JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action

Directed by: Zack Snyder

Written by: Chris Terrio & Joss Whedon

(based on the JUSTICE LEAGUE comics by Gardner Fox)

Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciaran Hinds, Amber Heard & Billy Crudup

To put it lightly, the DC Extended Universe has gotten off to a rocky start. 2013’s MAN OF STEEL was passable enough. I really enjoyed it the first time around, but its many flaws stuck out like a sore thumb upon a second viewing. BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE was a massive disappointment that had a few positive qualities and suffered from tons of problems. I thought SUICIDE SQUAD was big dumb fun, but it definitely fell short of its potential. Only this year, did the DCEU produce its first great film in WONDER WOMAN. I was hoping that JUSTICE LEAGUE might keep some of that greatness going, but I was sadly mistaken. JUSTICE LEAGUE is only a mere step above the lackluster BATMAN V SUPERMAN in disappointing mediocrity.

After experiencing apocalyptic nightmares of a monstrous future and encountering a few aliens, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) is determined to gather a team of superpowered individuals. With Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) by his side, Bruce attempts to recruit the reclusive Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the overly eager/super speedy Flash (Ezra Miller), and the half-man/half-machine Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Alien military officer Steppenwolf (played through a motion capture performance by Ciaran Hinds) is trying to collect three all-powerful “mother boxes” in order to bring about the destruction of our world. Only this newly formed “Justice League” of heroes can possibly hope to stop him…but they’ll need help from someone else. Hint: his real name is Kal-El (Henry Cavill) and he’s buried six feet underground.

JUSTICE LEAGUE suffers from many of the same problems that plagued BATMAN V SUPERMAN. One of those problems being that Warner Brothers seems to be trying to rush the DC Extended Universe. Instead of taking the time to deliver movies for Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash, we’re introduced to them in this film. While this might delight diehard DC comic fans who know this material inside and out, this is a bit underwhelming for newcomers to these certain superheroes. I knew next to nothing about Aquaman or Cyborg when I walked into this movie and I still knew very little about them when the end credits began to roll.

This complaint isn’t meant to discredit any of the cast members’ performances though, because they all seem to be mostly trying. Jason Momoa (who I mainly know from GAME OF THRONES) gets a lot of laughs as Aquaman and turned this lame excuse for a comic book hero into someone who I’m excited to see more of in his own movie (which is currently scheduled for next December). Gal Gadot is still awesome as Wonder Woman and receives the best scene in the film as she thwarts a terrorist plot in her introductory sequence. Ben Affleck remains well-cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jeremy Irons is perfect as sassy butler Alfred. Also, the role of Superman still fits charismatic Henry Cavill like a glove. Also, Amy Adams briefly pops up as gal pal Louis Lane and Diane Lane is also briefly here as Superman’s grieving mother.

One performance that’s been getting a lot of warm reception from audience members and fans, but left me rather cold is Ezra Miller as the Flash. While many people seem to find the Flash’s quick quips and one-liners to be hilarious, I found Miller’s Flash to be far more annoying than he was funny. If we’re going for sheer laughs and charisma, I thought Momoa’s Aquaman easily topped him in pretty much every way. Also, you’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned Ray Fisher’s Cyborg yet, that’s because his “tortured soul” character is altogether forgettable. Fisher tried to get as much as he could out of him, but his performance felt (dare I say it) robotic in the worst way possible.

A huge problem in JUSTICE LEAGUE comes from the lame antagonist. I watched JUSTICE LEAGUE right after sitting through THOR: RAGNAROK and while I didn’t like Hela as a villainess, she was a hell of a lot more interesting than Steppenwolf. On the heels of a well-developed cinematic universe for Marvel (that will stretch to over 20 movies before its completed), this rushed-to-production DC Extended Universe’s Steppenwolf feels like a low-rent version of Thanos. I realize that DC has its own “Thanos” in the form of Darkseid, but the idea of collecting three all-powerful boxes to bring about the end of the world seems a bit dusty on the heels of the constant “infinity stones” in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (and even that occasionally got old). Steppenwolf is a bland, boring, and lame villain who has a glowing axe, a metal helmet, and a few horns…and that’s about all there is to his character.

JUSTICE LEAGUE’s biggest issues stem from mixed bag pacing and sloppy storytelling. When the titular Justice League are kicking generic alien ass on the big screen, it’s big dumb fun. I enjoyed the film’s action scenes, but there are far too few of them. By the time that JUSTICE LEAGUE has finally fixed the mistakes committed by BATMAN V SUPERMAN (like killing off a major superhero in the second film of a franchise and leaving no real emotional impact), nearly 3/4ths of the film has already passed. Again, DC diehard fanboys might be head-over-heels in love with their story arcs finally hitting the big screen, but this simply doesn’t function as a cohesive film.

At the end of the day, JUSTICE LEAGUE should have been great. This should have been a major tentpole film that arrived after establishing origin stories and prepping audiences to finally see their beloved superheroes uniting on the big screen. Instead, this is a team-up film that’s arriving as the fifth installment in a franchise that’s only properly established two(!) of its six main characters. JUSTICE LEAGUE is the depressing result of what happens when a studio wants to bank on fandom, but doesn’t make the time or effort to carve out a proper franchise. JUSTICE LEAGUE should have been great and instead, it just exists.

Grade: C

THE SNOWMAN (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Grisly Images, Violence, some Language, Sexuality and brief Nudity

Directed by: Tomas Alfredson

Written by: Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan & Soren Sveistrup

(based on the novel THE SNOWMAN by Jo Nesbo)

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Val Kilmer, J.K. Simmons, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ronan Vibert, Chloe Sevigny & James D’Arcy

There were plenty of reasons to look forward to THE SNOWMAN. Martin Scorsese produced it. Tomas Alfredson (who directed one of the best vampire films ever in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN) directed it. This movie was based on an acclaimed novel that tons of people love and it’s regarded as a very scary book. Also, look at that cast! Just look at that cast! This should have been a great movie. The key phrase there being “should have been,” because THE SNOWMAN is one of the biggest disappointments in quite some time. Everything you’ve heard is true. This film is terrible.

Detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) is on the trail of a mysterious serial killer, known as “The Snowman Killer.” This psycho gained this rather goofy nickname because he builds snowmen of his victims. He also cuts his victims up into little pieces with razor-sharp cord, but he also builds snowmen. So, the snow-related quality just stuck out more than his graphic dismemberment, I guess? With the help of newbie recruit Kathrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), Harry Hole must stop the Snowman Killer before the murderer strikes somewhere personal. All the while, there are flashbacks to seemingly unrelated events and a conspiracy theory about Norway trying to host the Winter Sports World Cup.

THE SNOWMAN is a trainwreck in nearly every aspect, but I’ll get the positives out of the way and state what qualities I enjoyed upfront. The cinematography is great. The Norwegian locations are cool to look at (pun fully intended). Also, there are brief effective scenes scattered throughout this film too, but these are mostly small bits that are unconnected in the grand scheme of things. I really liked a moment when the Snowman Killer was right in front of Harry’s face and he didn’t even know it, but the audience knew it and the director still managed to keep the murderer’s identity a secret in that scene. This was a truly great moment in an otherwise crappy film.

Now that I’ve given my minor praise, it’s time to dig into why this film doesn’t work. The first reason for why THE SNOWMAN doesn’t work actually comes from a troubled production that recently concluded with the film’s director stating that there are about 15 minutes of major script pages that were never even filmed. This means that there are scenes literally missing from this movie, which consequently results in baffling character decisions and last-minute plot revelations that don’t make a lick of sense. I know that the source material is widely acclaimed and I cannot even imagine what pain the novel’s fanbase will endure when they sit down to watch this clichéd, confused mess of a movie.

The second reason for why THE SNOWMAN doesn’t work is heavily tied to the first reason: a talented cast of A-list performers are trying their best and, yet, this incoherent jumbled film doesn’t make any of their characters worth remembering. It’s also a juvenile comment to make, but Harry Hole is an incredibly stupid name for the protagonist of a serious serial killer thriller. Was Hugh Jass already taken? What about I.P. Freely? Okay, I’ll stop harping on this one. Many of Michael Fassbender’s decisions don’t make a lick of sense and he makes big revelations that just sort of pop out of nowhere with no rhyme or reason. Also, J.K. Simmons is completely wasted in the role of a useless would-be important character. Val Kilmer also shows up for five minutes of embarrassingly bad flashbacks as a seemingly unrelated detective who was also after the Snowman Killer in the past. The only cast member who seems somewhat believable is Rebecca Ferguson.

As far as the film’s suspense goes, there isn’t much to be found at all. There are a couple of effective moments (ala scenes in which we see how close the Snowman Killer is to Fassbender’s Harry Hole), but everything else is a tedious slog to get through. The film can’t even nail its gory, graphic violence. A shaky-cam fight scene is filmed in such an incoherent fashion that it took me a full minute to realize who suffered a life-altering injury and how the hell that even happened. A shotgun blast and a half-blown-off head is rendered with godawful CGI that looks like it belongs in a Syfy Channel original movie. There are also long stretches where no bodies pile up because Fassbender’s Harry Hole is on the trail of a Winter Sports conspiracy…because that’s what we came to this serial killer thriller to watch, right?

THE SNOWMAN is the kind of cinematic disaster that one can pick apart scene by scene, analyzing what’s wrong with nearly every moment and observing what could be done to improve the overall film. I’m sure that the 15 minutes of unfilmed scenes also had a distinct factor to play in THE SNOWMAN’s shockingly shoddy quality. While the cinematography and locations are pretty to look at and there are a couple of effective bits, THE SNOWMAN is mostly a long bore to get through. Instead of being on the edge of their seats, viewers will likely be checking their watches to see how much more time is left in this endurance test of a grisly thriller. Don’t be fooled by the trailers, the cast, the premise, or the praise for the (undoubtedly) superior source material, THE SNOWMAN isn’t worth your time or money.

Grade: D

PATRIOTS DAY (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Realistically Graphic Injury Images, Language throughout and some Drug Use

Directed by: Peter Berg

Written by: Peter Berg, Matt Cook & Joshua Zeturner

(based on the book BOSTON STRONG by Casey Sherman & Dave Wedge)

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, J.K. Simmons, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, Michelle Monaghan, Vincent Curatola, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, James Colby, Jimmy O. Yang & Melissa Benoist

On April 15, 2013, the United States was shaken by the biggest domestic terrorism attack since 9/11. Three people were killed, fourteen lost limbs, and over 200 more were injured. The city of Boston was shaken as an annual running marathon became a horrifying site of carnage and destruction. The aftermath that immediately followed was an intense investigation/manhunt that lasted for four days. When there’s a tragic event, there will almost always be a movie dramatizing that event. Peter Berg, who already filmed a Navy SEALs mission gone horribly wrong in LONE SURVIVOR and an explosive oil disaster in DEEPWATER HORIZON, takes the reigns of this big screen version of the Boston Marathon Bombing and it’s powerful stuff.

This film takes place on April 15, 2013 through April 19, 2013. Instead of simply showing the bombing and then the investigation/manhunt, the screenplay (written by three people, including Berg) has different plotlines interconnecting throughout the story. We see the police departments’ perspectives as well as the FBI investigation and the bombing’s life-changing affect on survivors. There are also disturbing windows into the two monsters who committed this atrocity. It would be very easy to exploit this tragedy for the sake of entertainment, but Berg seems remarkably respectful in his fact-based approach to this film. PATRIOTS DAY is the equivalent of UNITED 93 for the Boston Marathon Bombing, meaning that it approaches the touchy subject matter with careful sensitivity and a great deal of emotional weight.

The performances are stellar across the board and the cast mostly look like their real-life counterparts. John Goodman is well-cast and bears a striking resemblance to Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis. The same can also be said for J.K. Simmons as Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese and Kevin Bacon as FBI officer Richard DesLauriers. Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze play the two piece-of-shit terrorist brothers. Also, Melissa Benoist will make you want to punch her (in a good way) as the head bomber brother’s complacent wife, though one character points out that we’ll never be able to prove how much she actually knew about the planned attack.

The one face that doesn’t match his real-world counterpart is Mark Wahlberg as Sergeant Tommy Saunders, because Saunders doesn’t exist. He’s a fake person that was a composite of a lot of different police officers who were vital to the investigation/manhunt. I know that combining these real-life inspirations into a single character was probably a handy storytelling tool, but it almost seems like a slap in the face of the many officers who had a hand in making this manhunt successful. With so much attention being given to the real-life people in this tale, Saunders’s creation seems disingenuous. This doesn’t affect Wahlberg’s performance though, because he’s just as great as he was in Berg’s previous two dramas.

PATRIOTS DAY manages to do justice to a number of things. The bombing sequence is appropriately chaotic and feels like a dark mess, kind of like how the actual event itself probably felt to the people who were there. This sequence instantly transforms a sunny street into an ash-laden warzone. The effect is chilling and the long aftermath painted by the rest of the film is equal parts harrowing and moving. The former comes in the initial investigation as cops and FBI agents slowly put the pieces together and hesitate to release information for the sake of possibly igniting unwanted hatred towards two possibly innocent people. This painstaking process is likely to make viewers want to throw their TV out of the window from sheer frustration.

Besides capturing the painstakingly detailed investigation of the bombers and the aggravating manhunt for them, PATRIOTS DAY also captures the sense of community that is usually felt after a terrorist attack. The sense of people working together and citizens doing their damndest to aid in the capture of these two monsters is uplifting. During the final moments, the viewer will likely want to cheer right alongside the clapping lines of people in the streets. This film also tastefully includes some pre-credits brief interviews with the real-life heroes of this story and is all the better for it.

PATRIOTS DAY is a tough viewing experience because it reignites feelings of panic and fear that erupted with the Boston Marathon Bombing. Some may argue it was a tad too soon for this film to get made, but this movie also showcases the sense of community and everyday bravery that ironically erupts in the aftermath of terrorism. This is a stark contrast to the intentions of radicalized monsters. Much like UNITED 93, PATRIOTS DAY is a therapeutic viewing experience. Expect to feel a whirlwind of emotions. You’ll be horrified that such evil exists in the world, but also impressed that these evil deeds are combated by an overwhelming sense of good and normal folks transformed into courageous heroes.

Grade: A

THE ACCOUNTANT (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 8 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language throughout

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Directed by: Gavin O’Connor

Written by: Bill Dubuque

Starring: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jean Smart, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Jeffrey Tambor & John Lithgow

THE ACCOUNTANT is a film that I vaguely heard about last year as it was scheduled to be released in January 2016 (usually a dumping ground for films that studios have no faith in). However, that release date was moved to the fall and the film’s marketing promised a smart, mature, and action-packed movie. Color me surprised, because THE ACCOUNTANT easily blows most other recent action films away in terms of its writing and characters. Though not without a few flaws, THE ACCOUNTANT also ties autism into its story in a way that never feels exploitative and levels the playing field by giving us an action hero unlike any we’ve seen before.

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Chris Wolff (Ben Affleck) is a mysterious autistic accountant who uncooks the books for very dangerous people. Chris has a talent for crunching numbers and, when necessary, bones. That latter talent becomes a necessity when Chris finds himself on the run with fellow mathlete Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) as some bad guys are trying to kill both of them. In order to stay alive, Chris will have to figure out who wants to kill him and how that relates to his last “official” job. This is easier said than done as bullets begin flying, the mystery thickens and we learn more about Chris’s shadowy past. Meanwhile, renegade Treasury agent Ray King (J.K. Simmons) and his protégé Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) are hot on Chris’s tail.

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Though some people have labeled THE ACCOUNTANT as a generic action movie, I think that description does this film a bit of a disservice. The plot isn’t about the action (rest assured, there is still plenty of it), because it narrows in on a unique character and subplots occurring around him. Ben Affleck plays Chris Wolff as a mostly believable autistic man, complete with social awkwardness, unique ways of bonding, special interests and extraordinary capabilities in certain areas. The script doesn’t exploit Chris’s condition, but rather shows how his state of mind has helped shape him into the antihero/action lead that he’s become. Details about his past are shown through well-placed flashbacks that fill in the blanks as the movie progresses, making THE ACCOUNTANT just as much of a mysterious thriller as it is an entertaining action flick.

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The supporting performances are stellar as well. Anna Kendrick plays a nervous potential love-interest for Chris, though the film never goes into fully clichéd territory that it seemed to be building towards. John Lithgow plays the head of the robotics company as a kindly old man who’s trying to find the rat in his company. J.K. Simmons is fantastic as a hard to read special agent with many reasons for tracking down Chris, while unfamiliar face Cynthia Addai-Robinson does a great job as his morally conflicted assistant. Jeffrey Tambor has a brief role as Chris’s former mentor, though I wish more time had been spent with his character. Finally, John Bernthal is clearly having a blast as an overly confident hitman who makes his way across various characters.

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With lots of big talent crammed into little over two hours, THE ACCOUNTANT occasionally seems crowded and I wish that certain characters received more focus. However, this isn’t necessarily a big complaint when you consider that the film holds the viewer’s interest the entire time and smartly lets its complicated web of a story unfold through well-placed flashbacks, evolving subplots and pacing that builds a solid amount of suspense. THE ACCOUNTANT is cleverly written and brings its bone-breaking, bullet-firing action into play when it serves a purpose in the plot. It’s not simply action for the sake of spectacle, because each bullet/punch is shot/thrown with a purpose…making them hit harder as a result.

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If I have any major annoyances with THE ACCOUNTANT, they stem from one scene during the final minutes that feels a bit too silly in a movie that seemed grounded in a bit of reality…despite how crazy the story got. Despite that problem, this is one of the best action films to hit the big screen in quite a while. Ben Affleck brings his A-game to this unique action hero and the rest of the cast excel in their roles as well. The plot is smart, kept me hooked into the movie for the entire running time, and delivers its violence with a purpose. It’s an all-around great movie that’s getting great responses from most audiences and I believe this is an example of when the critics got it wrong (it’s wavering at 50% on Rotten Tomatoes as I type this). Though it’s not perfect, THE ACCOUNTANT is solid entertainment that’s sure please action fans and those who just want to watch an out-and-out good movie!

Grade: A-

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

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