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

TERMINATOR: GENISYS (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Gunplay throughout, partial Nudity and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Alan Taylor

Written by: Laeta Kalogridis & Patrick Lussier

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, Lee Byung-Hun & J.K. Simmons

I’m going to be totally honest with you. I didn’t have high expectations for TERMINATOR: GENISYS. It would be an exaggeration to say that I’m a fan of the series. I appreciate the first TERMINATOR as a fun, cheesy piece of 80’s science fiction. I adore JUDGEMENT DAY and believe that it’s one of those rare perfect sequels that improves on its predecessor tenfold. In a perfect world, we would only have two TERMINATOR movies. Instead, the studio decided to cash in with RISE OF THE MACHINES, which is easily the worst movie in the franchise. In 2009, a throwaway effort was made in SALVATION which came off as a very flawed, slightly entertaining piece of fan fiction that somehow made it to the screen. It’s now July 2015 and the summer movie season keeps chugging along with a fifth TERMINATOR film. Where does GENISYS lie? It’s somewhere between the so-so SALVATION and the godawful RISE OF THE MACHINES.

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The year is 2029 and John Connor has led the resistance in the war against the machines to this final night. The war is coming to an end and Skynet has failed, but not before sending a Terminator back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (John Connor’s mother) in order to prevent John’s birth. When devoted soldier Kyle Reese volunteers to travel back to the 80’s to save Sarah, it seems like GENISYS might become an out-and-out remake of the first film, but things get a little wonky. Instead of finding the fragile waitress he expected, Reese discovers that he’s somehow wound up on an alternate timeline and Sarah is now a gun-totting bad-ass aided by a Terminator (whom she annoyingly named Pops) that saved her as a child. With various machines hunting them and new memories from this alternate timeline planted in his mind, Kyle discovers that there might be a way to stop Judgement Day from happening with the help of Sarah…and Pops (it pains me to type that name).

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There’s no beating around the bush on this one, GENISYS has a really stupid plot. However, I could sense that there were kernels of good ideas at its center. I dug the whole alternate timeline explanation and even a couple of areas that the film strays to during the second half. However, they’re not executed well. The movie throws the explanation of this being an alternate outcome thanks to events in the original TERMINATOR timeline and then doesn’t go on to explain certain other plot developments. I’m not a guy who needs every single detail spoon-fed to me, but there were a lot of plot holes in this script. In a groan-inducing moment, it becomes apparent that Skynet has changed from a 2003 computer virus (from the poorly aged third installment) to an app (which I’m sure will age just as horribly in a few years). I’ll refrain from spoilers (even though the marketing hasn’t) and just say that most of my major complaints with this screenplay come in the latter half of the film.

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Besides having a ridiculously convoluted story, GENISYS plays out somewhat like a TERMINATOR Greatest Hits album. There’s the T-800 from the original movie and call-backs to that first film. However, there’s also a T-1000 for some reason that’s never explained other than this movie needed a liquid-metal T-1000. Mercifully, the T-X (from the terrible third film) is nowhere to be seen. The special effects range depending on the scene. The liquid metal on the new T-1000 looks good and there are a couple of really enjoyable action sequences (a helicopter chase and a fight in a school bus stand out as my two favorite moments). This being said, the main villain (won’t reveal the spoiler in this review) looks very cheesy, especially in a final confrontation with Robo-Arnie. There’s also a battle sequence near the beginning that looks like PlayStation 2 graphics were distractingly inserted into the film too.

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The performances are hit-or-miss. Arnold Schwarzenegger nails his role as the Terminator (his aged appearance is explained in one of the more original twists in the script). He’s not to the degree that he was in JUDGEMENT DAY, but he’s far better than he was in RISE OF THE MACHINES. Arnie also delivers the only comic relief in the film that works aside from J.K. Simmons in the fun role of a baffled cop. Jason Clarke goes into over-the-top territory as John Connor. To me, Kyle Reese has always been a bland character, but it’s safe to say that Jai Courtney’s Reese is easily the blandest take we’ve seen on this already bland hero. In a surprising turn of events, Emilia Clarke is well cast as Sarah Connor. Though she can come off as too forced in moments, Clarke mostly owns the role of bad-ass heroine in a far more competent way that I was expecting.

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TERMINATOR: GENISYS is not the worst TERMINATOR movie. That disgraceful title still belongs to TERMINATOR 3, but GENISYS is the second-worst installment in the series. Everything in this movie is a mixed bag that has slightly more negative than positive. Some performances are enjoyable (Schwarzenegger, J.K. Simmons, Emilia Clarke), while others aren’t so good (Jai Courtney, Jason Clarke). A few of the effects look solid (those two aforementioned action scenes), while others look like cheap video game graphics. Finally, the script has interesting ideas and fails to execute them in a satisfying way that makes sense. TERMINATOR: GENISYS is a watchable, but useless fifth installment in a franchise that should have quit after the second film.

Grade: C-

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexual Content including Graphic Dialogue throughout -some involving Teens, and for Language

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Directed by: Jason Reitman

Written by: Jason Reitman & Erin Cressida Wilson

(based on the novel MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN by Chad Kultgen)

Starring: Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Adam Sandler, Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Dever, J.K. Simmons, David Denham, Jason Douglas & Emma Thompson

I was actually planning on reviewing MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN during its theatrical run last October, but the film jumped in and out of theaters in a blink of an eye. The film tanked horribly and holds the title as one of the lowest grossing movie weekends for a film playing in 600+ theaters. The reason I didn’t watch this one in theaters was because it vanished within a week’s time. Jason Reitman’s dark ensemble drama about the dangers of the internet was on the same ground with BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP for briefest wide release in 2014. However, this movie looked good and I wanted to see it regardless. Having now watched it, I’m of the opinion that MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN is a severely mixed bag. There are things that stand out as good (even great) in areas, but just as many silly clichés and awkwardness where there should be emotions.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN, from left: Kaitlyn Dever, Jennifer Garner, 2014. ph: Dale

The story revolves around five different families who are all struggling with dark secrets. Helen and Don Truby are a bored married couple who both desire to be unfaithful, while their fifteen-year-old son struggles with a pornography addiction. Patricia Beltmeyer is an extremely overprotective mother, whose misguided actions (monitoring every one of her daughter’s online interactions, text messages, tracking the GPS on her cell phone) are smothering her frustrated teenager. Then there’s Joan Clint who helps her daughter with a modeling website that’s overly risqué. Wait, did I forget to mention the Mooneys (father and son who are both struggling with identity crisis after their wife/mother leaves them) and the Doss family (whose cheerleader daughter is suffering from an eating disorder)? You might already see a bit of the main problem with MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN in this synopsis which is that there’s way too much ground to cover for a two-hour film.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN, from left: Rosemarie DeWitt, Adam Sandler, 2014. ph: Dale

Director/co-writer Jason Reitman adapts Chad Kultgen’s novel and doesn’t seem to grasp that there simply isn’t enough time to properly show every single scene of 320-page book on the screen. It’s almost as if Reitman tried to adapt all the subplots and two of these could have easily been cut out entirely. The social issues that the characters struggle with are important (body image, addiction, temptation, etc.), but the whole film tries to encompass every one of these problems and doesn’t have a full grasp any of them. Since the focus is mainly on the actions of the characters, actual character development is kept to a minimum for most of the cast. This also leads to unresolved plot threads as this film is tackling about 17 characters and wants us to feel something towards each one of them.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN, from left: Dean Norris, Judy Greer, 2014. ph: Dale Robinette/©Paramount

Even with character development is on the shallow side, the performers almost save the film in some ways. Ansel Elgort (a hit among young adult audiences with FAULT IN OUR STARS and DIVERGENT) takes on his most emotionally mature role yet as a kid suffering from depression. Judy Greer is solid in the role of a mother vicariously living through her child and Jennifer Garner is frustrating as a misguided mom who won’t even let her teenage daughter breathe without permission. Most surprising is Adam Sandler’s understated role as Don and shows that he still has dramatic chops when he chooses to use them. The young cast members (far too many to list) all sell their characters as believable teenagers struggling with their own problems. Seeing as the movie takes on far too many characters, a few quality actors are swept to the sidelines, including J.K. Simmons and Dean Norris.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN, from left: Travis Tope, Olivia Crocicchia, 2014. ph: Dale

I imagine that most people will have a problem with the overall message and execution. This might not have been the deliberate intention of Reitman, but it feels like a lot of blame is going towards the internet at the sole cause of every one of these problems. Though there’s no defense against social networks and websites fuelling issues that were already there, it feels like too simple an answer to blame addiction, body image, and cheating spouses completely on modern technology. Those issues existed long before the dawn of the internet and will continue long after. It feels like the film is trying to make a grand, sweeping, and revelatory statement, but it’s old news and has been seen in better films (2013’s DISCONNECT).

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN, from left: Kaitlyn Dever, Ansel Elgort, 2014. ph: Dale Robinette/©Paramount

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN doesn’t make any new discoveries about technology feeding into serious problems and tries to cover way too much ground at once. There are great scenes hidden in the plodding two-hour run time and many solid performances as well, but these are almost drowned out by a pretentious attitude towards the material (coming off as cliché more than once) and underdeveloped characters that populate a massive cast. The good and bad evenly weigh themselves out into a middle-of-the-road experience that is likely to leave just about everyone unsatisfied or slightly pissed off.

Grade: C

My Top 10 Films of 2014

List by Derrick Carter

2014 has been a solid year for cinema. As with every film critic (freelance or professional), there comes a time of decision-making as to what the best movies of the year were. This list is all opinion based (like my reviews) and I can understand why people might not (and probably won’t) completely agree with every choice. In deciding how to rank my top 10 of the year, I noticed there was an equal amount of independent/foreign fare and big studio hits. This was unintentional, but is a nice detail that highlights how balanced this year really was for cinema all around.

Before I get into my actual list, it bears mentioning that I have not seen/reviewed every single film from this year (I plan on covering FOXCATCHER, INHERENT VICE, and AMERICAN SNIPER eventually). I’m only one man after all, so my selections come from the films that I’ve watched and reviewed this year. That all being said and without further ado, here are my 10 favorite films from 2014!

Honorable Mentions: BOUND BY FLESH, UNDER THE SKIN, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, FURY, THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2, and A MOST WANTED MAN

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10. BIG BAD WOLVES: I wasn’t terribly impressed with Aharon Keshales’s and Navot Papushado’s directorial debut, RABIES. BIG BAD WOLVES serves as a drastic improvement. At first, the story seems relatively simple. However, the diabolical screenplay toys with the viewer in injecting a pitch-black sense of humor that works wonderfully and a dark tone that isn’t the slightest bit funny. Things aren’t as simple as they originally appear and a haunting conclusion ensures that this film will stick with you. I originally saw/reviewed it in January and it has held up on multiple viewings throughout the year. If you’re up for a disturbing tour-de-force of horror that defies expectations, BIG BAD WOLVES should be on your radar!

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9. THE LEGO MOVIE: On New Year’s Day, I was chatting with a friend about how much I thought THE LEGO MOVIE was going to suck. This concept seemed doomed from the beginning and I was reluctantly dragged to the theater at the urging of my younger siblings. In all of 2014, I have never been so happy that I was so wrong about a film! Blending meta-elements, rapid fire jokes, and a hilarious storyline, THE LEGO MOVIE is 2014’s biggest surprise! The animation (which appears to combine stop-motion and computer graphics) is stellar. Tons of jokes are present so that it takes multiple viewings to catch every little piece (pun intended) that the movie has to offer. LEGO MOVIE is not only the best family film of 2014, everything about it is awesome!

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8. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST: The X-MEN movies have a good vs. bad ratio of 5 to 2. Those are fantastic odds for any blockbuster series. DAYS OF FUTURE PAST delivered the best entry in the mutant saga to date. This much-anticipated comic book storyline was fantastically brought to life by returning director Bryan Singer. In lesser hands, FUTURE PAST could have become a standard blockbuster with the gimmick of time travel used to combine both casts of the franchise. Instead, this film was a delight to sit through for myself and many film goers this past summer. Easily the best comic book film since Christopher Nolan graced the silver screen with his take on Batman. Definitely count me in for APOCALYPSE in 2016!

NIGHTCRAWLER, Jake Gyllenhaal, 2014. ph: Chuck Zlotnick/©Open Road Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

7. NIGHTCRAWLER: Scarier than any true horror film that I saw in all of 2014, NIGHTCRAWLER is a truly disturbing movie. Disappearing completely into the main character of Lou, Jake Gyllenhaal delivers an award-worthy performance that creeped me out to the point where I was wriggling in my seat as he manipulated everyone around him. In a sense, Lou is a vampire sucking the moral decency out of everyone he comes across. As a dark, disturbing, and unflinching masterwork, NIGHTCRAWLER serves as cinematic nightmare that I can’t wait to revisit in the near future.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, Andy Serkis, 2014. ph: David James/TM and ©Copyright Twentieth

6. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: This was the summer blockbuster that delivered on every possible level. It had grand action and amazing effects (those monkeys look so real), but also incorporated them into a smart story and complicated characters. While RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was a huge surprise for everyone, DAWN has cemented itself as my personal favorite APE movie. DAWN blended spectacle and a fantastic plot so perfectly that it makes me shake with anticipation for the newest upcoming APES film (Summer 2016). Having seen RISE and DAWN, I’m more than prepared to bow down to our future primate overlords. This movie rocked!

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5. THE RAID 2: I watched the original RAID at its Sundance premiere and thought it was an impressive action flick, but a tad overrated in the end. This exhilarating sequel pulls out all the stops to one up the original in every possible way. While APES blended spectacle with an intelligent story, RAID 2 blends an intense gangster thriller with mind-blowing action scenes. I was exhausted by the end of this film and that’s the biggest compliment I can give any action movie. Each fight scene has its own unique spin so none of them blended into one another. A few that stick out in my mind are a prison yard fight, one of the most intense/realistic car chases that I’ve ever seen, and a stunning confrontation between two highly skilled, deadly men. Those are just a few of the phenomenal sequences that this epic-length modern action classic has to offer. It plays like THE DEPARTED had a baby with a Bruce Lee movie. It’s friggin’ nuts and I loved every second of it!

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4. WHIPLASH: How do you turn a protégé story about a young man trying to be a successful drummer into a nail-bitingly thriller? Apparently, you get Damien Chazelle to write and direct it. Though he is a young newcomer, Chazelle struck gold in this fantastic and deep drama. I didn’t like Miles Teller before watching this movie and now appreciate that he has some serious acting chops on him. J.K. Simmons, usually a side character or background actor, is given room to be the most intimidating antagonist that I saw in a film all year. He plays a conductor, but Simmons is downright scary as hell and entertaining to watch at the same time. Well shot, well written, well acted, and all around well constructed, WHIPLASH is a masterpiece!

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3. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: The evening that I spent watching this magical film was an enchanting experience. Evoking a sense of classic comedies and a fairy tale color palette, Wes Anderson’s GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL sucked me into its oddball world from the first frame. Ralph Fiennes’s Gustave H. and Adrien Brody’s villain had me breaking into hysterical laughter throughout this whole film. Besides the humor, there’s a unique sweetness to BUDAPEST as well as a compelling storyline (background happenings reward repeat viewings). GRAND BUDAPEST is sincere in its story, humor, honest emotions, and ridiculous nature. Cinematic heaven!

GONE GIRL, from left: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, 2014. ph: Merrick Morton/TM & copyright ©20th

2. GONE GIRL: Going into 2014, there was one film that I was highly anticipating. That was David Fincher’s adaptation of the best-selling mystery, GONE GIRL. The novel is acclaimed, for good reason, of having a nasty sleight of hand that trips up the reader’s preconceived notions. Fincher masterfully transfers that level of Hitchcockian suspense onto the screen in this deeply disturbing and haunting thriller. I didn’t spoil anything in my review and I won’t spoil anything here either. If anyone does try to give away the plot, slap them in the face before they can give away any detail. Though it’s really your fault for having not seen this film yet. Go see it! Seriously! It’s the smartest, entirely compelling and most intense thriller that I’ve seen all year. Once you’ve seen GONE GIRL, you’ll know why everyone is raving about it so much.

BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE), (aka BIRDMAN), Michael Keaton, on set, 2014. /TM

1. BIRDMAN or (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE): What do I even say about this film? When I saw the trailer for BIRDMAN, I felt iffy on it. This looked to be a quirky comedy that could potentially be good, but might rely far too much on the gimmick of having a washed-up former superhero actor playing a washed-up former superhero actor. Nevertheless, I walked into the movie theater hoping for a good flick. In less than 10 minutes, I was under the film’s spell. This wasn’t just good or funny, this was fantastic and amazing. Telling the story in a stylistic choice that appears to be caught in one take (through various hidden cuts) and containing some of the best performances that this entire year had to offer, BIRDMAN is an extraordinary piece of cinema. I’ve bad-mouthed Michael Keaton for a couple of crappy movies he did earlier this year, but his performance really is something to behold in this film! There’s never been anything quite like BIRDMAN before and there’s never going to be anything quite like it again. BIRDMAN is perfection!

2014 was a solid year and produced a lot of phenomenal films. I hope 2015 is even better!

WHIPLASH (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Language including some Sexual References

Whiplash poster

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

Written by: Damien Chazelle

Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Jayson Blair & Kavita Patil

No matter where I’ve turned on the internet or what TV channel I’ve been watching, it seems like there was no avoiding the marketing campaign for Sundance winner and potential Oscar nominee WHIPLASH. Everywhere I looked, I saw some form of praise for this dark drama about obsession, abuse, and an unrelenting drive to be great. With all this build-up, there was the ever-growing possibility of the film being too hyped up for its own good. Let me put those fears to rest right now by saying WHIPLASH lives up to everything that’s being said about it and more. This is one of the very best films that 2014 has to offer!

WHIPLASH, from left: J.K. Simmons, Miles Teller, 2014. ph: Daniel McFadden/©Sony Pictures

Andrew Neiman has recently been accepted into Shaffer Conservatory (the finest music school in the country) and is working his ass off to be the very best drummer that he can. Taking interest in the young man is fearsome conductor Terence Fletcher. Fletcher has a reputation for being a tough and demanding instructor, but Andrew is up to the task of working under him. As Andrew is accepted into the school’s Jazz band, it becomes quickly apparent that Fletcher isn’t just tough and demanding…he’s also a master manipulator and an all-around abusive dickhead. Instead of giving up on his dreams, Andrew decides to keep working under the harsh conditions of Fletcher…which leads into an intense emotionally charged battle between the two.

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A movie centering around a struggling drummer might not sound like the most riveting piece of cinema on paper and there are plenty of clichés associated with mentor-protégé stories, but WHIPLASH proves both of these assumptions wrong. One key asset to the film that director/writer Damien Chazelle puts you into the mindset of Andrew (brought to life in a stirring Miles Teller). This protagonist is sympathetic and we understand his aspirations for a future career as a musician becoming an obsession. Drumming is the most important thing to him and vicariously it becomes a similarly important goal to the viewer for the entire running time. This story could easily be seen as the downward spiral of a young man as his work begins to destroy his life, but WHIPLASH is so much more than something that simple or easy to describe.

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A strong element that takes WHIPLASH into intense unexpected directions is J.K. Simmons’s antagonist. As the foul-mouthed Fletcher, Simmons delivers the performance of his career thus far. The film doesn’t take any sort of easy route in offering up answers to what kind of person that Fletcher really is. He’s a phenomenally written character with highly questionable methods, but a drive that’s more complicated than one may initially expect. As the film goes on, new developments are revealed about Fletcher and it really makes the viewer question if they should outright hate the guy by the conclusion. I’m not all in for the trials of abuse equaling greatness, but Fletcher comes across as almost making a solid case for it in the context of the story (especially in one conversation).

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WHIPLASH stays constantly intense. The viewer may find themselves getting frustrated with the film in the sense that it is pummeling core emotions. The story is all around excellent and I can safely say it has one of the very best conclusions that I’ve seen to a film in a long time. I had no clue what I was in store for and found myself questioning what the outcome of the final minutes would be, but was extremely pleased with how the film wound up. Just like the rest of the movie, the ending of WHIPLASH offers no easy answers and leaves you pondering long after the credits have begun to roll.

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It’s true! Believe the hype! WHIPLASH is a thrilling, original, and excellent film any way you look at it. Miles Teller (who I ragged on earlier this year for starring in the crappy DIVERGENT) pulls a 180 turn in his stellar performance as a struggling young man whose ambition might be the end of him. J.K. Simmons (usually given small side characters) is allowed free rein to play a borderline psychotic antagonist in the best performance of his career thus far. This film is a powerful beast (much like the title music number that’s repeated various times throughout). I adored WHIPLASH and plan on watching it many times in the coming years!

Grade: A+

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