SPECIES II (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexuality, Sci-Fi Violence/Gore and Language

Directed by: Peter Medak

Written by: Chris Brancato

Starring: Natasha Henstridge, Michael Madsen, Marg Helgenberger, James Cromwell, Mykelti Williamson, Richard Belzer & Justin Lazard

Even though it was a rather mediocre mess of a film, 1995’s SPECIES made enough cash to warrant a sequel. Three years after that original film became an unexpected hit, SPECIES II was pumped out. Screenwriter Chris Brancato attempted to take the series down a new-ish path and director Peter Medak had already made one of the most underrated 90s thrillers (ROMEO IS BLEEDING), but neither of them succeeded much in this crappy second installment of a franchise that didn’t need to exist. Despite good-looking gore and a few neat ideas, SPECIES II is a bad and boring sequel.

Set three years after the events of SPECIES, this sequel opens with a manned mission to Mars and black goo leaking out onto the spaceship. When the astronauts return home, one of them is contaminated with alien DNA. When astronaut-turned-mutant Patrick Ross (Justin Lazard) begins sleeping with women and those women begin to explode with rapidly-growing offspring, it becomes clear that his mating is a threat to the human race. In order to stop him, Press Lennox (Michael Madsen) and Laura Baker (Marg Helgenberger) are forced to team up to take him down. Their secret weapon is Eve (Natasha Henstridge), a cloned “nice” version of Sil from the first film…but her loyalty begins to waver when she goes into heat over Ross.

Only three performances stuck out in the first SPECIES: Michael Madsen, Marg Helgenberger, and Natasha Henstridge. Only one of those performers is remotely entertaining this time around: Madsen! Though Madsen mostly seems bored and has gone on to refer to this film as “a crock of shit,” he gets a couple of humorously cheesy bits that are unintentionally funny. The best moment has him tripping over and then threatening a grocery store clerk (at gunpoint) over the location of a cereal aisle. I can’t help but think this was improvised because Madsen actually stumbled and just didn’t want to do another take.

As the head scientist and caretaker of Eve, Marg Helgenberger is dull this time around and almost seems to be playing an entirely different character. As the much nicer half-human/half-alien clone Eve, Natasha Henstridge is rather boring in her role. She mainly sits in a glass cage, occasionally has psychic visions and really doesn’t get much to do until the final 20 minutes. Peter Boyle (Frank from EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND) is also in this trash, for some reason, as a crazy former scientist who hams it up in two scenes. James Cromwell also seems to be delivering the only competent performance as a stern Senator. It’s almost like Cromwell thought he was in another movie. Justin Lazard is okay enough as the sex-starved villain, while Mykelti Williamson is annoying as a token black guy sidekick to Madsen.

As far as effects go, SPECIES II has marginally better CGI than the first film. There are cheesy bits, but the story tried to utilize these effects in ways that looked neat. One gore gag that has an exploded head rebuilding itself looks dated, but remains cool as spectacle. Eve’s Giger-inspired alien design is lacking to say the least, though I appreciate that they mostly used practical effects for her. She’s looks like a more generic version of Sil, but the alien version of Patrick Ross is pretty damned awesome. Seriously, this tentacled Lovecraftian beastie looks like it belongs in a far better film and was instead wasted on this junk.

SPECIES II’s biggest problem is that it’s boring to sit through and there isn’t much fun to be had. I appreciate that this sequel attempted to put a gender-reversal on the first film and has a few neat ideas (borrowing from Roger Corman’s HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP in the process). However, it just seems like this movie was doomed to play on the early morning hours of the Syfy Channel from its creation. On the redeeming side of things, the gore effects are cool and a couple of performances are watchable. Suffering from the problem that plagues many sequels though, SPECIES II is a significant step down from its predecessor. In this case, that predecessor wasn’t very good from the start…so this second go-round is crap!

Grade: D

THE PROMISE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Material including War Atrocities, Violence and Disturbing Images, and for some Sexuality

Directed by: Terry George

Written by: Terry George & Robin Swicord

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte Le Bon, Christian Bale, Daniel Gimenez-Cacho, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Rade Serbedzija & James Cromwell

THE PROMISE is the first major big-budget film to tell the story of the Armenian Genocide. This atrocity was committed by the Turkish government and led to the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians. For numerous mind-boggling reasons, there are many Armenian Genocide deniers in this world and they did not want this movie to be made. Just look at the film’s current IMDB rating and where a majority of the 1-star votes are coming from (Turkey). Taken on its own cinematic merits, THE PROMISE is a deeply emotional, powerful historical epic. The film is not without some problems, but remains a worthwhile experience all the same.

Mikael (Oscar Isaac) is an Armenian who’s using his engagement dowry to become a doctor. In the grand city of Constantinople, Mikael develops a crush on Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a fellow Armenian. The problem is that Mikael is currently engaged and Ana already has a boyfriend in American news reporter Chris Myers (Christian Bale). The political climate begins to change in Constantinople though and World War I is rising. Soon, Turks begin to savagely arrest/kill Armenians, using the war as a cover to systematically wipe the Armenian people off the earth. Mikael, Ana, and Chris find themselves caught in the middle of this mass tragedy.

THE PROMISE functions as two different movies. On the one hand, it’s a very effective history lesson about the Armenian Genocide. Many historians have already praised this film for its accuracy and there’s something impressive about that alone. Director/writer Terry George previously directed a powerful genocide drama in HOTEL RWANDA and was a great choice to make another drama about one of the first modern genocides. This film shows the audience just enough for them to realize what is happening to the Armenian people and to what extent. We don’t need to see countless prisoner camps, lots of massacres, and many death marches into the desert. Single moments that surmise each of these horrific factors go a long way and the script wisely doesn’t exploit its sensitive subject matter.

On the other hand, THE PROMISE also tells the story of a love-triangle that happens to take place during the Armenian Genocide. Romance and passion drive the three main characters forward. One might argue that, at certain points, this decently-constructed love story moves things along more than the actual real-life tragedy occurring in the background. This doesn’t happen a lot, but there are corny clichés that occasionally make their way into the mix. The war-based love story angle works, but to a far lesser extent than the fact-based Armenian Genocide drama that’s also being told. The epitome of this complaint comes in one needlessly sad scene that seems to be thrown in because plenty of other historical romances also have this plot point.

Oscar Isaac, one of the best rising actors of his generation, plays Mikael with heartbreaking sincerity. There isn’t a single emotion from him that doesn’t feel genuine, even when the story thrusts him into the path of clichés. Christian Bale plays Chris Myers, a fictional character based on a few journalists that covered the Armenian Genocide. The moments in which Myers risks his life to get the atrocious news to the public are heart-pounding to watch. Still, Bale doesn’t have much believable chemistry with the lovely Charlotte Le Bon (who also starred in last year’s underrated historical thriller ANTHROPOID). Le Bon’s Ana is more of a glorified supporting character in the proceedings. She drives the love-story forward, but Bale and Isaac are equal important in both stories.

THE PROMISE’s overall look feels epic. The story spans across various locations and the cinematography is beautiful. With a 90 million dollar budget, it’s clear that Terry Jones threw every penny he had at the screen. It’s upsetting that this film won’t perform better at the box office, because it wasn’t put out during the Oscar-friendly awards season and instead is being released in April (to coincide with the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide’s first recorded date). The music in this film is powerful too, but never overtakes the emotion being brought to the screen by the performances and the writing. High production values really help cement this story’s large scope and believable visuals.

THE PROMISE isn’t likely to garner the same amount of critical acclaim and financial success that HOTEL RWANDA or other WWI/WWII dramas have received. The film very much succeeds at being a tragic drama about the Armenian Genocide, but occasionally shoots itself in the foot with the clichéd love triangle plot. THE PROMISE’s performances, visuals, music, and a majority of scenes are great in many respects. However, those darn clichés and occasional missteps into corniness keep the entire film from reaching its full potential. Even with those flaws, THE PROMISE is definitely worth a watch. Just be prepared to feel very depressed afterwards, because World War I also had a Holocaust.

Grade: B+

SURROGATES (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence, Disturbing Images, Language, Sexuality and a Drug-Related Scene

Directed by: Jonathan Mostow

Written by: John Brancato & Michael Ferris

(based on the graphic novel THE SURROGATES by Robert Venditti)

Starring: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Jack Noseworthy, James Cromwell, Ving Rhames, Boris Kodjoe & Devin Ratray

SURROGATES is a sci-fi-action thriller that sounds really cool in theory and had a solid marketing campaign behind it. I remember being excited for back in Fall 2009 and then leaving the theater underwhelmed. Where does this high-concept, so-so delivery sci-fi flick go wrong? Well, it’s due to a variety of factors that I’ll be looking at. SURROGATES is not a bad movie, not at all. There are some cool qualities and decent entertainment value to be had, but not much else.

In the far distant future of 2025, society has embraced the usage of mind-operated androids, known as “surrogates.” These machines allow you to live your life without ever leaving your home. You change your appearance to suit your needs (regardless of age, race, gender or body type). You can never worry about disease again and avoid danger on a daily basis. Crime rates have plummeted an astounding 99% since the implementation of surrogates, but that changes when FBI agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) and his partner Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell) are called in to investigate the first homicide in years. Someone has built a weapon that can liquefy the brains of a user through their surrogate. Through a twist of fate, Tom survives an attack and must hunt the killer in a world where the only human on the streets is him.

SURROGATES has a concept that’s brimming with potential and seems incredibly relevant in the social media age. When people are more comfortable chatting as cartoon avatars or vicariously living through a celebrity’s live feed, then this film holds some truth. The social commentary sprinkled throughout SURROGATES is far from subtle, but it does remain interesting. This includes Tom’s wife, Maggie (Rosamund Pike), being all-out addicted to her surrogate to avoid a tragic reality. However, ideas of military use, surrogates as tools, murder being involved in surrogates and anti-surrogate protesters are all briefly glanced over in a shallow way. Even Maggie’s sad storyline seems a bit sidelined in the later proceedings.

The more interesting pieces of SURROGATE’s plot are placed in the backseat to make way for a rather clichéd murder-conspiracy thriller. The problem with this is that it’s predictable and feels formulaic. The 89-minute running also makes it seem like this movie wants to end as fast as it possibly can, character development and deeper meanings be damned. Taken as it is, SURROGATES is serviceable enough entertainment. However, there’s never any time for the viewer to adjust to a new plot twist or ponder a new clue that Greer discovers. This lazy script immediately spoonfeeds the audience everything. This is especially mind-boggling because the very premise of SURROGATES seems like it would provide food for thought.

As Tom Greer, Bruce Willis looks very bored. It’s almost like he realized how much of a missed opportunity this entire endeavor was and then proceeded to phone it in. Bored Willis is entertaining in a few ways, but it doesn’t feel like he’s putting much effort into his performance at all. Radha Mitchell is okay enough as Agent Peters, but it feels like some of her character’s scenes were deleted. At least, this is the impression I got from the inclusion of her non-surrogate moments that seem to have no rhyme or reason to exist. Rosamund Pike is solid as Greer’s grief-stricken, surrogate-addicted wife and easily gives the best performance of the cast.

James Cromwell makes a welcomed presence as the inventor of surrogates, but his screen time is limited to say the least. It’s almost like they brought Cromwell on for a single day of shooting and then quickly ushered him away from the set. Ving Rhames is entertaining in just about every film he’s starred in and that remains the case here. As anti-surrogate leader The Prophet, Rhames is allowed some room to ham it up and be menacing. Much like Cromwell’s scientist though, it feels like there’s just too little of him.

SURROGATES is like the feature-length version of an okay TWILIGHT ZONE episode. The effects and production values look good, as they should with an 80-million-dollar price tag attached to them. Intricacies in this android-filled world are briefly touched upon and then fast forgotten, while there is one decent deeper subplot in this film. The action is fun and the half-assed thriller script is entertaining for what it is. If this is on cable or you’re out of film choices, then I’d say give SURROGATES a watch. It’s an 89-minute time killer that will keep your attention, but leave you wondering how much better this might have been with a smarter screenplay behind it. Overall, SURROGATES is okay…when it could have been great.

Grade: B-

ROMEO IS BLEEDING (1994)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Language and Sexuality

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Directed by: Peter Medak

Written by: Hilary Henkin

Starring: Gary Oldman, Lena Olin, Annabella Sciorra, Juliette Lewis, Roy Scheider, Michael Wincott, Will Patton, James Cromwell & Ron Perlman

The 90’s was a strange time for cinema. Though many of my friends cite the 70’s or the 80’s as their favorite decade in film, I personally favor the 90’s. Bold new talents were arriving and great old talents were putting out some of their best work. The filmmaking scene was expanding into exciting new areas as independent films made huge waves. With all of the great movies coming out of this oddball decade, many forgotten and overlooked gems were buried. ROMEO IS BLEEDING premiered at a couple of film festivals before being trashed by most critics and flopping hard at the box office. That’s really a shame as this super dark modern noir deserves more fans than it has. Peter Medak didn’t go on to do anything of note after ROMEO IS BLEEDING, but could have very well ended up as a tour-de-force like Tarantino or the Coen brothers. This is film is that good!

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Jack Grimaldi is a New York cop who’s recently discovered the monetary benefits of playing both sides of the law. He serves as a police officer by day and mob informant by night. Aside from his corrupt double-life, Jack is also cheating on his wife with a younger mistress. His newest illegal assignment is to kill a psychopathic Russian assassin, Mona, who will briefly be in his custody. Jack fails to complete his task due to a sexual attraction to Mona. As a consequence for not going through with the deed, Jack finds his life thrown into turmoil. Both his wife and mistress are now in danger from an intimidating mob boss, all while Mona keeps reappearing in his life with unclear intentions. Jack’s been thrown into a deadly mess of blood, money, and sex. If he walks away alive, he won’t be walking away clean.

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As far as film noirs go, ROMEO IS BLEEDING is among the most vicious and grimy that I’ve seen. The New York locations shine under solid cinematography, especially the nighttime scenes. A constant feeling of ever-approaching dread keeps escalating with each passing minute. The screenplay is a tightly constructed web of deceit and violence that keeps the viewer on their toes. I gasped multiple times while watching this film, especially as things spiral out-of-control in the second half. The soundtrack is both a blessing and a curse. It’s very pleasing throughout most of the movie and seems to fit certain scenes like a glove. However, there are a couple of points where it borders on distracting as it’s trying a bit too hard to emulate past film noir music. My only complaint with this film lies in those few moments of so-so music. Otherwise, it’s a pretty damned awesome thriller tailor-made for those who like their crime films to be dark, complicated and twisted!

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Of course, a great screenplay wouldn’t do much if the performers weren’t pulling their weight. A pre-LEON Gary Oldman plays Jack as a morally reprehensible being. He starts off as a pathetic character who is easily manipulated. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for him and though he’s pretty much a scumbag through and through, he’s very interesting to watch (especially when you see that he does care about the safety of those around him). His unhinged narration throughout gives us an insight into why he makes some of the stupid decisions that he does, even gains a bit of pity as he deeply regrets committing his crimes. Juliette Lewis and Annabella Sciorra star as Jack’s love interests and are fairly well-developed through little nuances they put into their performances (especially Juliette Lewis lecturing Jack upon discovering that he’s a married man). Roy Scheider plays the mob boss as calm, collect, and very dangerous. Finally, there’s the show’s real scene-stealer in Lena Olin’s Mona. This character is an absolute psychopathic monster and Olin is a beast in the part. She’s downright terrifying and one of my new favorite femme fatales.

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ROMEO IS BLEEDING won’t be please everyone. It might be too dark, grim and violent for some. Those looking for an intense modern noir will not be disappointed though. From the stellar performances from Gary Oldman and Lena Olin to the insane screenplay that goes into macabre corners that you wouldn’t imagine possible, this is one the best underrated gems that I’ve found in reviewing for this website thus far. ROMEO IS BLEEDING is a film that I plan on revisiting many times in the future and is definitely worth checking out!

Grade: A

BIG HERO 6 (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

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

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Directed by: Don Hall & Chris Williams

Written by: Robert L. Baird, Dan Gerson & Jordan Roberts

(based on the BIG HERO 6 comics)

Voices of: Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Daniel Henney, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk & Maya Rudolph

Disney is known for tales of princess, far off lands, and immensely creative retellings of classic stories. Every now and then, Disney tries something new or unusual out for size. Sometimes, this approach comes out with a new classic (WRECK-IT RALPH), but it can also result in a flawed or mixed bag (ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE, LILO & STITCH).  BIG HERO 6 is Disney’s first adaptation of a Marvel comic into an animated family film and winds up being a decent enough movie with some frustrating problems.

BIG HERO 6, from left: Hiro (voice Ryan Potter), Baymax (voice: Scott Adsit), 2014. ©Walt Disney

In a colorful futuristic city called San Fransokyo, Hiro Hamada (a 14-year-old genius) spends his time hustling at illegal bot fights (think cock-fighting by remote-controlled robots). With Tadashi’s (Hiro’s older brother) guidance, Hiro is interested in attending a high-tech university, but disaster strikes. Hiro teams up with the gentle giant Baymax (Tadashi’s invention: an inflatable nurse-like robot) to stop an evil villain, but he’ll also need the help of four friends to take down the masked baddie. This is pretty basic stuff for a superhero origin story, but it’s executed fairly well for about two-thirds of the movie.

BIG HERO 6, from left: Fred (voice: T.J. Miller), Honey Lemon (voice: Genesis Rodriguez), Hiro

BIG HERO 6 takes place in an awesome world. The visuals are beautiful and there’s a lot of creativity on display. A scene in which Hiro flies on Baymax’s back through the skies of San Fransokyo reminded me of the best scene in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON because of how gorgeous the animated environment looked around them. There’s also a unique style to the animation itself in that this almost comes off like an anime met up with regular computer animation and had a baby. A few characters look like they’re right out of a manga (Hiro, Tadashi, etc.) and others look like they’re from typical animated designs, but they blends seamlessly into one big world that is very cool to look at. It’s an awesome film in terms of pure animation, but the script itself is where things falter.

BIG HERO 6, Yokai (voice: Charles Adler), 2014. ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/courtesy

The characters in BIG HERO 6 are fun to watch, but pretty standard. With the exception of Hiro and Baymax, everyone else comes off as a one-note joke and don’t receive enough time to develop into actual characters. Hiro is a sympathetic teenager who’s suffering from severe depression and Baymax shows a remarkable amount of emotions for a robot (as well as providing the best comic relief in the whole movie). There’s genuine friendship between them that’s the best aspect of the film, besides the unique animation. However, BIG HERO 6 tries to have it both ways in terms of being a rocking superhero movie and a cutesy kid’s film. This isn’t a great mix and it’s clear that a lot of things were compromised in terms of making this child-friendly (just wiki some of the details about the source material for examples). BIG HERO 6 works very well for the first hour (maybe a little longer) thanks to well-placed humor. It’s a fun and entertaining flick that is almost compromised by a rushed climax.

BIG HERO 6, from left: Hiro (voice Ryan Potter), Baymax (voice: Scott Adsit), 2014. ©Walt Disney

All the momentum and entertainment nearly goes out the window in the final third. We are given the reveal of who the kabuki-masked villain is and I will give BIG HERO 6 praise in it being not completely predictable, but the details surrounding the bad guy are so rushed that beating him almost seemed like a shrug-inducing obligation. The stakes weren’t too high and the final battle is an afterthought. The climax isn’t compelling or very exciting. There are even a couple of plot holes introduced by the rushed showdown. It’s almost like you’re on a really fun rollercoaster ride and the cars stop for the final third, so you’re forced to get out and walk the rest of the track. That’s the exact same effect of watching BIG HERO 6.

BIG HERO 6, from left: Baymax (voice: Scott Adsit), Hiro (voice Ryan Potter), 2014. ©Walt Disney

Depending on how well it performs at the box office, BIG HERO 6 is likely to become a new franchise for Disney. I liked the world of this story enough to watch a sequel, but this film is just okay overall. It’s a decent enough origin story that doesn’t develop the colorful characters enough to make me care about anyone other than the two leads and nearly falls apart completely in the last third (opening up a big plot hole and cliché that you can see coming from a mile away). BIG HERO 6 is satisfying family entertainment, but you’d expect more from both Marvel and Disney (let alone a combination of the two).

Grade: B-

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