X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of Violence, Action and Destruction, brief Strong Language and some Suggestive Images

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Directed by: Bryan Singer

Written by: Simon Kinberg

(based on the X-MEN comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Josh Helman, Ben Hardy & Lana Condor

After seeing the stinger at the end of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, X-MEN fans were greatly anticipating the big screen appearance of the X-Men’s greatest foe: Apocalypse! With Bryan Singer returning to direct, it seemed like nothing would potentially go wrong with this ninth(!) installment in the X-MEN franchise. While APOCALYPSE definitely has its moments and glimmers of great potential, I couldn’t help but be reminded of X-MEN: THE LAST STAND during multiple points. APOCALYPSE isn’t quite as bad as that film, because it still manages to maintain a big dumb fun sense of entertainment. Still, prepare to be underwhelmed.

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The year is 1983 and the events of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST have changed the world. Mutants and humans find themselves in danger when En Sabah Nur (a.k.a. Apocalypse, played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac) awakens from a centuries-long slumber in his Egyptian tomb. This intimidating villain was history’s first mutant and has acquired a vast variety of powers throughout the years, making him pretty much invincible. Apocalypse is looking to break down our world and build a better one on top of it, recruiting four horseman along the way: Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and a newly enraged Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Pitted against Apocalypse and his four horsemen are Professor X (James McAvoy), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Havok (Lucas Till) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), alongside newcomers Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Phoenix (Sophie Turner), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). It’s mutants vs. god-like mutants in a showdown that will determine the fate of the world as we know it.

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The X-MEN films often stick out in the crowded superhero genre, because they usually tackle subplots of self-discovery, prejudice, and civil rights as addressed through mutants. While APOCALYPSE has some of these elements, they are mostly overshadowed by a sloppy script covering familiar ground that’s already been seen many times before. This is basically a clichéd, by-the-numbers “good vs. evil” tale that happens to feature the X-MEN. To make matters worse, the screenplay is downright messy and unfocused. It seems like attention was being paid to the wrong details and important scenes were missing (opening up plot holes along the way). This ultimately leads to pacing issues that immediately spring up with four (count ’em, four!) prologue sequences before the main plot can even begin.

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Though he’s a clichéd and one-dimensional baddie, Apocalypse remains cool nonetheless. Played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac under layers of make-up and a forty-pound costume, this evil mutant has various abilities that make him seemingly unstoppable. There were multiple points in this story where I wondered how the X-Men could possibly hope to defeat him. Though his preachy monologues can get repetitive, Apocalypse is genuinely scary in his ability to manipulate matter (making for lots of cool kills), teleport, being super strong and having psychic powers to boot. Though he may look a bit ridiculous, this cinematic version of Apocalypse more than resembles his comic book counterpart.

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Other fresh faces come from a new class of young mutants and three of Apocalypse’s “horsemen.” It occasionally feels like APOCALYPSE is trying to cram too many mutants into one film and spends a lot time reintroducing each of them, which slows down the movie’s already mixed momentum. While I love the character of Psylocke and Olivia Munn is positively breathtaking in the role, she really isn’t given a whole lot to do other than fight. Storm and Angel both receives a strong introductions and then don’t do much afterwards. The horsemen (save for Magneto) mainly stand around, make Apocalypse look cool, and then engage in a quick fight or two.

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I was really excited to see Tye Sheridan as Cyclops and Sophie Turner as Phoenix…but they both seem to be hit or miss in their roles. It’s almost as if they want to emulate James Marsden and Famke Janssen’s versions of the characters, but are also trying to do their own thing. This results in two uneven characters from performers who seem slightly uncomfortable in their roles. Kodi Smit-McPhee more than makes up for their shortcomings as Nightcrawler. McPhee has been hit-or-miss in his past roles, but Nightcrawler is easily one of his best performances. He nails the awkwardness of this teleporting, blue-tailed mutant. It doesn’t really bear mentioning how Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters, and Michael Fassbender are in their roles, because they all have their parts down and have done so for two movies.

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APOCALYPSE’s script suffers from a by-the-numbers plot, missing beats, and lots of filler (included for fan service and setting up future installments). The villainous William Stryker (Josh Helman) appears yet again and pads the film by an extra twenty minutes, but the pay-off to this comes in purposely erasing the worst X-MEN movie (no, I’m not talking about THE LAST STAND). The Blob and Jubilee make blink-and-you-missed-it appearances, which seemed like a waste of time for fans altogether. If you’re going to include these characters, show them doing something other than being dragged unconscious out of a fighting ring or walking down a hallway. Also, the Quicksilver scene from DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is replicated here to an eye-rollingly excessive degree.

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On the positive side of things, APOCALYPSE excels in Magneto’s storyline. This tragic metal-bending villain is easily one of X-MEN’s most complex characters and a few powerful scenes expand upon his tragic past. The film looks good and is packed with convincing special effects. Though it becomes too over-the-top in places, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE remains entertaining enough. I am happy that I watched it, but probably won’t subject myself to it again, unless I’m doing an X-MEN marathon. APOCALYPSE is the third-worst X-MEN film (better than THE LAST STAND and ORIGINS: WOLVERINE) and is far from terrible, especially given the high quality from the rest of the series. If you’re an X-MEN fan, you’ll probably find things to like in this mixed bag installment. Still, prepare to walk away underwhelmed.

Grade: C+

SCOUTS GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Zombie Violence and Gore, Sexual Material, Graphic Nudity, and Language throughout

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Directed by: Christopher B. Landon

Written by: Carrie Evans, Christopher B. Landon & Emi Mochizuki

Starring: Tye Sheridan, Logan Miller, Joey Morgan, Sarah Dumont, David Koechner, Halston Sage & Cloris Leachman

This past October was so chockfull of new releases that I simply couldn’t get around to covering all of the big screen horror movies and every VOD offering. SCOUTS GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE probably should have made bank opening on Halloween weekend, but alas the film became one of the biggest flops of the year. It’s not as if this flick is horrible, but rather a pointless horror-comedy in a year that’s featured many better films of this genre. If you’ve seen any zombie comedies (e.g. SHAUN OF THE DEAD, ZOMBIELAND, or DEAD-ALIVE), then you’ve likely seen a far better version of this film. SCOUTS GUIDE’s gruesome gore and hard-R attitude make for a few brief highlights in a rather mediocre horror-comedy that’s aiming for wannabe cult status.

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Ben, Carter and Augie are three scouts preparing for their latest camp out. While Augie loves everything about scouting, Ben and Carter are becoming concerned that their status as scouts could cost them potential popularity in their senior year. When Ben and Carter get an invite to a top-secret party, they plan on ditching dorky Augie in the middle of the night to sneak down to the beer-fueled celebration. However, those plans become complicated as a zombie outbreak is unleashed on the town. With hordes of decaying undead flesh-eating ghouls hot on their heels, the trio of scouts must put aside their petty differences, band together with a shotgun-toting cocktail waitress, and use their skills to save their town from certain doom.

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The biggest detriment to this film comes in the overly familiar characters. The whole conflict between Ben, Carter, and Augie has been seen a thousand times before and in better films. In this way, the R-rated comedy also feels extremely simple and geared for a far younger audience than this film is clearly aiming for (with boobs, gore, and frequent F-bombs). Tye Sheridan (who was impressive in indie dramas JOE and MUD) is definitely the best actor here. It’s not as if the other performers are horrible, because the screenwriting is the likely culprit in making most of these people too damn obnoxious and unlikable. Out of the entire cast of characters, only two other performers stick out. Cloris Leachman shows up as a creepy old neighbor and David Koechner does his usual goofy idiot routine as the scoutmaster. They get a couple of chuckles, but were clearly just taking these roles for a quick paycheck (especially given what happens with Leachman’s character later on in one of the film’s grossest moments).

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Proudly wearing its hard R rating on its sleeve like a merit badge, SCOUTS GUIDE isn’t above becoming as disgusting as humanly possible in an effort for some shock laughs. Instead of coming off the least bit funny, these moments came off as trying way too hard to get a reaction. I’ve seen variations of these same jokes in other much better horror comedies. The film’s most graphic sequence reminded me immediately of the funniest moment in FEAST. The key difference is that FEAST did a lot with its premise and wasn’t all about gross-outs. Instead, SCOUTS GUIDE seems fairly content to play by your average zom-com rules and throws in lots of nudity as a distraction, which gets quite boring after a while.

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At the very least, I will praise the film for its (mostly) practical effects and gore gags. Although it’s just another zombie comedy, it’s clear that effort was put into the zombie kills with blood, severed limbs and guts being used liberally throughout. Some of the best kills come from an impromptu trip to the strip club (keeping true to the T&A angle this film seems so hellbent on) and got some bonafide laughs out of me. Also, I enjoyed how the zombies aren’t strictly limited to humans as a few animals make their way into the mix too.

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SCOUTS GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE has good gore for a zom-com and relies heavily on shock value for laughs. The former works, but the latter mostly falls flat. The characters are half-assed and the story is purely by the numbers. Though I didn’t actively hate this film, I should never have been bored in a movie that’s marketing itself as SCOUTS VS. ZOMBIES (which was actually the original title to this film). This is another one of those movies where I would say stick it on if you’re out of options or ideas for what to watch, but just know that there are plenty of horror comedies (even from this year) that are far better than SCOUTS GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE.

Grade: C

THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language including Abusive Behavior and some Sexual References

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Directed by: Kyle Patrick Alvarez

Written by: Tim Talbott

Starring: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby, Nelsan Ellis, Tye Sheridan, James Wolk, Logan Miller, Johnny Simmons & Michael Angarano

2015 has brought two famous psychology experiments to the big screen. One of these being the infamous Milgram obedience studies and the other being Zimbardo’s notorious Stanford Prison Experiment. The latter has already been adapted onto the screen twice with the German film DAS EXPERIMENT and that film’s American remake 2010’s THE EXPERIMENT. While both of those films sensationalized what actually occurred in the small “cell block” of Stanford University, this new cinematic representation of the story is a more grounded, realistic take on how the experiment actually played out. Though it’s an intense and very upsetting movie, THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT will likely be considered required viewing in many college Psychology classes.

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In the summer of 1971, Professor Philip Zimbardo puts out an ad for volunteers in a psychological experiment. A group of students are assembled and then split into two smaller groups: guards and prisoners. In the hallway of a basement, Zimbardo recreates a prison setting and intends on studying how innocent students react to the new environment and their new designated roles. However, Zimbardo’s simulation was cut short after severe mental breakdowns and emotional damage was being inflicted on volunteers. This film pretty much authentically recreates the six days of the experiment as they unfold.

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STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT is a movie that’s been in the works since 2002 and took over a decade to finally make it to the big screen. While this is usually a warning sign, this is actually a great film for a number of reasons. While DAS EXPERIMENT and THE EXPERIMENT were sensationalized thrillers with big name actors, this film takes a much more fact-based approach to the real events. The film mostly takes place in two settings: the prison hallway and the room in which Zimbardo’s team watches the events unfold. The latter is where this movie really shines in showing the unethical practices and questionable methods that were happening behind the scenes of the simulation. We watch as Zimbardo (who seems like a reasonable guy at the beginning) slowly devolves as the experiment begins to take control of his personality. Billy Crudup does a fantastic job as Zimbardo and gets us to see how a doctor with good intentions temporarily transforms into an emotionless machine of a man.

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Besides Crudup, the rest of the cast shine as well. A few of the actors playing guards/prisoners should be familiar faces to some viewers. Michael Angarano (SKY HIGH, RED STATE) dominates the screen as the “John Wayne” guard. His faux Southern drawl line delivery comes off as comical and then quickly becomes disturbing as the experiment goes further. Tye Sheridan (who made waves in MUD and JOE), Ezra Miller and Johnny Simmons (both from PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER) are appropriately sympathetic as prisoners. If there are any main characters to be had they come in Zimbardo and the “John Wayne” guard, while the rest of the prisoners and guard serve as objects in the experiment and that’s sort of the point.

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The film runs a little too long (being slightly over two hours) thanks to a couple of scenes that drag out (e.g. the prisoners counting off for five minutes or repeating the same line twenty times to torment another prisoner). I think the point of the film could have easily been made without running these moments for as long as they go. However, I particularly enjoyed the powerful acting from Crudup in the finale as he watches the psychological horrors unfold on the video camera. There’s no denying that the film is disturbing in the same way that 2012’s COMPLIANCE was, but for different reasons. The visuals also have a dank atmosphere thanks to gray, tan, brown and urine yellow being constant colors.

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Zimbardo originally began the Stanford Prison Experiment thinking it might be a long, boring experience. He could have never imagined it quickly shifting into the dark lesson of human nature that it became. College students transformed into monsters and victims based on roles assigned by a simple coin toss, while Zimbardo unintentionally ran an actual prison. This all comes out in a well-directed film that has quality acting and a fascinating (though deeply disturbing) true-life story at its core. While an extensive documentary on this experiment might have been slightly more powerful than a reenactment, THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT is well worth a watch…if you don’t mind taking a look at the darker side of human nature.

Grade: B+

DARK PLACES (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Disturbing Violence, Language, Drug Use and Sexual Content

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Directed by: Gilles Paquet-Brenner

Written by: Gilles Paquet-Brenner

(based on the novel DARK PLACES by Gillian Flynn)

Staring: Charlize Theron, Christina Hendricks, Nicholas Hoult, Andrea Roth, Corey Stoll, Sterling Jerins, Chloe Grace Moretz & Tye Sheridan

GONE GIRL was one of my favorite films of 2014. Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel is an intense thriller with great characters, brilliant writing, and it only gets better with repeat viewings. Seeing as I loved that movie, I was pretty excited for DARK PLACES (which is also based on a novel by Flynn). However, there were a few signs that this might not be nearly as good as GONE GIRL way in advance. Namely, other countries were receiving this film months before us and the production values didn’t look that great. While it’s nowhere near as good as Fincher’s Flynn adaptation, DARK PLACES is a suspenseful flick that should satisfy thriller-hungry adults to a certain point. There are pros and cons in this film. The pros outweigh the cons, but the cons are distracting enough to weigh this movie down as a whole (more on that in a moment).

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Libby Day had a rough childhood. When I say rough childhood, I mean that she was the sole survivor of her brother’s massacre that took the lives of the her mother and sisters. Libby has lived on donations from strangers for years and her funds are now running out. Traumatized by her past and not wanting to necessarily get a career, Libby takes an offer from the mysterious Kill Club. This Kill Club is full of morbidly curious amateur investigators obsessed with notorious true crime cases. They believe that the massacre Libby survived isn’t necessarily as cut-and-dried as it was made out to be. Thus, Libby is forced to dive headlong into her disturbing past to piece together what exactly happened at her Kansas farmhouse on that fateful night. Not everything is as it appears and Libby finds that her path is taking her to some dangerous, dark places (see what I did there?).

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The first thing that really stuck out of this film for me were the performances. Charlize Theron plays a damaged character who initially seems unlikable (in spite of her tragic past) and turns into someone worth rooting for. She might have a bad attitude towards everyone around her, but her hardened outer shell occasionally cracks to show that she’s still a scared little girl inside. In flashback scenes, Christina Hendricks plays Libby’s mother as a broken woman doing her very best to keep the family together. Also present in these flashbacks are Chloe Grace Moretz and Tye Sheridan who have been given their most mature roles yet. Moretz especially gives a darker, dirtier performance that’s different from anything I’ve seen her play before. Though he’s in a minor role, Corey Stoll plays Libby’s brother. His character is a wild card, but the performance is rock solid. Stoll continues to impress me with every film I see him in and his work is no different here. Nicholas Hoult actually becomes the most annoying part of this film, but I don’t think that’s entirely on his shoulders. Instead, his character (a main member of the Kill Club) just seems poorly written and mainly serves as a plot device.

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There’s a creepy atmosphere hovering over DARK PLACES. The cinematography might not always look great (with a cheap grainy effect in some of Libby’s memories), but I could feel a rising amount of tension as Libby’s investigation went into more complex, twisted areas. The non-linear storytelling (sort of like the first half of GONE GIRL) keeps you on your toes as to where things might head next. The decision to show past events in flashbacks as opposed to just have a film full of talking heads was a wise move too. The script manages to highlight themes of extreme poverty and the Satanic Panic era during the 80’s flashbacks as well. In fact, both of these things make for an integral plot points. I do wish that the Satan-worshipping angle was a tad less cheesy in its execution, but there are definite eerie moments. Also, I wish the film had spent more screen time with the actual Kill Club (who are arguably the most interesting part of this plot). I can only recall two (possibly three) memorable scenes that weren’t only featuring Hoult’s geeky character.

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While the screenplay is interesting and creepy for a majority of the film, DARK PLACES really drops the ball in its ending. The final 30 minutes of this film take an intense, twisted mystery that we were watching and cap it off with far-fetched plot twists and a cop-out finale. These aren’t the only mediocre scenes in the film though. There are a couple of places where the movie becomes melodramatic, especially in the epilogue.

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DARK PLACES is a decent enough time-killer, but I wouldn’t recommend spending too much money to see it. The film has a complex story that drops the ball with a cheap, unconvincing finale. While the tone is mostly disturbing and creepy, there are also moments where it feels like an above-average Lifetime movie-of-the-week. I like this film as a whole, but its problems weigh it down significantly (especially the silly ending). Overall, DARK PLACES is an okay crime thriller.

Grade: B-

JOE (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Disturbing Material, Language and some Strong Sexual Content

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Directed by: David Gordon Green

Written by: Gary Hawkins

(based on the novel JOE by Larry Brown)

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Heather Kafka, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Sue Rock, Adriene Mishler & Gary Poulter

Nicolas Cage has appeared in so many B-movies and hammy roles in the past two decades, that it has become damn near impossible to get someone to discuss him as a serious actor. Given the right role, Nic Cage can soar. That’s been seen in plenty of underappreciated films that feature strong performances from him (e.g. 8MM or LORD OF WAR). As JOE, Cage has proven every one of his naysayers wrong and shown that this quirky actor isn’t completely washed up. JOE is a dark film that combines a coming-of-age story with a crime drama. It’s an interesting mix that makes for one intense viewing experience. I didn’t expect things to end up as far into disturbing territory as they wind up going. In fact, I originally was likening JOE to MUD with Cage replacing McConaughey’s role. I wasn’t even in the same ballpark. This is one hell of a great film that is a tad predictable, but winds up being immensely satisfying and fresh in every area.

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Joe is an ex-con and head of a rough-around-the-edges group in a landscaping job. It’s hard work, but he’s pays well and tells it like he sees it. Joe tries not to sink back into his old criminal ways, but when some dirtbags come to his town it’s becoming more difficult to refrain from beating the life from these punks. It is at this difficult time in Joe’s life that he meets the teenage Gary. Gary’s living situation is less than ideal. He’s essentially the man of the house and his abusive alcoholic father takes out druken rages on the him every night. Joe and Gary become the most unlikely friends. As problems in both of their lives come to a crossroads, life-changing decisions must be made.

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There’s a thick dirty atmosphere covering JOE. This feeling immerses the viewer in the story’s backwoods setting. Every character felt authentic. This can especially be applied to the two leading men with quite the age gap between them. Nicolas Cage gives his best performance in years as Joe and brings to life a man whom you might initially find hard to root for. Joe has a very dark side that comes out here and there. Some may say that he stretches the lines of common decency beyond a breaking point (one scene involving a dog comes to mind), but there’s still an endearing good quality about him. This is brought out in the chemistry between Cage and young Tye Sheridan (previously seen in last year’s MUD). Sheridan basically reprises the same kind of character he had in that 2013 coming-of-age tale, but does it in a far different way. This version is more mature than his previous role (helped by the fact that Sheridan looks older as well) and beset with some heavy problems for coming-of-age movie.

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Speaking of which, this movie is dark! It’s downright disturbing in a couple of areas. Without flaunting a ton of twisted deeds happening, small details that imply what’s going on and make it so upsetting to watch. As Joe and Gary are characters that I wound up rooting for, nearly everyone around them is either a shell of a person or a completely wicked individual that deserves some sort of comeuppance. This all being said, the formula of JOE is a predictable one. I had an idea of where things where heading from the opening scenes. However, the writing and characters really hammer this one to being a hugely successful piece of cinema. It’s an absolute winner, even with the familiarity included in the mix.

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I wouldn’t say JOE is for everybody, as the material can be very upsetting to watch at points. However, if you’re in the mood for a powerful drama that takes a look on an uglier side of life, then this will do the trick just fine. See it, if not only for the stellar performances by Cage and Sheridan as the leads. Special mention to the late Gary Poulter (an actual alcoholic homeless man hired to play the drunkard father) for being someone you just wanted to jump through the screen and murder. These are his 15 minutes of fame and he earned it for a brilliant portrayal of a truly despicable man. The conclusion may be guessed from the beginning, but it doesn’t lessen the impact and emotions that the film hits you with. JOE comes highly recommended!

Grade: A

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