OKJA (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: Bong Joon-Ho

Written by: Bong Joon-Ho & Jon Ronson

Starring: Ahn Seo-Hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Byun Hee-Bong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins & Giancarlo Esposito

South Korean director/screenwriter Bong Joon-Ho has carved out quite a nice filmography for himself. He’s made acclaimed thrillers (MEMORIES OF MURDER, MOTHER), one of the best monster movies of the new millennium (THE HOST), and recently broke into English language films with the slightly-overrated-but-still-good SNOWPIERCER. OKJA sees Bong Joon-Ho constructing a creature-feature crossed with a wild adventure and a deep bond between a girl and her animal friend. This eccentric film probably won’t please everyone because it’s pretty damn weird to begin with, but it’s a crazy ride from beginning to end that had me grinning from ear to ear.

In an effort to roll out a new kind of GMO meat, CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) has created a breed of genetically engineered super-pigs and zoologist/reality star Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) has spread those super-pigs throughout different countries to see which farmer has the most effective methods. Cut to 10 years later in South Korea, young Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) has a best friend in giant super-pig Okja. When the Mirando Corporation comes to collect Mija’s companion for tasty meat, the determined farmgirl decides to take matters into her own hands and fights to get Okja back…with the help of a radical PETA-like group called the Animal Liberation Front. Chaotic craziness ensues, alongside lots of laughs and a surprising amount of feels.

OKJA kicks things off in the right direction as the first quarter of the film sets up the comical premise in a convincing way and develops the relationship between Mija and Okja. The friendship between this little girl and her giant pig is surprisingly effective and the viewer can feel the connection between them. This greatly benefits the story when Okja is stolen and we root for Mija to rescue him. I sincerely wanted to see this girl and her giant pig reunited, which resulted in lots of vocal reactions as her journey puts her into perilous situations and pits her against a cruel corporation. Young newcomer Ahn Seo-Hyun puts in the best genre-based leading child performance since Onni Tommila in the twisted Finnish Christmas flick RARE EXPORTS.

The supporting cast has a number of big names and stand-out performances. Tilda Swinton does a fine job as unusual antagonist Lucy, who cares about Mija and Okja’s situation more than I anticipated. She also does well as Lucy’s sinister twin sister during the final third. Giancarlo Esposito (Gus from BREAKING BAD) has a few moments as Lucy’s reserved assistant. Meanwhile, the ALF is populated by the likes of Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Daniel Henshall, and Devon Bostick. The motley crew of activists supplies lots of comic relief and a surprising amount of heart.

The only bad performance and one of OKJA’s two major flaws arrives in Jake Gyllenhaal’s over-the-top antics as the crazy scientist/reality star. I seriously don’t know what happened here because Gyllenhaal is (in my opinion) one of the best actors working today. This actor takes odd, artsy, and serious roles that usual have him acting his ever-loving heart out. His attempt as a goofy, cartoonish villain is cringe-inducing for all the wrong reasons. He sucked me right out of a major moment that should have been hard to watch. Instead this would-be depressing scene became depressing purely because of Gyllenhaal’s unusually terrible performance.

OKJA’s second problem comes in its not-so-subtle message hitting the viewer over the head like a sledgehammer. That’s not a huge detraction as the film is still massively entertaining and hits its emotional cords just right. However, I feel that PETA, vegans, and vegetarians will likely hold up OKJA as a crowning achievement of cinema. Meanwhile, meat-eaters in the audience may find themselves occasionally rolling their eyes. Still, the film overcomes Gyllenhaal’s crappy acting and the overbearingly preachy message through sheer entertainment, well-executed laughs, stellar effects, and an emotional core. The super-pig Okja looks every bit as good as THE HOST’s freaky-ass monster and that’s a massive compliment.

Viewers who will dig on what’s essentially an entertaining R-rated version of a heartwarming family-friendly adventure will likely find themselves head over heels for OKJA. This movie is weird, hilarious, and moving. I loved every second of it, even when the two notable flaws reared their ugly heads. OKJA is something out of the ordinary and I hope that plenty of viewers love it as much as I did. OKJA comes highly recommended for the delightful little oddity it is.

Grade: A-

LIFE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout, some Sci-Fi Violence and Terror

Directed by: Daniel Espinosa

Written by: Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare & Olga Dihovichnaya

When I first saw the trailer for LIFE, I thought it strongly resembled a certain 1979 horror classic. I’m sure that some studio executives felt the same way, because they quickly swapped the film’s release date from May to March in order to avoid competing with a prequel to that 1979 horror classic. My hopes weren’t exactly high for this film because it seemed derivative and unoriginal from premise to promotional material. However, I decided to give LIFE a shot and surprisingly enjoyed this film. It’s not mindblowing or terrifying, but it’s a fun little sci-fi horror romp with loads of good qualities.

The ISS (International Space Station) is manned by a tight six-person crew and they’ve recently undertaken a mission to retrieve a soil sample from Mars. Wouldn’t you know it, the red planet’s dirt contains a bit of alien DNA. With some experimentation, one scientist manages to resurrect a cell and it becomes a rapidly evolving organism. Unfortunately for the ISS crew, the organism (nicknamed “Calvin”) reveals deadly tendencies and begins to run amok. In order to save themselves and the human race, the ISS crew will have to kill Calvin before it kills them.

That plot description might not sound like the most intriguing thing in the world because LIFE is like ALIEN crossed with THE BLOB. However, there’s pleasure to be taken from that as this B-movie material is executed with A-grade effort. The effects are top-notch as “Calvin” frequently shapeshifts depending on his growth and environment. This monster resembles more of a plant/squid hybrid than any straight-up horrific beast. “Calvin” is beautiful to look at, which makes his bloody rampage even more cool to watch. The creature design was based on a cross between actual fungus and moss found in nature, so there’s even an extra bit of realism to this threat.

Concerning “Calvin’s” actions, LIFE embraces its R rating with gleefully memorable kills. This isn’t a total gorefest, but things get very violent and (at points) disturbing. A couple of the film’s best deaths take a less-is-more approach, letting our imagination fill in the most graphic bits and giving us enough on-screen details to confirm our worst fears. There’s also a stellar sequence in outer space that sees a uniquely twisted demise. Basically, LIFE is a slasher film crossed with a creature feature and its entertaining when taken as either of those things or a combination of both.

As far as the ISS crew members go, LIFE fumbles the character development a bit as these people are mostly one-note stereotypes. The performances from a talented bunch of actors make them likable enough, but there’s next to nothing to them. Sure, there have ham-fisted attempts to flesh them out a bit. Jake Gyllenhaal reads from a children’s book, Rebecca Ferguson is a hard-ass with a penchant for protocols, Ryan Reynolds is his usual sarcastic self, Hiroyuki Sanada is a new father, Ariyon Bakare is a scientist who has insights on the creature, and Olga Dihovichnaya is the Russian one. However, there simply isn’t much to these thin characters…other than being lambs to the slaughter.

LIFE has its fair share of familiarity and clichés. There are attempts to kill “Calvin” that are directly lifted from the ALIEN series (complete with flamethrowers, ship thrusters, and air vents). However, these are made up for by the monster being so damn interesting and effective tension that’s built up with a skillful eye behind the camera. I’m also going to praise the hell of out this film’s ending, because, holy shit, this conclusion is awesome! I loved the final minutes and found them to be effectively haunting. It was the meanest possible way to end this story and I applaud the screenwriters’/director’s viciousness in having the balls to go there.

Overall, LIFE isn’t exactly original, but the ALIEN mixed with THE BLOB storyline provides plenty of entertainment on its own merits. Throw in a cast that breathe likability into rather dull characters, lots of effective tension that overcomes the clichéd familiarity, and one of the freakiest aliens to hit the big screen in quite some time, then you’ve got yourself a winner. LIFE is shockingly good and I give it a hearty recommendation for those who are craving a cool creature feature.

Grade: B

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Menace, Graphic Nudity, and Language

nocturnalanimals-poster

Directed by: Tom Ford

Written by: Tom Ford

(based on the novel TONY AND SUSAN by Austin Wright)

Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson & Isla Fisher

On paper, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS sounds like a Hitchcockian psychological head-trip crossed with a pulpy crime thriller. While that description of the film is correct, things do stray into metaphorical and artsy territory more than initially expected. There’s nothing wrong with being an art film, just look at most of the output from Refn, Lynch, Cronenberg, and Von Trier. However, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS occasionally weaves dangerous close to becoming downright pretentious and also attempts to be a little too ambitious, consequently leaving one of its narratives far stronger than the other.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

Susan (Amy Adams) is an uppity art gallery owner who collects and displays bizarre pieces. These strange works of art include: nude morbidly obese dancers who guide us through the film’s opening credits, a cow with arrows sticking out of it that litters the background, and a so-so painting that obviously states one of this film’s main themes. When yet another nail is put in the coffin of her crumbling second marriage, Susan coincidentally receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Titled “Nocturnal Animals” (his nickname for her), Edward’s new novel tells a dark story of murder, madness and bloody revenge. As she becomes hooked on the emotionally damaging book, Susan finds herself remembering her failed relationship with Edward and begins to suspect that the novel might actually be a veiled threat.

nocturnalanimals-2

On a visual level, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS looks great. The cinematography is crisp and has a distinct attention-grabbing style. You might want to look away during certain scenes but will find yourself unable to do so, because the film displays its ugliness through the most beautiful lenses. If you want to be a stickler for details, this movie is technically composed of three narratives (though I read it as two). There’s Edward’s novel and then there’s Susan reading it whilst reminiscing (tying past and present scenes together). The tense revenge tale kept me completely engaged to the point where I forgot it was actually a book being read by the main character and this happened numerous times. Personally speaking, the failed relationship plot seemed far more scattershot and less impactful. I think many moviegoers are bound to latch onto one narrative over the other. Whichever one they prefer will likely hinge on the genre they gravitate towards the most.

nocturnalanimals-3

The scenes of Edward’s book feature Jake Gyllenhaal as protagonist Tony. Gyllenhaal does a brilliant job in the role (which was kind of expected from his previous work) and this character is made all the more fascinating when you tie him into Gyllenhaal’s performance as author Edward. There’s clearly a symbiotic connection between the real-life writer and his fictitious creation, with Gyllenhaal putting in two distinct performances. Amy Adams is believable as emotionally distressed, deeply depressed Susan. Her facial expressions and body language say far more than any ham-fisted dialogue that explicitly tells us how she’s feeling ever could. Michael Shannon delivers his best work in years as a grizzled vengeance-seeking detective in Edward’s novel. Meanwhile, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is positively terrifying as the psychotic villain of Edward’s book.

nocturnalanimals-4

The five main characters from four great performers aren’t where this movie’s acting talent stops though, because many big faces pop up in the sidelines. Armie Hammer doesn’t receive a whole lot to do, but still makes a strong impression as Susan’s disinterested second husband. Isla Fisher shows up as a character in Edward’s novel, resembling Amy Adams in a possible parallel of her. Michael Sheen has an all-too brief appearance as an interesting friend of Susan’s. Finally, Laura Linney shows up for one scene and becomes borderline over-the-top as a stereotypical rich aristocrat, though her small moment does feed into the story in a big way.

nocturnalanimals-5

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS seems to have a lot on its mind, with certain themes being rather obvious and others bound to be discovered upon repeat viewings. It’s a metaphorical piece of cinematic art that follows the formula of a tragic drama about a failed relationship and the motions of a grisly crime thriller. However, the latter far outshines the former in this humble reviewer’s opinion. I was expecting the film to tie everything together in more ways than it actually did. This movie certainly keeps the viewer thinking about it long after the credits have rolled and fans of dark, depressing arthouse cinema are bound to find something to love here. Without getting into spoilers, I will also say that the film’s conclusion is unsatisfying in the best possible way. I really liked NOCTURNAL ANIMALS. I think it’s a fascinating piece of work in many respects, but the disconnected difference in quality between the narratives kept me from loving it as much as I wanted to.

Grade: B+

EVEREST (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Peril and Disturbing Images

Everest poster

Directed by: Baltasar Kormakur

Written by: William Nicholson & Simon Beaufoy

Starring: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Sam Worthington, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson & Thomas Wright

Having not read the book INTO THIN AIR (which many of my friends have endlessly recommended to me), I walked into EVEREST knowing next to nothing about the true events that inspired this film. I was sold strictly on the premise, cast, and marketing. This looked like an intense, beautifully shot, and emotional disaster flick. For the most part, it is. Though the sizeable cast and lengthy running time become detrimental to the storytelling, EVEREST serves as a thrilling “based on a true story” film in which a group of adventurers hike up the world’s tallest mountain and find themselves woefully unprepared for the danger that awaits them.

Everest

The time is 1996 and various hiking organizations have set up camps at the base of Mount Everest. These groups (springing from New Zealand, America, South Africa, etc.) have taken it upon themselves to line the slopes of the world’s tallest mountain with various ropes and ladders. The purpose of this being that even mere novices could reach the summit of Mount Everest with a professional guide’s help. This year, New Zealander Rob Hall of Adventure Consultants has a rather large group of hikers and so does American Scott Fischer of Mountain Madness. Due to the sheer size of their teams and a potentially hazardous waiting time, the two men decide to combine their groups for an expedition to the summit of Everest. Unfortunately, nobody expects two vicious storms that arrive just as the group is turning around from the summit. This force of nature will cost some hikers their lives and inspire others to rise above overwhelming odds of certain death…

Everest 2

Though pieces of the film were shot on location at the actual Everest base camp, most of the Mount Everest imagery is actually made up of the Otztal Alps in Italy. I’ll be damned if they’re not a convincing substitute. To be completely honest, the main reason you should see EVEREST is for the visuals alone. This film feels and looks huge. You get the sense that these characters are venturing into a place where Mother Nature has the ultimate upper hand. The cinematography, locations and sets all had me convinced that what I was seeing was real, if only for the two hours I sat in the theater. Speaking of which, the main way to experience this movie is on the big screen. For the sheer scope of the film, you will want to see it in a huge theater. I imagine that it won’t play nearly as well on home video or cable.

Everest 3

As impressive as the visuals are and as harrowing as the film feels, EVEREST does encounter problems in both pacing and characters. We don’t simply start the film with the hikers venturing up Mount Everest, but get a long introduction of them trying to climatize to the environment because one does not simply climb Everest. This build-up portion of the film runs arguably a bit too long. That can be said for various other parts of the movie as well, even once the disaster is in full force. Rest assured, there are intense moments and I’m sure that the movie might hit the emotions harder of someone who has read INTO THIN AIR, but I felt the film noticeably dragged in spots.

Everest 4

As far as characters go, there are a lot of them and EVEREST tries to juggle all of them equally. More time is definitely spent on Rob Hall (a well-cast Jason Clarke), Scott Fischer (the always solid Jake Gyllenhaal), Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin delivering the best performance of the film) and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes in a memorable part). Little pieces are shined on other characters such as two guides who don’t get along, Hall’s pregnant wife, the frantic crew at base camp watching helplessly as the storm gets worse and a Japanese woman who has scaled seven summits. The film simply tries to cram too many people into one movie. As a result, aside from the four main guys we follow, it feels like other characters exist simply to die or to help the main characters survive as best they can.

Everest 5

EVEREST is based on a real life expedition and that story is fascinating for those who take the time to read it (whether it be in a book or simply on a Wikipedia page). As a film, there are problems in both the pacing and characters. It feels like the filmmakers tried to cram too much within the space of two hours, but also didn’t know how to keep the pace from dragging at points (this feels like two-and-a-half hours as opposed to two). There are emotional moments and I don’t regret watching this movie in the slightest, but the film can’t fully overcome its pacing and so-so characters. EVEREST is a good movie, but I’d recommend seeing it on the big screen or not seeing it at all.

Grade: B

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

MCDBIBA EC023

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!

MCDLEMO EC039

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!

MCDXMDA FE029

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!

MCDRAID EC042

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!

MCDWHIP EC005

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!

MCDGRBU FS040

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!

NIGHTCRAWLER (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence including Graphic Images, and for Language

Nightcrawl poster

Directed by: Dan Gilroy

Written by: Dan Gilroy

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, Ann Cusack, Kevin Rahm & Kathleen York

As much as people won’t admit to it, there’s a certain adrenaline rush in seeing violence and destruction around the world. It’s the same kind of feeling you get when passing a horrible car wreck on the highway. You don’t want to stare, but can’t look away. Tune into any news program and they’ll report at least three horrible crimes or accidents in the first ten minutes. The phrase “If it bleeds, it leads” wasn’t coined by any film or article. It exists as it’s very true in the news broadcasting business and that’s no secret. NIGHTCRAWLER is a new thriller examining a very sick person who uses the public’s fascination with blood to his advantage. Driven by an unnerving script and an even creepier performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, this is a dark film that’s going stick with you for a long while.

Nightcrawler 1

Lou Bloom is a thief looking for a job in L.A. He’s taught himself all the basics in being a good businessman that he could find on the internet, but is struggling to find work (mainly because he’s a scumbag who steals petty objects around him). It is by sheer coincidence that Lou happens to drive by a flaming car wreck as a van of camera men record it. Lou discovers a whole underground world of filming crime scenes and selling the footage to whatever news network will pay the most. Seeing as he lives in Los Angeles, there’s no shortage of crime of accidents to bank on. Lou gets very good at his job, way too good at his job!

Nightcrawler 2

NIGHTCRAWLER centers around Lou and lucky for us, Jake Gyllenhaal is a force to be reckoned with in the role! He fully embraces the body of this greasy-haired creep. The character is a human parasite feeding off of the few people he associates with (an assistant and the boss at a troubled news network). In a lot of ways he also sucks the integrity out of those around him, but it’s in more subtle ways than the warped morally corrupted compass he constantly carries. Rene Russo (Lou’s boss) and Riz Ahmed (Lou’s assistant) are both great as well in side roles, but Gyllenhaal is the real focus in this story. Bill Paxton is appropriately slimy in the part of Lou’s main competition.

Nightcrawler 3

Not to keep harping on Gyllenhaal’s stunning performance, but one more detail needs to be said. We only see brief moments that show honest human emotions from Lou and they aren’t pretty. These dark revelations are so quick that I actually realized how unnerving these scenes were after the film was over. That’s part of the brilliance in Lou’s character. As he plays everyone around him like a fiddle, the viewer knows full well what kind of man he is. Thus making every scene where he’s acting calm and collected that much scarier. The film is pitch-black in content. We dive into the gritty nature of Lou’s upward (for him) and downward (for us) spiral in this underground profession. Slick visuals and a heavy atmosphere showcase that the city can be so much scarier after dark. I was uncomfortable for the entire running time of NIGHTCRAWLER and that alone says mission accomplished! This is scarier than any horror movie I’ve seen in 2014.

Nightcrawler 4

The final third of NIGHTCRAWLER pays off on a lot of developed character traits and subtle details. There’s a carefully constructed finale in which I was struggling to catch my breath. What I was seeing on the screen was crazy and I was glued it. There’s not necessarily a happy ending with a bow tied on top of everything that some may be expecting, but a fitting conclusion to a chilling film. Those last moments are going to be floating around in my brain for quite some time.

Nightcrawler 5

NIGHTCRAWLER left me speechless and in a state of horrified awe. It’s as if Dan Gilroy made a darker, sinister, and terrifying version of TAXI DRIVER. Instead of the protagonist being an unhinged vigilante, he’s just an all-out evil sociopath who rarely shows a real emotion. Gyllenhaal better receive an Oscar nod or there truly is no justice in the cinematic world. Cold, calm, and disturbing, just like the character of Lou, NIGHTCRAWLER is one of the best films of 2014!

Grade: A+

ENEMY (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Strong Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity and Language

Enemy poster

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Written by: Javier Gullon

(based on the novel THE DOUBLE by Jose Saramago)

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Melanie Laurent, Isabella Rossellini & Sarah Gadon

Based on the 2002 novel THE DOUBLE, ENEMY tackles the well-worn idea of the doppelgänger. Denis Villeneuve and Jake Gyllenhaal teamed up to make this film in the same year that their well-received PRISONERS hit wide release. ENEMY has been expanding into select movie theaters and there’s a good reason for this. This film will not please everybody. It doesn’t have the mainstream appeal that PRISONERS has and I can see a lot of people walking away disappointed at the deliberate pace or surreal artistic style. This is very much like David Lynch directed a feature-length TWILIGHT ZONE episode. It’s disorienting, unnerving, and I don’t attest to entirely understanding the whole thing, but this is one dark nightmare I won’t forget any time soon.

Enemy 1

Adam Bell is a college professor going through the motions of everyday life. He lectures about history repeating itself and his life repeats itself every single day. He teaches, he walks home, he grades papers, and then has casual sex with his girlfriend. It’s a pattern that occurs over and over. That is until Adam rents a film recommended by a co-worker. In an odd coincidence, he notices a background actors that looks identical to him. Adam tracks down the performer, Anthony Saint Clare, and they meet face-to-face. Neither of them has an explanation for why they are doppelgängers and appear exactly alike in every way, but their insertion in each others lives has a chaotic effect on both men. We all know that stories about doppelgängers never quite end well and ENEMY is bleak the whole way through. To make the atmosphere even more thick, a layer of smog covers the city constantly and sunlight only shines in two scenes (kind of like how PRISONERS kept things in a dank environment that ramped up the tension tenfold).

Enemy 2

Competing against himself, Jake Gyllenhaal is compelling as both Adam and Anthony. Both characters have their faults (though by the end, it’s clear which one the viewer will prefer), but they seem to be struggling through this otherworldly scenario. There’s a good deal of misleading where it takes the viewer a moment to recognize which character is on-screen. I feel this approach was entirely deliberate. A good use of sleight of hand and pulling the rug out from the viewer, albeit it’s used a select number of times in the story. The artistic visuals are stunning and there is some absolutely nightmarish scenarios throughout (the last shot chills up my spine and left me a bit shaken as exited the theater). The story tackles universal ideas of the loss of self, connection with others, and the darkness of human nature.

Enemy 3

My problems with the film come in some scenes that aren’t specifically addressed and seem too vague to the viewer. The film runs at only 90 minutes and it felt like it might have been an even better experience had there been more time for all of this to develop. The imagery of spiders is constant throughout the movie in different ways. Two of which are otherworldly, but not necessarily addressed in the conventional sense. Those with a arachnophobia might have a hard time sitting through ENEMY based simply on that notion. The ending is abrupt too. The last shot, while absolutely startling, seems to convey a deeper meaning and doesn’t make a lot of logical sense. Again, if more time was dedicated to a certain plot thread, then it might have had a much bigger impact. I don’t entirely understand what it meant and I’m positive there were deeper meanings conveyed throughout some of this, but I can’t stop thinking about the last moment before the closing credits began to roll. Even if that conclusion can be seen as deeply flawed, everything that came before it was so great that it’s easily forgiven.

Enemy 4

In the same vein as a Cronenberg or Lynch film, ENEMY is one that is a dark story meant to be looked over and analyzed. This is one you’ll want to discuss long into the night with fellow cinephiles, debating the finer points and weirder aspects of the story. The plot could have used a bit more time dedicated to certain elements and I don’t confess to entirely understanding the whole thing, but I’d be willing to bet that not everyone is grasping the same meaning out of this movie. The ending of the novel and the ending of the film are entirely different, but I honestly don’t know which one I would prefer more. I was predicting the ending that the novel had, but the ending of the film caught me completely off-guard and is the one left haunting me more. ENEMY is far from perfect, but it does make for a mind-blowing experience that will leave your brain in shreds. If that’s your thing (of which I certainly enjoy it), then ENEMY is an undeniably creepy delight!

Grade: B+

Derrick Carter’s Top 10 Films of 2013

List by Derrick Carter

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Trance, Ender’s Game, Simon Killer, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, Rush, Captain Phillips, Stoker, and Side Effects

10. Dallas Buyers Club

10. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB: This film may not be entirely true to the events that it’s based on, but DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is the kind of the movie that makes you re-evaluate just how you’re living your life once the end credits have begun to roll. Matthew McCounaghey and Jared Leto give two of the most heartfelt performances of the year. It’s not a movie that you’ll want to watch on repeat (mainly due to the fact that it’s a film about a man fighting an incurable disease and the war the FDA launches on him), but it’s certainly a powerful one. This is a movie that drained me emotionally by the end of the film, because I was feeling the same frustration at the injustice of how the characters were being treated. Excellent film and I’ll be surprised if both Leto and McCounaghey don’t get Oscar nods.

9. Maniac

9. MANIAC: 2013 was a fantastic year for cinema, but it was a bit of a pathetic year for the horror genre. The best wide-released horror flick was YOU’RE NEXT (which is missing from this list and isn’t even in my Honorable Mentions). There’s always independent and foreign horror to satiate the need to be frightened. MANIAC is a remake that outdoes the original in every conceivable way, whilst also adding the element of seeing the entire film literally through the eyes of a serial killer. What could have wound up being a cheap gimmick becomes a wholly disturbing and chilling experience that will leave you struggling to get a good night’s sleep for a long time after.

8. Place Beyond The Pines

8. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES: There are gripping stories, moments that shock you, and conclusions that leave you emotionally devastated. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES contains all of the above in a narrative that could be seen as almost an anthology format. It’s a story that follows three different characters that are forever shaped by the choices of someone else. Tragedy is one of the most accurate words I can pick when describing this film. Also, it should be noted that the final moments of the film (fueled with a haunting score) had me crying like the first time I saw AMERICAN HISTORY X.

7. Frozen

7. FROZEN: It seems like ever since Disney switched to the computer animation format, they lost the spark of what made their former efforts so magical. Gone were the musical numbers. The sense of timeless fairy tales seemed to be replaced with potty humor and pop-culture references. Recent films like TANGLED and PRINCESS AND THE FROG tried to recapture that flame that gave Disney films like THE LION KING and BEAUTY & THE BEAST. Somehow, against all odds, FROZEN winds up being the best Disney film in about two full decades. The songs are catchy and have stuck with me since my viewing experience. The script also gives memorable characters, while mocking certain Disney clichés and delivering a timeless, wonderful tale. FROZEN is truly something special!

6. American Hustle

6. AMERICAN HUSTLE: Capturing the essence of the 70’s from set designs, costumes, a very cool soundtrack, and Bradley Cooper’s unforgettable perm, AMERICAN HUSTLE told an intense and very entertaining crime story without ever delving into the ultra-violence that the subgenre usually contains. It was a bold move on the part of David O. Russell, but he’s crafted a fantastic film that let the A-list cast run loose and wild to my delight. This is a movie about people double-crossing each other and by the time everything begins hitting the fan, it’s unlikely that you guessed much of what was in store for you as a viewer (including one very neat cameo).

5. Gravity

5. GRAVITY: You can’t get much more epic than the setting of space itself and that’s exactly the canvas that director/writer Alfonso Cuaron (who held off on directing this film until technology was advanced enough to get across his vision) uses for this tale of survival. It’s spectacle, but cinema comes in many forms. It’s not all about important statements, human drama, character studies, or entertainment. Sometimes, a film just needs to be a ride and this is what GRAVITY was. A huge roller-coaster of a movie and I enjoyed it as such. It’s been a tad overhyped at this point, but GRAVITY still remains on my top 10 of 2013!

4. Worlds End

4. THE WORLD’S END: The final part of the “Cornetto” trilogy (also consisting of SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ) is my favorite of the comedic trifecta. Some human drama is thrown into this sci-fi comedy which makes for some unexpectedly emotional moments (much like in SHAUN), which in turn make the laughs that much more heartier. Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright have closed off their so-called trilogy in grand style and though it’s sad to see it come to a close, I can’t imagine a better way to conclude the so-called Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy. Jokes are brilliantly set up in advance and the chemistry between the cast is so convincing and enjoyable to watch that you may even forget there are robots that show up later on (I certainly did).

3. Prisoners

3. PRISONERS: Few movies have ever made me as uncomfortable as this one did. I was uneasy for the entire running time and for good reason, PRISONERS quietly builds suspense and keeps itself one step ahead of the audience. It’s unflinching in its violence, but also shows restraint when it needs to. Some of the more shocking moments in the film come as to what’s implied rather to what’s shoved into the viewer’s face. This script was supposedly passed around from many directors and tons of different casting choices. The end result is so flawless that it makes one wonder if how it even would have stood a chance with anybody else involved. Heartbreaking, intense and concluding in the most provocative way possible. PRISONERS is the best thriller I’ve seen since Fincher’s GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.

2. Wolf Of Wall Street

2. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET: Give Leo the award. Just give Leo the award already! The man is proving himself to be a chameleon of acting (in the same way Gary Oldman is). In THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, Leonardo DiCaprio skillfully slips into the skin of drug addicted, sex addicted, all-around rich scumbag Jordan Belfort. Far from an unpleasant watch, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is easily the most entertaining film I’ve seen in all of 2013. I haven’t laughed harder at a movie all year (the scene involving Leo and Jonah Hill high on Quaaludes is one of the funniest movie scenes I’ve ever seen in my life). The three-hour running time seems to rush right past, showing the best pacing I’ve seen in a movie this length. Overall, just see it. I loved this movie and it’s one that I plan on buying the moment it hits home video!

1. 12 Years A Slave

1. 12 YEARS A SLAVE: It’s pretty surprising that there’s never been a proper film depicting the horrors of slavery until 2013 (ROOTS doesn’t count). This is a heartbreaking movie that tore my emotions apart and had myself (along with a sold-out movie theater) crying heavily during multiple points in the film. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is the kind of film that you never forget once you’ve seen it. It will stick with you and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes required viewing during History classes for its unflinchingly realistic look on the dark stain in American history. The acting from everyone is top-notch, as is every single aspect with this film. I can’t say that I enjoyed this movie at all, because it’s not made to be enjoyed. It does show one man’s struggle to retain his humanity and survive a 12-year-long period in slavery. Hard to watch, but ultimately rewarding in many ways, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is a masterpiece through and through!

PRISONERS (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 23 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Content including Torture, and Language throughout

Prisoners poster

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Written by: Aaron Guzikowski

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo & Paul Dano

Imagine that you’re living a parent’s worst nightmare. Your children just vanished, less than a block away from your home. Someone took your kids and they might still be out there…alive…somewhere. How far would you go to get your children back? Would you become the equivalent of the very monster that abducted your offspring? With every second that passes, the likelihood of your child surviving this ordeal shrinks and those questions become very hard to answer. These are the kind of tough positions that the unrelenting thriller PRISONERS puts you in. If there was ever a film to be described as putting its viewer through the wringer, this is it.

Prisoners 1

It’s Thanksgiving and the Dovers are visiting their close friends, the Jones family. At one point, the younger daughters (one from the Dover family and one from the Joneses) go to retrieve a whistle from the Dover’s household. Hours later, it becomes apparent that the girls are missing. Desperately, both families look down their street and through their homes for the children, only to wind up empty-handed. A foreboding RV was seen on the street right around the time that the girls were abducted and the investigation begins.

Prisoners 2

Right off the bat, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman in a riveting performance) and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal delivering an amazing performance as well) are at odds with each other. The RV is found with a mentally incapable 20-something behind the wheel. The RV doesn’t have a shred of evidence and the suspect is released. All of this is happening while Loki investigates all the sex offenders nearby for a possible clue. What he uncovers is a disturbing discovery and a shrinking list of suspects. Meanwhile, Keller takes justice into his own hands and abducts the potential suspect in order to try to make him talk. Things get horribly disturbing and dark from then on. Nothing is quite as it appears to be and little details that happen in the early on come back in huge ways by the time the story is wrapping up.

Prisoners 3

To say that PRISONERS is disturbing would be a vast understatement. This is far from a graphic or sadistic movie, but it’s devastating on so many levels. Even with a nearly three-hour running time, the movie never gives you have any room to breathe! I was uncomfortable from the moment the girls disappeared to the absolutely unpredictable finale. So many things are laid out for the viewer and even when a major twist is revealed, it isn’t explicitly spelled out. This is a smart movie that constantly plays off the audience’s expectations. After all, intensity of what might occur can be more chilling than what actually does happen at the end of some scenes.

Prisoners 4

Then there’s the thick atmosphere of the film. The weather itself factors largely into this as there isn’t a single ray of sunlight in the entire movie. It’s always cloudy, rainy, snowy, or a combination of the three. Either way, it makes for an unnerving setting, even when a conversation between two characters in a car is playing out. That’s another thing about PRISONERS that’s notable too. When something as simple as a dialogue exchange is nail bitingly chilling, it says something for the quality of the movie. Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal both deserve some kind of award for their performances. The twists that PRISONERS takes in the final hour left me gasping more than once or staring wide-eyed at the screen in disbelief. Let’s just say there’s no real way of predicting how everything will play out.

Prisoners 5

PRISONERS is the best thriller I’ve seen since David Fincher’s GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. It’s an intense, chilling, and frequently disturbing crime-drama that feels like a tightening a noose around the viewer’s neck. This is what a thriller should be. It’s quietly thrilling and leaves you thinking about it long after. A haunting experience if there ever was one and it might wind up being the best film of 2013!

Grade: A+

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑