ATOMIC BLONDE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences of Strong Violence, Language throughout, and some Sexuality/Nudity

Directed by: David Leitch

Written by: Kurt Johnstad

(based on the graphic novel THE COLDEST CITY by Antony Johnston & Sam Hart)

Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones & Bill Skarsgard

In MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, Charlize Theron proved that she could be a bad-ass action star. In stylish spy thriller ATOMIC BLONDE, an adaptation of the graphic novel THE COLDEST CITY, Theron steps away from the sidelines and into the main role. Many reviews and a lot of early word-of-mouth have called this flick a “female JOHN WICK” and that’s quite a poor comparison. If you’re expecting gun-fu from start to finish with ridiculous high stakes, you may find yourself occasionally bored by ATOMIC BLONDE. However, it will likely blow away folks who enjoy unpredictable, adrenaline-pumping espionage thrillers that are packed with action, sex, and a killer soundtrack of well-chosen 80s hits. ATOMIC BLONDE is pretty friggin’ great in those respects and lands as one of 2017’s best action films so far.

After an MI6 agent is killed in Berlin and “The List” of secret agents winds up missing, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is assigned to recover “The List” and assassinate a mysterious traitor known as Satchel. Once in Berlin, Lorraine immediately finds herself immediately beset by murderous KGB agents, a French lesbian spy (Sofia Boutella), an eccentric contact (James McAvoy), and a politically turbulent climate (during the final days of the Berlin Wall). As Lorraine investigates her fellow spy’s murder, the whereabouts of “The List,” and the possible identity of Satchel, the bullets fly and bodies pile up.

Judging ATOMIC BLONDE strictly from its premise, this spy-thriller doesn’t sound all that original. However, the film’s execution, pacing that starts off slow and then throws a barrage of unexpected twists during the second half, and constant balls-to-the-wall style make this film well worth watching. I am kind of shocked by how much I enjoyed this movie. I was expecting just another fun action flick and I received a smart, suspenseful, and violent spy-thriller. Again, don’t expect a female JOHN WICK (like the marketing and countless reviews have compared this to) and your expectations will be appropriately geared towards what ATOMIC BLONDE offers.

Charlize Theron does a fantastic job of kicking ass and taking names as Lorraine. This BLONDE heroine is smart, sexy, and always tries to be step ahead of those who want her killed, though her mistakes add considerable intensity to certain moments in the latter half. James McAvoy is fun as her colleague David Percival, capturing a quirkiness and a hard-to-read nature as the viewer suspects that he’s not quite telling our protagonist everything that he knows. John Goodman and Toby Jones are enjoyable to watch as two interrogators, while Sofia Boutella adds extra sexiness as the aforementioned French lesbian spy.

ATOMIC BLONDE’s success also derives from telling a been-there-done-that premise in a fresh way. This film’s cinematography looks amazing (with lots of bright neon colors) and the 80s soundtrack just might have the best song choices of 2017 (arguably better than BABY DRIVER‘s never-ending feature-length playlist). The film’s narrative is constructed in a non-linear fashion with flashbacks and flash-forwards to and from Lorraine’s eventual interrogation about her Berlin mission. This allows for the film to feel like it’s constantly moving, even during the slower moments of character development and clues revolving around possible double-crossings (after all, there is at least one rogue agent afoot).

In terms of action, ATOMIC BLONDE excels in these moments. Accompanied by kick-ass 80s pop and alternative songs (lending authenticity to the 1989 setting), these scenes have steady camera work (none of that shaky-cam bullshit) and believable choreography. The action ranges from shoot-outs to beat-downs to car chases. No two action scenes are alike and the stakes are established early on, making these sequences even more gripping as a result. I especially like how the characters get worn out by their frequent confrontations. One of this film’s best fight scenes features Lorraine and a thug stumbling around as they try to go at each other. It makes sense that they would be tired, because they were both just thrown down two flights of stairs and had already taken blows from each other. Yet another moment (unforgettably set to ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry”) has a guy struggling to get a knife out of his back and it feels cringe-inducingly brutal.

ATOMIC BLONDE’s only big flaw comes from the final 10 minutes packing in possibly one twist too many and then not giving the viewer time to fully digest the new revelation. Still, this film is so damn entertaining from start to finish for a variety of reasons. The performances are great from every cast member and the entire film sheds its cliché-sounding premise through clever non-linear storytelling, kick-ass action sequences, and sheer style. Don’t expect ATOMIC BLONDE to be “the female JOHN WICK” and do expect it to be a smart, suspenseful spy-thriller. On those grounds, this flick is an absolute blast!

Grade: A-

SPLIT (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Disturbing Thematic Content and Behavior, Violence and some Language

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Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

Written by: M. Night Shyamalan

Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula & Brad William Henke

If nothing else, M. Night Shyamalan is an interesting filmmaker. He rose to fame with THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE, and SIGNS. After those three hits, M. Night fell into a downward spiral with THE VILLAGE, LADY IN THE WATER, THE HAPPENING, and THE LAST AIRBENDER. In 2015, Shyamalan made an unexpected comeback with quirky found footage flick THE VISIT and was then green-lit for a mysterious horror-thriller called SPLIT. That film has finally reached theaters and it’s pleasantly surprising to say that Shyamalan is back with one of his best efforts to date. SPLIT is a twisted Hitchcockian thriller with lots of suspense, smart writing and one of the most amazing acting feats in quite some time.

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On the way home from a birthday party, teenage friends Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are suddenly abducted. Waking in a small cell-like room, the three captives discover that their kidnapper is the mentally unhinged Kevin (James McAvoy). Kevin has severe dissociative identity disorder to a degree where 23 personalities inhabit his body. It appears that the three girls have been captured for a very special (foreboding) purpose and the clock is ticking. Meanwhile, Kevin’s psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) begins to suspect that her patient might be doing something drastic…and a fearsome 24th personality begins to emerge.

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SPLIT feels like Shyamalan’s most mature, grown-up thriller to date. He treats the film’s PSYCHO-esque subject matter with attention to detail, genuine emotion/sympathy and never goes into any potentially exploitative areas. Walking into this movie, I was expecting to see 24 different personalities that the girls would have to contend with and each one would be crazy in some way. However, this film is much more restrained and clever than that. The script carefully unfolds in a way that, at first, seems disjointed and then digs its hooks into the viewer. Exposition isn’t thrown out in dialogue-heavy scenes, but is hinted at in sparse conversations and little details that become bigger over time.

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SPLIT is easily the darkest Shyamalan movie to date and keeps ramping up its intensity with each passing minute. The final third had me on the edge of my seat and the suspense is further elevated by masterfully atmospheric cinematography. The film’s visuals are gorgeous and the set design of Kevin’s lair is appropriately creepy. Flashbacks are used to flesh out the main character (of the three teenage captives) and these come to a head in a deeply disturbing, heartbreaking conclusion that I wasn’t expecting. Like I said, SPLIT is a smart, disturbing movie. The more I think about this film, the more I like it.

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As far as acting is concerned, Anya Joy-Taylor is proving herself to be a talented young regular in modern horror. I haven’t seen MORGAN yet, but her performance was solid in THE WITCH and she’s even better in this film as teenage loner Casey. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula perform well as the two other teenage captives and the script attempts to not portray them simply as victims. Coming off an embarrassingly bad performance in THE HAPPENING, Betty Buckley shines in her second Shyamalan outing as a sympathetic psychiatrist with radical theories about dissociative identity disorder.

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The big show-stealer is James McAvoy as Kevin, Barry, Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig and a slew of other personalities that inhabit Kevin’s body. McAvoy is something to behold as he switches his mannerisms, character and voice at the drop of a dime. McAvoy’s multiple characters are threatening, entrancing and comical. You simply have to see his performance to believe it. There are scenes where multiple personalities appear at the same time and you can tell the exact moment when a new personality inhabits Kevin’s body. This “special effect” is purely made from McAvoy’s acting abilities is unnerving and amazing to look at. This is the best performance (or performances) of James McAvoy’s impressive career thus far.

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SPLIT isn’t free of minor flaws though. One flashback to Kevin’s childhood feels slightly out-of-place, a few lines of dialogue feel stilted, and the final minutes may arguably be too far-fetched. However, this film surprised the hell out of me. It’s easily Shyamalan’s second-best outing, next to THE SIXTH SENSE, and shows a remarkable growth for him as director/writer. If you want a thriller that’s gorgeous to look at, toys with the viewer’s expectations like a cat with a mouse, and has one of most memorable psychos in recent memory, then definitely check out SPLIT!

Grade: A

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of Violence, Action and Destruction, brief Strong Language and some Suggestive Images

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Directed by: Bryan Singer

Written by: Simon Kinberg

(based on the X-MEN comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Josh Helman, Ben Hardy & Lana Condor

After seeing the stinger at the end of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, X-MEN fans were greatly anticipating the big screen appearance of the X-Men’s greatest foe: Apocalypse! With Bryan Singer returning to direct, it seemed like nothing would potentially go wrong with this ninth(!) installment in the X-MEN franchise. While APOCALYPSE definitely has its moments and glimmers of great potential, I couldn’t help but be reminded of X-MEN: THE LAST STAND during multiple points. APOCALYPSE isn’t quite as bad as that film, because it still manages to maintain a big dumb fun sense of entertainment. Still, prepare to be underwhelmed.

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The year is 1983 and the events of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST have changed the world. Mutants and humans find themselves in danger when En Sabah Nur (a.k.a. Apocalypse, played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac) awakens from a centuries-long slumber in his Egyptian tomb. This intimidating villain was history’s first mutant and has acquired a vast variety of powers throughout the years, making him pretty much invincible. Apocalypse is looking to break down our world and build a better one on top of it, recruiting four horseman along the way: Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and a newly enraged Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Pitted against Apocalypse and his four horsemen are Professor X (James McAvoy), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Havok (Lucas Till) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), alongside newcomers Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Phoenix (Sophie Turner), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). It’s mutants vs. god-like mutants in a showdown that will determine the fate of the world as we know it.

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The X-MEN films often stick out in the crowded superhero genre, because they usually tackle subplots of self-discovery, prejudice, and civil rights as addressed through mutants. While APOCALYPSE has some of these elements, they are mostly overshadowed by a sloppy script covering familiar ground that’s already been seen many times before. This is basically a clichéd, by-the-numbers “good vs. evil” tale that happens to feature the X-MEN. To make matters worse, the screenplay is downright messy and unfocused. It seems like attention was being paid to the wrong details and important scenes were missing (opening up plot holes along the way). This ultimately leads to pacing issues that immediately spring up with four (count ’em, four!) prologue sequences before the main plot can even begin.

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Though he’s a clichéd and one-dimensional baddie, Apocalypse remains cool nonetheless. Played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac under layers of make-up and a forty-pound costume, this evil mutant has various abilities that make him seemingly unstoppable. There were multiple points in this story where I wondered how the X-Men could possibly hope to defeat him. Though his preachy monologues can get repetitive, Apocalypse is genuinely scary in his ability to manipulate matter (making for lots of cool kills), teleport, being super strong and having psychic powers to boot. Though he may look a bit ridiculous, this cinematic version of Apocalypse more than resembles his comic book counterpart.

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Other fresh faces come from a new class of young mutants and three of Apocalypse’s “horsemen.” It occasionally feels like APOCALYPSE is trying to cram too many mutants into one film and spends a lot time reintroducing each of them, which slows down the movie’s already mixed momentum. While I love the character of Psylocke and Olivia Munn is positively breathtaking in the role, she really isn’t given a whole lot to do other than fight. Storm and Angel both receives a strong introductions and then don’t do much afterwards. The horsemen (save for Magneto) mainly stand around, make Apocalypse look cool, and then engage in a quick fight or two.

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I was really excited to see Tye Sheridan as Cyclops and Sophie Turner as Phoenix…but they both seem to be hit or miss in their roles. It’s almost as if they want to emulate James Marsden and Famke Janssen’s versions of the characters, but are also trying to do their own thing. This results in two uneven characters from performers who seem slightly uncomfortable in their roles. Kodi Smit-McPhee more than makes up for their shortcomings as Nightcrawler. McPhee has been hit-or-miss in his past roles, but Nightcrawler is easily one of his best performances. He nails the awkwardness of this teleporting, blue-tailed mutant. It doesn’t really bear mentioning how Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters, and Michael Fassbender are in their roles, because they all have their parts down and have done so for two movies.

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APOCALYPSE’s script suffers from a by-the-numbers plot, missing beats, and lots of filler (included for fan service and setting up future installments). The villainous William Stryker (Josh Helman) appears yet again and pads the film by an extra twenty minutes, but the pay-off to this comes in purposely erasing the worst X-MEN movie (no, I’m not talking about THE LAST STAND). The Blob and Jubilee make blink-and-you-missed-it appearances, which seemed like a waste of time for fans altogether. If you’re going to include these characters, show them doing something other than being dragged unconscious out of a fighting ring or walking down a hallway. Also, the Quicksilver scene from DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is replicated here to an eye-rollingly excessive degree.

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On the positive side of things, APOCALYPSE excels in Magneto’s storyline. This tragic metal-bending villain is easily one of X-MEN’s most complex characters and a few powerful scenes expand upon his tragic past. The film looks good and is packed with convincing special effects. Though it becomes too over-the-top in places, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE remains entertaining enough. I am happy that I watched it, but probably won’t subject myself to it again, unless I’m doing an X-MEN marathon. APOCALYPSE is the third-worst X-MEN film (better than THE LAST STAND and ORIGINS: WOLVERINE) and is far from terrible, especially given the high quality from the rest of the series. If you’re an X-MEN fan, you’ll probably find things to like in this mixed bag installment. Still, prepare to walk away underwhelmed.

Grade: C+

VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Macabre Images, Violence and a sequence of Destruction.

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Directed by: Paul McGuigan

Written by: Max Landis

(based on the novel FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley)

Starring: James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott, Charles Dance, Freddie Fox & Mark Gatiss

For some reason, Hollywood seems very eager to put new spins on old monsters. Many recent efforts have flopped and specific titles have turned out downright embarrassing. I’ve seen Benicio Del Toro turn into a CGI werewolf and gallop along rooftops. I tried not to burst out laughing at the stupidity of Frankenstein’s monster fighting hordes of gargoyles and demons. I walked away disappointed as Dracula/Vlad the Impaler became a medieval superhero. The latest incarnation of a classic horror tale made new is VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN…and it’s not that bad. The film isn’t necessarily great either, but I enjoyed VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN as big dumb fun that left me reasonably entertained.

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One night at a rundown circus, brilliant student Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) witnesses a nameless hunchback (Daniel Radcliffe) saving a dying acrobat’s life through improvised surgery and quick thinking. In an act of kindness, Victor frees the knowledgeable and socially awkward hunchback, names him “Igor,” and makes him a partner in his newfangled medical projects. Victor believes that man can create life through scientific means and his radical experiments evolve into horrific crimes against nature. Igor witnesses Victor’s transformation from man to calculating monster. All the while, a wealthy classmate (Freddie Fox) sees Victor’s life-giving potential as a possible means for power and a deeply religious police inspector (Andrew Scott) vows to put a violent stop to the gruesome experiments.

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VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN’s atmospheric visuals capture the creepy 18th century setting through detailed sets and seamless background effects. Frankenstein’s monstrous creations take a backseat to the origin story between Victor and Igor. This might sound like a misguided idea, but screenwriter Max Landis injects a bit of believable humanity into these two otherwise notorious horror characters. Igor is portrayed as a sympathetic guy who has never known kindness until he finds a friendship to hold onto with Victor. However, the film also makes the distinct choice to erase Igor’s hunchback through a disgusting sight gag that made me giggle, but ultimately appears to have been done purely out of the interest of making Daniel Radcliffe look more attractive…for the ladies. His upright look certainly appeals to on-screen love-interest Lorelei (Jessica Brown Friday), who serves as a convenient plot device during a couple of scenes and little else.

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James McAvoy delivers the film’s best performance as the titular mad scientist that we all know and love. An interesting backstory is added to this 2015 version of Frankenstein, but the reason for why Victor desperately wants to create life is given through ham-fisted exposition. McAvoy’s best scenes come in his confrontations with inspector Turpin and an argument with his high-society father (Charles Dance in a one-scene role). Concerning the film’s antagonists, Freddie Fox is underdeveloped as cocky classmate Finnegan and Andrew Scott is solid as deeply religious inspector Roderick Turpin. Turpin’s villainy is fun to watch as the character is arguably always trying to do the right thing, but goes overboard as his investigation becomes obsessive. I wish that Finnegan had been totally discarded and Turpin had instead taken the reigns as the script’s sole villain. That might have made for a more interesting film.

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As far as Victor’s mad science experiments go, we only receive a rabid undead monkey, the expected monster, and a bunch of severed body parts. These add some PG-13 level gore to the mix and are mostly executed in a light-hearted, fun tone that seems to be mimicking Guy Ritchie’s SHERLOCK HOLMES series. This comparison can be taken even further when you realize that both SHERLOCK and VICTOR employ a lot of slow motion and quirky stylistic touches (we see anatomy grids layered over the action during a few key scenes). VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN’s anticipated final creature is a letdown, because his presence basically boils down to being an excuse for explosions and a fistfight. Even at its worst though, this movie remains entertaining in a dumb fun sort of way.

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VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN is better than I, FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA UNTOLD, and VAN HELSING, which might sound like a back-handed compliment. The script has a handful of creative scenes. The gloomy atmosphere is fun. Most of the humor works. James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe build believable enough chemistry together, though the latter should have kept his misshapen hunchback appearance (I realize this might be seen as a nitpick). The writing is occasionally messy though as many cool ideas are frequently overshadowed by action clichés and uneven pacing. As a whole, I’d recommend VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN to those who just want to see a quirky original-ish spin on classic material. It’s fun while it lasts, but will almost certainly be wiped from my mind in a few days’ time.

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!

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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.

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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!

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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!

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (2011)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some mild Rude Humor

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Directed by: Sarah Smith & Barry Cook

Written by: Peter Baynham & Sarah Smith

Voices of: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Marc Wootton, Laura Linney, Eva Longoria, Ramona Marquez & Michael Palin

Aardman Animation is primarily known for their Claymation (WALLACE & GROMIT, THE PIRATES!), but have dipped their hands into computer animation back in 2006 with FLUSHED AWAY. That flick didn’t exactly impress. This past iffy effort and poor marketing are why I was turned off from watching ARTHUR CHRISTMAS for about three years. Turns out that I was cheating myself out of a modern Christmas classic. ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is one of the best animated films to come out of the new millennium that doesn’t have the Pixar label attached to it. Combining imagination, lovable characters and a heartwarming sense of childlike wonder make for a phenomenal film that is sure to become a holiday tradition.

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Santa Claus is very real, but not an immortal jovial old man flying around the world in a single night. There’s a dynasty of Clauses living in the North Pole and they are aided by tons of elves. The current Claus family has three completely different generations of Santas. There’s the retired grand-Santa, the active Santa, and his two sons, technologically advanced Steve and bumbling Arthur. Santa and his elves are in charge of delivering presents and Steve is in charge of the S-1 (an enormous computer-powered sleigh), but Arthur is in charge of reading the letters of children around the world. After a child’s gift is mistakenly undelivered, Arthur takes the initiative and journeys across the world to make sure that one little girl has a merry Christmas. Since Arthur isn’t exactly a trained Santa, his race against time goes a little awry to say the least, which causes conflicting views in the Claus family to butt heads.

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One special factor that makes ARTHUR CHRISTMAS unique from other family films of this kind is that there’s no real antagonist. The family members have conflicting viewpoints causing friction in their relationships, but nobody is perfect as each generation of Santa has their own flaws. Grand-Santa glamorizes the good old days and yearns for the fame he once had. The current Santa is too self-centered to realize that he’s hogging glory that should rightfully be passed down to his sons. Steve is so obsessed with the technical side of Christmas that he neglects the pure emotion surrounding the season. Arthur is a clumsy and cowardly guy who’s sort of roped into this quest.

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These characters are all essential pieces in a brightly colored world that’s filled with imagination around every corner. The visuals here are crisp and vibrant. There’s a warm holiday glow around the environments, but each location is given a unique flare. Let’s just say that England isn’t the only place that Arthur rides a sleigh through. Vocal talents of big actors bring these various Santas to life. James McAvoy’s voice disappears into the overly eager Arthur. Bill Nighy nails it as Grand-Santa and Jim Broadbent plays the current Santa. Hugh Laurie is excellent as Steve. Finally, there’s my favorite character, Byrony. This punkish elf (complete with unique hair-style and facial piercings) provides the biggest laughs in the whole film. She’s in charge of wrapping presents and accompanies Arthur on his trip. Not to mention that’s she is just plain adorable. I want a stuffed Byrony and I’m a grown-ass man.

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Another top-notch quality that seals the deal in ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is a brilliant sense of humor. There are jokes being thrown out at a mile a minute. Running gags pop up frequently and one of them (involving wild life that gets in when you leave the door open at the North Pole) absolutely cracked me up on multiple occasions. There’s plenty of witty banter among the characters and the script is far more clever than one might initially expect going into this film.

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The best thing about ARTHUR CHRISTMAS that separates it from many other holiday films and animated family fare is that a lot of heart was clearly put into this whole movie. The story is funny and imaginative, but also has the genuine sweetness that makes beloved Christmas classics worth watching year after year. It’s simultaneously heart-warming and hysterical, which are two good qualities that go great together.

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I’ve said before and will say again that the best children’s films are the ones that make adults feel young at heart as well as delighting younger viewers. These movies respect the intelligence of the audience, in spite of supposedly being constructed only for kids. ARTHUR CHRISTMAS nails every quality that matters in a story like this and manages to be perfect all around. I don’t have a single complaint or problem with any part of this movie. The feeling that ARTHUR CHRISTMAS leaves is specific to the holiday season should be cherished by viewers of every age. ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is a modern, magical holiday classic that I will watch repeatedly for years to come.

Grade: A+

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

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

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Directed by: Bryan Singer

Written by: Simon Kinberg

(based on the comic books DAYS OF FUTURE PAST by Chris Claremont & John Byrne)

Starring: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Patrick Stewart, Michael Fassbender, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Nicholas Hoult, Shawn Ashmore, Omar Sy, Daniel Cudmore, Booboo Stewart, Fan Bingbing, Adan Canto, Evan Peters, Josh Helman & Lucas Till

How far comic book movies have come. If you traveled back to 2000 and told any X-Men fan that there would be seven films in the series with the Days Of Future Past storyline being covered in a 2014 installment, they probably would have either groaned (in fear of Hollywood screwing it all up) or laughed in your face (taking the whole thing as wishful thinking). Through the great entries (X-MEN 2 and FIRST CLASS) to the just plain bad (ORIGINS: WOLVERINE and X-MEN 3), the X-MEN series has seen good times and rough spots. DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (the seventh movie!) is the most accomplished film in the series. This is a superhero fan’s wet-dream come true and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t wind up being the best (and biggest) movie of Summer 2014. So many things could have gone wrong in the ambitious scope of this project. Tons of characters are sprawling over two different time periods and the plot might have easily wound up in confusing convoluted areas. With original X-MEN 1 & 2 director Bryan Singer directing, FUTURE PAST easily winds up being one of the best superhero movies of all-time and takes bold new directions for the franchise.

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The future is a bleak wasteland. Mutant-hunting robots called Sentinels have run rampant and civilization is in ashes as mutants are being reduced to an endangered species. As well-known mutants are dying left and right from these killing machines, one last hope emerges. Kitty Pryde (a.k.a. Shadowcat seen in X-MEN 3) has developed a mutation that allows the consciousness of a person to be taken back in time. In order to avert the event that caused the 50-year downward spiral of the creation of the Sentinels, Wolverine’s consciousness travel back to his 1973 self in order to change the future. This means finding a disheveled Professor X, a locked-up Magneto, and a vengeance-seeking Mystique before history repeats itself or the future winds up on a potentially darker course. To give too many details away would spoil some of the fun to be had in this superhero extravaganza. Comic book nerds and those who have a vague recollection of the “Future Past” storyline will find that creative liberties have been taken, but it all works out in favor for an infinitely satisfying summer blockbuster that delivers on every level imaginable.

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Immediately taking a darker tone than any of the previous installments, FUTURE PAST makes it clear that everything hinges on the journey that Wolverine and the younger mutants are taking in order to save the world. Employing the use of every single big mutant imaginable and some really cool nods to the previous films, this is most definitely a movie made for fans. I can’t imagine anyone walking into this seventh X-MEN movie without having seen the original movies, but it’s pretty much required to have watched them all or you’re going to be severely lost. It’s not as if the movie is so convoluted and intricate that it requires you having finished a marathon of the series mere hours before walking in, but it helps if you’re an X-MEN movie junkie.

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The time-traveling aspect of the movie could have easily been a B-movie level gimmick, but the way it pertains to the plot and how it’s being used makes all the difference. Everything being played so straight-faced in this would-be ridiculous scenario works as movie magic on the audience to treat it seriously and invest their emotions into watching everything play out in front of your eyes. FUTURE PAST is a movie so gripping, exciting, and well-paced from frame one that I felt as if I was in the film. That’s the primary purpose of this visual art-form to begin with. Movies are meant to suck you into a completely other world and kept you in that universe for the running time. For a movie running at over two hours, everything is extremely well-paced. Nothing is left to drag and my anxiety levels were going up for the characters as story got drastically more complicated.

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The brilliance of FIRST CLASS (which is easily the second highest entry in the series) combines with the balls-to-the-wall creative nature of X-MEN 2 (the third highest entry in the series) in DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. It’s a game-changer in the series that has left me excited for the many more sequels there are to come (it’s been reported that some of the newcomers have signed on for four more films). Things have changed. An impact has been made. The wrongs of the two lesser entries have been corrected in the writing of this latest installment. This is a superhero movie that absolutely shines out of, not only the X-MEN series, but the entire comic book film genre as a whole. Christopher Nolan brought us the DARK KNIGHT trilogy and it seems like Singer’s X-MEN is more than willing to be a substitute for that series!

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What else can I really say that you don’t already assume? Every cast member (despite how small some of their roles are) does a fantastic job in their parts. Some reprising characters for the sixth time now and others are fresh faces, but they all play on the same level of competent talent. DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is awesome! It’s absolutely awesome and plays on an epic scale. Those two words (awesome, epic) are overused in this internet age, but they truly apply to this latest sequel. One of the most complex storylines in the comics has made its way to the big screen in brilliant fashion. FUTURE PAST is probably going to wind up being the biggest movie of the summer. It’s one of the best films 2014 has to offer (thus far). This makes me so excited to see all the things that are coming next, beginning with APOCALYPSE in 2016.

Grade: A+

MUPPETS MOST WANTED (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some mild Action

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Directed by: James Bobin

Written by: Nicholas Stoller & James Bobin

Starring: Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey, Steve Whitmore, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, Peter Linz, Zach Galifianakis, Salma Hayek, Tom Hiddleston, Frank Langella, Ray Liotta, James McAvoy, Chloe Grace Moretz, Danny Trejo, Stanley Tucci & Christoph Waltz

In 2011, those lovable oddball puppets known as the Muppets appeared in the aptly titled THE MUPPETS. While I liked that film to a certain degree, it was a tad underwhelming and never really focused on what made the Muppets so successful to begin with. With MUPPETS MOST WANTED, the humans play side characters and the Muppets themselves take center stage for this caper-adventure-musical. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a great romp nonetheless!

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“The End” remains in the sky formed from fireworks at the closing of the last film. The cameras are still rolling. This obviously means that the studio wants a sequel (as Gonzo sings “at least until Tom Hanks does TOY STORY 4”). So the Muppets meet with a manager, named Dominic Badguy (pronounced Bad-gee), and sign up for a worldwide tour. Meanwhile, a criminal frog named Constantine escapes from a high-security prison in Russia. Kermit accidentally runs into him and Constantine cleverly switches places. Posing as the host of the Muppet show (and doing a bad voice impression of Kermit), Constantine is in cahoots with Badguy. Together they are pulling off a series of intricate heists and using the Muppet tour to avoid suspicion. With Kermit locked away in the Russian slammer, it’s up to a small group of Muppets to rescue Kermit, take down Constantine, and save the day!

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Though the opening musical number states that “sequels aren’t ever quite as good”, I found MUPPETS MOST WANTED to be a significant step up from the predecessor. Considering this is actually the eighth installment of their theatrical films, the Muppets haven’t lost their witty humor and still know how to win over a crowd. Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll spot a ton of celebrity cameos throughout. None of these are distracting. I’d dare say that some of them are nothing short of brilliant. One of which actually got a cheer from numerous people in my theater. The Muppets (though undeniably puppets) have a charming lifelike quality that is just as effective as the living people surrounding them. Certain humans stand out more than others. Ricky Gervais is clearly having a blast playing Badguy and provides a lot of solid laughs. The relationship between Ty Burrel’s Interpol agent and CIA agent Sam the Eagle that was my favorite part of the film. Those two cracked me up constantly and it was almost like the Muppets do a cop drama with the intended hilarious results.

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Some people have praised Tina Fey’s performance as the singing Russian prison officer. I actually didn’t like her character much and found her to be more annoying than anything else. The songs, while catchy in the context of the film, didn’t stick with me after I was done watching it (unlike other Muppet films). The running time of almost two hours long feels a tad stretched too. I never got bored, but I could feel that some scenes were going on a little longer than they needed to. It’s the one of same problems that 2011’s THE MUPPETS suffered from and I did enjoy MUPPETS MOST WANTED so much more than that initial let-down. These flaws take things down a notch, but it remains solid wholesome entertainment for the entire family.

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Though I did have some problems with the film, MUPPETS MOST WANTED is ultimately a cheerful upbeat tale that will delight both adults and children alike. The songs work in the film and it’s clear that all the stops were pulled out to treat this caper as a legitimate adventure…that just happens to have Muppets. MUPPETS MOST WANTED ranks just behind MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND (which still remains my favorite film starring this group of oddballs). The never-ending sense of humor and rapid fire pace of the jokes themselves (though the plot could have used a shorter running time) are both enough to warrant a solid recommendation. Welcome back, Muppets! You’ve been missed!

Grade: B

FILTH (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

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

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Directed by: Jon S. Baird

Written by: Jon s. Baird

(based on the novel FILTH by Irvine Welsh)

Starring: James McAvoy, Imogen Poots, Jamie Bell, Eddie Marsan, Joanne Froggatt, Shirley Henderson, Jim Broadbent, Emun Elliott, Iain De Caestecker & Pollyanma McIntosh

Every once in a great while, I come across a film that I honestly don’t know what to make of upon viewing it. I simply don’t know what hit me. FILTH is a dramatically heavy, comic, and disturbing ride in the life of a mentally unwell Scottish detective. Based on a novel by the controversial author of TRAINSPOTTING (which was also adapted into the acclaimed movie by Danny Boyle), this story doesn’t wholly translate into one specific genre category. Sometimes, it’s a twisted dark comedy that fully embraces the lunacy of its protagonist. Other times, it’s a hard film to watch based purely on the depressing material being presented. FILTH is one that might not garner acclaim from the masses. It’s simply not made for everybody, but there is a definite possibility of it turning into a future cult classic. If one were to mix parts of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE with a cop drama and add a hint of TRAINSPOTTING, then you’d have the sort of idea to what FILTH is!

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Bruce Robertson is as manipulative as they come. Sporting the prestigious title of Detective Sergeant in the Scotland police department, Bruce has his eye on the prize. This being a hefty promotion that may (in his mind) drive his estranged wife back to his arms. Of course, to ensure he gets this promotion, Bruce has to get his hands a little dirty. He’s narrowed down the flaws and strengths of every officer in the running. Through a series of under-handed schemes, he begins to exploit their personal problems and turn them against each other. Bruce is also assigned to a high priority murder investigation and on a lesser note, a mission to identify a prank caller harassing his best friend’s wife. Unbeknownst to anybody, Bruce is also steadily flying off the deep end of sanity and becoming more unstable as he goes along.

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FILTH is not a date movie. In fact, this is probably the last film you want to watch with your significant other. The main character is unlikable from the onset, but the narrative does a surprisingly well-done job of getting the viewer to sympathize with just how damaged he is from the inside. The other characters, with one exception, are never focused on individually. We see everything through Bruce’s lens, but the other actors and actresses playing the side characters give excellent work in coming off as real people who happen to be in this mentally unhinged man’s life. One heartfelt moment where a co-worker of Bruce’s is showing that she cares about him and McAvoy breaks down emotionally in front of her was touching beyond belief.

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Besides McAvoy, Eddie Marsan steals every scene he’s as Clifford Blades, Bruce’s timid best friend. I felt for this guy during the entire time. I’ve known people like Clifford and Marsan gives this pushover a real life on the screen. Jim Broadbent also makes a welcome appearance as Bruce’s doctor, who shows up once in person and multiple times in the increasingly more deranged hallucinations that Bruce suffers. That’s another point that should be brought up. FILTH goes off the deep-end in surreal images throughout. We get supposed narrations from Bruce’s wife, a few day-dreams inside his mind, and some creepy (yet humorous) hallucinations that grow in severity. The story is grounded in the real world. Looking out of the eyes of Bruce, we see just everything he’s thinking and it’s rarely a pretty sight.

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Some of the arguable flaws with the film come in the fact that Bruce can be just plain unpleasant to watch. Personally, I developed a love-hate relationship for this character. The idea that you might be able to overlook the filthy exterior of this damaged man and see inside is part of the reason why FILTH will work so well for a certain percentage of the audience. Bruce curses like a sailor, abuses drugs constantly, and is sexually manipulative. It is only in the final moments of the film that we wholly realize just how out of control he is and the impact that his debaucheries have left on the people around him. One reveal near the ending felt a little too familiar in the fact that we’ve seen it in many other movies and books. You’ll know it, when you see it. This plot-point did wind up working in this film’s favor though.

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Whether one will take it as a dark comedy of dire circumstances or a tragedy with a sense of humor, FILTH is unique and a great film. It can be downright ugly to watch at points and the character of Bruce might leave many with a bad taste in their mouths. For those willing to stray out of lovable (or hell, even likable) protagonists and venture into truly dark territory, this will satisfy your cravings for something out of the ordinary. Entertaining, bleak, darkly hilarious, and shocking all the way through, FILTH is almost perfect in nearly every way. If one can forgive some familiar plot points and the sheer dirty nature they might feel whilst watching the movie, this comes highly recommended for those looking for a difficult piece of visual fiction!

Grade: A-

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