CHILD’S PLAY (1988)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 27 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Directed by: Tom Holland

Written by: Don Mancini, John Lafia & Tom Holland

Starring: Alex Vincent, Catherine Hicks, Chris Sarandon, Brad Dourif, Dinah Manoff & Tommy Swerdlow

Arguably the most well-known killer doll movie out there, CHILD’S PLAY was a big financial success during its original theatrical run. Besides introducing an unforgettable face to the pantheon of slasher killers, this film was equal parts goofy and creepy. When people usually think of CHILD’S PLAY, they’re likely to snicker at how cheesy it is or shudder at how freaked out they are by Chucky. There are legitimately great scenes to be found in this film, alongside lots of silly fun to be had, and you have to give the performers props for playing this ridiculous material with a straight face.

After serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif) is gunned down in a toy store, it appears that Detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon) has done a public service by wiping another scumbag off the Chicago streets. Before he was gunned down, Charles was chanting something strange over a toy doll and lightning struck the building…but I’m sure that’s just a normal occurrence in Chicago. Single mom Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks) buys her six-year-old son Andy (Alex Vincent) that very same (surprisingly not bloodstained) doll for his birthday. Soon, deaths begin to occur around young Andy and he keeps pointing his finger at the doll. You can see where this is heading, unless you somehow didn’t already know about Chucky or the long-running CHILD’S PLAY series.

CHILD’S PLAY’s first act has a surprising less-is-more approach to the material because director Tom Holland keeps Chucky’s deadly antics to a minimum. Yes, you see people die, but you don’t get a full-on glimpse of the killer doll running around until almost the halfway mark. Before that point, there are a couple of head-turns from the supposedly inanimate object and you spot a quick blur of something running in the background. This filmmaking decision evokes some actual creepiness and real suspense.

It’s worth noting that damn near every scary element flies out the window when we finally see the animatronic doll and occasional little person in a doll costume. Luckily, this effects blending doesn’t reach an unintentionally silly level to become downright bad. However, things do get comical and quite funny in moments. There is a ginger-haired, possessed doll in suspenders running around and offing people after all. At some point, you’ll just be giggling about that sight alone. Still, there are unexpected stakes as doll-bound Charles Lee Ray begins to find new motives about possibly offing Andy and those around him.

For the first entry in a decades-long slasher franchise, CHILD’S PLAY has a surprisingly scarce body count. Chucky’s methods of murder are unique (though not nearly as ludicrous as the kills in the sequels) and no two kills are alike. There is one moment (with a voodoo doll that comes right the hell out of nowhere) that’s cool in its broken bone effects but seems a little far-fetched…even for a movie about a killer doll on the loose. A certain other death feels like it was included as an obligatory kill to stack Chucky’s victim total a little higher, but this scene’s execution (pardon the pun) felt like a lazy afterthought. The best scenes in the whole damn film come from Catherine Hicks’s first violent encounter with the possessed doll in its true form and an altogether great moment that has Chris Sarandon fending off the evil toy whilst driving a car with no brakes.

Hicks and Sarandon play this whole affair with a straight-face and that deserves a round of applause by itself. This material is pretty silly, but they sell their characters’ reactions as believable enough. This especially goes for Hicks’ devastation at her son’s seemingly hopeless situation and Sarandon’s utter disbelief at the idea that a doll is behind the latest string of murders. Brad Dourif is a blast as the voice of Chucky. He sells this killer doll as a fun antagonist to watch, though it’s hard to be scared of him after he cusses out Hicks in an over-the-top manner. Alex Vincent was roughly the same age as Andy in this film and his acting abilities were…lacking, to the say the least. However, he does get a bad-ass one-liner in his final scene with Chucky.

CHILD’S PLAY is every bit as silly as its premise would suggest, but there’s also a remarkable amount of well-executed suspense during the film’s first half (where we don’t see the murderous, red-haired, suspender-wearing Good Guy running around). There’s plenty of fun and entertainment to be had in this goofy 80s horror flick. The franchise that CHILD’S PLAY spawned is one of the most consistent slasher series out there in terms of quality. The CHILD’S PLAY series was never great, but it was always fun. The same can be said about this first installment!

Grade: B

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence, some Language and brief Suggestive Comments

Directed by: Jon Watts

Written by: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers

(based on the SPIDER-MAN comics by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko)

Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr., Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier & Tony Revolori

After years of battling for the rights and fans craving Spider-Man’s inclusion in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Sony and Marvel finally teamed up to deliver (at least) two SPIDER-MAN movies set within the MCU. The web-slinging superhero’s introduction was a highlight in last year’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR and I was hoping that Marvel might deliver a (second) SPIDER-MAN reboot that could actually work. While SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is a fun, light-hearted piece of superhero fluff and wisely doesn’t retread origin material that’s been done twice over, this sixteenth movie in the MCU isn’t quite up to the level of its competition.

After aiding Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) in fighting Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is anxiously awaiting his next official mission with the Avengers. However, school comes first and Parker finds himself dealing with the angst that plagues most teenagers. Eager to prove himself to Iron Man, Spider-Man jumps at the chance to take down new high-tech supervillain Vulture. Things get complicated though as this adolescent Avenger seems to be out of his league against Vulture and is running on thin ice with Tony Stark…and there’s also the upcoming Homecoming dance. What’s a teenage superhero to do?

In its second phase and during its third phase, Marvel Studios seems more willing to take risks and mix different genres with the typical superhero formula. For example, WINTER SOLDIER was a fantastic conspiracy thriller with a superhero, both GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY films were space operas with superheroes, DOCTOR STRANGE was a mind-bending fantasy with a superhero, and ANT-MAN was a heist-comedy with a superhero. SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is very much a coming-of-age tale…with a superhero. Sometimes, this works, but other times it feels overly familiar and doesn’t nearly seem as exciting or fun as it should be.

This might be fatigue from seeing two other incarnations of SPIDER-MAN within the span of 10 years, but I blame most of this film’s problems on overused tropes (from both the superhero and coming-of-age genres). None of the fault falls on the shoulders of Tom Holland, who’s playing the youngest version of Peter Parker that we’ve seen yet and convincingly brings the ambitious do-gooder, smart-ass side of Spidey to the screen. Though I still hold a soft spot in my heart for Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man and I thought that Andrew Garfield drastically improved his performance in his second outing as the crime-fighting wall-crawler, Holland just might give Maguire a run for his money in future films (as the character grows up and the stories evolve).

On the supporting side of things, Jacob Batalon earns a lot of laughs as Peter’s geeky best friend Ned. Zendaya is half-heartedly thrown aside as Peter’s bland love interest. Even worse than the unbelievably forced romantic angle is Tony Revolori being miscast as Flash. Instead of a jock bully who wants to beat Peter’s brains in, Flash has been made over into a pompous, rich kid, “king of the nerds” type of tormentor and it simply doesn’t work. Hannibal Buress and Martin Starr make appearances as Peter’s naïve teachers, while Marisa Tomei is fun as Aunt May. Also, it’s impossible not to enjoy watching Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, even though he only gets about fifteen minutes of screen time.

HOMECOMING’s best quality comes in Michael Keaton’s Vulture. Instead of being your typical supervillain, Vulture’s motivation is sympathetic and his progression of evil has a moral compass. These character traits make Keaton’s baddie into one of the most interesting Marvel villains we’ve received thus far, even if his first action scene with Spider-Man is ruined by incoherent quick editing and shaky cam. The rest of the encounters are fun to watch, especially a conversation between the two of them in a car. Also, a mid-credits scene reveals yet another moment that make Keaton’s Vulture into a more complex villain…who deserved more than this by-the-numbers script. The same can be said of Shocker (played by Logan Marshall-Green and Bokeem Woodbine) who mostly stands around and only gets one solid fight scene that’s over far too quickly.

Every major problem with SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING comes from predictable writing and overused clichés. Coming-of-age stories have been done to death nearly as much as superhero movies, so combining those two genres doesn’t exactly give the filmmaker or (six!) writers a lot of originality to work with. This feels like a safe made-by-committee superhero movie, which could have been the direct result of Sony and Marvel working together. Still, there’s enough entertainment, good acting, and laughs to make SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING worth a tepid recommendation. HOMECOMING is your average fun superhero movie and your average fun teenage coming-of-age tale…and it’s the fourth best SPIDER-MAN film thus far (behind SPIDER-MAN 2, SPIDER-MAN, and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2).

Grade: B-

THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violence, Disturbing Images, brief Strong Language and some Nudity

Directed by: James Gray

Written by: James Gray

(based on the book THE LOST CITY OF Z by David Grann)

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Angus Macfadyen, Edward Ashley, Ian McDiarmid & Franco Nero

Percy Fawcett was a British explorer whose life was so interesting that David Grann wrote a non-fiction book about him. That book, titled THE LOST CITY OF Z, sold many copies and garnered lots of critical praise. Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B bought the rights to a film adaptation and seven years later, here we are with THE LOST CITY OF Z. I was quite looking forward to this film. I’ve read about Fawcett’s life and was intrigued to see how a big screen version of it might play out. While LOST CITY OF Z has moments of greatness, a couple of problems significantly weigh this film down.

Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is looking to redeem his disgraced family name by completing the treacherous task of mapping Amazonian jungles. On his first venture into the dangerous territory, Percy hears rumblings about an ancient undiscovered city from his native guide. Fascinated by the prospect of discovering this lost city, Percy ventures back on another adventure. Percy’s obsession over finding this lost city (which he calls Zed) soon hits a boiling point that threatens to tear his family apart and possibly lead to a very unfortunate fate.

LOST CITY OF Z was filmed in South America and its gorgeous locations bring an air of authenticity to the entire project. The sense of possible death lurking all over the jungle feels threatening. We see all sorts of dangers present in: hungry piranhas, scary snakes, flesh-eating diseases, and natives who enjoy shooting arrows at any white person who may be coming down their river. This film’s adventure scenes are appropriately adventurous and made even more so because they come from reality. One long sequence that sees Percy and his two companions meeting a friendly tribe of cannibals is absolutely fascinating to watch.

The performances range from good to great. Charlie Hunnam, who’s been wooden in the past, is great as Percy Fawcett. He plays a proper British gentleman who has adventure in his heart and seems to always be perpetually excited. Hunnam also gives an appropriate amount of weakness to the man’s softer side and his faults. The latter mainly come in scenes that show his neglectful attitude towards his family. Sienna Miller plays Fawcett’s wife and delivers a powerful performance as a woman who has to cope with her always-absent husband. Hunnam, Miller and Tom Holland (as their grown-up son) have believable chemistry as a family unit, which convincingly sells the quiet dramatic scenes.

Robert Pattinson delivers one of the best performances of his career (which isn’t exactly high praise) as Fawcett’s rough-around-the-edges, witty companion Henry Costin. Edward Ashley gets in some good lines as another adventurer Arthur Manley. A big stand-out is Angus Macfadyen as explorer James Murray. I won’t dive too much into this character for fear of spoiling some unexpected plot turns, but I will say that I wanted to punch Macfadyen’s Murray in the face multiple times.

The cinematography that brings this film to life is grand and lush, making the jungle scenes even more exciting and beautiful to look at. There also seems to be a deliberately duller color scheme and lighting to Fawcett’s home scenes and London interactions. This visual contrast was an interesting way of showing how bored he was in these locations and how he’d much rather be exploring the jungle. However, the film falters quite a bit in its pacing and a handful of dull spots. This film is over two hours long and feels like it.

THE LOST CITY OF Z attempts to cover not only Fawcett’s quest to find the titular ancient city, but also tries to be a biopic of his entire life. This means we get a lengthy chunk of the film devoted to his service in World War I. There’s a battle scene that feels like it’s been ripped out of an entirely different movie and some conversations in a bunker are flat-out boring to watch. The same can be said of an overly long prologue that seems entirely useless in the story’s grand scheme. Some might say that it was there for character development, but we already get plenty of character development after that prologue and before Fawcett’s first jungle journey.

THE LOST CITY OF Z has moments of greatness, mainly the scenes in the jungle and solid performances from everyone. However, the bloated running time and messy pacing really drag this movie down quite a bit. I’m glad that I watched this film for those great bits of filmmaking and acting. However, the narrative is drawn out to the point of being dull and that kills any possible enthusiasm for a second viewing. This is a one-and-done history lesson of a film.

Grade: B-

DIGGING UP THE MARROW (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

DigMarrow poster

Directed by: Adam Green

Written by: Adam Green

Starring: Adam Green, Ray Wise, Will Barratt, Rileah Vanderbilt, Josh Ethier, Kane Hodder, Tom Holland & Mick Garris

DIGGING UP THE MARROW sports one of the best horror premises that I’ve heard in a while. Years after the chilling survival flick FROZEN and horror-sitcom HOLLISTON, genre filmmaker Adam Green has returned with an oddball little mockumentary that taps into the fear of monsters. Keeping the whole film under wraps as an Art Documentary, Green managed to quietly premiere this independent project at a couple of genre festivals before scoring a VOD/Limited Theatrical run. As ambitious as its ideas are, MARROW suffers from a misguided focus as well as a disappointing lack of scares (or actual on-screen monsters).

DigMarrow 1

The film plays out in a documentary style following an exaggerated version of Green himself working on a documentary about monsters. An interesting shift occurs when he’s contacted by a crazed fan, named William Dekker, who claims that monsters really do exist and he has proof. Apparently, Dekker has had a connection with otherworldly creatures since he was a child and now wants Adam to document the proceedings. Dekker leads the documentary crew to a spot in the cemetery that he calls the Marrow, supposedly this is the entrance to an underworld metropolis of monsters. As Adam begins to suspect that Dekker is just out of his mind and using him, mysterious things are captured on camera that could put the crew (as well as Dekker) in a monstrous amount of trouble (see what I did there?).

DigMarrow 2

First things first, there are indeed monsters in DIGGING UP THE MARROW. Based on the artwork of Alex Pardee, these creatures are brought to life with pretty awesome practical effects work (with the slight exception of obviously shaky CGI on one particular beast near the end). These monsters look cool and seem like they’d be perfectly at home in Clive Barker’s NIGHTBREED. As neat as these creatures are, there are too few of them glimpsed on camera. You can count the number of beasts that we do get to see on one hand as well as the actual amount of screen time that they’ve been given. The focus seems to be on selling this as a faux documentary instead of a straight-forward found footage horror flick. It seems that Green can’t decide which angle to focus on, so there are a few talking head interviews (that seem genuine) throughout and a wacky soundtrack that seems like it’s from a far more light-hearted movie.

DigMarrow 3

The biggest problem in DIGGING UP THE MARROW (pacing problems set aside) is Adam Green acting as himself. I understand where this idea was coming from and other performers have excelled in poking fun at over-the-top versions of themselves (just look at THIS IS THE END), but Adam Green is way too wink-and-nudge with this material. Set in his offices, there seems to be a little joke aimed at each of his past projects frequently referenced throughout (from comments about the HATCHET series to constant FROZEN posters to a scene about screenwriting HOLLISTON to shirts of CHILLERAMA). I couldn’t help but feel that there was way too much referencing to his past projects for the casual viewer. On the other side of the acting coin, Ray Wise is entertaining as Dekker. In terms of storytelling, the pacing is mostly comprised of build-up with very little pay-off. I’m all for slow-burns, but the wait has to be worth the outcome. That’s certainly not the case here with an anti-climactic final third (aside from one neat idea in the final seconds of the movie).

DigMarrow 4

In spite of an original premise about Lovecraftian horror in the real world, DIGGING THE MARROW is a missed opportunity. I don’t want to say that an overuse of self-indulgence on Green’s part fatally cripples the film, but it definitely didn’t help matters at all. A misplaced goofy soundtrack, pacing that drags way too much, and a predictability of where things are ultimately heading contribute in turning MARROW into a strictly middle-of-the-road experience. For a film with a hugely original idea, there isn’t much creativity on the screen besides the handful of monsters. MARROW is underwhelming. Cool ideas, shaky results.

Grade: C

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