KRAMPUS (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Horror Violence/Terror, Language and some Drug Material

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Directed by: Michael Dougherty

Written by: Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields

Starring: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Emjay Anthony & Stefania LaVie Owen

Director/writer Michael Dougherty already wowed horror fans with his 2009 anthology TRICK ‘R TREAT and has now moved his scary sensibilities onto another holiday with the aid of creepy German folklore. Christmas has long invaded Halloween (with stores putting up decorations ridiculously early and annoying neighbors hanging their lights before trick-or-treaters even arrive), so why can’t Halloween have its turn invading Christmas. KRAMPUS is a delightfully demented piece of horror-comedy that’s perfect for the holiday season. Not only is this one of the best Christmas horror movies in existence (not exactly a huge compliment when you consider the competition), it is also one of the best Christmas movies of recent years. I had a blast watching this film and already want to sit through it again.

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Christmas is three days away and Max is a pre-teen who still believes in Santa. He knows that most people think old Saint Nick is merely a marketing ploy and a silly story for younger children, but Max prefers to imagine that the spirit of Christmas is alive and well. This idea is not appreciated by his douchebag cousins who proceed to make Max’s life a living hell upon their arrival. Upset with his entire family, Max rips up his letter to Santa and throws the pieces out of his window. When a freak blizzard arrives and the electricity goes out, it appears that something strange is occurring outside. Somehow, the torn up letter to Santa has summoned a darker entity, Krampus, who has arrived to take Max’s “naughty” family to the underworld.

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Much like in TRICK ‘R TREAT, Dougherty knows how to capture a holiday atmosphere here. While he keeps a cheery Christmas mood for the first 15 minutes or so, he then showcases a much darker view of traditional holiday images. There are only a couple of spots involving identifiable CG that I can recall and those bits didn’t look bad as they were played up for campy laughs. The practical effects look absolutely fantastic in bringing bloodthirsty toys and evil elves to life. As for Krampus himself, he’s mostly kept to the shadows in the tradition of the unseen monster being scarier than showcasing it in the opening scene. We get little glimpses of the cloaked Christmas demon, but we don’t get a full-on, close look at him until the final third. His appearance is unique, creative and creepy. I don’t want to say anything more about it (no spoilers) other than it wasn’t what I expected and that was mostly a good thing.

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The characters are more than just your typical horror movie victims as they start off unlikable and gradually gain sympathy as the plot moves forward. I was surprised at how humanized David Koechner’s redneck father became, especially seeing that he seemed set up as a mean-spirited quasi-Uncle Eddie (from CHRISTMAS VACATION) comic relief at the beginning. Adam Scott, Toni Collette, and Allison Tolman are also solid as the rest of the parents. The child actors are particularly impressive, with young Emjay Anthony being the stand-out as Max.

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Dougherty unfolds his twisted holiday tale with style and a sense of humor. The plot progresses well as attempts of suspense are built up (not all of them being entirely successful) before we get on-screen monster action and threats. The backstory of Krampus is given in a very special way that surprised me (I won’t spoil it with specifics). The comedy really works here and the horror is light-hearted enough to the point where I was never really scared, but was still having an absolute blast. Though I might not have been creeped out while watching the film, I particularly enjoyed how grim the plot gets. The PG-13 rating never once popped into my mind. They even sneak in gore with Krampus’s various helpers. The ending perfectly caps off the whole experience and got actual applause in the theater from quite a few people. It sends the viewer out on a very satisfying final note.

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KRAMPUS is one of the best horror films of the year. Though I never was scared, it didn’t matter because I was having an absolute blast the whole way through. The Christmas spirit is captured through a horror-comedy lens. The characters are a lot of fun to watch. The monsters are brought to life through some stellar puppetry and this story plays out in near-perfect fashion. Aided by creepy German folklore as inspiration and standing alongside RARE EXPORTS as a hugely entertaining take on an anti-Santa Claus monster, KRAMPUS is a dark delight that will likely become an annual Christmas classic for horror fans.

Grade: A

THE BOXTROLLS (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Action, some Peril and mild Rude Humor

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Directed by: Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi

Written by: Irena Brignull & Adam Pava

(based on the novel HERE BE MONSTERS! by Alan Snow)

Voices of: Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Elle Fanning, Ben Kingsley, Toni Collette, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan & Simon Pegg

Computer graphics have really put a damper on other animation styles. The last mainstream traditional hand-drawn film I can think of was 2009’s PRINCESS AND THE FROG and the last wide released stop-motion animated film I can remember is 2012’s PARANORMAN. For this reason, I can easily find myself getting hyped up for any upcoming stop-motion film that promises to have a bit of potential. Having waited for nearly a year to see THE BOXTROLLS, I can safely say that it’s a unique fairy tale that strays into some risky territory for children but never fully loses the sense of whimsy around it.

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Bearing little resemblance to the children’s novel on which it’s based (which featured many different creatures and magical plot developments), THE BOXTROLLS follows a boy named Eggs. Eggs has been raised since he was a baby by underground-dwelling creatures known as Boxtrolls. These monsters are appropriately named because they are indeed trolls and do wear boxes for clothing. When the grotesque Archibald Snatcher begins fear mongering about the petty-thieving creatures living in the sewers, it appears that Eggs and his ragtag family of Boxtrolls may be in trouble. It’s up to Eggs to venture to the upper world, where he befriends the young neglected Winnie, trying to stop Snatcher’s plan that might mean the end for Boxtrolls and humans alike.

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BOXTROLLS is one of those rare cases where simplifying the plot and significantly changing things up from book to film works far better in the cinematic medium. The story is full of imagination and complex in unexpected ways. The movie has a lot of creepiness, gross details, and dark humor that might make it a little iffy for really young children. Some of the best family films are the ones that take risks with on-the-surface family friendly material. To add a stroke of awe to the pretty original story is that the film looks beautiful. This is some of the best stop motion animation I’ve ever seen and it sucks you into the world on-screen. The character design of the villains in particular is fabulous and everything moves smoothly as if it were actually alive. Clearly, a lot of effort, time and love was thrown into this project and it’s wonderful to see it all turn out so well.

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Plenty of talent is thrown into the vocal performances as well. Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Richard Ayoade play secondary characters and I couldn’t necessarily point of who they were while watching the film. It’s nice to see celebrities doing voice work that doesn’t necessarily distract the audience to spot them in the film. This can especially be said of Ben Kingsley as the main bad guy, who uses a deep gravely snarl that makes it nearly impossible for the viewer to recognize him. The only two that I did automatically notice (though that isn’t a bad quality) were Jared Harris as an upper-class royal (the character looks remarkably like him as well) and Elle Fanning as the constantly misunderstood child Winnie. Relative newcomer Isaac Hempstead-Wright is also compelling as Eggs. It helps that none of these characters are quite initially who they appear to be. Though the good guys remain good and the bad guys remain evil, there’s a little spin on each character by the conclusion.

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The problems I do have with BOXTROLLS are a few predictable moments and some muddled pacing. As solid as the prologue of Eggs being raised by the Boxtrolls is, the opening takes a little while to get fully going. Once momentum is built, the story rarely lets up on laughs, imagination and fun. However, there are a few scenes that are clichéd in ways and it doesn’t take a genius to see where things are heading. The most guilty of these moments is the stretched-out ending. It felt like three different conclusions were taking place. Though I don’t necessarily dislike where the film went (especially what happens to the villains), it almost felt like the screenwriters wanted to do too much at once.

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Despite this crack in an otherwise nearly great fantasy, this film is highly enjoyable for all ages. Full of colorful characters, a creative story, risks that you might not expect, and beautiful animation, BOXTROLLS is very much recommended for anyone of any age who is interested in dark fairy tales. Also, you’d be hard-pressed to find more lovable creatures on film this year than these box-wearing underground-dwelling trolls.

Grade: B+

TAMMY (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language including Sexual References

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Directed by: Ben Falcone

Written by: Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy

Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Allison Janney, Dan Aykroyd, Gary Cole, Sandra Oh, Mark Duplass, Toni Collette

Melissa McCarthy has officially become the female version of Chris Farley. Appearing in side roles and then quickly becoming a comedic powerhouse, McCarthy is a money-making machine and plays the same damn character in every single on of her movies. There’s also been a decline in the quality of her career choices. THE HEAT was fun, but nothing special. IDENTITY THIEF was standard stuff, but TAMMY is an obnoxious mess. Melissa McCarthy plays the title character and works under the direction of her husband (they wrote the script together). The result is a movie that comes off as almost unbelievable in how inept it is. The tone is jumbled and humor mostly consists of lame fat jokes that have already been seen in the past three films from McCarthy.

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Tammy, the title character, is having a bad day to say the least. She’s wrecked her car on a deer, lost her job at a greasy fast food joint, and found her husband having an affair. Fed up with life itself, Tammy accompanies her alcoholic grandmother on a road trip. Along the way, they visit various locations, meet up with a few friends, and cause general mayhem. Some unlikely love might also pop up along the way. The general outline of TAMMY is what substitutes as a plot. TAMMY is GROWN UPS but with Melissa McCarthy and legitimately good actresses in throwaway roles. It’s all over the map and feels like it lasts an eternity.

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The script is a mess to begin with. For the most part, TAMMY tries to be a trashy forgettable romp that is sure to engage the Happy Madison regulars. However, what makes things even worse are the occasional attempts at heartfelt dramadey thrown into the already unfunny mix. The emotionless pay-offs try to pack some staying power and fail to elicit a single reaction other than indifference. Not only is TAMMY a lame comedy, but it’s one with an identity crisis and that makes it so much harder to watch.

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Besides McCarthy’s recycled role, Susan Sarandon’s spotlight performance as Tammy’s hard-drinking grandmother is embarrassing. Kathy Bates and Sarah Oh are thrown in for a couple of scenes together. Dan Aykroyd and Gary Cole have been known for some classic comedies, but they’re certainly slumming it here. Mark Duplass is a hit or miss filmmaker/actor in real life, but in the world of TAMMY, he plays a totally bland love interest. There’s no discerning feature about this guy that makes him remotely likable or tolerable. He’s vanilla and that’s all you can say about this character. To add insult to injury, the slight romantic angle between him and McCarthy goes for about three scenes during the entire film. Adding a romantic comedy angle makes the already chaotic mix of profane would-be humor and lame attempt a dramedy even more unfocused.

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I will give TAMMY credit for a few brief moments that total up to about 5 minutes of screen time. These scenes involve a plot point that’s already been shown in the trailer, involving Tammy robbing a fast food joint. While the whole event isn’t shown in that 2 minute teaser, the follow-up scenes actually made me chuckle a little bit. Those are the only fleeting moments that I can give the film props for. Still, that’s 5 good minutes out of 96. This leaves 91 minutes (still considered feature-length) that were painful to trudge through. The rest of the movie just wanders aimlessly in search of a point, purpose for existing (other than money), and a plot.

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TAMMY is the kind of film that will send Melissa McCarthy down one of two paths (or maybe oddly enough, both). She can either pull the whole Adam Sandler complex and keep making the same crap over and over or she can listen to everyone (including tons of moviegoers who don’t critique or write reviews) and aim for quality projects. TAMMY comes off an annoying, worthless exercise in self-indulgence that’s nothing short of hateable.

Grade: D-

CHANGING LANES (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language

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Directed by: Roger Michell

Written by: Chap Taylor, Michael Tolkin

Starring: Ben Affleck, Samuel L. Jackson, Toni Collette, Sydney Pollack, Richard Jenkins, William Hurt, Amanda Peet, Dylan Baker

Is it really so strange to think that a simple road rage can escalate into something even more dangerous? There have been plenty of six o’clock news stories that began with road rage and ended with someone being either injured or killed in the street. CHANGING LANES is a thriller revolving around two very different men whose lives literally collide on the highway and the rapid downward spirals they both take. Featuring a big name case (even at the time) and clearly made with a substantial budget, the film was a box office success and praised among critics. Now that over a decade has passed, it seems like it’s been forgotten in the annals of cinematic history. Although I wouldn’t say it’s a great movie, as it does have some big flaws, it is a decent enough and (at times) unconventional thriller.

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Gavin is a cutthroat successful lawyer. Doyle is a recovering alcoholic. Both men are headed to the courthouse for entirely different reasons. Gavin has to get some files there in order to avoid being sued and Doyle has a hearing for joint custody of his children. After an accident leaves Doyle’s car totaled, Gavin writes a blank check and drives off without even giving the poor guy a ride to the same building he was already going to. Quickly discovering that he left an important file on the side of the road with Doyle, Gavin tries to get the document back. This is difficult, because Doyle is intent on teaching this hotshot lawyer a lesson in ethics. Ironically, this results in a dangerous feud between both men doing horrible things to make the other’s life as miserable as possible.

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CHANGING LANES is remarkable in its buildup to the actual collision itself. The viewer is introduced to both Gavin (Ben Affleck) and Doyle (Samuel L. Jackson). Affleck is usually hollow, but every once in a great while, he puts in a decent performance. Gavin is one of these cases. Samuel L. Jackson is the real standout of the entire film. I felt for the character of Doyle. The sheer amount of frustration he was experienced permeated through the screen and into my own emotions. Needless to say, I was on Doyle’s side the whole way, but other viewers may feel differently. This may be thrown into the same type of character battle as HARD CANDY, meaning that viewer’s may be manipulated into switching sides on more than once. In this respect, an interesting conversation among fellow film buffs might be why you were rooting for who at what point in the film.

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There are plenty of familiar faces in the supporting characters as well. While Toni Collette (THE WAY WAY BACK), Richard Jenkins (KILLING THEM SOFTLY), and Dylan Baker (TRICK ‘R TREAT) show up through Affleck’s storyline, the only real memorable side-character of note in Jackson’s life is his sponsor played by William Hurt (MR. BROOKS). Hurt also delivers the best piece of dialogue in the entire film. You’ll know it when you see it. However, there is one character whose appearance is damn near pointless and that’s Gavin’s seemingly emotionless wife played by Amanda Peet. This actress can range from good to terrible, depending on which movie you’re watching her in. She’s just plain wooden in CHANGING LANES. Some might argue that’s the point of her character, but I feel the purpose she appeared in two scenes for would have been more impactful, if she had more of an emotional range.

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The premise of CHANGING LANES is a great one and could make for a fantastic movie. This is the case for the first hour, then things steadily begin to strain credibility and go over-the-top. The running time is much longer than it should have been. As stated before, the plot is gripping for the first hour and then it significantly overstays its welcome. Just when the film should be at the highest peak of intensity, it decides to wax on about philosophy and how thin the line that separates ethics from chaos is. If the film had saved maybe one intense dialogue for the ending or used the significant one that William Hurt goes on about, that would have been more than enough. Instead, the message is as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face.

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CHANGING LANES begins with a bang and concludes with a whimper. To make matters worse, the ending is tied with a little bow on top that felt out-of-place in the story that had been taking place for the past 90 minutes. Samuel L. Jackson is great as a character unlike many others he’s played. Affleck is better in this film than all of the roles that have earned him the rotten reputation he has among the general public. The real problems come from the overlong running time and the not-so-subtle repeated moral of the story. CHANGING LANES would have been great as a tighter film that stayed true to the tone of the first hour. Instead, it’s a decent watch, but it’s not one that I’ll be adding to my collection. Worth a rental.

Grade: B-

THE WAY WAY BACK (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Elements, Language, some Sexual Content and brief Drug Material

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Directed by: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash

Written by: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash

Starring: Liam James, Sam Rockwell, AnnaSophia Robb, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry & Amanda Peet

I’ve been hearing about THE WAY WAY BACK since its premiere at Sundance. It was regarded as a sweet, sentimental coming-of-age dramedy. In this respect, the film holds up to what it’s been toted as. However, I feel that it comes at a most inopportune time for a film of this kind. In the past few years, we’ve seen many coming-of-age stories told in very different tones. Whether they be three-hour-long lesbian romances (BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR), dark Hitchcockian thrillers (STOKER), a more serious-minded approach (MUD), or just outright comedies about an awkward young men finding their way in life (PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, KINGS OF SUMMER, IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY). In a year that’s been populated with five coming-of-age films (counting this one), THE WAY WAY BACK holds solid ground, but doesn’t necessarily do anything that we haven’t seen before.

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The awkward youth in this case is Duncan, who’s going on a hellish vacation with his mom (Pam), her asshole boyfriend (Trent), and her asshole boyfriend’s daughter. In his frustration at the drunken antics of the adults and Trent’s rude behavior towards him that Duncan finds an escape in what little there is to do around town. Enter Owen, the easy-going manager of a water park. Owen takes Duncan under his wing and the two of them become fast friends. Taking on a part-time job at the park, Duncan discovers himself. All while Owen becomes a caring mentor to the troubled young man.

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There’s a strong chance that we’ve all known someone like Duncan in our lives. A guy with poor social skills and some problems at home that take a heavy toll on his daily life. We’ve also probably known someone like Trent. One could argue that his character means well for Duncan in a sort-of tough love way, but the actions that his character takes later on, reveal his true colors as a self-centered prick. Steve Carell, known mainly for his comedic or leading man roles, proves himself to be surprisingly capable of playing the “villain” (so to speak). Trent is the one of most deplorable characters I’ve seen in a movie all year and Carell’s performance brings him to life. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have Sam Rockwell as the laid back Owen. Rockwell also brings his character to life as a slacker adult, who also genuinely cares about people. The relationship that forms between Owen and Duncan is nothing short of delightful to watch.

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If Duncan, Trent, and Owen are the characters that everyone will remember, then Pam (Duncan’s mother) and Susanna (Duncan’s love interest) are the ones that everyone will gloss over or simply forget. I can’t blame them for this either. There isn’t a lot of love thrown into their characters. Toni Collette is good enough as Pam, but we aren’t given any real reasons to care other than she’s Duncan’s mom. AnnaSophia Robb is a phenomenal actress, but isn’t given much room to shine here. In fact, she’s pretty much regulated to the background in most scenes. Though Duncan is an interesting character and we root for him, Liam James seems to stumble over his delivery a few scenes. This might have been attributed to his awkward character, but I found it distracting.

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For the most part, THE WAY WAY BACK follows the coming-of-age formula in predictable fashion to the inherently sappy conclusion. However, the formula has stuck around for a reason. It usually works and this is no exception. It’s a plot we’ve seen before, but it just happens to be done with a lot of charm here. There’s real enjoyment to be had and the film holds many sparks of truth relating to the characters. Overall, THE WAY WAY BACK is way way good!

Grade: B+

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