AMERICAN PASTORAL (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Strong Sexual Material, Language and brief Violent Images

americanpastoral-poster

Directed by: Ewan McGregor

Written by: John Romano

(based on the novel AMERICAN PASTORAL by Philip Roth)

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Rupert Evans, Valorie Curry, David Strathairn, Uzo Aduba, Peter Riegert & Molly Parker

Despite having a killer trailer, lots of pre-premiere hype and being based on an acclaimed novel, AMERICAN PASTORAL hasn’t been nominated for anything and wasn’t well-received by most critics. This might be because the film differs so much from its source material, but I’d argue that this depressing story cuts a little too close to home for many folks. AMERICAN PASTORAL is a heartbreaking tale that seems frighteningly relevant in our modern divisive times. We’ve seen people willingly abandon friends and family members for differing opinions, all while riots erupt in the streets and hateful rhetoric is spewed on both sides of the political spectrum. After one of the most toxic elections ever and in a currently crazy year, AMERICAN PASTORAL is powerful stuff.

AP_D02_00508.ARW

Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), an aging author, attends his 40th high school reunion. Though he hopes to catch up on old times, Nathan is stoked to meet former friend Seymour “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor). However, Nathan is informed that Swede recently died and is then filled in on details of the man’s life. Swede was a guy who had everything ahead of him. He was a local football star and married his beauty queen sweetheart Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly), they had a child named Merry, and then Swede’s life went to hell in a handbasket. When teenage Merry (Dakota Fanning) develops a penchant for radical protests and becomes the 60’s equivalent of an SJW, Swede finds his family ripping apart at the seams. This only worsens when a post office is bombed and a missing Merry becomes the prime suspect. As his relationships and life crumble around him, Swede desperately searches to find his vanished child.

AP_D27_10794.ARW

AMERICAN PASTORAL is Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut and quite impressive for a first-time feature. The visuals are slick and McGregor captures the sense of this story’s shifting time period. I was whisked away to the 60’s and saw how little has really changed on the political spectrum over the years. That’s one big point that AMERICAN PASTORAL (the film version, anyway) seems to be making, along with many other possible interpretations of the heavy material. Ideas of materialism, perfection, and ideologies over people all have a place in this tragic drama. McGregor handles the material wonderfully on the big screen, though it should be noted that I have not read Roth’s novel and have no way of comparing it to the book.

americanpastoral-3

Pulling double-duty behind and in front of the camera, McGregor steps into the role of Swede. This all-American guy is a devoted husband and a loving father, though the latter seems to outshine the former in his daily life. McGregor seems to be playing a darker version of his BIG FISH character…but we see this man’s life fall apart and some blame comes back directly onto his shoulders. Jennifer Connelly (who’s mostly hit-or-miss) does an excellent job as a grieving mother and emotionally damaged wife. The scenes of her breaking down feel realistic and tug at viewer’s heartstrings. She just wants her family to be together again, though she also struggles with her daughter from the get-go.

americanpastoral-4

Dakota Fanning is infuriatingly great as the stuttering SJW daughter Merry. Though she is off-screen for about half of the running time (possibly more), Fanning makes a strong impression on those around her and will likely have viewers frustrated in watching her interactions. Like many real-life SJWs, Merry’s conversations always have to come back to politics/social justice in one way or another. Another notable stand-out is Valorie Curry as a mysterious woman with ties to Merry. Curry’s performance actually had me angrily yelling at my TV screen at one point. She’s that good. Molly Parker is underused as a strange psychiatrist and seems like she should have been a more prominent character. Meanwhile, David Strathairn is phoning it in during his bookend moments, but his final voiceover monologue hits one universal point of the story home.

americanpastoral-5

PASTORAL encounters a few problems in its pacing and the latter half of the script. This movie is a combination of a tragic-drama and a missing person crime-thriller. It tries to do both of these things and succeeds at the former, while stumbling in the latter. One long conversation scene explains away mysteries and honestly, I feel that a “show me, don’t tell me” style would have worked far better for this story. What works on a page doesn’t always work on the screen. One scene that should have been deeply moving and powerful, instead seems rushed and like an anticlimactic revelation. Other than this disappointing scene and the opening/closing bookends, which serve a purpose and still seem jarring nonetheless, the script pretty much knocks it out of the park.

americanpastoral-6

AMERICAN PASTORAL is a depressing, infuriating, and powerful film that tackles issues of family, relationships, toxic politics, and ideologies that harm more than they help. This movie doesn’t ever fully take sides on a political spectrum and I think that’s an admirable quality. Instead, it seems to hold up a cinematic mirror to the modern divisive state of America and says, “Nothing ever really changed.” AMERICAN PASTORAL is not necessarily a film that will be liked and it was never intended to be that. This emotional tragedy punched me right in the gut and I applaud it for taking on harsh truths. If AMERICAN PASTORAL sounds up your alley, then you’ll probably love this dark drama.

Grade: A-

A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Content and Images, Sexual Content including an Assault, Graphic Nudity, and Language

curewellness-poster

Directed by: Gore Verbinski

Written by: Justin Haythe

Starring: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth, Adrian Schiller, Celia Imrie, Ashok Mandanna & Harry Groener

A CURE FOR WELLNESS was one of my most anticipated movies of 2017. The trailers promised a gruesome, macabre trip into a super freaky insane asylum. That alone was enough to sell me on seeing this film, but talented director Gore Verbinski and two solid actors seemed to further sweeten the deal. Unfortunately, A CURE FOR WELLNESS is a mixed-bag of a horror-thriller. This film has its moments, but frequently undermines them with an epic-length running time and a scrambled script that simply doesn’t work.

curewellness-1

Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is a young business executive who’s been sent on an errand by higher-ups at his company. He must retrieve mentally unstable CEO Pembroke (Harry Groener) from a mysterious “wellness center” in the Swiss Alps or face dire legal consequences. The desperate Lockhart’s errand becomes a nightmare when it becomes clear that the strange spa is hiding dark secrets. After a car accident, Lockhart is committed as an unwilling patient into the wellness spa and begins to discover that he may not make it out alive. Hallucinations, nightmares, radical therapy techniques, creepy staff, strange secrets and lots of eels come out to play.

curewellness-2

Much like the plot’s setting, A CURE FOR WELLNESS appears to be a well-crafted horror-thriller purely from superficial qualities. The cinematography is magnificent and the soundtrack is appropriately spooky. A threatening atmosphere keeps a stranglehold on the viewer for the first 45 minutes and things soon give way into boredom. One of CURE’s biggest problems is its bloated running time. There have been fantastic epic-length horror movies in the past (THE SHINING is nearly three-hours-long and stands as one of the best horror films ever made), but CURE FOR WELLNESS is far from fantastic or even good. The film’s length eats away at its promising premise and has lots of dull spots where nothing much happens.

curewellness-3

That’s not to say that WELLNESS is free of disturbing set pieces because there are a handful of horrifying moments. A grisly scene of dental torture is downright cringe-inducing and an isolation tank treatment gone wrong is the film’s most intense sequence. There are enough eerie shots to compose numerous kick-ass trailers and scary TV spots that will sell people on seeing this film. However, these good bits are contained within a messy plot that jarringly switches tones during its final third (becoming a would-be fairy tale for no apparent reason) and revealing clues early on that seem way too obvious.

curewellness-4

A CURE FOR WELLNESS cannot decide whether it wants to be a scary-as-hell horror movie, a psychological head-trip or a supernatural drama. This uneven mix boils down to a bladder-testing story that constantly feels muddled and makes the viewer pray for something (anything) to happen. Unfortunately, when something happens in the second half it seems screwed up for all the wrong reasons. The film’s CGI is mostly well-done with two big exceptions. The eels (there are lots of them) look real in many situations, but a cartoonish deer pops up in the first third and there’s a terrible looking effect that is revealed in the silly climax. This is made all the more disappointing because Gore Verbinski was clearly utilizing a careful eye behind the camera in constructing cool visuals and (what he believed) to be a creepy horror flick.

curewellness-5

Dane DeHaan is good in moments as business-oriented Lockhart, but mostly seems like a bland protagonist. His so-so acting might be attributed to the film’s unbearably dull length and confused direction from Verbinski. Jason Isaacs (mostly known for playing Malfoy’s dad) is super creepy as the wellness center’s head doctor, but goes extremely over-the-top in the final act. Mia Goth makes a strong impression as a “special case” patient and I honestly cannot wait to see what she does in the upcoming SUSPIRIA remake. The staff members and other patients are appropriately creepy, but DeHaan’s character’s boardroom bosses are laughably over-the-top.

curewellness-6

I was sick for a terrifying asylum-based horror flick and A CURE FOR WELLNESS far from cured what ailed me. There are positive qualities in this movie. The first 45 minutes are well-done, the cinematography looks phenomenal, Mia Goth is a stand-out, and the film has a few great moments. However, these are mostly overshadowed by a ridiculously bloated running time, a script that doesn’t know what it wants to be, overly predictable clues laid out for the viewers in advance, and a ludicrous final act that leaves a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth. If you truly feel that you must see this film, then I’d advise you to wait for a rental or (better yet) an airing on TV. Otherwise, you’ll likely feel sick from spending valuable money and time on a disappointing horror flick that wasted great potential.

Grade: C

SPLIT (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Disturbing Thematic Content and Behavior, Violence and some Language

split-poster

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

Written by: M. Night Shyamalan

Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula & Brad William Henke

If nothing else, M. Night Shyamalan is an interesting filmmaker. He rose to fame with THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE, and SIGNS. After those three hits, M. Night fell into a downward spiral with THE VILLAGE, LADY IN THE WATER, THE HAPPENING, and THE LAST AIRBENDER. In 2015, Shyamalan made an unexpected comeback with quirky found footage flick THE VISIT and was then green-lit for a mysterious horror-thriller called SPLIT. That film has finally reached theaters and it’s pleasantly surprising to say that Shyamalan is back with one of his best efforts to date. SPLIT is a twisted Hitchcockian thriller with lots of suspense, smart writing and one of the most amazing acting feats in quite some time.

split-1

On the way home from a birthday party, teenage friends Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are suddenly abducted. Waking in a small cell-like room, the three captives discover that their kidnapper is the mentally unhinged Kevin (James McAvoy). Kevin has severe dissociative identity disorder to a degree where 23 personalities inhabit his body. It appears that the three girls have been captured for a very special (foreboding) purpose and the clock is ticking. Meanwhile, Kevin’s psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) begins to suspect that her patient might be doing something drastic…and a fearsome 24th personality begins to emerge.

split-2

SPLIT feels like Shyamalan’s most mature, grown-up thriller to date. He treats the film’s PSYCHO-esque subject matter with attention to detail, genuine emotion/sympathy and never goes into any potentially exploitative areas. Walking into this movie, I was expecting to see 24 different personalities that the girls would have to contend with and each one would be crazy in some way. However, this film is much more restrained and clever than that. The script carefully unfolds in a way that, at first, seems disjointed and then digs its hooks into the viewer. Exposition isn’t thrown out in dialogue-heavy scenes, but is hinted at in sparse conversations and little details that become bigger over time.

split-3

SPLIT is easily the darkest Shyamalan movie to date and keeps ramping up its intensity with each passing minute. The final third had me on the edge of my seat and the suspense is further elevated by masterfully atmospheric cinematography. The film’s visuals are gorgeous and the set design of Kevin’s lair is appropriately creepy. Flashbacks are used to flesh out the main character (of the three teenage captives) and these come to a head in a deeply disturbing, heartbreaking conclusion that I wasn’t expecting. Like I said, SPLIT is a smart, disturbing movie. The more I think about this film, the more I like it.

split-4

As far as acting is concerned, Anya Joy-Taylor is proving herself to be a talented young regular in modern horror. I haven’t seen MORGAN yet, but her performance was solid in THE WITCH and she’s even better in this film as teenage loner Casey. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula perform well as the two other teenage captives and the script attempts to not portray them simply as victims. Coming off an embarrassingly bad performance in THE HAPPENING, Betty Buckley shines in her second Shyamalan outing as a sympathetic psychiatrist with radical theories about dissociative identity disorder.

split-5

The big show-stealer is James McAvoy as Kevin, Barry, Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig and a slew of other personalities that inhabit Kevin’s body. McAvoy is something to behold as he switches his mannerisms, character and voice at the drop of a dime. McAvoy’s multiple characters are threatening, entrancing and comical. You simply have to see his performance to believe it. There are scenes where multiple personalities appear at the same time and you can tell the exact moment when a new personality inhabits Kevin’s body. This “special effect” is purely made from McAvoy’s acting abilities is unnerving and amazing to look at. This is the best performance (or performances) of James McAvoy’s impressive career thus far.

split-6

SPLIT isn’t free of minor flaws though. One flashback to Kevin’s childhood feels slightly out-of-place, a few lines of dialogue feel stilted, and the final minutes may arguably be too far-fetched. However, this film surprised the hell out of me. It’s easily Shyamalan’s second-best outing, next to THE SIXTH SENSE, and shows a remarkable growth for him as director/writer. If you want a thriller that’s gorgeous to look at, toys with the viewer’s expectations like a cat with a mouse, and has one of most memorable psychos in recent memory, then definitely check out SPLIT!

Grade: A

SAW (2004)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Grisly Violence and Language

saw-poster

Directed by: James Wan

Written by: Leigh Whannell

Starring: Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannell, Tobin Bell, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Ken Leung, Makenzie Vega & Shawnee Smith

The 2000s were an interesting time for horror cinema. Though many people are quick to say that the decade didn’t pump out many original horror flicks, it seemed like audiences got a solid amount of surprisingly great remakes (along with plenty of crappy cash-ins), cool indie fare and plenty of foreign scares. 2004’s SAW falls into that second category. After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, SAW grossed 55 times its one-million budget at the U.S. box office and spawned the biggest horror franchise of the 2000’s. Whether or not that’s a positive thing is subjective, but I personally loved the entire series as a teenager and they’ve held up as guilty pleasures for me as an adult. Having now revisited SAW for the first time in years, I noticed that its faults definitely stick out now and yet, it still stands as a disturbingly creepy horror-thriller.

saw-1

Photographer Adam (Leigh Whannell) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) wake up in an abandoned bathroom. Leaving isn’t an option because both men are chained to pipes on opposite sides of the room. A corpse, a tape recorder, and a gun lie in the middle of the bathroom. After some crafty maneuvering, the men soon discover that they are the latest victims in the sick “games” of a serial killer known as Jigsaw. To win their game, one man must retrieve the gun in the middle of the room and shoot/kill the other. Don’t worry though, because Jigsaw has left them a gift: hacksaws. These aren’t strong enough to cut through chains and are strong enough to cut through bone. You get where this is heading. With a ticking clock, the men must try to figure out of a way to escape…or face their grisly dilemma head-on.

saw-2

SAW’s premise is wicked and simple, arguably too simple. If this were only 103 minutes of two men sitting a room with this insane scenario, then the viewer would probably die of boredom or find themselves depressed beyond belief. Director James Wan and screenwriter/actor Leigh Whannell wisely throw in flashbacks to subvert the viewer’s attention to backstories behind both men and their captor. The script also has a subplot involving a rugged cop who’s on the trail of Jigsaw and hostage shenanigans at Dr. Gordon’s apartment (his wife and daughter are being held as “prizes” to be won or lost). The way in which SAW slowly puts together its twisted puzzle of a story is kind of amazing. The flashbacks slowly fill the viewer in on who the two men are and give little clues that ratchet up the tension to high levels.

saw-3

The Jigsaw Killer’s gruesome traps (which became more and more over-the-top with each passing installment) are realistic(ish) and leveled in this first film. The games are deadly scenarios with horrifying hazards (e.g. razor wire, broken glass, flammable goo, etc.) and the only big device used is a jaw-ripping reverse bear-trap that has become a symbol of this torture-porn franchise ever since this film’s release. The scenes with Jigsaw’s games are brief, but leave a shudder-inducing impact. A scene that has always made me squeamish involves a razor wire maze and a man stripped down to his undies. That’s truly terrifying beyond words and the verbal description of the crime scene makes the me cringe more than any gory visual could (though rest assured, there are definitely moments of gore).

saw-4

Two big problems muddy SAW’s many positive qualities. The film frequently relies on frenetic editing, which makes intense moments seem more like a heavy metal music video than a horror movie. The gritty atmosphere and visuals keep things appropriately creepy, but the editing occasionally detracts from the film as a whole. The second issue is far more egregious. Most of the acting in SAW is terrible, like embarrassingly bad and unconvincing during many moments. Not every actor is terrible, because Danny Glover is well-cast and a few of the supporting characters have their moments. However, Cary Elwes should be ashamed of his unconvincing American accent, unbelievable mood swings, and hammy line delivery. He’s horrible in damn near every scene he’s in. Meanwhile, it’s fairly obvious that Leigh Whannell was new to acting in 2003 because he’s just as annoying as Elwes. Whannell has the excuse of being a newbie though, which makes Cary Elwes seem even more awful by comparison.

saw-5

SAW has problems that cannot be ignored (frenetic editing and bad acting), but the plot, suspense and genuinely terrifying conclusion still holds up over a decade later (feeling old yet?). This is a rare case where great writing and terrifying ideas outshine crappy performances and amateur filmmaking. Though it’s not the stellar gory scarefest that I remember adoring as a teenager, I will still attest that 2004’s SAW is a good horror film. It’s a creepy indie effort with lots of disturbing scenarios, smart writing, a nightmare-inducing ending (I still get chills when I see it), and noticeable flaws.

Grade: B

HEAVY METAL (1981)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

heavymetal-poster

Directed by: Gerald Potterton, Jimmy T. Murakami, Harold Whitaker, John Halas, Julian Harris, Barrie Nelson, Paul Sabella, Jack Stokes & Pino Van Lamsweerde

Written by: Daniel Goldberg, Len Blum, Dan O’Bannon, Richard Corben, Bernie Wrightson, Angus McKie & Jean Giraud

Voices of: Don Francks, Caroline Semple, Richard Romanus, Susan Roman, Al Waxman, Harvey Atkin, John Candy, Marilyn Lightstone, Eugene Levy & Joe Flaherty

Based on HEAVY METAL magazine, the aptly titled R-rated animated anthology made a splash during the 80’s. This strange blend of science fiction, fantasy, and fun has been held up as a cult classic in the decades following its release. There’s something to be said for HEAVY METAL’s vibrant animation and no-holds-barred silliness. These qualities mix with an appropriately rockin’ soundtrack to make an all-around good time. Though the various stories range in quality, HEAVY METAL is worth the time of anyone who might be intrigued from the idea of an adult-oriented sci-fi/fantasy animated anthology. That concept, in and of itself, is something special. Without further ado, I’ll get onto the stories themselves…

1-grimaldi

GRIMALDI: This wraparound tale begins with an astronaut giving his daughter a glowing orb as a present. Unfortunately for both of them, the orb is sentient and evil. The menacing green circle proceeds to melt the father and corner the daughter. The green orb then tells her tales of its evil influence throughout time and space. These wraparound segments are enjoyable, but simply tie the other (mostly better) stories together through narration. The father’s death by melting is cool enough and the ending nicely ties into the final story, even though it opens up a world of plot holes that you just kind of have to accept. All in all, the animation and sheer craziness of this story overshadow its convoluted nature. B-

2-harry-canyon

HARRY CANYON: In the distant year of 2031, Harry Canyon is a New York cabbie without a care in the world. This changes when a desperate young woman gets into his car. Soon, Harry finds his life upended as a colorful band of thugs comes looking for a strange artifact and missing dame. This is basically a sci-fi noir that lasts about 10 minutes. It doesn’t overstay its welcome and packs in a fair share of action. The story is well-paced in that it leaves the viewer satisfied and never overstays its welcome. This is one of the better stories in the film! B+

3-den

DEN: A teenage geek discovers a green meteorite and is transported into the mystical world of Neverwhere. Besides being in an entirely new dimension, the geek also finds himself in a bald, muscular body. Adopting the name “Den,” the geek-turned-hero rescues a damsel, negotiates with a cocky immortal, and finds himself beset by the sexual advances of an evil queen. DEN is definitely the goofiest short in the bunch, but wears its corny nature as a badge of pride and constantly pokes fun at itself (through the teenage nerd’s narration). This isn’t exactly perfect, because the plot could easily turn some viewers off. I enjoyed this dumb little adventure for exactly what it was…a dumb little adventure. B

4-captain-sternn

CAPTAIN STERNN: This story follows a cocky space captain who’s been accused of terrible crimes. Confident that a bribed witness will come through, Captain Sternn pleads “Not Guilty” and finds that a glowing green rock quickly turns the trial against him in ways he never could have imagined. Of all the shorts in HEAVY METAL, this one definitely had the funniest story. It also has the best use of rock music in the entire film for me, which is really saying something when you consider that the likes of Black Sabbath, Devo, and Blue Oyster Cult are included on the soundtrack. The fantastic use of Cheap Trick’s “Reach Out” elevates this short’s humor and entertainment value tenfold. This is tied for my favorite segment in the film. A-

5-b17

B-17: Tied with CAPTAIN STERNN for my favorite segment in the film, B-17 is a horror story set on a WWII bomber. The story is simple, but effective. A pilot finds that the horrors of war also come in undead forms and desperately tries to escape a gruesome fate aboard his plane. This might be the shortest segment in the film, but it’s effective as hell. The creepy images are brought to life through unnerving atmospheric animation. The ending is also effectively eerie and concludes like any great campfire horror story should, leaving you scared and loving every second of it. If you don’t watch the entirety of HEAVY METAL, you should definitely check out B-17 and CAPTAIN STERNN on their own! A-

MSDHEME EC002

SO BEAUTIFUL AND SO DANGEROUS: The film’s two best stories are followed by its worst segment. This story follows a young woman who is abducted onto a spacecraft occupied by stoner aliens and a horny robot. Think about CAPTAIN STERNN and then strip it of everything that works. This is basically what SO BEAUTIFUL AND SO DANGEROUS feels like. It’s lame, forced, and ultimately pointless. The sheer mediocrity is made only worse by everything that came before it. Colorful visuals and cool animation do save this story from being a complete disaster, but it’s easily HEAVY METAL’s weakest point. C

7-taarna

TAARNA: I might receive some flack for my opinion on this final segment. The last story follows warrior Taarna’s quest to save a peaceful city from mutated barbarians. Despite TAARNA being frequently cited as the “fan favorite” of HEAVY METAL, I only found this segment to be good…but far from great. The imagery here is cool and I enjoyed the scenes of this badass babe whooping the weapon-wielding mutants’ asses, but this segment also drags out far longer than it should. There’s a long sequence of Taarna flying to the city that seemed purposely stretched out for the sake of cramming more music into the film’s soundtrack. TAARNA also ties up the wraparound story in a head-scratching way that you just kind of have to accept. This short contains cool visuals, but is nothing truly special. B

8-end

HEAVY METAL is worth watching if you’re up for an 80’s animated anthology of violence, humor, nudity, and cool imagery. This film isn’t exactly high art, but remains very entertaining and impressive for being exactly what it is. Some stories (CAPTAIN STERNN and B-17) are definitely better than others (SO BEAUTIFUL AND SO DANGEROUS and GRIMALDI), but the film as a whole is 90 minutes well spent. Whether you’re watching it under the influence of mind-altering substances or you just want to dive into a rockin’ blast from the 80’s past, HEAVY METAL comes recommended for those who enjoy this sort of thing! You know who you are.

Grade: B