THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, and brief Suggestive Material

Directed by: Taika Waititi

Written by: Franco Escamilla, Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost

(based on the THOR comics by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins & Benedict Cumberbatch

THOR: RAGNAROK is the third THOR film and the seventeenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the exception of 2008’s THE INCREDIBLE HULK, THOR was easily the weakest origin story in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. THOR: THE DARK WORLD served as an entertaining sequel, but couldn’t reach the heights of the rest of MCU’s second phase of films. THOR: RAGNAROK is easily the best THOR yet (not exactly high praise) and is a highly entertaining mythological superhero romp. While I don’t think this third THOR is nearly as awesome as some folks have been making it out to be, there’s loads of fun to be had and it’s a big step up in quality from the rest of 2017’s MCU offerings (including the vastly overrated SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING and the slightly underwhelming GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2).

Two years after the events in THE DARK WORLD, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has discovered that his mischievous adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has taken over the home world Asgard and his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has been banished. While on the journey to bring his dear old daddy home, Thor discovers that an ancient prophecy is coming to light and it might spell doom for all Asgardians. Unfortunately, god of death Hela (Cate Blanchett) has returned and seems hellbent on conquering Asgard. All the while, Thor has wound up stranded on a junk planet in the clutches of the cruelly kooky Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). In order to save his people from destruction, Thor must fight his way through gladiator battles, unite with old friends and new faces, and find a way to stop the seemingly undefeatable Hela.

RAGNAROK follows the usual superhero formula and is fairly by-the-numbers in terms of its plot. There’s an evil bad gal who’s bent on world domination, an ancient prophecy that might be fulfilled, and a story arc that must be experienced by our main hero that causes him to grow even more powerful. However, THOR: RAGNAROK does something extremely well that the other THOR films only did occasionally well. It’s funny, really funny. Not just in scenes that feature Tom Hiddleston’s Loki (who still remains a charming fan favorite) either, but also in nearly every moment. RAGNAROK contains more laughs than pretty much any other MCU entry, with the sole exception being the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.

Viewers who watch RAGNAROK in search of other Marvel goodies will receive those in spades too because this plot also serves as the best HULK movie never made. To elaborate further, Thor’s entrapment on the junk planet is blended with the much celebrated PLANET HULK storyline. Hulk’s inclusion gives Thor another hero to relate to and shows that Hulk can star in a great movie that doesn’t need to involve all of the other Avengers. Also, the end credits scene promises serious stakes for the upcoming INFINITY WAR (which hits next May) and Benedict Cumberbatch squeezes in five minutes of (very funny) screen time as Doctor Strange. Tessa Thompson adds a fresh new heroine to MCU’s mix as the hard-drinking, harder-hitting Valkyrie, while Idris Elba doesn’t get receive much to do as Heimdall.

RAGNAROK mainly falters in its big antagonist. Cate Blanchett’s Hela looks cool as all hell. Her intimidating costume design and weaponized black spikes that fly from her body are pure eye candy. Sadly, that doesn’t translate into her as a character though, because she’s just another bland baddie who wants to take over the world. I found her slightly reluctant lackey Skurge (played by Karl Roden) to be a much more interesting character and his story arc (though familiar) was far more satisfying. Hell, I even felt that Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster was a far superior villain to Hela. Grandmaster had an odd kookiness to him and still came off as threatening, though simultaneously hilarious. I guess I’m saying that I wish Hela had been more interesting and that Grandmaster had even more screen time.

If you are a Marvel Cinematic Universe fan (and you should know if you are by the seventeenth film in the long-running franchise), then you’ll find a lot to enjoy in THOR: RAGNAROK. The by-the-numbers plot may be familiar, but the hilarious, colorful and spectacle-loaded execution kept me smiling from ear to ear as the entire movie played out. The film’s main problems arrive in Hela looking cool, but being rather bland. However, Goldblum’s Grandmaster is worth the price of admission alone. RAGNAROK also injects a few much-needed risks into the MCU that will likely pay off in big ways during INFINITY WAR. THOR: RAGNAROK comes highly recommended!

Grade: B+

FINDING DORY (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for mild Thematic Elements

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Directed by: Andrew Stanton

Written by: Andrew Stanton & Victoria Strouse

Voices of: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Hayden Rolence, Alexander Gould, Ed O’Neil, Kaitlin Olson, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Michael Sheen, Andrew Stanton, Bill Hader, Sigourney Weaver, Willem Dafoe, Brad Garrett & Stephen Root

Ever since Pixar was bought by Disney, the studio has produced more sequels and less original films. We’ve had a third TOY STORY installment (which was amazing), CARS 2 (their worst film thus far), MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (an okay-at-best prequel) and still face a growing horde of follow-ups on the horizon with TOY STORY 4, CARS 3, and THE INCREDIBLES 2. 2003’s FINDING NEMO seemed highly unlikely to receive a sequel and stood perfectly fine by itself as one of the Pixar’s finest films. Still, here we are. Thirteen years after NEMO’s original theatrical run, we have FINDING DORY, which is a surprisingly solid second installment.

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A year has passed since the events of FINDING NEMO. Clownfish father Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence) are peacefully living in their sea anemone home, now with forgetful blue tang Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) as their neighbor. Things have settled down for Marlin and Nemo, but that suddenly changes when Dory is struck by a resurgence of long-lost memories. It turns out that Dory has a family and lives somewhere in the California area. Desperate to be reunited with her formerly forgotten parents, Dory makes her way across the ocean with Marlin and Nemo in tow. However, her adventure becomes complicated when an aquarium “saves” Dory and the two clownfish are forced to go on an improvised rescue mission.

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Like most sequels in any genre, FINDING DORY doesn’t quite measure up to the quality of its predecessor. The plot follows a story that’s noticeably similar to the first film. When Dory is “rescued,” Marlin even exclaims “Not again!” as if to call attention to this. However, this sequel avoids simply repeating old plot points by introducing new characters, changing the setting and bringing a different set of stakes. One fantastic tweak in the story are emotional flashbacks to Dory’s childhood. Besides baby Dory being Pixar’s cutest creation ever, the blasts from this blue fish’s past lay out certain details in advance and give the audience a deep desire to see Dory happily reunited with her parents. These flashbacks don’t feel forced or heavily loaded with exposition either. They contain the right mixture of clever dialogue, heartwarming humor, and utter cuteness.

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FINDING DORY surprisingly doesn’t stumble into the typical sequel pitfall of trying to reincorporate too many characters from the original film. That film was chock full of unforgettable fishy friends and each served a distinct purpose in the movie’s storyline. DORY has a few returning faces (the singing Stingray, surfer turtle Crush, and a great after-credits cameo), but it mainly relies on a new handful of underwater characters that are just as entertaining to watch and contribute to the plot in their own special ways. Surprisingly, these come in voices from MODERN FAMILY and IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA.

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Ed O’Neill is perfectly cast as Hank, a grumpy red octopus with a heart of gold. Ty Burrell lends his unique vocals to beluga whale Bailey and provides one of the funniest story arcs, while Kaitlin Olson voices gentile whale shark Destiny. Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy serve as Dory’s forgotten-but-now-remembered parents in the many flashbacks throughout. Meanwhile, Dominic Cooper and Idris Elba are hysterical as two territorial sea lions. Even though FINDING DORY only brings back the “Mine!” seagulls for a very brief moment, these sea lions officially made up for that and had me laughing every single time they were on the screen.

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My only complaint with FINDING DORY comes from its changed environment. While the first film was an adventure that spanned across half the ocean and packed in lots of excitement, a majority of this sequel takes place within a California aquarium. This smaller location offers new characters, new jokes, and a more contained set of emotional stakes, but definitely lessens the exciting adventure aspect of the story. FINDING DORY is a very different film than FINDING NEMO in this regard, yet still can’t help but feel like a slight downgrade due to the crazy amounts of danger that the fishy protagonists faced in the first film. The only hazards Dory, Marlin and Nemo come into contact with are aquarium procedures, disgruntled staff members, and one angry sea creature (which felt a tad lazy).

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This complaint is very small in the overall scheme of FINDING DORY. The animation is exactly what you’d expect from Pixar at this point, which is to say it looks amazing, colorful and vibrant. The writing is smart and engaging, even if the adventure aspect is lessened from the first film (which seemed like an insurmountable predecessor to begin with). The emotions are spot-on as Dory’s past is built upon through adorable, heart-warming/wrenching flashbacks. DORY’s non-linear storyline never once feels forced or dull either. FINDING DORY shows that Pixar can still crank out great films, even if those movies happen to be sequels (a feat that had only previously been seen in TOY STORY 2 and 3).

Grade: A-

THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some Sequences of Scary Action and Peril

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Directed by: Jon Favreau

Written by: Justin Marks

(based on THE JUNGLE BOOK by Richard Kipling)

Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito & Christopher Walken

After playing second fiddle to Pixar for years and hitting a stream of live-action flops along the way, it seems that Disney has been on a drastic upswing with live-action retellings of their animated classics. The latest title on their docket is THE JUNGLE BOOK, based upon Richard Kipling’s short story collection of the same name. Before walking into this movie, I read up on the process of how it was filmed. Apparently, it was entirely shot in a Los Angeles studio with tons of computer effects making up the locations and (obviously) the animals. That is incredible given how realistic and detailed every frame of this movie looks. Even if you ignore the undeniably impressive effects, this new JUNGLE BOOK is a very entertaining adventure for the whole family.

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Mowgli is a young boy who was orphaned deep in the jungle. This man cub was raised alongside wolves, with panther Bagheera serving as a would-be parental figure. When a particularly hot dry season arrives, Mowgli’s way of life is threatened by evil tiger Shere Khan, who vows to hunt and kill the boy when the rainy season returns. Soon enough, rain begins poring and Mowgli is forced to make his way across the treacherous jungle in order to be with his own kind. Along his way, he’ll meet an assortment of colorful characters. There’s lazy bear Baloo, who becomes a friend, while giant orangutan King Louie and massive snake Kaa serve as newly found antagonists. All the while, Shere Khan waits for his chance to pounce.

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I already mentioned JUNGLE BOOK’s insanely detailed effects, but they cannot be talked about enough. This is the best CGI that I’ve seen in a long time. The environments look completely realistic and the animals (despite human speech coming from their mouths) are convincing. One might imagine that human voices coming from realistic looking animals might appear somewhat silly, but JUNGLE BOOK pulls off this fantastical feat in an extraordinary way. I was entranced by this animated on-screen world and never once felt like this film went over-the-top, even though that easily could have happened in lesser hands.

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The vocal work is great from the A-list cast. Lupita Nyong’o plays wolf-mother Raskha, Bill Murray perfectly inhabits jokey Baloo, and Ben Kingsley wonderfully fits wise Bagheera. Shere Kahn is voiced menacingly by Idris Elba and the more subtle moments of this villain fully showcase his vicious nature. A big standout is Christopher Walken as King Louie, who comes off as simultaneously comical and intimidating. Walken even gets to do a bit of singing with the tune “I Wanna Be Like You,” which I am still humming as I type this review. Though she serves as little more than glorified cameo, Scarlett Johansson adds a bit of charm as the calm, deadly Kaa.

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The only live-action performance in the film comes from newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli. Major props to this kid, because he was essentially acting against nothing and does a solid job for 90% of the film. The other 10% comes from a few moments of line delivery that sounded a bit awkward. However, the lame excuse of this kid being a first-time child actor could also easily wipe away my complaint with his performance. Neel Sethi is a convincing enough lead and mostly sells the more emotional moments. One of the most moving scenes in the film is a conversation between Neel Sethi’s Mowgli and wolf mother Rashka, which solely depended solely on Sethi’s acting abilities.

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This new JUNGLE BOOK is well-paced as the nearly two-hour running time flew by. We are treated to a few cool plot devices early on that come back in a big way. The script also doesn’t follow the exact motions of the 1967 animated classic or the underrated 1994 live-action effort. Instead, big changes have been made to the plot that actually benefitted it. I really loved this movie’s conclusion and the final face-off with Shere Kahn is far better than previous interpretations of the material. What is sort of awkward are two songs (“Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You”) in the otherwise straightforward narrative, which were enjoyable and also felt like they were included purely for nostalgia.

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2016’s JUNGLE BOOK reinterprets an old Disney classic in a groundbreaking effects-laden new way. The film has an already talented voice cast who are made even more impressive by animation that doesn’t make talking animals look silly. The movie runs on three modes: exciting, funny, and heartwarming. As a result, it’s never allowed time to drag and never bored me in the slightest. I may have mild annoyances with certain parts of the film, but I had fun watching it the whole way through. Families are bound to have a great time, as will older viewers who simply want to watch a quality effort from Disney. Christopher Walken as a talking, dancing giant ape is worth the price of admission alone!

Grade: B+

ZOOTOPIA (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some Thematic Elements, Rude Humor and Action

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Directed by: Byron Howard, Rich Moore & Jared Bush

Written by: Jared Bush & Phil Johnston

Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer, Jenny Slate, Alan Tudyk & Kristen Bell

I wasn’t exactly excited to watch ZOOTOPIA. Though Disney seems to be on a winning streak lately, their previous attempt to capture an anthropomorphic animal society (CHICKEN LITTLE) was less than stellar. Though the DMV sloth trailer made me laugh and the reviews have been nothing but great, I still had my doubts walking into ZOOTOPIA. I was pleasantly surprised. ZOOTOPIA is a vibrant, creative, very funny film for the whole family that also packs a nice message into its package. This movie is far smarter than I expected it to be and is guaranteed to entertain viewers of all ages in equal measures.

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Zootopia is a big city populated by anthropomorphic mammals. Both predators and prey inhabit this massive metropolis. It’s a place where young Judy Hopps has always wanted to live. Despite her small stature, Hopps became the world’s first rabbit police officer and has been assigned to serve in Zootopia as the result of a mammal inclusion program. However, Hopps’s captain is unenthused about her presence and assigns her the less than glamorous position of meter maid. Desperate to prove herself, Officer Hopps agrees to solve a seemingly impossible case or resign from the force. With a ticking clock and no big clues to speak of, Judy Hopps and streetwise fox Nick Wilde must find a missing otter within 48 hours.

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ZOOTOPIA might sound like a fairly simple and to-the-point animated comedy from that synopsis, but one of the best qualities in this movie is how it wisely changes the viewer’s expectations as it goes along. My set up of the story is only a small portion of a much larger film that packs in a lot of twists, clever humor, and poignant social commentary. Sure, the overall messages about acceptance and discrimination are blatantly obvious, but they never feel too preachy. On the contrary, some of the biggest laughs come from animal “slurs” and species stereotypes. However, the film also balances this humor with a touching story that has real emotional moments.

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Judy Hopps will serve as a good role model for kids, but my favorite character is Nick Wilde (voiced perfectly by Jason Bateman). Though his character might seemingly live up to every cunning fox stereotype that you would expect (hence feeding into the overall message of the film), there are complex inner workings and an instant likability to this smart-aleck predator. These qualities are evident in one of the film’s most emotional moments: an honest heart-to-heart between Nick and Judy. Though the city of Zootopia is vast and packed with many species of entertaining animals, some notable names in the supporting cast include: Idris Elba (the harsh buffalo police captain), J.K. Simmons (the lion mayor), Jenny Slate (the sheep assistant mayor), and Nate Torrence (the cheetah dispatcher).

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The locations in ZOOTOPIA are brought to life through beautiful animation with lots of vibrant colors and creativity. You can tell that a lot of thought, effort, and imagination went into putting together ZOOTOPIA as the smallest details have been thought of and addressed. There are various environments throughout the city (rainforest, frozen tundra, etc.) for different species as well as everything being accurate to the sizes of the animal citizens (mice use small tubes to travel, giraffes have chutes that send up their coffee, etc.). The humor is also to be praised as kids will enjoy goofy physical comedy and “naked” animals at a naturalist colony, but there’s an equal amount of smart laughs to be had for older viewers. Try to name another Disney film that references both THE GODFATHER and BREAKING BAD.

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Though Pixar has become hit-or-miss since 2010 (with INSIDE OUT being their top-notch return to form), Disney Animation seems to be going through a current Renaissance (much akin to the Disney Renaissance from ’89 to ’99). ZOOTOPIA is the latest in the ever-growing line of modern Disney classics (including FROZEN, WRECK-IT RALPH, and TANGLED). There’s not much else to say about this film without sounding repetitive. The animation is great. The humor is funny. The message is touching and relevant. The characters are lovable. The writing is smart. See it!

Grade: A

AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Pervasive Drug Content and Language, Nudity and Sexuality

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Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Steven Zaillian

(based on THE RETURN OF SUPERFLY by Mark Jacobson)

Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Lymari Nadal, KaDee Strickland, Ted Levine, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Clarence Williams III, T.I., Carla Gugino & Common

AMERICAN GANGSTER is a project that probably sounded brilliant on paper. This gangster epic was helmed by Ridley Scott, based on one of the most notorious African-American crime figures in US history, and sports a cast of A-list talent. The film even got a couple of Academy Award nominations (Art Direction and Supporting Actress) and was in a long production hell (at one point the project was scrapped entirely). Ambition set aside, AMERICAN GANGSTER plays very fast and loose with its fact-based source material. To be fair though, Frank Lucas seems to have embellish certain events on his own. AMERICAN GANGSTER is undeniably well shot and has good production values, but the script isn’t all that interesting and the running time feels long-winded (the director’s cut stretches almost 20 minutes longer too).

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The time is 1968 and the place is Harlem. Driver-turned-drug-dealer Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is doing his best to take over illegal operations left by his recently deceased mob boss. Meanwhile, detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) has made the difficult decision of turning in 1 million dollars of mob money, therefore making himself a pariah in the deeply corrupt police precinct. As Roberts engages in a fierce custody battle with his ex-wife, Frank Lucas begins running a hugely successful heroin racket (100% pure and from the jungles of Vietnam). These two men progress through their very different lives until fate sets their paths against one another…with bullets flying and a body count rising.

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I cannot fault AMERICAN GANGSTER on either of the performances from its two leads. As Lucas, Denzel Washington plays the gangster with a quiet dignity. He’s not simply a heartless monster, but also a family man who shares his wealth. However, the film doesn’t exactly glorify him as we see that he can shift from loving husband/caring son to cold-blooded killer in a matter of seconds. On the opposite side of the law is Russell Crowe as the honest cop with questionable morals at home. Even though he’s based on a real-life police officer, the character of Richie Roberts feels familiar and clichéd. We’ve seen this type of cop before in many other crime thrillers. I felt that Roberts was like a slightly toned down version of Popeye from THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

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As far as the supporting cast goes, the remaining big names are wasted in brief cameo-like roles. Ted Levine shows up as a bland fellow officer on Crowe’s special team. Cuba Gooding Jr. is wasted in the role of a rival drug dealer, while Chiwetel Ejiofor and Common fall by the wayside as two of Frank’s forgettable relatives/partners in crime. Idris Elba makes a good impression as a rival gangster, but doesn’t receive much of a role in the grand scheme of things. The only supporting performance that I feel was undeniably strong belongs to Josh Brolin as a greasy-haired corrupt cop who serves as an antagonist towards both Washington’s Lucas and Crowe’s Roberts. It makes me wish that a lot of the other side characters (and family drama) had been excised in order to give Brolin more scenes as a threat to both sides.

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Ridley Scott has proven himself in the past to be a stellar director, even when taking on less-than-stellar projects. The same goes for this disappointment, because AMERICAN GANGSTER looks great and wanted to be a huge gangster blockbuster. Though the film was successful at the box office and definitely has its fans, I felt it was very underwhelming. The script seems like a mishmash of gangster tropes and melodrama. While the gangster tropes are fun to watch (especially in the final 30 minutes), the family melodrama is a dreary slog to sit through. The aspirations to make this into a gangster movie with heart were noble, but the execution feels like a been-there, done-that experience. I watched the theatrical cut and found myself frequently bored when I should have been invested in both Crowe’s cop and Washington’s criminal. Instead, the film feels overly familiar and frequently dull.

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Though AMERICAN GANGSTER definitely has its moments and two strong performances (three, if you count Brolin’s ten minutes as a side character), it ultimately feels like a by-the-numbers disappointment. I am an avid fan of gangster movies and frequently seek them out, but I was constantly bored throughout the nearly three-hour-long running time in this fictional version of Frank Lucas’s story. The movie isn’t necessarily made better by both of its actual counterparts coming out against it as exploiting a real-life story as a melodramatic fluff. Two solid performances, a few good scenes, and solid production values aside, AMERICAN GANGSTER is kind of a snoozefest.

Grade: C

BEASTS OF NO NATION (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Written by: Cary Joji Fukunaga

(based on the novel BEASTS OF NO NATION by Uzodinma Iweala)

Starring: Idris Elba, Kurt Egyiawan, Abraham Attah, Ama K. Abebrese, Kobina Amissa-Sam & Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye

BEASTS OF NO NATION is a film that marks a significant step forward for Netflix as bonafide movie studio. Adapted from the controversial novel of the same name, BEASTS is even more impressive for being an Oscar-caliber war-drama that just happened to debut on a streaming website. Director/writer Cary Joji Fukunaga tackles the novel’s harrowing story with an unwavering eye and powerful performances from his two leads. This movie just might stand alongside HOTEL RWANDA as one of the best African war dramas ever made.

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Agu is a young boy living in an unnamed African village. The country is teetering on the edge of civil war. As tensions erupt and his village becomes a corpse-laden battleground, Agu’s family is taken away from him and the young boy finds himself in dire circumstances. In order to stay alive, Agu joins a violent band of rebels and becomes the latest child soldier in a faction led by the fearsome Commandant. We follow Agu’s war-time experience through his perspective, complete with an inner monologue that frequently makes its way into the narrative.

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The best two things in BEASTS OF NO NATION come from two very special performances. The first of these is Idris Elba’s Commandant. As the unwavering leader, Elba exudes both charisma and evil at the same time. It’s easy to see why Agu would fall under his influence as the Commandant becomes a surrogate father of sorts. However, in the very next scene, he’s screaming at the child to commit an abominable act of bloodshed. Elba was brave for taking a role that requires us to see him in a very ugly light as a morally reprehensible man whose real intentions aren’t fully revealed until his final scenes. As a result, BEASTS OF NO NATION contains one of the very best performances of 2015.

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On the younger side of things, newcomer Abraham Attah delivers the second-best child performance that I’ve seen all year (the first being in ROOM). This film (much like that aforementioned Oscar contender) clearly required putting a kid (in this case, Attah) through some brutal material to bring an honest performance to the screen. It seems to have paid off in spades as Attah is brilliant to behold. The character of Agu has both constant pain behind his eyes as well as a boiling rage for his circumstances. The latter breaks its way to the surface during a couple of key scenes. The film is also narrated by Agu which adds a further sense of corrupted innocence into the chaotic mix of war and death.

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Performances aside, BEASTS is remarkably well shot with professional production values that stand alongside pretty much every other big-screen drama to hit during this year’s awards season. This is especially impressive when you consider the film was made on a budget of 6 million and has a number of explosions, gun fights, and one very surreal massacre sequence that come off in a visceral, convincing manner. Aside from one brief scene that looked a little iffy, the film maintains a searing sense of danger lurking around every corner that’s almost akin to FULL METAL JACKET in tone.

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My sole complaint with BEASTS OF NO NATION stems from the Idris Elba’s Commandant’s final scenes ending with an apathetic whimper rather than a memorable bang. The movie may have been faithful to its source material (I haven’t read the novel, so I don’t know if that is the case), but I feel that this stand-out villain deserved a better final send-off. The ending to the film itself is pretty much perfect as a calm, emotional conclusion to the disturbing storm of violence, death, destruction, and corrupted innocence that the viewer has just witnessed. It sends the viewer off on a better note than they possibly could have expected given how damned dark and brutal the rest of the story is.

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Is BEASTS OF NO NATION an easy film to watch? Absolutely not. The subject matter is intense to say the least and the film confronts the viewer by not shying away from the horrors of war, in this case told from the perspective of a child soldier. Is BEASTS OF NO NATION a worthwhile watch? Absolutely! Brought to the screen with professional production values that could easily play on the big screen and fueled by two stellar performances, the film is a powerful war drama unlike any that I’ve ever seen. This confrontational and rewarding film should hopefully garner a couple of Oscar nods and deserves every bit of praise it has received thus far!

Grade: A

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Action, Violence and Destruction, and for some Suggestive Comments

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Directed by: Joss Whedon

Written by: Joss Whedon

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

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgard, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Andy Serkis & Julie Delpy

Hats off to Marvel. Seriously, it takes an indescribable level of skill to plan out different films that all tie into one massive storyline. I can honestly say that I haven’t disliked a single movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON doesn’t change that. This being said, I didn’t love the first AVENGERS. I found it to be a lot of fun with some flaws. With the initial set-up of the Avengers out of the way, I was hoping that AGE OF ULTRON might prove itself to be even better than 2012’s superhero opus. That was definitely not the case. It’s a serviceable piece of blockbuster entertainment, but ULTRON falls on the lower end of the spectrum in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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After raiding a Hydra station, the Avengers have finally retrieved Loki’s scepter. While much celebrating is in order, Tony Stark is haunted by the possibility of a day when the Avengers won’t be able to save the world. In order to stop that apocalypse from ever happening, Stark and Bruce Banner create the Ultron program. Ultron is an advanced A.I. that becomes all too self-aware. Unfortunately for the Avengers and humanity in general, Ultron sees the only solution to peace as world domination and destruction. It’s up to the Avengers to stop the threat that Stark created!

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The most enjoyable part about the original AVENGERS was watching well-known superheroes have casual banter and interactions with each other. That holds true of this sequel too. A lot of the humor and running jokes between the characters work well. Though we know there will be plenty of explosions and fights down the line, one can’t help but laugh during an early party sequence in which War Machine tries to impress Thor with a pretty basic story or Iron Man and Thor trying to one up each other in comparing their girlfriends. Running jokes about Thor’s hammer and Captain America’s reluctance to swearing got laughs out of me every single time they appeared. Audiences aren’t simply there to watch the superheroes have casual conversations and hang out though, they are expecting rollicking action scenes and high stakes. ULTRON delivers in a few stand-out sequences. The show-stopper of which is a scene involving Hulkbuster armor.

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We’ve already seen plenty of Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor to know who their characters are and what they stand for. Credit to ULTRON for bringing out more development on both Black Widow and Hawkeye. The former is far more interesting than the latter. There’s also possibly too much time being spent on the latter, but this sequel made an honest effort to flesh these side characters out further. Hulk is a far more interesting character here too, not to mention that his CGI design doesn’t look nearly as cartoonish this time around. New faces come in Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch (who are both entertaining, but underused) as well as Vision (wonderfully played by Paul Bettany). Finally there’s the title villain: Ultron! James Spader voices the mechanical menace with humor being injected into his performance, but he’s about as clichéd a bad guy as you can find.

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AGE OF ULTRON’s overlong running time doesn’t necessarily help matters either. There are far too many scenes spent setting up future films (CIVIL WAR, RAGNAROK, and IFINITY WARS) at the expense of putting the main storyline in the backseat during solid chunks of this movie. There are spots in AGE OF ULTRON that easily could have been snipped out for a far tighter and better film. The finale also gets pretty repetitive with the Avengers facing off against a massive army of Ultron-controlled droids whose only purpose is to get smashed up by the Avengers. It makes sense to pit an army against a band of superheroes, but I wish the actual climactic showdown was far more interesting and entertaining than it wound up being.

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Though it’s far from bad or mediocre, AGE OF ULTRON is the third worst movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far. The two MCU films that I would consider worse than ULTRON would be IRON MAN 2 (which also spent too much time setting up future films and not focusing enough attention on the story at hand) and THE INCREDIBLE HULK. AGE OF ULTRON has both good and bad qualities. The good far outweighs the bad, but enough problems (flawed pacing, a repetitive finale, clichéd villain, etc.) remain to make this a step down from the first AVENGERS. AGE OF ULTRON is an okay superhero flick, but we’ve come to expect a lot more from Marvel.

Grade: B-

PACIFIC RIM (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 11 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Intense Sci-Fi Action and Violence Throughout, and brief Language

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Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro

Written by: Travis Beacham & Guillermo Del Toro

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day & Ron Perlman

PACIFIC RIM is a movie that never really caught my interest when it was released. It was about giant robots fighting giant monsters and it didn’t look like it would be very good. This is a case where I am so glad that I was sorely mistaken. It seems like PACIFIC RIM was Guillermo Del Toro’s dream project from day one. It’s an ode to the cheesy kaju flicks from Japan, but also is executed in a vibrant way with a cool story to boot. Cinematically, the movie looks astounding (I now wish I had seen it on the big screen) and it’s clear that a lot of love was thrown into it.

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The time is the near future and the world’s population is gripped with fear. For years, a series of gigantic creatures, known as Kaju, have been rising from the Pacific Ocean and wreaking havoc. In order to battle this monsters, the Jaeger program was initiated. This was a specialized operation that built giant robots controlled by two pilots, who share a neural connection. The government always seems to screw up good things though and the Jaeger program is no exception. With a limited amount of time left for the Jaeger program, as a useless coastal wall is being built to keep the monsters out, it’s up to a select few (a hardened commander, a fresh young pilot, another pilot with a grudge against the Kaju, and two oddball scientists) to close the portal giving these monsters entrance to our world.

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Out of all of his imaginative projects, PACIFIC RIM is Guillermo’s most colorful film. It’s simply gorgeous to behold and looks amazing. Even the scenes that are just characters having discussions look stunning, given the creative set design and wonderful cinematography. Speaking of which, this isn’t 2-plus hours of robots fighting monsters. We get a bunch of nasty looking creatures and some great mayhem, but this is also a character driven story. It helps that the characters themselves are interesting, despite a couple of cliché moments that occur here and there (comes with the giant monster territory).

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The cast itself is entertaining. Charlie Hunnam is a good lead, though it seems like a few minor moments needed another take. Idris Elba is badass as always. Rinko Kikuchi (as the Hunnam’s new co-pilot) is great. Also, Charlie Day and Ron Perlman have side-roles that supply some of the best comic relief in the entire movie. The villains themselves are, of course, the monsters. Guillermo Del Toro has a reputation for being the most imaginative filmmaker currently in the business. With masterful work like PAN’S LABYRINTH and the awesome creature designs in HELLBOY II, Del Toro has made sure that PACIFIC RIM is no exception. The beasts here are creative and very cool, to say the least.

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The battle scenes themselves are intense, I actually felt myself clench up on a few moments and even let out some gasps. It may be a special effects packed film, but this is nowhere near the awful cringe-inducing levels of trash like TRANSFORMERS. This is a movie that shows what summer blockbusters featuring giant robots and aliens should be: fun, creative, and immensely entertaining.

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There is a nitpick that becomes a full-fledged plot-hole though. In one of the middle battles, a sword is whipped out as a last resort and seems to do more damage than anything previously used. Later on, the final battle is fought completely using swords, so it makes one wonder, why the robots are punching the monsters and hitting them with ships, when there’s a perfectly good sword that can do far more damage. This actually took film down from an A to an A-. It’s just too big a plot-hole to overlook.

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Even with this flaw, PACIFIC RIM rocks! It’s a fun thrill-ride that reminds one just how wild and crazy cinema can get…and still have a brain. It’s an extravaganza of a movie and I loved every second, save for a minor plot-hole. This one comes highly recommended and I can’t wait to see what Guillermo Del Toro has up his sleeve next!

Grade: A-

THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Intense Sci-Fi Action and Violence, and some Suggestive Content

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Directed by: Alan Taylor

Written by: Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston & Ray Stevenson

Now that THE AVENGERS is over and done with, Marvel seems willing to step up their game and take some bold risks with their superheroes. IRON MAN 3 was miles better than Tony Stark’s previous films and THOR: THE DARK WORLD easily surpasses the original installment (which was an okay origin story). This is pretty much the definition of big dumb fun. With this in mind, THOR 2 also blends the genres of Fantasy and Sci-Fi (which are somewhat similar in tone, usually different in execution) together into a coherent storyline.

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Picking up two years after the events of the original THOR, this installment begins with Thor, the demigod of thunder, bringing peace to the nine realms of which his father, Odin, watches over. While he frequently checks up on Jane (his love interest from the first movie), he doesn’t travel to Earth or approach her, because of his Odin’s disdain for Thor’s love for a mortal (who typically live for less than 100 years). When Jane disappears off the grid of Earth for a brief minute, Thor goes to investigate and finds that she is carrying an ancient weapon that a group of enemies (known as the Dark Elves) want. These beings existed before the dawn of the universe and want to plunge space and it’s worlds back into eternal darkness. It’s up to Thor, Jane, and a reluctant Loki to save not only Asgard and Earth, but the fabric of time and space itself.

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It seems relatively easy to throw characters like Batman, Captain America, or Iron Man into tough situations and pit them against super villains. This is because these characters are mere mortals. With superheroes like Superman, Wolverine, and Thor, a certain struggle seems to arise. How does one put demigods that live and die like mortals, give or take 5 thousand years (Loki says at one point in the movie), powerful aliens, or mutants against menaces that could destroy them. The solution is simple. All you have to do is pit these immortals against fellow immortal baddies. MAN OF STEEL did this well. THOR: THE DARK WORLD ups the stakes by putting the demigods and humans against an enemy that is older than the universe and is bent on its complete destruction. The plot is a bit familiar, but the undeniably cool and fun execution is what counts here.

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Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and Anthony Hopkins all slip right back into their roles of Thor, Loki and Odin without hesitation. Natalie Portman is good as Jane, but (much like the original) she isn’t given a whole lot to do other than look pretty and crush on Thor. Out of all the main characters, she’s the least interesting and this seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. Meanwhile, Kat Dennings is given more screen time as the comic relief character and I couldn’t stand her for the most part. Her character is annoying and the comedy moments with her feel forced. Stellan Skarsgard and Idris Elba, among others, also fit right into their supporting roles with skill.

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As far as the story itself goes, the stakes are high and so is the excitement. THOR: THE DARK WORLD has some of the best action scenes I’ve seen all year and a final showdown that’s worth the price of admission alone. Loki also delivers some of the biggest laughs of the entire movie. He may be an evil, power-hungry demigod, but he’s equally charming and very fun to watch. On the nitpicking side of things, sometimes the comic relief (especially from Kat Dennings) seems to be a bit much and there’s a convenient plot development that leads into the final third of the movie. Some spotty CGI ruins what could have been amazing visuals in a couple of moments, but for the most part, the effects are excellent.

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IRON MAN 3 was great and THOR: THE DARK WORLD is damn good. Marvel appears to have stopped playing safe with their heroes and throw a few risks into the formula. There was a moment in THOR 2 that I was shocked to see and it has changed up what we expect from a company that used to give out formulaic origin stories. If the end credits scene is any indication, we have a lot to look forward to in THE AVENGERS sequel, which comes out in May 2015. I, for one, am very much looking forward to what they plan on shaking up with CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER and will even give GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY a shot. THOR: THE DARK WORLD may not be the best superhero of the year (MAN OF STEEL, IRON MAN 3, and THE WOLVERINE all beat it in that respect), but it’s a blast that will entertain and thrill. This is a solid recommendation!

Grade: B

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