DEADPOOL 2 (2018)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language throughout, Sexual References and brief Drug Material.

Directed by: David Leitch

Written by: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick & Ryan Reynolds

(based on the comics by Fabian Nicieza & Rob Liefeld)

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Morena Baccarin, Julian Dennison, Zazie Beetz, TJ Miller, Brianna Hildebrand, Jack Kesy & Stefan Kapicic

Back in February 2016, DEADPOOL was released and significantly shook up studio expectations of what an R-rated superhero film could do. The crudely hilarious comic book adaptation broke box office records, converted many newcomers into DEADPOOL fans, and has influenced studios to make riskier R-rated projects since its well-deserved success. DEADPOOL is the reason for last year’s LOGAN being a proper treatment of Wolverine and now we finally have a full-blown sequel. How does it compare to the first film? While I wouldn’t say that’s it’s on the same level as or better than the original (as some fans have been claiming), it’s a blast of ultra-violent, bombastically hilarious fun!

Taking place shortly after the events of the first film (Deadpool’s origin story), DEADPOOL 2 follows the masked merc with a mouth Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) as he struggles to cope with unforeseen problems in his life (no spoilers). Wade/Deadpool isn’t taking it well, but finds his life gets a little more interesting when Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Nega-Sonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) recruit him as an X-Men Trainee. Soon enough, Deadpool is trying to form his own super-duper group to stop angry futuristic soldier Cable (Josh Brolin) from eliminating a pyrokinetic little brat named Russell (Julian Dennison). However, there is more to Cable’s motives than Deadpool assumes and many lives hang in the balance…all while Deadpool kills things and makes wisecracks. So you know, it’s kind of what you would expect from a DEADPOOL sequel.

DEADPOOL 2 clearly has a bigger budget than its relatively small scale predecessor (which basically served as an origin story for the masked merc with a mouth). As a result, the second film ups the ante in both its scope and plot. While that would normally push any sequel above the high bar set by the original, DEADPOOL 2 actually falls a few steps below the first film’s quality. That’s not to say it’s bad (it certainly isn’t and I’ve seen the film twice in theaters now), but the novelty has slightly worn off since the 2016’s crude, lewd, and ultra-violent R-rated predecessor.

From the get-go, DEADPOOL 2 makes it clear that it’s keeping the very adult, immature, and irreverent tone/humor that fans love so much. The opening credits wonderfully spoof any number of 007 films and will no doubt result in lots of laughter from the audience. Also, be sure to stick around for an end credits montage of material that had more borderline in tears from laughing so hard. It’s still quite refreshing to see a big screen superhero that doesn’t take its material seriously in any way, shape, or form and focuses on entertainment above setting up lore for future installments (though DEADPOOL 2 makes it clear when it’s doing that as well, in the formation of the X-Force).

As far as the cast goes, Ryan Reynolds still seems like he was born to play Wade Wilson/Deadpool. Morena Baccarin receives slightly more serious material and screen time as Deadpool’s significant other Vanessa in this outing. Josh Brolin damn near steals every scene he’s in as the ultra-stoic, super-dark Cable (a futuristic soldier whom Deadpool points out seems more suited towards the DC Universe than this light-hearted Marvel film). Young New Zealander Julian Dennison is hilarious as the foul-mouthed, adolescent mutant Firefist. Zazie Beetz is also great as the upbeat, luck-powered Domino. Despite what Deadpool says about her, Domino’s lucky powers do have lots of cinematic flare to be seen on the big screen and make her stick out amongst her X-Force pals.

Even though DEADPOOL 2’s script offers loads of ties to the comic book material, tons of bloody ultra-violence, and a more complicated narrative, it somehow winds up being more predictable than the first film. The film occasionally takes on a half-hearted serious attitude regarding one of its major plot developments and (though the script occasionally mocks this twist) the tonal shifts feel out of place. I could also clearly see where the entire film was going as it set itself up, because it hits many plot beats that we’ve seen before in other sci-fi/superhero films (including earlier X-MEN films). The result is that some of the thrills were ever so slightly diminished and I felt like I was just waiting for certain plot points to arrive. This might also be because the novelty of a foul-mouthed, R-rated superhero film has slightly worn off (which Deadpool acknowledges in the opening minutes of this sequel).

If you loved the first DEADPOOL, you’ll probably wind up liking/loving this sequel. I had a blast watching DEADPOOL 2 and it’s still refreshing to see an ultra-violent, irreverent superhero blockbuster amongst the overflow of modern comic book adaptations. This sequel’s story is set on a larger scale than the first film’s contained narrative, though it’s definitely more predictable this time around. The new characters are extremely fun to watch, while the old ones maintain their likability. The humor results in tons of laughs and is sure to shock viewers on a few occasions (stick around for the mid-credits montage). However, I’d say the occasional lack of freshness puts DEADPOOL 2 a few steps below the first film. Face it, you likely know whether or not you’re going to see this movie (you probably already have) and/or if you’ll enjoy it! Here’s to DEADPOOL 3!

Grade: B+

FAR CRY 5 (PlayStation 4)

Review by Derrick Carter

Long since the series’ conception, the FAR CRY games have shown themselves to be rather experimental first-person shooters…as opposed to a repetitive generic series of first person shooters (cough, CALL OF DUTY, cough). At any rate, FAR CRY 3 mixed open-world qualities with adrenaline-pumping action and made for one of the most acclaimed shooters of the 2010s. Two years after that fantastic game, FAR CRY 4 was released and met with almost universal disappointment from fans. Now, FAR CRY 5 has come and proven itself to be the best of the bunch. Not to sound hyperbolic, but FAR CRY 5 is one of the most fun and strangely profound first-person shooters I’ve had the pleasure of playing.

Welcome to Hope County, Montana. It’s a friendly enough place, with the exception of a violent doomsday cult that’s brewing within a Waco-like compound. You (a nameless rookie) have been tasked to accompany a Sheriff and a few federal agents to take in notorious cult leader Joseph Seed. However, things don’t go according to plan (do they ever?). Your helicopter crashes and you’re stranded smack dab in the middle of a county that’s overrun by cultists and yet still has a small band of resistance fighters. You’ll have to save your officer friends, make a few new friends (both humans and animals), and take out the notorious Seed clan (Joseph and his three vicious siblings) if you want to get out of Hope County in one piece.

One common complaint that I’ve been hearing over and over is that FAR CRY 5 is the exact same game as every other FAR CRY game. I beg to differ. I feel that Ubisoft did their damndest to make this the best FAR CRY so far and they succeeded by (appropriately enough) a country mile. Things immediately kick off differently in that your protagonist is completely customizable towards your preferences. You decide if they’re male or female, how they look, and (in true open-world fashion) what their combat strengths are. While FAR CRY 3 was jokingly described as SKYRIM with guns, I’d argue that FAR CRY 5 actually more wholeheartedly lives up to that comparison.

FAR CRY 5 also allows you to have a follower (or two, if you earn one of the games best perks). While FAR CRY 4 had a “Guns for Hire” system, it was flawed to say the least and usually sent a generic guy who only existed to fight until he was inevitably gunned down by one of the more annoying heavily armed foes. FAR CRY 5 actually gives you nine supporting characters with colorful personalities that you can complete missions with and then have them fight alongside you. These special followers range from a very handy pilot to a goth archer (my favorite character in the whole damn game). However, followers also include tamed animals…like Boomer (the cutest dog ever), Peaches (a cougar), and Cheeseburger (a fucking bear that becomes one of your strongest allies ever). The truth is that I felt connected to these supporting characters and got legitimately angry when cultists shot at them or briefly incapacitated them.

Unlike previous FAR CRY games, where hunting was an essential part of the story and almost felt like a chore in certain spots (especially FAR CRY 4), FAR CRY 5 lets you upgrade your skills with perk points that you earn through various challenges. These challenges include some hunting (but that’s totally optional), but mostly involve getting a certain amount of kills with different weapons and followers. This game actively encourages you to vary your approaches and try new things in order to advance your abilities. It’s kind of brilliant on the part of the developers and it really helps players hone in on what weapons, combat styles, and followers they like best.

Besides letting you choose your look, your play style, and your followers (or lack thereof, if you prefer to fly solo), FAR CRY 5 is also structured in a way where you choose what order you play through the main campaign. There are three main regions in Hope County and each region is home to a Herald (a main underling of the cult). By completing general chaos, side quests or story-related quests in each region, you attract the attention of that region’s Herald and engage in confrontations with them (including three wildly different, but amazingly cinematic big boss battles). You can choose to tackle them one at a time (the approach that I took on my first play-through) or plan to take them all down simultaneously. The latter would be building up towards an undeniably action-packed two-three final hours of adrenaline-pumping gameplay (this is the approach that one of my friends took and I plan for my second play-through). At the end of the day, it’s a ton of freedom left up to the player, making this the possibly most choice-driven first-person shooter in ages!

Speaking of the Heralds and Joseph Seed, this game’s villains are simply awesome. FAR CRY is a series that functions on delivering truly psychotic baddies (FAR CRY 3’s Vaas is a fan favorite for good reason and the underused Pagan Min is definitely the best thing about FAR CRY 4). FAR CRY 5 gives us, not one, not two, but four(!) big bads that you have to tackle throughout the game. Each of Joseph Seed’s siblings is drastically different, making each region feel unique as a result. My favorite of the underling bosses is Jacob (a military man driven by a “cull the herd” philosophy) and providing a few borderline nightmarish moments in his encounters. However, Faith is the most unusual of the bunch as she provides a slightly sympathetic side to her evil ways and also induces loads of hallucinations that you have to survive (including drugged out moments that randomly occur outside of your encounters with her).

FAR CRY 5 takes lots of risks as far as its storytelling goes, but ensures that no two players will have exactly the same experience with this game. This is one of the most open-world games I’ve played in that it just lets the player forge their own path and forms the plot around their choices. I’d also argue that the “good” ending of the campaign is one of the ballsiest conclusions that I’ve seen in any video game ever and the effect it leaves is absolutely chilling. There’s a lot to be said in the feelings it leaves you with and to say anything more, would be doing a disservice to players who haven’t experienced it yet.

As far as the technical aspects are concerned, FAR CRY 5 has realistic graphics and only a few technical glitches that I encountered. The much-dreaded microtransactions are purely cosmetic and you can 100% ignore them and still have just as much fun/skill as players who dump extra money into their weapons and vehicles. Also, the game has a phenomenal soundtrack. Nothing beats the feeling of a perfect song hitting at the exact right moment, whether it was programmed to be a story-specific sequence (a long hotel shootout against Jacob’s militia ranks as one of my biggest highlights in the entire game) or random bits (like a rock song hitting as you’re driving around rescuing random hostages from heavily armed cultists).

Though some people have argued FAR CRY 5 is more of the same, I’d point out that they changed and improved on so many things for this fifth (official) installment in the long-running open-world first-person-shooter series. While games like the new GOD OF WAR are undeniably amazing achievements, I still think that FAR CRY 5 is the most fun I’ve had playing a new game in ages. If you’re a FAR CRY fan, this is explosive, chaotic heaven. If you have never played a FAR CRY game at all, there’s no better place to start than here. FAR CRY 5 is an adrenaline-pumping, hugely entertaining, and frequently shocking blast. I love every second of this game!

Grade: A+

FAR CRY 4 (PlayStation 4)

Review by Derrick Carter

In 2012, FAR CRY 3 was released and garnered a massive amount of critical praise. That game’s reputation is more than well-deserved due to its clever open world mechanics, adrenaline-pumping action, and riveting plot. It was obvious that any future FAR CRY games would have a lot to live up to. A mere two years later, FAR CRY 4 dropped. Though some praise was lauded on this game upon release, it has since gained a reputation as somewhat of a disappointment in the series. As someone who played both games within mere weeks of each other, I have to say that FAR CRY 4 is fun while it lasts. However, that’s not exactly high praise or a great quality.

FAR CRY 4 has a straightforward, simple story. Ajay Ghale is returning to his native Himalayan country of Kyrat to scatter his mother’s ashes. His somber trip of remembrance is suddenly derailed when tyrannical dictator Pagan Min kidnaps Ajay for unknown reasons. When an opportunity arises, Ajay escapes and runs headlong into the “Golden Path” (a rebel movement who are slowly gaining ground against Pagan Min’s rule). Ajay must aid the Golden Path and take down Pagan Min’s forces…one evil foe at a time. However, Ajay must also choose which direction the Golden Path will follow as the rebels are currently led by two bickering leaders with very different ideologies.

Where FAR CRY 4 undoubtedly improves over its predecessor is in the gameplay and overall graphics. The massive country of Kyrat is quite the beautiful sight to behold as fast-travelling from location to location will almost become an outright necessity, assuming that you’re liberating the games 24 outposts as you progress forward in the story. When you head out on your own path occasionally, you’ll discover that there’s plenty of locations to explore as well. The stunning graphics bring the realistic environment to life in a way that’s very convincing. For the first few days that I played FAR CRY 4, I was blown away by how it looked and that made the experience ten times more enjoyable.

As far as the gameplay is concerned, there is a ton of stuff to do in FAR CRY 4. Side quests include your usual hunting missions, assassinations, and supply runs. However, there are also timed racing trials (which were far more enjoyable that I initially expected), drug-fueled trips to find missing things that are missing, and spiritual journeys to Shangri-La. There’s also a gladiator arena that holds life-or-death battles and I must have spent (at least) two full hours on those ultra-violent (but hugely fun) side quests.

FAR CRY 4 tries to be very ambitious in certain areas too. The outposts range from incredibly easy (near the beginning of the game) to ridiculously difficult (near the end of the map). However, they’re never frustrating to a point where I felt like giving up. Instead, I strategically planted traps and mapped out each approach in entirely new ways. Fortresses also serve as bigger (more adrenaline-pumping) versions of outposts and there’s one controlled by each of the four big bosses. The wildlife can seriously fuck up the enemy’s day (or yours, if you’re not careful) as rhinos, elephants, and even honey badgers (who don’t give a shit) make their way into the mix. Some of the best experiences I had in this game featured myself riding on the back of an elephant, while ripping enemies apart with a massive machine gun.

As my progress through FAR CRY 4 moved forward (I wound up clocking in a little over 30 hours, including the main campaign and many side quests), I couldn’t help but notice that flaws were sticking out more and more. The game’s biggest problems are bland characters and somewhat hollow story. While FAR CRY 3 had loads of insane individuals and a gripping transformation of the main character, FAR CRY 4 lacks in these departments. Ajay is a wooden protagonist who doesn’t really evolve as the story moves forward. One minute, he’s on a bus and the next minute, he’s transformed into friggin’ Kyrati Rambo. Pagan Min is the best character of the bunch (as a main villain), but he’s not seen nearly as much as he should be and the smaller bosses feel like generic henchmen.

Where FAR CRY 4 offers some interesting developments are in missions that ultimately shape who leads the Golden Path. You’re given ethical dilemmas between choosing Amita (who loves the idea of making Kyrat a drug country) or Sabal (who seems a little to eager to enact Kyrat’s version of Sharia Law). These decisions presented moral choices that ultimately shape the direction of your gameplay. Sadly, I still found myself underwhelmed by the overall plot and the ending felt very unsatisfying. Some people might say that this was the game developers’ intentions to make things unsatisfying. However, the campaign’s weak conclusion left me with a bad taste in my mouth. As a result, I don’t think I’ll be returning to play this game again anytime in the near future (unlike FAR CRY 3).

This being said, there are two technical complaints that I have to level at FAR CRY 4 too: the ridiculous difficulty curve and the flawed trophy system. When you are halfway through the main campaign, FAR CRY 4 throws major curve balls at the player in its rising difficulty. Soldiers were suddenly much harder to take down and unexpected roadside encounters could spell certain death. In some ways, this felt like a severely unfair shift in the game’s difficulty. Sure, it forces the player to adapt in drastic ways, but expect to die…a lot. Also expect to get frustrated with dying a lot.

As far as the trophy system is concerned, FAR CRY 4 has easy trophies to earn and then no trophies for fully completing certain tasks. It’s like the game doesn’t want to reward you for clearing all four fortresses…instead just giving you a trophy for doing two of them (half-assing it). There’s also no trophy for clearing all of the bell towers (just half of them). At the end of the day, it felt like the developers didn’t want to provide incentives for players to fully complete certain aspects of the game. This wouldn’t have been such an issue if FAR CRY 3 didn’t reward you for fully clearing all radio towers and whatnot. It might be a minor gripe, but it definitely rubbed me the wrong way.

The best thing that I can say about FAR CRY 4 is that it’s fun while it lasts. Unlike FAR CRY 3 (which is easily in my top ten shooters of all-time and a game that I’ll repeatedly play in years to come), FAR CRY 4 feels like a slapdash effort to duplicate that game’s success. The gameplay, graphics, and sheer amount of shit to do has definitely improved. I can’t praise those gladiator battles enough. However, the plot, characters, and game’s difficulty/trophy system are far weaker this time around. The ending is also sure to rub lots of people the wrong way. It’s depressing, but not in a way that feels earned or necessary to the (already bland) story. FAR CRY 4 is okay. It’s fun, but I had lots of mixed feelings about it afterwards.

Grade: B-

ANNIHILATION (2018)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Bloody Images, Language and some Sexuality

Directed by: Alex Garland

Written by: Alex Garland

(based on the novel ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer)

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, Sonoya Mizuno & David Gyasi

Going into 2018, ANNIHILATION was easily one of my most anticipated films of the year. Besides a high concept premise and a very intriguing trailer, the main reason for my excitement came from the presence of director/screenwriter Alex Garland. This man helmed one of my favorite science fiction films of the past decade: EX MACHINA. Needless to say, I was more than a little eager to see what his sophomore directorial effort would look like. While I won’t claim that ANNIHILATION is perfect and on the same level as EX MACHINA (for a couple of reasons that will soon become clear), this is a damn fine combination of arthouse storytelling,  thought-provoking science fiction, and disturbing horror!

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist struggling with serious grief. A year ago, her soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) disappeared on a top-secret government mission. Lena’s trying to mentally cope with the harsh reality that he might be dead, when a near-comatose Kane randomly shows up at her door. One strange conversation and a nosebleed later…and Kane is whisked away to an unknown government facility. Because they can’t have any witnesses, Lena is held at the facility with him and (in an effort to save her dying husband) volunteers to venture into the strange shimmering area where her husband originally went. Biological nightmares, thick tension, and bizarre Lovecraftian horror ensues.

ANNIHILATION is a strange beast of a film. The trailer sold it as something far more straightforward than it actually is. The narrative is spun in a non-linear fashion that flashes forward to a surviving Lena relating her tale to a group of baffled government officials, shows us what occurred within “The Shimmer,” and also flashes back to Lena’s relationship with her husband. In less talented hands, this approach might have wound up as a cheap cop-out that spoils key moments early on. In Alex Garland’s hands, it’s a brilliant way of piecing together a weird cerebral puzzle for the viewer.

This film nails its smart science-fiction and grisly horror in equal measure. I won’t go into specific details, because one could easily spoil some of the film’s huge twists. The scariest horror bits easily belong to encounters with a heavily mutated bear. There is one sequence in the film that might very well rank in my scariest movie scenes of all-time. You’ll definitely know it when you see it and an aftermath conversation makes that moment ten times more chilling. ANNIHILATION also knows when to keep its monsters in the shadows and when to showcase them in their crazy mutated glory.

This film isn’t a simple creature feature though, because there is other disturbing stuff happening within “The Shimmer.” Some details are given in scientific conversations that confirm worst fears and elaborate on grim theories. The film never feels the need to specifically spell everything out for the audience though and it expects you to use your brain while watching the strange story evolve. ANNIHILATION’s final third contains one of the biggest “holy shit” moments that I’ve seen in recent years. This revelation will likely result in many debates about the film’s open-to-interpretation ending. One of the story’s most terrifying concepts is glimpsed early on (The Shimmer seems to cause memory loss), but is never returned to again. Fully utilizing this concept might have pushed things further into nightmarish territory and made the film even smarter. Sadly, it was completely abandoned for a more straightforward-ish narrative.

As far as the acting goes, things get a bit mixed in the performances. Natalie Portman is good as the main character who’s clearly struggling with grief and all sorts of newfound knowledge. This causes her to react in complicated ways during certain scenarios. Oscar Isaac doesn’t receive a ton of screen time, but makes a big impact in what he delivers. Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny are serviceable as the supporting scientists. The weakest performance comes from Jennifer Jason Leigh. While some viewers might potentially argue that the bland acting was just in relation to her character, I’d argue that it was just bland acting and this particular character felt wooden as a result of it.

ANNIHILATION nails its storytelling, delivers cool spectacle, and brings forth nightmarish images that will likely flash before my eyes when this movie gets mentioned in casual conversations. The film delivers many amazing qualities (especially in its horror concepts being utterly terrifying and its sci-fi ideas being absolutely brilliant). However, the film occasionally drops the ball in a couple of missed opportunities (one concept is completely abandoned and one key performance is hollow). If you dig strange deliberately paced science-fiction and otherworldly Lovecraftian horror, you’ll find a lot of love in ANNIHILATION.

Grade: A-

GAME NIGHT (2018)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, Sexual References and some Violence

Directed by: John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein

Written by: Mark Perez

Starring: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Michael C. Hall, Jeffrey Wright & Danny Huston

There were reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic towards GAME NIGHT. The reasons to be optimistic came from the clever premise, hilarious promotional material, and talented leads. The main reason to be pessimistic came from the fact that this was a big studio comedy being released during February, which is typically considered only slightly less worse than January for studios dumping films they don’t believe in. However, GAME NIGHT turns out to be a wildly entertaining ride that you should see in a packed theater filled with other people who are also laughing their asses off. I had a great time watching this very funny film!

Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are two competitive gamers…who also happen to be husband and wife. During one night every week, Max holds a game night for their adult friends and they all have a great time hanging out together. When Max’s more successful show-off brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) comes to town, the game night changes in a strange new direction because Brooks has hired an interactive murder-mystery company to liven things up. However, the game becomes all too real when two actual gangsters break into Brooks’ home and abduct him. Thinking it’s all part of the game, Max, Annie, and their friends find themselves in over the heads…and things get crazier from there.

GAME NIGHT makes no qualms about what it is. This is an adult-oriented comedy that has a fantastic premise. Nothing more, nothing less. While the film does indulge in crass language and occasional crude humor, a lot of laughs result from jokes that aren’t crude for the sake of being crude. Instead, GAME NIGHT actually puts thought into its script and this results in a constant sense of fun. The running gags are great too as certain jokes find themselves not only recurring, but evolving between different characters. My favorite of which easily involves a suspicious police officer neighbor (Jesse Plemons) who has a rather distinct way of wording things. Seriously though, Jesse Plemons steals every scene he’s in and arguably walks away with the entire movie in his pocket.

The rest of the cast contains no slouches either. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams have fantastic on-screen chemistry together. Aside from Plemons, they receive arguably the funniest scenes in the film. My favorite sequence has them playing with a loaded gun (which they think is a toy) and I was giggling the whole way through it. Billy Magnussen is fun as a dim-witted friend Ryan, while Sharon Horgan is well-cast as his date Sarah (using her brains to make up for Ryan’s stupidity). Plenty of laughs also result from a running joke between Lamorne Morris’s Kevin and Kylie Bunbury’s Michelle, a married couple having a rough night in their relationship.

Aside from good jokes, GAME NIGHT contains some (dare I say it) actual suspense in its execution. There are lots of twists and turns woven throughout the plot. Some of these revelations you can see coming from a mile away. Others arrive as legitimate shocks that result in both laughs and gasps. Even though one subplot is pretty damn predictable (anybody with half a brain can figure out how the sibling rivalry angle will wrap up), other surprises result in a couple of unexpected cameos that further liven up the already fun film.

It also helps that GAME NIGHT looks fantastic. The visuals are slick and the film stylizes its establishing shots with miniatures. This causes cars and houses to look like pieces on a board game. This effect isn’t employed to a distracting degree either, but serves as a cool way to transition from certain scenes. There were even audience members that pointed out “that was a cool shot” or commented that they “loved the use of miniatures” by the time the film had concluded. The camera also occasionally pulls neat tricks during the more action-oriented sequences that make these moments stick out from the regular dark comedy moments.

Overall, GAME NIGHT is a very entertaining, clever, and hilarious time at the movies. The actors all bring their A-game. Although the film has one very predictable subplot, there are plenty of unexpected twists to accompany the many laughs. It’s also worth noting that the film contains some of the best running jokes that I’ve seen in years, which evolve over the course of the film along with the characters. If you want to have some good laughs (and who doesn’t, these days), give GAME NIGHT a watch. This is one of the better R-rated comedies to come out in a long time and comes highly recommended.

Grade: B+

THE INSULT (2018)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Violent Images

(Arabic with English subtitles)

Directed by: Ziad Doueiri

Written by: Ziad Doueiri & Joelle Touma

Starring: Adel Karam, Kamel El Basha, Rita Hayek, Camille Salameh & Diamand Bou Abboud

In our turbulent modern world, we’re constantly seeing sad stories of people being inhumane to each other for senseless reasons. Things like race, religion, country of origin, gender, and so on are frequently talking points in dividing folks, instead of bringing them together. I’ve never been to Lebanon and am not entirely familiar with that country’s history. That being said, THE INSULT (a Lebanese drama that is currently in the running for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards) has ideas and themes that are universal. Though the film isn’t perfect, THE INSULT is an emotional story that hammers in the notion that we need to stay connected as humans and not let differences divide us.

On a sweltering summer day, Palestinian refugee Yasser (Kamel El Basha) is working as a construction worker and notices a broken gutter from a high-level apartment leaking onto his workers. Being a nice guy and wanting to do what is best for both parties, Yasser fixes the gutter for free…only to have the Lebanese Christian resident Tony (Adel Karam) furiously smash apart the newly installed pipe. Peeved by the situation, Yasser simply calls the angry man a “fucking prick” and moves on with his day. However, Tony demands an apology and proves to be a stubborn person. Things between Yasser and Tony escalate, long-buried biases make their way to the forefront, insults become assaults, and their ensuing court case becomes a national focal point. All the while, hatred and kindness rages in the hearts of both men.

THE INSULT’s first third is fantastic storytelling in how it establishes the characters, escalates their conflict in a way that feels natural, and pretty much demands emotional responses from viewers. As the film moves forward, the characters of Yasser and Tony are revealed not to be simple cut-and-dry hero or villain. Instead, the film shows that they both lead complicated lives and their backgrounds play into how they interact with each other. It might be easy for certain viewers to simply view Tony as an unrepentant jerk, but you get a sense that he’s hiding deep feelings and insecurities of his own. Also, Yasser has questionable past dealings of his own that complicate matters.

It’s kind of obvious that THE INSULT’s main themes are empathy and coexistence. The film excels when its presenting these themes in small moments or subtle deeds, like two opposing characters sharing similar opinions or someone stopping to help his supposed enemy fix a broken down car (in arguably the film’s best scene, with minimal dialogue). These themes are frequently hammered upon as the film shifts into a mostly straightforward courtroom drama with a couple of subplots. The narrative even throws a few surprising curve balls at the viewer during these courtroom scenes.

My main complaints about THE INSULT come from a couple of key scenes, one of which seemed like a cop-out excuse for a certain character’s actions. Even though the film has lots of praise-worthy qualities, INSULT occasionally veers into corny melodramatic territory. One specific moment seems like it was a cheap way to develop a character (teased in briefly glimpsed nightmare sequences) and an easy explanation for most of the decisions from this character. I feel that the film might have been far more effective if it hadn’t gone down this simple and easy route. I sadly have to remain vague for fear of possibly spoiling something, but you’ll know the scene when/if you watch this film.

As a whole, THE INSULT is a good film that has shining moments of greatness. The movie is at its best during little scenes and exchanges between characters that feel natural, believable, and (most of all) human. The plot falters when it attempts to justify a character’s point-of-view in a way that felt telegraphed from a mile away and (for lack of a better word) too easy. However, this is still an emotional drama that will leave you walking out on a high note. If that sounds like your sort of film, you’ll probably enjoy THE INSULT.

Grade: B

BLACK PANTHER (2018)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Prolonged Sequences of Action Violence, and a brief Rude Gesture

Directed by: Ryan Coogler

Written by: Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole

(based on the BLACK PANTHER comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker & Andy Serkis

BLACK PANTHER is the eighteenth(!) entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and final installment before the hotly anticipated INFINITY WAR hits in May. Superhero fans previously got a glimpse of Black Panther a couple of years ago when he showed up in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (which is easily in the top 5 best MCU films). Now, Black Panther has finally received an origin film…sort of? I mean, he was already Black Panther in CIVIL WAR, but he really becomes Black Panther in this film I think. It’s hard to explain, because even though BLACK PANTHER isn’t technically another Marvel superhero origin film…it certainly has the feeling of one. That’s not necessarily a compliment either.

In the hidden African kingdom of Wakanda (which is highly advanced thanks to an endless mine of vibranium – the strongest metal on earth), warrior T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has returned to take his rightful place on his deceased father’s throne. However, T’Challa/Black Panther also finds himself hot on the trail of international terrorist Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). T’Challa’s problems don’t stop there, because the newly crowned king encounters leadership difficulties and uncovers long-hidden secrets. To boot, a mysterious violent-prone villain Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) has somehow made his way into the Wakanda and intends to take it over. Things are hitting the fan and it’s up to Black Panther to save the day!

Even though it suffers from a motherload of superhero clichés, BLACK PANTHER benefits from an imaginative setting and really cool action scenes. Aside from a couple of baffling bits of shaky-cam (which seems to be a recurring issue in pretty much every Marvel film), BLACK PANTHER’s action sequences are terrifically exciting. My favorite scene is easily a car chase through the streets of South Korea and that’s preceded by a series of violent confrontations in an underground casino. One-on-one fights are also well choreographed, while an inevitable climactic showdown/battle nails its spectacle in crowd-pleasing ways.

Though he was a small part of CIVIL WAR, Chadwick Boseman really gets to shine as Black Panther here. Boseman’s protagonist is given some development and has a natural arc to follow. There is effort put into scenes that portray him speaking with his ancestors. The film does something similar to a lesser effect with the villain Killmonger. Although some people have praised Killmonger as one of the best Marvel villains so far, I’m a bit baffled by this reaction towards him. I felt like Killmonger could have been an awesome villain, but he just wasn’t given enough time to make a strong impression. His motives are sympathetic and his methods are monstrous. However, he only really gets 10 minutes of remarkable screen time in a movie that runs over two hours. I actually thought that Andy Serkis’s one-armed Klaue left more of an impression.

BLACK PANTHER contains a fair share of strong supporting characters with big talent backing them up. Angela Bassett, Forrest Whitaker, and Martin Freeman all have roles to fill. Freeman reprises his CIA agent from CIVIL WAR, but gets more to do in this outing. Meanwhile, Letitia Wright serves as hit-or-miss comic relief. Some of her jokes earn laughs and other bits feel like she’s just referencing memes for the sake of referencing memes (including a cringy “what are those!?!” line). Lupita Nyong’o fills the role of obligatory love-interest/former flame. However, Danai Gurira is a complete bad-ass as the head of an all-female secret service and is a definite highlight of the action scenes.

Not all is good in BLACK PANTHER though. I already mentioned the forgettable villain, who felt like the victim of wasted potential. However, BLACK PANTHER’s story is very basic for lack of a better word. If you’ve seen five superhero films (it doesn’t matter which five), you’ll likely be able to predict every single scene, revelation, and beat of the film before it happens. The script sloppily sets up obvious plot points and feels like it’s spoon-feeding the viewer. In other words, it’s treating the audience like a bunch of morons. This is especially true of a 20-minute chunk where Black Panther takes a backseat in his own movie, while the supporting characters drive the film forward. This reminded me of how Ultron was railroaded for about half of his AGE in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

At the end of the day, the mind-blowing amount of critical acclaim for BLACK PANTHER seems unwarranted. There are positive qualities. Chadwick Boseman and most of the cast put in strong performances. The action scenes are mostly fantastic, with some annoying shaky-cam aside. The villain has a cool backstory and motivation, but unfortunately feels underdeveloped and wasted. Mostly, BLACK PANTHER suffers from being too damn predictable and generic. This is an entertaining movie, but you’ve seen this plot many times before. BLACK PANTHER Is a fun superhero story, but let’s hope that Marvel does better in their upcoming entries.

Grade: B

FAR CRY 3 (Xbox 360)

Review by Derrick Carter

The marketing for FAR CRY 3 sold it as “SKYRIM with guns.” Though this comparison drew skeptical ire from many gamers, it’s an accurate description of how this open-world first-person shooter functions both in gameplay and plot. Much like other first-person shooters, FAR CRY 3 allows the player to upgrade certain skills/weapons to cater towards their preferred gameplay approach. FAR CRY 3 essentially lets the player do whatever the hell they want to…only to eventually come back to the story when it best suits their needs. Whatever your approach might be, FAR CRY 3 is an awesome achievement in the world of video games and an energetic lunacy-filled ride to boot.

Jason Brody and his rich young friends were skydiving over the tropical Rook islands. However, things went wrong when they accidentally wandered into pirate-infested territory. Jason and his naive pals were taken prisoner by the psychotic pirate leader Vaas…and it’s up to the newly escape Jason to rescue his friends. Of course, to do this, Jason will need to use lots of weapons and open many cans of whoop-ass. Also, Jason isn’t exactly in the best mental state either…so expect hallucinations to follow him throughout this bullet-filled, blood-soaked adventure.

FAR CRY 3 ventures into seriously dark territory and the sheer amount of insane characters might throw certain players who just want a light-hearted shooter for a loop. The game gets the player emotionally involved in Jason’s mental and physical struggles. The opening minutes of gameplay showcase executions and a sickening human trafficking ring as you escape into the jungle. It’s intense and things don’t necessarily let up much from that point onward as other crazed characters make their way into the mix…and you stack up a body count that goes well into the triple-digits.

Besides functioning as a first-person shooter that allows you to dish out merciless violence onto people who definitely deserve it, FAR CRY 3 also requires the player to take advantage of its open world by hunting animals in order to craft upgraded gear. While this may sound like it’s merely a side option, you pretty much have to upgrade your gear as the game moves forward. Eventually you’ll get sick of only being able to carry 2,000 dollars in your wallet and be more than willing to dive into the shark-infested ocean so you can carry 6,000 dollars. Hunting becomes quite the intense ordeal too as tigers, leopards, boars, dingos, and (the aforementioned) sharks can easily take you down if you’re not careful.

In keeping with the open world environment, there are tons of side quests that involve rescuing hostages, killing specific pirates, and hunting animals that are causing a ruckus on certain parts of the island. There’s also a definite satisfaction that comes with scaling every radio tower (the game’s equivalent of puzzles where you can fall to a most painful death) to reveal new pieces of the huge map. That same satisfaction comes with liberating outposts to conquer hostile territory. Each outpost can be taken by the players own approach, meaning that you can quietly kill everybody out without even firing a bullet or you can blow everything (and many reinforcements) to kingdom come. No two outposts are alike either, which requires you to carefully plan your strategy beforehand.

As for the campaign missions, FAR CRY 3 ensures that you’re never doing the same thing twice. Some critics have complained that the game goes into first-person shooter clichés by including: stealth missions, hostage rescues, recovery missions, battles, etc. I found all of this to be terrifically exciting though and each mission naturally furthers the plot along. I wanted to keep playing this game to find out where things would go and to get the satisfaction of taking down an island full of vicious pirates. It also helps that the story has a distinct character arc for Jason as you watch him transform from wussy rich kid into hardened killer (who begins to love his newfound status as a murder-happy warrior). There are loads of nasty plot twists that put the viewer into uncomfortable situations, especially during the campaign’s final third. I’ll say it again. This is a dark game.

Of course, the action wouldn’t be worth much without some colorful villains that you love to hate. FAR CRY 3 dominates in that area too. Originally, Vaas (the main pirate baddie) wasn’t even supposed to be a character in the game, but the developers were blown away by actor Michael Mando’s audition. Vaas is easily the best villain in the game and has the most memorable scenes as he dives into insane monologues. You never know what this guy will do next and Mando knocks it out of the park in his performance. FAR CRY 3 doesn’t falter in its other big bads though. My personal favorite FAR CRY 3 villain is Australian hitman Buck. He puts Jason through bloody TOMB RAIDER-esque missions and has lots of disturbing implications hidden throughout his cut scenes. Meanwhile, crime lord Hoyt comes off as a cocky action movie villain.

My only complaints with FAR CRY 3 lie in the plot losing a bit of its energetic insanity after a certain character disappears from the mix, but it makes sense in the game’s overall plot. Tension moves from one area to another and Jason’s unstable mental state becomes a huge factor in the storyline. Boss fights take place in neon-lit hallucination landscapes, leaving the bloody aftermath as a glimpse of your actions…after you’ve taken down a bad guy. The campaign’s ending also has two distinct possibilities, both of them dark in their own ways. However, the bad ending is significantly worse than the “good” ending. It feels like the developers were deliberately punishing players who made a certain choice.

Overall, FAR CRY 3 is a damn near flawless open world first-person shooter. It allows you to craft much of your own story through the order you complete quests, taking the campaign at your own pace, and choosing different approaches in action. The thick tension, adrenaline-pumping action, beautiful landscapes, and colorful characters make this game a near masterpiece. FAR CRY 3 is a must-play for fans of open world gaming and first-person shooters.

Grade: A

SUBURBICON (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language and some Sexuality

Directed by: George Clooney

Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney & Grant Heslov

Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe, Glenn Fleshler, Megan Ferguson, Jack Conley, Gary Basaraba & Michael D. Cohen

SUBURBICON is a film that sounds great on paper. You have a talented cast starring in a darkly comedic period piece that was scripted by the Coen brothers (two master writers/directors who excel at pretty much everything they touch). Unfortunately though, this script has been floating around since the 80s and director/writer George Clooney took a stab at reconstructing the crime-comedy to include some rather forced social commentary. The resulting cinematic mess tries too hard to be quirky and attempts to do to many things at once, resulting in a movie that won’t completely satisfy anybody.

In 1959, the small town of Suburbicon seems picture perfect. However, things are not as nice as they appear on the surface. Clean-cut family man Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) finds his life upended when two robbers break into his house and kill his wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Julianne Moore). Trying to move on with their lives, Gardner invites Rose’s twin sister Margaret (also Julianne Moore) to move in and curious son Nicky (Noah Jupe) begins to suspect that all is not right with his father. Meanwhile, an African-American family has moved into this all-white neighborhood and supposedly caring neighbors begin to show their racist true colors.

SUBURBICON’s biggest problem is a direct result from its troubled production. Apparently, this final product was the melding of two unrelated scripts. One of which is the aforementioned crime draft from the Coen brothers and the other was a drama based on the real-life experiences of the Myers family (a black family who moved into an all-white neighborhood in the 50s and faced endless harassment from their neighbors). The result mixes together about as well as milk and vinegar, which is to say not at all. There are two very tonally different movies in the space of SUBURBICON’s 105-minute running time and neither of them are particularly satisfying.

This film is at its best when it’s in full quirky murder-mystery mode. There are a few scenes that could only come from the twisted imaginations of Coens. My favorite moments easily belong to an over-the-top Oscar Isaac as a suspicious insurance investigator. However, he only pops in for two scenes that equal a grand total of 10 minutes. Matt Damon’s final bits of screen time are also great in a twisted way. There is occasionally good stuff within SUBURBICON. It just gets drowned out by the film’s overly familiar messy tonal shifts and a predictable narrative that seems like a lesser version of FARGO…but in the 1950s. The murder-mystery storyline also drags to the point where most of the interesting developments occur during the final third…as opposed to being a slow-burn tale that increasingly builds suspense.

SUBURBICON’s more dramatic side could have potentially served as its own serious film. However, it feels like a complete afterthought that just happens to take up a lot of screen time in this would-be dark comedy. Many of the Mayer family’s (not so subtly named after the real-life Myers family) scenes are appropriately upsetting. You’ll likely get angry at the racism on display, but it just seems so out-of-place in this film. These scenes belong in a different movie of an entirely different genre. A mixture of racially charged drama and murder-filled satirical comedy just wasn’t meant to be.

One positive highlight of the less-than-positive mess that is SUBURBICON comes in high production values that showcase a stylized view of the 1950s. Even if the more macabre moments rub you the wrong way (to me, they were the most redeemable bits of the film), you can’t deny that SUBURBICON looks good. It also makes this film’s poor performance at the box office stick out even more. If SUBURBICON were executed correctly, this might have wound up as one of the best films of last year and a potential Oscar contender. Instead, this is a mish-mash of uneven tones that don’t go together and will leave a lot of people disappointed. Good acting (the performers weren’t the problem in this film) and a handful of memorable moments aside, SUBURBICON is a huge misfire for Clooney and the Coen brothers (who clearly allowed their script to fall into the wrong hands).

Grade: C-

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