFFICE meets FRIDAY THE 13TH” and while that might be an accurate description to a certain degree, I’d argue that this slasher-comedy is far more entertaining and clever than any of the FRIDAY THE 13TH series. Possible details about the killers’ origin stories are given in stylized flashbacks as characters relate stories to each other, but we’re never given a concrete exposition dump of who these psychos are. Instead, Christopher Smith trusts the viewer to connect the dots for themselves as he feeds us some clues, including two big reveals in the final third. It’s worth noting that SEVERANCE’s killers would seem more at home in an action-packed thriller as opposed to a gory horror comedy, but their unique presence greatly benefits this film.

As far as kills go, SEVERANCE doesn’t skirt on the bloodshed. While it doesn’t revel in some of its unpleasant demises (ala a gasoline-related death is thankfully cut away from), the kills range from darkly humorous to aggravatingly brutal. This mixture injects grittiness into the proceedings as the suspense takes over for most of the second half and big laughs become more spread out. The former and the latter qualities are always present though, just in varying measures. I’d argue that SEVERANCE’s biggest gut-busting joke comes in a hilariously dark twist that arrives during the final 15 minutes. This bit had me laughing so hard that I actually rewound the film to watch the scene again.

While the victims and survivors range from various over-the-top office stereotypes, the performers make these characters into their own unique roles. Danny Dyer (who also starred in the decent zom-com DOGHOUSE) steals the show as drug-addicted slacker Steve. Laura Harris plays the most level-headed of the bunch as Maggie. Claudie Blakley is convincing as stuck-up nerd Jill, while Toby Stevens is hysterical as asshole coworker Harris. Though Tim McInnerny is a bit underused as the dickhead boss, he does receive a handful of moments to shine in. Also, Andy Nyman is a lot of fun as overly happy suck-up Gordon and gets a particularly nasty moment that will have viewers torn between giggling and gagging.

SEVERANCE’s tonal shifts from hilarious dark comedy to straight-faced slasher can be slightly jarring in certain areas. This mainly comes in one death scene that feels excessive to the point of almost being torture-porn in a film that mostly functions on being a twisted, suspenseful horror-comedy. Slightly distracting tonal changes aside, I had a ton of fun watching SEVERANCE. The characters are enjoyable, these villains haven’t really been seen in a horror film before (they seem like bad guys from an action flick), the kills range from funny to shocking, and the final third perfectly balances laughs and scares. Overall, I highly recommend SEVERANCE for horror fans who want something out of the ordinary.

Grade: A-

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 57 minutes

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Starring: Douglas Booth, Charles Dance, Maeve Dermody, Burn Gorman, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens, Noah Taylor & Aidan Turner

Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE might sound familiar because: (a.) it’s required reading in some schools and (b.) it’s commonly cited as one of the greatest mysteries of all-time. With a fantastic reputation and worldwide acclaim, one would think that Christie’s novel would have been properly adapted to the screen already. You’d be sadly mistaken though, because most screen adaptations of the text rely on a silly clichéd ending (used in the stage play) and go for light-hearted chills instead of a dread-soaked atmosphere. BBC’s miniseries of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE may have added changes to the source material (after all, it needed to fill three hours), but remains a highly suspenseful, dark, and faithful execution (pardon the pun) of Christie’s most famous work.

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Ten strangers have been invited to Soldier Island, off the coast of England, by an unseen host. It appears that each guest was summoned under different pretenses, but they all share one thing in common. They are all, in some way, connected to the death of an innocent person. After eating a delicious dinner and still not having met their host, a strange record plays and reveals that all ten guests stand accused of murder. Nine of them shrug it off, while one fully admits to it. Soon, a death results from a glass of poisoned wine. It appears that someone on the island has the intention of murdering all ten guests (in ways related to a grim children’s rhyme) and bodies begin to pile up…

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I’ve purposely kept the plot synopsis vague, in case you’re not familiar with Agatha Christie’s novel. There are many twists and turns strewn throughout this complex mystery and I wouldn’t dare spoil any of them. Seeing that a few of these characters are killed throughout the three-hour running time, I will not single out a specific performance that might potentially reveal key details. Instead, I’ll briefly run through these performances one-by-one. Douglas Booth is perfectly smarmy as a reckless rich kid/motorist. Charles Dance brings his usual sophisticated manner to the table as a government official. Maeve Dermody is sympathetic as a teacher with some serious baggage.

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Burn Gorman is delightfully scummy as a questionable police officer. Anna Maxwell Martin and Noah Taylor play a foreboding servant couple. Sam Neill is tragic as the PTSD-suffering general, while Toby Stephens is equally distraught as a doctor with a drinking problem. Miranda Richardson is perfectly despicable as a holier-than-though upper-class zealot. Finally, Aidan Turner is great as a man who says what’s on his mind. All of these characters are potential suspects and each has a part to play in the proceedings, even if that just means being gruesomely murdered.

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A deliberate change that was not in Christie’s original novel are added flashbacks that flesh out these characters/suspects. Besides including some fantastically disturbing imagery in these moments, the miniseries masterfully dishes out nuggets of background information that grow as the number of living guests steadily decreases. I thought I had one character completely figured out (I’ve read the book) and flashbacks revealed something I didn’t see coming. These flashbacks are creative deviations from the original text, but actually feed off of the source material to make the already suspenseful story even more compelling.

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I appreciated that AND THEN THERE WERE NONE had a thick, gloomy atmosphere that rang absolutely true to Christie’s darker than dark mystery. There’s a sense of hopelessness and impending dread that’s aided by the stormy isolated setting. Slight tweaks are made to the book’s original conclusion that help it play out cinematically (and arguably in a far more brutal manner), but this is the most faithful on-screen conclusion to Christie’s twisted book. When I originally read the novel, my jaw was on the floor during the final chapter. The same thing happened here during the final ten minutes. I absolutely adore this miniseries’ final scenes and its unflinching eye for a chilling note to the send the viewer out on.

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The only subplot that I didn’t care for was a love-interest angle between two of the characters. This forced romance seems to come out of nowhere, with little rhyme or reason. People are dying, only a handful of survivors are left, there’s a killer in your midst, and you think it’s a good idea to start flirting with a stranger? It was too far-fetched for me to buy, though it does benefit a later scene. The deaths themselves are kept mostly off-screen, but we do see the graphic aftermath of each kill (packing graphic gore into a couple of moments).

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AND THEN THERE WERE NONE is easily the best adaptation I’ve seen of Agatha Christie’s novel. It captures the sense of impending dread and gut-punches the viewer multiple times with clever twists, turns, and guilty revelations. Though it tweaks a few of the book’s details along the way, only one of these changes was to the miniseries’ detriment. The rest adds to the already stellar and suspenseful viewing experience. AND THEN THERE WERE NONE is a must-see for fans of dark mysteries, intense thrillers, and (yes, I’m saying this) slasher flicks!

Grade: A

13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes

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

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Directed by: Michael Bay

Written by: Chuck Hogan

(based on the book 13 HOURS by Mitchell Zuckoff)

Starring: James Badge Dale, John Krasinski, Max Martini, Dominic Fumusa, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman & Toby Stephens

On September 11, 2012, tragedy struck in Benghazi. A vicious terrorist attack took place and has since led to much controversy, mourning, and the failure of a potential rebirth for the country of Libya. Of course, a movie would expectedly be made out of this story. One could only hope that whoever took on the cinematic portrayal of these intense events would be sensitive towards the heavy material and wouldn’t just turn the film into an over-the-top action flick with a political agenda. In a shocking twist of fate, Michael Bay demonstrated the former and didn’t do the latter. 13 HOURS might have a couple of heavy-handed flaws, but it’s a riveting film about heroes who did what was right in the face of seemingly impossible odds.

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Six security contractors have been assigned to protect a small classified CIA base in Benghazi, Libya. When a U.S. Ambassador makes an impromptu visit to the country, it appears that the security team has even more work cut out for them. The 11th anniversary of 9/11 arrives and a fiery terrorist attack erupts onto the Ambassador’s compound. In spite of knowing very little about the situation and being instructed by their commander to stand down, the security team conducts an improvised rescue mission. The aftermath of this heroic confrontation leads to a hellish (seemingly endless) chaotic battle at the CIA compound. With no help in sight and hordes of militants arriving, the team of contractors and CIA agents must band together to survive the night.

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Say what you will about Michael Bay, but the man has a knack for constructing action. Though most of his films appeal to juvenile crowds (being packed full of robots, explosions, and close-ups of sexy women), 13 HOURS is easily Bay’s most mature effort to date. In a refreshing turn of events, Bay keeps politics out of the proceedings and simply puts the audience through an emotional wringer of tension, action, and tragedy. The soldiers don’t know why militants are attacking the compound and we’re left in the dark beside them. This allows for many tense scenes in which they (and we) do not know who to trust. A number of the film’s best scenes arrive after repeated questions of “Are we expecting any friendlies?” I would never have believed that Michael Bay directed this story besides having seen his name in the credits and promotional material for this film. It’s intense and well-executed in terms of suspense and action, while simultaneously being respectful to the real-life heroes and events being portrayed on the screen.

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As far as characters go, most of the performances are convincing and I felt a sense of genuine comradery amongst the six security contractors. Each of the six main actors comes off as a hardened veteran thrown into a chaotic situation, which was probably aided by having three of the actual survivors on set to help this film during production. Though I will admit the character development could be a tad better as we only see some forced backstories about each soldier having kids and a family waiting at home. It’s not that I didn’t care about these soldiers’ loved ones, I just feel that this could have been introduced into the proceedings in more compelling ways rather than repeatedly showing photos and video chats between the men and their families (one long sequence feels slightly cheesy).

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The corny flaws don’t stop there though as Michael Bay can’t help but throw a few unnecessary lens flares into otherwise slick cinematography. Bay also compromises a couple of action sequences (mainly in the first half) by utilizing quick editing and shaky camera work. Still, the rest of the bloody combat sequences remain well-executed. There are explosions (which can always be expected from Bay’s work), but they never feel exploitative. Bay actually restrains himself during the first third of the fast-paced running time to hint at the growing situation in the background as the soldiers go about their dangerous daily work. This was a nice slow build up to the inevitable eruption of shit progressively hitting the fan for the last two-thirds of the film.

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Sure, 13 HOURS has slow motion, lens flares, explosions, and a few messy clichés. However, these are minor gripes when you consider how tastefully and well-executed the majority of the film actually is. It’s not about politics or demonizing a religion. For the former, this is simply a true story of heroism and one long bloody battle to survive in a highly dangerous situation. For the latter, the film actually goes out of its way to show that most Muslims don’t side with insane terrorists. The result is a balanced, mature, and surprisingly great war film that should please crowds, move certain viewers to tears, and serve as an unforgettable experience…in spite of its faults. Between this and the criminally underrated PAIN & GAIN, it seems like Michael Bay is putting out of his best work ever in the 2010’s.

Grade: B+

DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Action Violence and Sexuality

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Directed by: Lee Tamahori

Written by: Neal Purvis & Robert Wade

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry, Toby Stephens, Rosamund Pike, Rick Yune, Judi Dench, Will Yun Lee, Kenneth Tsang & John Cleese

The twentieth movie in the Bond franchise and eleventh in my 007 retrospective, DIE ANOTHER DAY marked the end of the Pierce Brosnan’s stint as the iconic secret agent. In the grander scheme of thing, it also technically serves as the conclusion of the original series and caused its studio to reboot the franchise. In other words, DIE ANOTHER DAY has a pretty bad reputation for wrecking James Bond to the point where the series needed to be remade. So, is this a colossal failure? Is DIE ANOTHER DAY the BATMAN & ROBIN of Bond? I wouldn’t go that far, because there are a couple of things I like about this “final” Bond movie. That being said, this is still pretty bad.

DIE ANOTHER DAY, Pierce Brosnan, 2002, (c) MGM/courtesy Everett Collection

James Bond’s latest mission has taken into dangerous North Korean territory. When his cover is blown, Bond is taken captive and suspended as an MI6 agent. Through a few cunning decisions and sheer dumb luck, Bond escapes and tries to track down a crazed terrorist from his past. This will require Bond partnering up with catsuit-wearing NSA agent Jinx. The two spies are forced to face off against a terrorist with diamond-acne and a super-weapon-wielding entrepreneur.

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Let me address the good stuff first. I really enjoyed the prologue in North Korea. The action may be bombastic, but there’s a sense of excitement that reminded me of GOLDENEYE‘s opening. It also set up this story with a ton of potential…and then everything goes down hill as soon as the opening titles roll. The problems begin in the titular song of the credits, which doesn’t sound like it even belongs in a Bond film. This just sounded like a random pop song that was thrown in at the last-minute. As the minutes tick forward from that point on, DIE ANOTHER DAY wastes away its potential on pointless scenes, a bored Brosnan, and a screenplay that’s riddled with plot holes. The story feels too clichéd and over-the-top, even for a Bond film (which can typically be far-fetched, but fun). Besides the opening sequence, the only other moment that sticks out for good reason is a fencing scene between Bond and the main villain. As cool as that sequence is, it only raises further plot holes once a few convenient (and stupid) revelations occur during the final third.

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Brosnan seems past his point of caring to be Bond. His performance in this film is even more apathetic than his purely-for-the-paycheck effort in WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. As far as villains go, only one performance stands out and I won’t give that cast member’s identity away for fear of spoilers. However, I appreciated this person’s contribution to the film and wish that their character served as the main villain instead of a mere plot device. Halle Berry headlines the film with Brosnan and doesn’t really feel like a Bond girl at all. Instead, it almost feels like CATWOMAN got crossed with a crappy Bond flick. Speaking of which, DIE ANOTHER DAY is on the same level as CATWOMAN’s special effects. We get some shockingly crappy visuals. These include cartoony electricity (courtesy of the main villain’s super suit), Flash Animation quality lasers (that don’t blend well with a fight scene), a Syfy-level melting ice palace, and a rubbery surfing Bond aided by a fake-as-hell parachute.

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DIE ANOTHER DAY came out on the 20th anniversary of DR. NO. Throughout this twentieth Bond flick, there are little nods to the other movies (e.g. the shoe-knife in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, the rocket-pack from THUNDERBALL, etc.). All these little cameos only served to remind me how badly this final Brosnan entry screwed the pooch. The original Bond series survived decades of directors, actors, and varying levels of effects. However, none of that could endure after DIE ANOTHER DAY sent everything plummeting into such a rut that a reboot not only became preferable, but transformed into a damn necessity. The original Bond series ended with a whimper as opposed going out with a glorious bang…

Grade: D

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