GAME NIGHT (2018)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, Sexual References and some Violence

Directed by: John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein

Written by: Mark Perez

Starring: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Michael C. Hall, Jeffrey Wright & Danny Huston

There were reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic towards GAME NIGHT. The reasons to be optimistic came from the clever premise, hilarious promotional material, and talented leads. The main reason to be pessimistic came from the fact that this was a big studio comedy being released during February, which is typically considered only slightly less worse than January for studios dumping films they don’t believe in. However, GAME NIGHT turns out to be a wildly entertaining ride that you should see in a packed theater filled with other people who are also laughing their asses off. I had a great time watching this very funny film!

Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are two competitive gamers…who also happen to be husband and wife. During one night every week, Max holds a game night for their adult friends and they all have a great time hanging out together. When Max’s more successful show-off brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) comes to town, the game night changes in a strange new direction because Brooks has hired an interactive murder-mystery company to liven things up. However, the game becomes all too real when two actual gangsters break into Brooks’ home and abduct him. Thinking it’s all part of the game, Max, Annie, and their friends find themselves in over the heads…and things get crazier from there.

GAME NIGHT makes no qualms about what it is. This is an adult-oriented comedy that has a fantastic premise. Nothing more, nothing less. While the film does indulge in crass language and occasional crude humor, a lot of laughs result from jokes that aren’t crude for the sake of being crude. Instead, GAME NIGHT actually puts thought into its script and this results in a constant sense of fun. The running gags are great too as certain jokes find themselves not only recurring, but evolving between different characters. My favorite of which easily involves a suspicious police officer neighbor (Jesse Plemons) who has a rather distinct way of wording things. Seriously though, Jesse Plemons steals every scene he’s in and arguably walks away with the entire movie in his pocket.

The rest of the cast contains no slouches either. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams have fantastic on-screen chemistry together. Aside from Plemons, they receive arguably the funniest scenes in the film. My favorite sequence has them playing with a loaded gun (which they think is a toy) and I was giggling the whole way through it. Billy Magnussen is fun as a dim-witted friend Ryan, while Sharon Horgan is well-cast as his date Sarah (using her brains to make up for Ryan’s stupidity). Plenty of laughs also result from a running joke between Lamorne Morris’s Kevin and Kylie Bunbury’s Michelle, a married couple having a rough night in their relationship.

Aside from good jokes, GAME NIGHT contains some (dare I say it) actual suspense in its execution. There are lots of twists and turns woven throughout the plot. Some of these revelations you can see coming from a mile away. Others arrive as legitimate shocks that result in both laughs and gasps. Even though one subplot is pretty damn predictable (anybody with half a brain can figure out how the sibling rivalry angle will wrap up), other surprises result in a couple of unexpected cameos that further liven up the already fun film.

It also helps that GAME NIGHT looks fantastic. The visuals are slick and the film stylizes its establishing shots with miniatures. This causes cars and houses to look like pieces on a board game. This effect isn’t employed to a distracting degree either, but serves as a cool way to transition from certain scenes. There were even audience members that pointed out “that was a cool shot” or commented that they “loved the use of miniatures” by the time the film had concluded. The camera also occasionally pulls neat tricks during the more action-oriented sequences that make these moments stick out from the regular dark comedy moments.

Overall, GAME NIGHT is a very entertaining, clever, and hilarious time at the movies. The actors all bring their A-game. Although the film has one very predictable subplot, there are plenty of unexpected twists to accompany the many laughs. It’s also worth noting that the film contains some of the best running jokes that I’ve seen in years, which evolve over the course of the film along with the characters. If you want to have some good laughs (and who doesn’t, these days), give GAME NIGHT a watch. This is one of the better R-rated comedies to come out in a long time and comes highly recommended.

Grade: B+

SMOKIN’ ACES (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence, Pervasive Language, some Nudity and Drug Use

Directed by: Joe Carnahan

Written by: Joe Carnahan

Starring: Jeremy Piven, Ryan Reynolds, Martin Henderson, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, Tommy Flanagan, Alicia Keys, Common, Taraji P. Henson, Nestor Carbonell, Chris Pine, Kevin Durand, Maury Sterling, Jason Bateman, Ben Affleck, Vladimir Kulich, Peter Berg, Joel Edgerton & Matthew Fox

Playing out like a Tarantino imitation that’s just snorted a heavy dose of cocaine, SMOKIN’ ACES is not a traditionally good movie. It’s ludicrous, over-the-top, and pushes excess for the sake of excess. However, it’s a whole lot of fun. This is a big guilty pleasure of mine that doesn’t deserve the bad rep that it usually receives. I’d go as far as calling this high-octane action-comedy-thriller an underrated gem. Its flaws actually make for part of its charm. This was one of my favorite films in high school (so there’s definitely nostalgia here), but having recently rewatched it for the first time in years, I have to say that SMOKIN’ ACES is a gory good time that consists of bullets, blood and rock-and-roll.

FBI Agents Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Carruthers (Ray Liotta) have been placed on a special extraction mission. Their team is close to cracking open one of the biggest mob busts in history and their entire case hinges on the testimony of Las Vegas performer-turned-snitch Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven). Not wanting to be exposed, the mafia has put out a 1-million-dollar price for Israel’s heart. This ginormous paycheck attracts various undesirables, including: three psychopath neo-Nazi brothers, two lesbian sharpshooters, three smart-aleck bounty hunters, and a couple of very scary killers. The casino hotel that Israel is holed up in soon becomes a bloody battleground between FBI agents and security guards against a slew of psychos who want Israel’s heart (literally).

SMOKIN’ ACES immediately lets us know that it values style over substance with a 1970s-esque credits sequence and title cards to introduce every character. These many introductions take up the first ten minutes of screen time, but are executed in a way that makes every scene naturally flow together. Much like CLOUD ATLAS cut between storylines in a flawless manner, SMOKIN’ ACES carefully balances the many plot threads that it’s juggling throughout (for a majority of the running time). This film employs flashbacks, quick cuts and different scenes of dialogue that deliberately bleed into each other (like one steady conversation between different characters in different locations). Even when the exposition-heavy introductions occasionally seem like a bit much, Joe Carnahan knows how to hold the viewer’s interest.

ACES’s characters include a colorful band of criminals, psychopaths, and scumbags (with a couple of heroic FBI agents thrown in for good measure). Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta do well in their roles as the film’s only two good guys, but the only development they’re given comes from a debriefing and a so-so bit of comic relief near the opening. Andy Garcia seems to be forcing a mind-bogglingly bad Southern accent and winds up with the film’s worst performance as a result. However, the totally irredeemable characters are where this movie shines strongest. Jeremy Piven is in rare form as cokehead, small-time crook Aces and even has a bit of an emotional story arc when he realizes how far he’s fallen. This might not be as effective as it should have been, but it’s a refreshing bit of levity to the bloody chaos ensuing in the hotel’s hallways and elevators.

Speaking of which, SMOKIN’ ACES is super violent! Machetes, chainsaws, grenade launches, creative means of dispatching someone, gruesome torture, and boxes of bullets (for many different types of guns) make their way into the proceedings. This film is ferocious in its action scenes and unabashedly depraved in its wicked sense of humor, but this makes it a blast for viewers that enjoy films like CRANK, SHOOT ‘EM UP or Quentin Tarantino’s entire career. These weapons are wielded by merry miscreants, my favorite of whom are the Tremor brothers (one of which is played by a young Chris Pine). This trio of redneck neo-Nazis aren’t subtle in any way, shape or form. They go into a place blasting and have the film’s most memorable action scene, while also delivering the most darkly hilarious moments in the entire movie.

The relationship between hired killers Sharice (Taraji P. Henson) and Georgia (Alicia Keys) is surprisingly strong, though this occasionally feels like it exists purely for the exploitation factor of having sexy gun-toting lesbians. Common has a brief role that makes for an unexpectedly tense moment, while Joel Edgerton has a silent (but memorable) part in the proceedings. Ben Affleck, Peter Berg, and Jason Bateman are sadly underused as two of the bounty hunters and a deeply depressed lawyer. The film’s biggest problems come from the storyline of Martin Henderson’s reluctant sidekick to Affleck’s bondsman. It’s not that Henderson’s acting is terrible, but most of his scenes feel drastically out-of-place. The worst of these include unfunny bits with a karate-loving preteen wangster. That all being said, this subplot’s grisly punchline is satisfying beyond belief.

SMOKIN’ ACES crams a ton of storylines into one movie and balances them surprisingly well for almost 90 minutes, but a few of these don’t receive satisfying pay-offs in the long run. The biggest examples being an intense killer known as The Plague’s anti-climactic final moment and a face-swapping baddie not receiving a great send-off. The final 20 minutes are meant to arrive as a giant shock to the viewer with two inspired plot twists. One of these is clever and the other is…well…kinda stupid. The film lays down heavy foreshadowing early on as to what the stupid twist might be and I correctly guessed it upon my first viewing. This dumb plot twist and mixed bag conclusion feel like a weak sigh to an otherwise hilarious, raunchy, and chaotic ride.

As a whole, SMOKIN’ ACES is a very entertaining action flick with spurts of insanity, plenty of humor, a cast of colorful characters, and constant fun for viewers who enjoy this sort of thing. The film isn’t perfect in that its final minutes are easily the weakest part of the entire story, there’s a noticeably terrible performance from Andy Garcia, and one subplot feels a little too “out there.” However, I truly enjoy SMOKIN’ ACES for the unabashedly silly action flick that it is. If this sounds like your kind of movie, then it probably is!

Grade: B+

ZOOTOPIA (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

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

Zootopia poster

Directed by: Byron Howard, Rich Moore & Jared Bush

Written by: Jared Bush & Phil Johnston

Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer, Jenny Slate, Alan Tudyk & Kristen Bell

I wasn’t exactly excited to watch ZOOTOPIA. Though Disney seems to be on a winning streak lately, their previous attempt to capture an anthropomorphic animal society (CHICKEN LITTLE) was less than stellar. Though the DMV sloth trailer made me laugh and the reviews have been nothing but great, I still had my doubts walking into ZOOTOPIA. I was pleasantly surprised. ZOOTOPIA is a vibrant, creative, very funny film for the whole family that also packs a nice message into its package. This movie is far smarter than I expected it to be and is guaranteed to entertain viewers of all ages in equal measures.

Zootopia 1

Zootopia is a big city populated by anthropomorphic mammals. Both predators and prey inhabit this massive metropolis. It’s a place where young Judy Hopps has always wanted to live. Despite her small stature, Hopps became the world’s first rabbit police officer and has been assigned to serve in Zootopia as the result of a mammal inclusion program. However, Hopps’s captain is unenthused about her presence and assigns her the less than glamorous position of meter maid. Desperate to prove herself, Officer Hopps agrees to solve a seemingly impossible case or resign from the force. With a ticking clock and no big clues to speak of, Judy Hopps and streetwise fox Nick Wilde must find a missing otter within 48 hours.

Zootopia 2

ZOOTOPIA might sound like a fairly simple and to-the-point animated comedy from that synopsis, but one of the best qualities in this movie is how it wisely changes the viewer’s expectations as it goes along. My set up of the story is only a small portion of a much larger film that packs in a lot of twists, clever humor, and poignant social commentary. Sure, the overall messages about acceptance and discrimination are blatantly obvious, but they never feel too preachy. On the contrary, some of the biggest laughs come from animal “slurs” and species stereotypes. However, the film also balances this humor with a touching story that has real emotional moments.

ZOOTOPIA

Judy Hopps will serve as a good role model for kids, but my favorite character is Nick Wilde (voiced perfectly by Jason Bateman). Though his character might seemingly live up to every cunning fox stereotype that you would expect (hence feeding into the overall message of the film), there are complex inner workings and an instant likability to this smart-aleck predator. These qualities are evident in one of the film’s most emotional moments: an honest heart-to-heart between Nick and Judy. Though the city of Zootopia is vast and packed with many species of entertaining animals, some notable names in the supporting cast include: Idris Elba (the harsh buffalo police captain), J.K. Simmons (the lion mayor), Jenny Slate (the sheep assistant mayor), and Nate Torrence (the cheetah dispatcher).

ZOOTOPIA

The locations in ZOOTOPIA are brought to life through beautiful animation with lots of vibrant colors and creativity. You can tell that a lot of thought, effort, and imagination went into putting together ZOOTOPIA as the smallest details have been thought of and addressed. There are various environments throughout the city (rainforest, frozen tundra, etc.) for different species as well as everything being accurate to the sizes of the animal citizens (mice use small tubes to travel, giraffes have chutes that send up their coffee, etc.). The humor is also to be praised as kids will enjoy goofy physical comedy and “naked” animals at a naturalist colony, but there’s an equal amount of smart laughs to be had for older viewers. Try to name another Disney film that references both THE GODFATHER and BREAKING BAD.

Zootopia 5

Though Pixar has become hit-or-miss since 2010 (with INSIDE OUT being their top-notch return to form), Disney Animation seems to be going through a current Renaissance (much akin to the Disney Renaissance from ’89 to ’99). ZOOTOPIA is the latest in the ever-growing line of modern Disney classics (including FROZEN, WRECK-IT RALPH, and TANGLED). There’s not much else to say about this film without sounding repetitive. The animation is great. The humor is funny. The message is touching and relevant. The characters are lovable. The writing is smart. See it!

Grade: A

My Top 15 Films of 2015

List by Derrick Carter

2015 was a great year for cinema. So much so, that I’ve decided not to make a “Top 10 Films” of the year, but a “Top 15” instead. It should be noted that I haven’t seen every single movie that came out during the past twelve months. I’m one man after all and only pay money for and spend time on stuff that interests me. That being said, I reviewed 132 new releases during 2015. There are a few movies that I plan on covering and could have potentially made this list if I had seen them in 2015. These are: THE REVENANT, CAROL, ANOMALISA, and SON OF SAUL. The fifteen titles that did make the cut are flicks that I absolutely loved, plan on adding to my collection, and rewatching many times for years to come. I don’t expect everybody to agree with all of them, but hopefully I’ve recommended a couple of films that peak your interest.

Before getting into list itself, I feel a few honorable mentions are in order. BRIDGE OF SPIES showed that Steven Spielberg has not lost a shred of talent over the years. THE JINX proved to be a groundbreaking true-crime documentary that literally made history. Coming off a string of misfires, Melissa McCarthy delivered her funniest comedy yet in SPY. Finally, on the scary side of things, KRAMPUS is a great holiday horror-comedy that I plan on making an annual Christmas tradition and GOODNIGHT MOMMY is a freaky shudder-inducing little nightmare. Without further ado, I’ll move onto my favorite films of 2015…

15. Black Mass

15. BLACK MASS: Throughout the years, Johnny Depp has become a ghost of his former talented self, but delivered one of his best performances ever this year. He disappeared into the role Whitey Bulger and became a terrifying on-screen monster. The story is a complex one that couldn’t easily be told in the space of a two-hour film. Though I feel it would have been a modern crime masterpiece if 30 more minutes had been tacked onto the final third, director Scott Cooper did a phenomenal job portraying one of the most notorious gangster stories in American history. Depp isn’t necessarily the star of this movie as the rest of the cast is especially strong. Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, and many more round out a great ensemble picture. It might not be a modern GOODFELLAS, but I’d rank it as a modern CASINO. BLACK MASS is easily one of the best real-life gangster films to come out of the new millennium.

14. It Follows

14. IT FOLLOWS: In the vein of the original HALLOWEEN and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, IT FOLLOWS is one of the single scariest viewing experiences that I’ve had all year. I attended a midnight screening at Sundance and everyone was losing their minds in the theater over this film. While it only has a few big jolts, IT FOLLOWS manages to get under your skin and stay there. I found myself getting progressively more creeped out when I arrived home and couldn’t stop thinking about the film. What’s even better about this movie is how it took the more difficult and complicated route instead of merely becoming a supernatural slasher. Instead, the film lets a dread-soaked atmosphere float around the viewer…and like “it” does to the characters themselves, that feeling follows you around long after the end credits have rolled.

13. Going Clear

13. GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF: The best documentary that I watched all year, GOING CLEAR is a fascinating and disturbing look into the inner workings of Scientology. Covering the formation of this so-called “religion” (you won’t blame me for calling it a cult after you watch this doc) to the huge amount of controversy surrounding it to the systematic abuse of its followers and opponents, GOING CLEAR is a harrowing watch. The testimonies from former members of the church are both chilling and heartbreaking. Some masterful editing also allows for brief moments of humor, such as a cheesy Scientology music video and an improvised awards ceremony invented specifically for Tom Cruise. As I stated in my review back in March, GOING CLEAR would almost be ridiculous and amusing, if it weren’t so devastating and terrifying.

12. Hateful Eight

12. THE HATEFUL EIGHT: It might not be Tarantino’s best film, but I loved the hell out of the HATEFUL EIGHT! A far more contained story than Tarantino’s recent Oscar nominees, this is pretty much RESERVOIR DOGS set in the Old West with more suspense. Besides that familiar set up, Tarantino manages to milk a massive amount of tension from each scene leading up to many unexpected revelations, over-the-top gore, and sick humor. I was on the edge of my seat throughout, almost fell out of my chair laughing at one point, and left totally satisfied.

11. Kingsman

11. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE: Nobody expected this movie to be nearly as good as it was. The two best descriptions I can give KINGSMAN are that it’s either the KICK-ASS of spy movies or a very R-rated take on SPY KIDS. The film is wild, crazy, fast-paced and never takes itself seriously. In a year that’s been populated by plenty of superheroes, KINGSMAN is my favorite comic book adaptation of 2015. The church scene alone was one of the most jaw-dropping sequences I’ve sat through all year. The rest of the film is hugely entertaining and has the balls to take risks. KINGSMAN was definitely one of the biggest cinematic surprises I had all year, but it was upended by…

10. Gift

10. THE GIFT: This is the biggest surprise that I had in 2015. The trailer made it look like a generic thriller that had already been done a million times before. However, this can all be chalked up to bad marketing because Joel Edgerton pulled triple duty and put his heart into this well-crafted shocker. The film intentionally misleads the audience through various points before unleashing big bombshells upon them. The ending also left me speechless and contemplating it for days afterwards. This is one of those films that is pretty much guaranteed to generate a discussion with other film-loving friends. THE GIFT is not a predictable black-and-white thriller, but something much deeper and far scarier.

9. MI5

9. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -ROGUE NATION: The MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series has had its ups and downs. The first was good. The second was crap. The third was great. The fourth was fun. However, I don’t think anybody could have predicted that the fifth installment of this high-octane spy series would be the best of the bunch thus far. That was definitely the case as ROGUE NATION unleashed compelling high stakes, brought back old characters as if no time had passed at all, introduced a cool new ones, and had some fantastic set-pieces. In many ways (Bond girl, villain, secret evil organization), MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -ROGUE NATION was a far better Bond movie than the actual Bond movie we received this year.

8. Crimson Peak

8. CRIMSON PEAK: This gorgeously realized film feels like Edgar Allan Poe and Jane Austen penned a novel together and then Guillermo Del Toro adapted it to the screen. Those who go in expecting endless jump scares and a typical ghost story will find themselves either let down or elated by the film being a gothic romance that happens to contain some very frightening ghosts and thick horror elements in its story. Every frame of the film is beautiful to look at and atmospheric beyond belief. There are shots of this movie that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since I originally saw it and I believe it’s among the very best of Guillermo Del Toro’s filmography. Jessica Chastain is also a fearsome force to behold!

7. Spotlight

7. SPOTLIGHT: A tastefully made movie about one of the most disturbing cover-ups in recent history. SPOTLIGHT could have easily gone for shock value and went all out to demonize religion as a whole. Actually, that’s sort of what I was expecting it to do when I walked into the theater. Imagine my surprise at how restrained and respectful this film is. Aided by one of the most realistic looks at journalism that you’re bound to see on film, the movie packs in so much emotion without ever crossing the line into anything that possibly resemble shock value or cheap shots. Instead, the film asks tough questions, brings powerful performances to the screen, and leaves the viewer with a lot to chew on. This is one of the most important movies of 2015.

6. Macbeth

6. MACBETH: Shakespeare has been brought to the big screen in many ways by many different filmmakers. This beautiful, bleak take on the Scottish Play might just be my favorite Shakespeare movie thus far. With dialogue being delivered in a naturalistic manner and some creative licensing thrown into the centuries-old material, this version of MACBETH somehow improves upon the already perfect tragedy by adding unexpected context into the mix. Michael Fassbender is stunning as the title character, but it’s Marion Cotillard who steals the show. Lady Macbeth is actually made into a sympathetic character which is something that I felt could never, ever be accomplished in any take on the play. It’s also worth noting that this is definitely not a Shakespeare adaptation that will be shown in many high school classrooms, which is a very good thing indeed!

5. Sicario

5. SICARIO: In 2013, Denis Villeneuve wowed me with PRISONERS. In 2015, he returned with the complex cartel thriller SICARIO. A movie that never allows you to get comfortable in your seat or breathe normally throughout its entire running time, SICARIO is a grim, bleak, and depressing movie…and all the better for it. This thriller had a number of stand-out sequences, an intense beyond words finale being one of them. Villeneuve knew precisely when to merely imply the dark deeds occurring just beyond a locked door and when to casually showcase disturbing sights in broad daylight. Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin are all fantastic in their parts. It’s likely that SICARIO will keep you thinking about it long after you’ve finished watching it, but just be prepared for that as there’s no glimmer of happiness or hope to be found within a single frame of this film.

4. Ex Machina

4. EX MACHINA: One of the best pieces of thought-provoking science-fiction to come out in a long, long time, EX MACHINA is a brilliantly crafted beast of a film. I loved everything about it when I first watched it back in April. The performances from the leads (likable Domnhall Gleeson, robotic Alicia Vikander, and scary Oscar Isaac) make for a film that’s pretty much a three character play. The uniquely designed house/research facility is almost a character as well, because the sense of claustrophobia and steadily rising tension become damn near nightmarish by the final third. The effects are excellently rendered and the film gets even better upon repeat viewings (little details stuck out more during the second and third times that I watched it). The hauntingly beautiful soundtrack is just the icing on the cake for my fourth best film of 2015.

3. Room

3. ROOM: Difficult and immensely rewarding, ROOM is a drama like no other. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name (which in turn was inspired by a real-life kidnapping case), this film is tense and remarkably uplifting. Throughout the whole running time, the story walks a tightrope between being heartwarming and heartbreaking. It ultimately winds up with the best of both worlds as various audience members (including myself) were crying at various points throughout the film. As sad as it can be, I left feeling immensely uplifted by this beautiful movie about love and courage. Brie Larson (the frontrunner for Best Actress of 2015) and 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay (giving one of the best child performances that I’ve ever seen in my entire life) are both wholly convincing and believable. I cannot praise this movie enough. It’s amazing!

2. Inside Out

2. INSIDE OUT: A family film that’s made more for adults than it is for children, INSIDE OUT wound up being one of the most emotional theater experiences of 2015 for me (pun fully intended). Though it may look sweet, innocent and cute on the outside, the movie packs a lot of emotional truths that will hit older viewers far more than kids who just want to watch a cartoon. It’s also the biggest tearjerker that I saw all year (right next to ROOM). The film is just beautiful and encapsulates everything that life itself in brilliantly creative ways. It also has one of the most mature messages that I’ve ever seen in a children’s film. It’s not only my second favorite movie of 2015, but my favorite Pixar movie thus far!

1. Mad Max Fury Road

1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD: Director/writer George Miller had over two decades to craft his fourth MAD MAX movie to perfection and that’s exactly what he did! MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was easily one of the most adrenaline-pumping, kick-ass movies that I’ve ever experienced in a theater. I loved it so much that I saw it twice within four days on the big screen and it has enjoyed many repeat viewings since its home video release. Though some fans have joked that it’s simply a two-hour chase scene, the story manages to encapsulate far more than that. There are issues of gender, slavery, religion, etc. that all come up in subtle (sometimes, obvious), smart ways throughout the film. The movie never stops to deliver heavy-handed exposition to the viewer and gives enough details so we can simply figure it all out for ourselves. The visuals look incredible as this apocalyptic wasteland was wholly convincing, in no small part due to practical effects, dangerous stunt work, and subtle green screen effects. FURY ROAD has joined the rare breed of perfect summer blockbusters that includes the likes of ALIENS and TERMINATOR 2. Bravo!

2015 was a year that was packed full of releases. Some were amazing, some were good, and others fell lower on the cinematic totem pole. It’s definitely been one of the most interesting years for cinema and I look forward to seeing what 2016 has in store for filmgoers!

THE GIFT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language

Gift poster

Directed by: Joel Edgerton

Written by: Joel Edgerton

Starring: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Tim Griffin, Allison Tolman & Beau Knapp

Trailers can make bad movies look great and great movies look bad. Such is the world of marketing. When I saw the trailer for THE GIFT, I figured that it might be a fun little thriller, but nothing particularly special. It was Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut and though he’s demonstrated great skill in front of the camera, there were questions as to how his transition to making movies might fare. Color me shocked. Though it may resemble any generic thriller from the early 90’s, THE GIFT has something deeper, scarier, and far more profound running beneath its deceptively simple surface.

THE GIFT

Simon and Robyn have just moved into an upscale Los Angeles house. Simon is a workaholic yuppie sort of guy, while Robyn is a much more kind and depressed individual who’s coping with a recent failed pregnancy. It seems like fate has something special in store for them when Simon bumps into former classmate Gordon. The two hit it off with an awkward, but polite conversation. The next day, the couple find that Gordon has left a present on their doorstep. The thing is that neither of them gave him their address. Gordon becomes a socially awkward friend towards Simon and Robyn, bestowing constant gifts onto them. It gets to a point where Simon decides to cut off the friendship and things get ugly. That’s all I’ll say about this thriller’s plot, because I don’t want to give away any of the nasty surprises that lie in store.

THE GIFT

THE GIFT seems to purposely start off like a standard (but enjoyable) thriller. It’s much akin to something you’d see in the early 90’s (e.g. MALICE, HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, PACIFIC HEIGHTS, etc.). The suspenseful sense of fun lulls the viewer into a state where they think that the whole plot can be predicted in advance. It’s even complete with a couple of (effective) jump scares. Around the halfway mark is where THE GIFT begins to show that its seemingly generic set-up was actually a façade for something far scarier and more intelligent. The screenplay goes into areas you wouldn’t expect it to and approaches these plot points (and twists) with a refreshing maturity. Triple-threat Joel Edgerton (director, writer and actor) decides to take a less-is-more approach, showing only enough to tip-off the audience and never diving into over-the-top violence or exploitation.

THE GIFT

The cast is primarily made up of three characters. Jason Bateman is usually typecast in comedies, but proves to be great in his out-of-the-ordinary dramatic role. Simon appears fairly cut-and-dried in the beginning and then layers begin to peel away as the film goes on. Rebecca Hall’s performance and character is no different. She starts as a nervous and vulnerable wife and then evolves into the moral compass of the piece. Meanwhile, Joel Edgerton stars as Gordon and knows exactly how to play the character. Though he’s socially awkward, Gordon seems like a nice guy at the start. Much like the other two character, major plot points reveal what kind of person he truly is. You’ll find yourself questioning loyalties and whose side you’re on as the running time moves forward. It’s debatable as to who is the hero or villain of this film…or if there are even such things in this grimly realistic shocker.

THE GIFT

What should especially be applauded about Edgerton’s debut thriller is that it treats its audience with respect. While other cheap movies of this ilk might waste time spelling everything out for the viewer or throwing in last-minute clichés to tie everything up with an unneeded bow (ala the final scenes of FATAL ATTRACTION), THE GIFT doesn’t assume that you’re dumb. In this way, the script manages to stay one step ahead of you at all times. Even if you can correctly predict some twists, you’ll be shocked by other revelations. It’s all executed with classy suspense and a wonderfully diabolical ending. I guarantee that the final moments of this movie will linger in your mind and generate interesting conversations on the ride home from the theater.

Gift 5

THE GIFT seemed destined to be yet another generic thriller, but somehow defies all odds and resembles a modern-day Hitchcock film. This is more intelligent, thought-provoking and well-written than most of the thrillers that come out these days. It’s also one of the year’s biggest surprises and one of my favorite movies of 2015 thus far. Indeed, this film is an unexpected GIFT that’s meant to be cherished as much as it’s meant to make your skin crawl.

Grade: A+

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑