THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

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

Directed by: Taika Waititi

Written by: Franco Escamilla, Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost

(based on the THOR comics by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins & Benedict Cumberbatch

THOR: RAGNAROK is the third THOR film and the seventeenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the exception of 2008’s THE INCREDIBLE HULK, THOR was easily the weakest origin story in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. THOR: THE DARK WORLD served as an entertaining sequel, but couldn’t reach the heights of the rest of MCU’s second phase of films. THOR: RAGNAROK is easily the best THOR yet (not exactly high praise) and is a highly entertaining mythological superhero romp. While I don’t think this third THOR is nearly as awesome as some folks have been making it out to be, there’s loads of fun to be had and it’s a big step up in quality from the rest of 2017’s MCU offerings (including the vastly overrated SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING and the slightly underwhelming GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2).

Two years after the events in THE DARK WORLD, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has discovered that his mischievous adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has taken over the home world Asgard and his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has been banished. While on the journey to bring his dear old daddy home, Thor discovers that an ancient prophecy is coming to light and it might spell doom for all Asgardians. Unfortunately, god of death Hela (Cate Blanchett) has returned and seems hellbent on conquering Asgard. All the while, Thor has wound up stranded on a junk planet in the clutches of the cruelly kooky Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). In order to save his people from destruction, Thor must fight his way through gladiator battles, unite with old friends and new faces, and find a way to stop the seemingly undefeatable Hela.

RAGNAROK follows the usual superhero formula and is fairly by-the-numbers in terms of its plot. There’s an evil bad gal who’s bent on world domination, an ancient prophecy that might be fulfilled, and a story arc that must be experienced by our main hero that causes him to grow even more powerful. However, THOR: RAGNAROK does something extremely well that the other THOR films only did occasionally well. It’s funny, really funny. Not just in scenes that feature Tom Hiddleston’s Loki (who still remains a charming fan favorite) either, but also in nearly every moment. RAGNAROK contains more laughs than pretty much any other MCU entry, with the sole exception being the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.

Viewers who watch RAGNAROK in search of other Marvel goodies will receive those in spades too because this plot also serves as the best HULK movie never made. To elaborate further, Thor’s entrapment on the junk planet is blended with the much celebrated PLANET HULK storyline. Hulk’s inclusion gives Thor another hero to relate to and shows that Hulk can star in a great movie that doesn’t need to involve all of the other Avengers. Also, the end credits scene promises serious stakes for the upcoming INFINITY WAR (which hits next May) and Benedict Cumberbatch squeezes in five minutes of (very funny) screen time as Doctor Strange. Tessa Thompson adds a fresh new heroine to MCU’s mix as the hard-drinking, harder-hitting Valkyrie, while Idris Elba doesn’t get receive much to do as Heimdall.

RAGNAROK mainly falters in its big antagonist. Cate Blanchett’s Hela looks cool as all hell. Her intimidating costume design and weaponized black spikes that fly from her body are pure eye candy. Sadly, that doesn’t translate into her as a character though, because she’s just another bland baddie who wants to take over the world. I found her slightly reluctant lackey Skurge (played by Karl Roden) to be a much more interesting character and his story arc (though familiar) was far more satisfying. Hell, I even felt that Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster was a far superior villain to Hela. Grandmaster had an odd kookiness to him and still came off as threatening, though simultaneously hilarious. I guess I’m saying that I wish Hela had been more interesting and that Grandmaster had even more screen time.

If you are a Marvel Cinematic Universe fan (and you should know if you are by the seventeenth film in the long-running franchise), then you’ll find a lot to enjoy in THOR: RAGNAROK. The by-the-numbers plot may be familiar, but the hilarious, colorful and spectacle-loaded execution kept me smiling from ear to ear as the entire movie played out. The film’s main problems arrive in Hela looking cool, but being rather bland. However, Goldblum’s Grandmaster is worth the price of admission alone. RAGNAROK also injects a few much-needed risks into the MCU that will likely pay off in big ways during INFINITY WAR. THOR: RAGNAROK comes highly recommended!

Grade: B+

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action and Violence, Language, and brief Suggestive Content

Directed by: James Gunn

Written by: James Gunn

(based on the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY comics by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning)

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone & Kurt Russell

Nearly three years after GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY became a surprise hit and smashed box office records, we finally have a sequel. Since director/writer James Gunn helmed Marvel’s first awesome space opera, he returned for this sequel and is already in talks for a third film. Like most sequels, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 is a step down from its predecessor. That’s not to say that this film is one of the worst Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, because AGE OF ULTRON, IRON MAN 2, and THE INCREDIBLE HULK still remain below it. GUARDIANS VOL. 2 is a lot like THOR: THE DARK WORLD in that it’s fun, has great moments and positive qualities, but is not nearly as awesome as it should be.

After slaying a giant power-sucking parasite, the Guardians of the Galaxy (Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Baby Groot) botch a mission by rudely insulting a proud race of gold-skinned aliens. As a result, the Guardians find themselves with a bounty on their head and that attracts the attention of space-pirates. Things are further complicated when Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the gang run across mysterious stranger Ego (Kurt Russell), who claims to be Peter’s long-lost father. This leads to lots of wacky intergalactic action, humorous antics, secrets being revealed, and (as you might have assumed from the title) another rockin’ soundtrack.

As the titular Guardians (of the Galaxy), Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, and Dave Batista blend seamlessly back into their characters, while Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel provide voices. This second installment builds upon the already established chemistry of these characters and lets them do what they do best. Drax still gets major laughs, while Rocket is still the fan favorite rodent asshole. Meanwhile, Baby Groot is both hilarious and adorable at the same time. However, the developing relationship between Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord and Zoe Saldana’s Gamora feels a bit half-assed this time around. Michael Rooker’s space-pirate Yondu and Karen Gillan’s revenge-driven Nebula get more time to shine here and their solid subplots genuinely surprised me.

The film’s new additions, mainly Kurt Russell’s Ego and his insect-like companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff) are both interesting enough. Russell’s natural charisma aids his mysterious character and Klementieff’s Mantis is like a cute little kid in a bug alien’s body. I don’t want to say much about this film’s main antagonist, for fear of spoilers. I will say that I absolutely loved the idea behind this baddie and was willing to forgive a clichéd motivation because of that. It’s also worth noting that the gold-skinned Sovereign aliens and their High Priestess provide great comic relief. Also, a bored-looking Sylvester Stallone appears in a glorified cameo that was shamelessly included as set-up for future Marvel films (something that is a constant detriment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe).

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2’s main problems stem from tedious pacing and sloppy writing. There are arguably too many storylines at play here and, as a result, the movie noticeably feels unfocused. The first third of the film has pacing issues in that I was wondering where things were heading and wasn’t necessarily having fun. There’s a long-winded exposition sequence that’s only tolerable because of Kurt Russell’s charm and nothing else. The film noticeably picks up during its second act and has a very fun final third. Still, it takes a while to recover from the glacial movement and many pointless moments of the first act.

The unfocused approach and all-over-the-place pacing further dilute some would-be emotional scenes during the final act. Certain revelations and plot developments would have made more of a lasting impact, if it hadn’t been for the messy nature of this sequel’s storytelling. That being said, there are still plenty of laughs, action, and great scenes to be had. The opening credit sequence is simultaneously funny, creative and cool. Most of the humor works and the running jokes are sure to get audiences cracking up, especially a couple that are set up far in advance. The film’s set pieces are memorable, with major highlight being a scene from the original film upped to a crazy degree (you’ll know it, when you see it).

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 is a good Marvel movie that could have been a great Marvel movie, if the pacing weren’t slow in the beginning and (too many) storylines weren’t all over the place. I had fun while watching this movie and it had many positive qualities. Certain scenes are great. I like that the film attempted some surprisingly emotional moments, even if they weren’t nearly as powerful as they probably should have been. I also love the villain because the concept is so damn creative and cool. Yet, the more I think about this sequel, the less I like it. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 doesn’t come close to hitting the highs of its predecessor, but remains fun (enough) sci-fi entertainment nonetheless.

Grade: B

CHAIN OF FOOLS (2000)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Sexuality and Language

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Directed by: Pontus Lowenhielm & Patrick von Krusenstjerna

Written by: Bix Skahill

Starring: Steve Zahn, Salma Hayek, Jeff Goldblum, David Cross, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson, David Hyde Pierce, Kevin Corrigan, Orlando Jones, Lara Flynn Boyle & Craig Ferguson

Slapstick humor, witty dialogue, bullets and ancient Chinese coins all come together in CHAIN OF FOOLS. Utilizing a style that’s more than a little reminiscent of Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, this directorial debut was dumped into a handful of theaters upon its release and then found slightly more success in other countries. There a lot of qualities to enjoy in this under-the-radar, oddball heist comedy. These include: an ensemble cast of quirky characters, clever intersecting storylines, plenty of goofy laughs, and a catchy alternative rock soundtrack. It may have a few noticeable flaws, but CHAIN OF FOOLS is a blast of dark laughs, unique characters and smart plot twists.

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Thomas Kresk (Steve Zahn) is a down-on-his luck barber, whose life drastically changes when shady criminal Avnet (Jeff Goldblum) walks into his shop and a simple haircut doesn’t go as planned for both the criminal and the barber. With the aid of his best friend Andy (David Cross), a mentally unhinged scout leader, Kresk finds himself in possession of three rare Chinese coins that are worth a fortune. Things get more complicated when a poorly educated gangster (Kevin Corrigan) enters the picture, along with corrupt rich guy Bollingsworth (Tom Wilkinson), teenage hitman Mikey (Elijah Wood), and sexy cop/Playboy model Kolko (Salma Hayek). Soon enough, Kresk and Andy find their get-rich-quick scheme is going up in smoke and will be lucky to make it out alive…let alone with the coins in hand.

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CHAIN’s main draw comes from the titular fools themselves, as portrayed by a large ensemble cast of big names and familiar faces. As Kresk, Steven Zahn is playing his usual typecast lovable loser…except with a bad mullet and barber jacket. Jeff Goldblum is clearly having a blast as straight-faced, twitchy Avnet and effortlessly steals the spotlight from the other cast members around him. Part of the reason that Goldblum winds up with so many good laughs is that he plays his part seriously, while everyone around him is goofing off like there’s no end. It’s like throwing a GODFATHER character into a wacky spoof and simply witnessing what follows.

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Even though Goldblum makes off like a bandit with a bag full of scenes, David Cross steals most of the show as borderline psychotic, socially awkward timber scout Andy. Cross frequently had me laughing and small details about his character get funnier the more I think about them. On a slightly lesser note, Tom Wilkinson is too exaggerated as Bollingsworth, while Elijah Wood’s angsty teenage hitman Mikey receives a few memorable moments. Salma Hayek is essentially playing the bland romantic interest and occasionally makes her way into other scenes as her clueless detective slowly gets close to the truth. David Hyde Pierce shows up for two minutes as Bollingsworth’s personal assistant, while Orlando Jones seems wasted as a transvestite caught up in the illegal proceedings.

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CHAIN OF FOOLS keeps itself interesting through a non-linear narrative that frequently takes us from one character to another and then back and forth in time. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, but these sudden shifts aren’t necessarily hard to follow. The film packs a lot of plotlines and characters into slightly over 90 minutes, so there’s never a dull moment…even if the main story can seem a tad cluttered. Indeed, some of this movie’s laughs are a direct result of flashbacks and reveals that slowly lay out the comical details of a character’s past. One of the film’s funniest scenes was a well-executed flashback that served as a big long visual joke. Even though the jumbled timeline seems integral to its charm, CHAIN OF FOOLS would likely remain just as entertaining if it were told in a straightforward manner. It’s a well-written movie that occasionally reaches beyond its grasp.

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In addition to feeling slightly overcrowded, CHAIN OF FOOLS has a lot of style, one might argue a bit too much. These “cool” details include: cartoony sound effects (lending to the over-the-top slapstick), title cards that introduce each main character with a tagline, and narration from Zahn’s bad barber. A couple of these touches (mainly the overuse of sound effects and title cards that add nothing to the story) seem a bit forced and awkward, detracting from some of the enjoyment packed into the fast-paced 98 minutes. Still, the pros far outweigh the cons in this quirky crime-comedy. The writing is clever. The characters are unique. It’s an all-around entertaining, funny film in the vein of Tarantino and Guy Ritchie. If that sounds up your alley, then CHAIN OF FOOLS will likely satisfy your cinematic craving.

Grade: B

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action and Destruction, and for some Language

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Directed by: Roland Emmerich

Written by: Roland Emmerich, Dean Devlin, Nicholas Wright, James A. Woods & James Vanderbilt

Starring: Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Maika Monroe, Travis Tope, William Fichtner, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Judd Hirsch, Jessie Usher, Brent Spiner, Vivica A. Fox & Sela Ward

A sequel to 1996’s INDEPENDENCE DAY has been in development for a ridiculously long time. Finally, twenty years after that film’s original release, INDEPENDENCE DAY 2 has invaded theaters. Does this follow-up capture the same fun B-flick vibe that made the first film work so well? Does it entertain enough to make up for obvious shortcomings? Does the silly screenwriting occasionally get in the way of its entertainment factor? Well, the answers to all of these questions can be summed up in one resounding “meh.” While RESURGENCE is somewhat true in tone to its predecessor, this sequel also suffers from crucial missing elements and distractingly sloppy storytelling.

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Two decades have passed since earthlings stood their ground against heavily armed alien invaders. With the otherworldly menace defeated, scientists have incorporated their futuristic technology into our daily lives. We now have manned outposts on the moon, drive hovering cars, and can travel at super speeds across the world. When a mysterious object appears near the moon outpost and human forces shoot it down, it appears that another extraterrestrial attack has been averted. However, an enormous alien spaceship shows up that’s much bigger than the 1996 attack fleets. Instead of trying to colonize our world, the aliens now seem intent on harvesting its core. With a ticking clock and an Atlantic Ocean sized threat parked on our planet, humans must band together once again to take these aliens down.

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Old characters and familiar names with new faces make up the large cast of INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE. Bill Pullman makes a welcomed return as former president Thomas Whitmore. However, Pullman’s character seems to have a bit of temporary dementia that only pops in when it’s convenient for the plot (sloppily explained by alien telepathy messing with his head). Jeff Goldblum carries most of this movie on his shoulders. Though other sequels to 90’s blockbusters have shown that Goldblum is hit-or-miss (cough, THE LOST WORLD, cough), he is a lot of fun here. His character of David Levinson brings back the sarcasm, witty banter, and humor that made the original film enjoyable in the first place. Prepare to be bummed though, because RESURGENCE couldn’t afford Will Smith (yes, even on a budget of 165 million), so they killed his character off-screen. The absent Will Smith charm is noticeable and contributes to this sequel feeling less fun than its predecessor.

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Jessie Usher plays Dylan Hiller, son of Will Smith’s character from the first film, and is convincing enough as a one-dimensional hero. As his annoying sidekick comes Liam Hemsworth’s Jake Morrison, who ruins more than a few action scenes with his over-the-top jokes and obnoxious attitude. Maika Monroe (from IT FOLLOWS and THE 5TH WAVE, the latter being a teeny-bopper INDEPENDENCE DAY knockoff) plays Patricia Whitmore and comes off as the best of these newcomers. On the sidelines we also have Sela Ward as the new President and the always enjoyable William Fichtner as a confident army general. A big standout comes in Deobia Oparei as an African warlord who likes to collect alien skulls, while Charlotte Gainsbourg is completely forgettable as Goldblum’s bland love interest. Oh, we also get way too much of the comic relief Area 51 scientists, but the less said about them, the better.

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INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE takes the “bigger is better” mantra that most summer movie sequels seem to function on and cranks it up to 11. Instead of major cities being destroyed by huge spaceships, we get half the planet being virtually demolished by one massive spacecraft. Instead of taking the less-is-more approach with the alien menace, we get lots of CGI-heavy shots of the creatures, including a giant Queen that seems to deliberately rip off the main monster from a certain 1986 sci-fi classic. Since we have alien technology incorporated into our weapons, you had better believe that the fight scenes are a tad confusing as you’re trying to figure out which ships to root for. I wouldn’t be surprised if humans were accidentally shooting down other humans, because their jets look exactly like the alien spacecraft.

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If you haven’t guessed by now, INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE is pretty stupid…but so was the first one. The key difference being that the 1996 blockbuster had a fun entertaining charm to it that only occasionally makes its way into this sequel. When it’s taking itself way too seriously, the bad writing sticks out like a sore thumb. RESURGENCE takes about a third of its running time to get going, because its messy script gets bogged down in introducing all of these characters and the futuristic technology. An overuse alien psychic connections serves as a means for convenient exposition and get more than a little annoying, but that’s not nearly as aggravating as the literal talking plot device that rears its ugly head midway through the running time and plays a major role in the proceedings.

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I’m not saying that RESURGENCE isn’t fun, because the film has its moments. However, most of the thrill is gone in this second installment. Part of this can be attributed to a missing Will Smith (who was a major source of energy in the first film) and the rest might be thrown onto the spectacle being less impressive this time around. We’ve seen BATTLE: LOS ANGELES, SKYLINE, OBLIVION, and 2012, there isn’t a whole lot that RESURGENCE can show us in terms of special effects that we haven’t seen before. If this makes a ton of money at the box office that won’t matter though, because there is no ending to this sequel…just a cliffhanger that sets up the premise for a third film. If that eventually happens, hopefully they’ll remember to bring the fun back with the effects and bad writing.

Grade: C+

INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Destruction and Violence

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Directed by: Roland Emmerich

Written by: Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich

Starring: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, Randy Quaid, Margaret Colin & Vivica A. Fox

Though it’s simply a dumb popcorn flick, INDEPENDENCE DAY caused shock waves in the cinematic world that resonated years after its initial release. This summer blockbuster kicked off the “tradition” of tentpole movies being marketed during the Superbowl, also birthed a trend of large-scale disaster films and science fiction epics that took up theater screens through the late 90’s, and showcased groundbreaking special effects. Besides causing all of those latter effects, INDEPENDENCE DAY broke records and became one of the biggest movies of the 90’s (in box office terms). While the story is flimsy, the characters are thin, and there’s an undeniable cheesiness to the entire film, INDEPENDENCE DAY rocks in terms of entertainment and spectacle. I am surprised by how well it has stood the test of time. This is 145 minutes of pure fun!

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July 2, 1996. A massive UFO approaches Earth. As millions of Americans prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July and people around the world go about their daily lives, something very threatening waits on the horizon. The question of whether or not we’re alone in the universe has been answered in a massive way. A group of huge spaceships surround the world and it appears that these aliens don’t come in peace. Fiery craters erupt. Famous landmarks are reduced to ash. A large amount of the planet’s population is lost. Still, hope emerges when various individuals from different backgrounds come together to take these aliens down!

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Fighter pilot Steve Hiller (Will Smith) takes to the skies, while his girlfriend (Vivica A. Fox) and her son (Ross Bagley) make their way across a hopeless landscape of destruction. President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) attempts to do all he can with different tactics and combat strategies, but at the end of the day his inspirational words may be the most powerful weapons of all. Computer geek David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) desperately searches for a technological way to stop the spaceship’s powerful shields. Meanwhile, redneck Russell Casse (Randy Quaid) tries to keep his children safe. These characters will all encounter one another in different ways and they will have to face seemingly impossible odds if they wish to save the day…and Earth as we know it.

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Though it’s over two hours long, there’s hardly a dull moment in INDEPENDENCE DAY. The first scene kicks off with the massive approaching spacecraft and the President being informed about the extraterrestrial situation. Though the characters are mostly thin in that there’s a President, a geek, the geek’s ex-wife, a pilot, the pilot’s family, a drunken redneck, his family, and a few other side characters, there are moments that try to develop them further…even though these scenes mostly show how these people connect to one another. This large cast’s three main standouts are easily Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman. However, Judd Hirsch, Randy Quaid, Vivica Fox, and Margaret Colin all receive a substantial amount of screen time as well.

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During its slower scenes and so-so attempts at character development, INDEPENDENCE DAY remains entertaining thanks to a sense of humor and the impending threat of giant alien ships hovering over major cities. Once the action kicks in, the film has copious amounts of large-scale destruction, intense battles, and lots of alien lore. The film could have simply left its plot at aliens attacking the Earth and humans being unprepared…but still saving the day regardless. Instead, past urban legends, conspiracy theories, and strange occurrences in our country’s history serve as fun plot points.

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Director/co-writer Roland Emmerich wisely decides to keep the aliens in the dark for a majority of the film’s running time. We see lots of UFOs, but know little about their intergalactic inhabitants…until one annoying comic relief character pops in to throw a ton of exposition at the viewer. We’re about halfway into the action before we get a long look at one of these freaky tentacled beasties. Their appearance is reminiscent enough of the “little green men,” but also incorporates small creative details. There’s actually a jump scare in this movie that still holds up perfectly. Even after showing us the otherworldly menace, Emmerich doesn’t seem to revel much in the hordes of invading aliens. We mostly get glowing ships and flying spacecraft.

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INDEPENDENCE DAY weaves multiple storylines in and out of each other and thus creates a large-scale feeling, even if all of the main characters happen to live in one nation and the threat spans across the entire planet. There’s a definite patriotic feeling going strong through this movie and it revels in moments of people from different backgrounds uniting as one force. As cheesy as that may be, it’s something to be praised. Bill Pullman’s inspirational speech near the film’s finale still serves as a genuinely powerful moment in a movie that’s basically about aliens shooting green light at earthlings.

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INDEPENDENCE DAY has plenty of clichés and silly moments, but those ultimately become part of the fun. The characters are thin and the plot is predictable, but that doesn’t really matter when the entertainment factor is amazingly strong and the spectacle still wows audiences today. I happened to catch INDEPENDENCE DAY on the big screen right before its sequel and there were plenty of cheers, applause and laughs to be had from modern audience watching this film over two decades after its original release. The film is definitely flawed and far from perfect, but it’s so damn enjoyable that you might not even care. Simply put, INDEPENDENCE DAY is a silly B-flick that was given A-level spectacle and fun. There’s something oddly inspiring about that in and of itself.

Grade: B+

MORTDECAI (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Language and Sexual Material

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Directed by: David Koepp

Written by: Eric Aronson

(based on the novel DON’T POINT THAT THING AT ME by Kyril Bonfiglioli)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Ewan McGregor, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany, Olivia Munn & Jeff Goldblum

Full disclosure: I didn’t have high hopes for MORTDECAI. Seeing as the backlash against this film is substantial and it has become one of the biggest flops of the year thus far (right behind JUPITER ASCENDING and BLACKHAT), my expectations were set pretty low for MORTDECAI. At the most, I was hoping for a couple of laughs and a guilty pleasure (ala I, FRANKENSTEIN). Even with these tepid feelings going in, MORTDECAI still wound up filling me with hatred against every ounce of this movie. It’s the worst kind of bad film there is: an unfunny comedy.

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Charlie Mortdecai is a moustached art dealer who happens to sell stolen goods and elaborate faux replicas. Though his family was wealthy and he still holds an estate, Charlie is on the edge of bankruptcy and financial ruin. When he’s recruited by an inspector (who happens to be a former friend with a crush on Johanna, Charlie’s wife) to track down a stolen painting that is also being hunted by various groups of dangerous people (Russian thugs, a thief named Emil, and Hong Kong gangsters). This leads to many wild, crazy antics with Mortdecai constantly being thrown into harm’s way with Jock, his man-servant, constantly getting him out of these sticky situations. While Charlie is away, the Inspector is also trying to start an affair with Johanna. If none of those things sound the least bit entertaining, then don’t worry because there’s also a lame subplot about Mortdecai’s newly grown facial hair.

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Director David Koepp has been involved with cool projects in the past, but MORTDECAI definitely is the worst thing he’s ever slapped his name on. To be fair, Koepp didn’t write the screenplay, but it feels like this film is trying desperately to get laughs. It throws everything at the wall and nothing sticks. There are fish-out-of-water situations with Charlie being in Los Angeles, awkward puns, bits of innuendo, and even room for brief puke and fart humor. Every single one of these sight gags, puns and scenarios feels dusty. One character even says the same joke twice in the space of 15 seconds in an attempt to get at the very least a chuckle. While the line is dead on arrival the first time it’s uttered, hearing it repeated a second time really hits home how MORTDECAI is beating the skeletal remains of a dead horse that has long since decomposed. As if things couldn’t get any worse, the R rating is wasted as this felt like a PG-13 flick all the way through. No profane language (save for one instance) or any jokes push the envelope. It’s as tame as can be.

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The film becomes downright unbearable during the final 30 minutes. I was tempted to give up and turn this movie off. That almost never happens when I’m watching a film either. I usually have no urge to do anything else but stick the film out until the end credits begin to roll. The real problem is that MORTDECAI feels like it has an ending and then continues forward for 30 more minutes of horribly unfunny material. It shouldn’t come as a shock that every performer isn’t exactly at the top of their game in this one. Ewan McGregor and Gwyneth Paltrow seem disinterested in the movie they’re making (I can’t say I blame them). Johnny Depp is cashing in on the typecast cartoon character that he’s recently become known for playing (hopefully BLACK MASS turns that around this September). It’s clear that Depp was trying to channel a Peter Sellers sort of Clouseau character, but even Steve Martin did it better in those mediocre PINK PANTHER reboots. The only one who seems to be having any fun is Paul Bettany as Jock, but he still didn’t get any decent laughs or lines.

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MORTDECAI is awful. It’s beyond awful, this is anti-comedy. This is the sort of film that you could show someone and it could entirely turn them off the concept of laughing ever again. It’s clear that this was nothing more than a quick paycheck for everybody involved and I’m so very glad that it tanked at the box office. MORTDECAI is a depressing, laugh-free waste of time that just might go down as the worst film in Johnny Depp’s career. Yes, I’m also taking TRANSCENDENCE into consideration when I say that.

Grade: F

THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sci-Fi Terror and Violence

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: David Koepp

(based on the novel THE LOST WORLD by Michael Crichton)

Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, Vince Vaughn, Pete Postlethwaite, Arliss Howard & Peter Stormare

Following the massive success of JURASSIC PARK, there were immediate talks of sequels. So Michael Crichton wrote a sequel novel (a first in his career) and faster than you could say cash-in, there was a script ready (by David Koepp, co-writer of the first film) and Spielberg was helming the entire project. In 1997, after four years of anticipation, audiences were treated to a middle-of-the-road sequel. What exactly makes this second installment so mediocre? Perhaps, it’s that there are many repetitive scenes that were done far better in the first film. One might argue that it could be the silly excuse for a story and hollow characters. Maybe, just maybe, it was the need to be overly excessive and unnecessarily dark in tone. At the end of the day, a combination of iffy factors make for an iffy movie and that’s definitely the case with THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK.

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Years have passed since the disaster of John Hammond’s prehistoric theme park. Chaos theorist Ian Malcolm is still recovering from the traumatic experience of being chased by man-eating dinosaurs. Imagine his surprise when he’s unwillingly recruited by the now disgraced Hammond to investigate a second island filled with dinosaurs. This mysterious second island was meant to be a natural preserve for the dino-clones. Ian and a ragtag group of researchers find their already dangerous expedition to the second island becoming even more dangerous thanks to a group of hunters led by Hammond’s evil nephew, Peter. Soon tensions between the groups rise and their expedition becomes a struggle to survive from more vicious dinosaurs.

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A comparison between LOST WORLD and JURASSIC PARK is inevitable, seeing as the second novel wouldn’t even exist without the success of the first movie. This sequel feels like a cash-in. The story is a piss-poor flimsy excuse for more people to get eaten by dinosaurs. Hollow characters don’t help either. Jeff Goldblum was an annoying asshole in the first movie, but that’s who his character was. Here, he feels like he’s forcing comic relief lines and seems distracted by the big paycheck on his mind. Julianne Moore and Vince Vaughn are equally as wooden. There’s also the godawful inclusion of an annoying kid character. While the first film had children in peril, those young actors were convincing in their roles and smartly written. The annoying addition of Ian’s smart-aleck, easily frightened child adds nothing but frustration to this film. A scene where she eliminates a Velicoraptor through gymnastics is beyond stupid.

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As the movie moves from set-piece to set-piece, there are a few neat moments to be had. The tone is far darker than in the original, which lends to more grisly deaths. My favorite of which being Peter Stormare’s ill-fated scumbag coming face to face with a pack of pissed off Compys (small carnivorous scavengers). These little beasties are arguably the best part of the entire film, but only pop up for a handful of scenes. The special effects bringing the dinosaurs to life somehow look less impressive than the first film, but do the job just fine. There’s still some entertainment value to be found in dinosaurs eating people, but the overlong running time (slightly longer than the first movie) drags to a crawl in the final third.

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Spielberg regarded the T-Rex as the show-stealer of the original, so it seems like he was having a blast in this sequel. More time is devoted to the T-Rex than any other dinosaur. Velociraptors are noticeably absent aside from a brief 10 minute patch of film. While the Compys are a cool new dinosaur, other fresh-faced prehistoric reptiles (including a Stegosaurus) pretty much exist for a brief minute or two and then vanish entirely. The main problem with THE LOST WORLD comes in it feeling so derivative and repetitive with an unnecessary amount of excess. In the original, a scumbag with disregard for the monster in from of him was killed by a scary-as-hell Dilophosaurus. In this sequel, that moment happens twice with Compys and a baby T-Rex. In the first, there was an exciting car chase between three people and a T-Rex. In the sequel, there’s a similar chase on foot where the amount of people running is upped purely for a higher body count. The list of scenes goes on and on. It’s almost as if Spielberg, Koepp, and Crichton tried to clone the original film with more violent sensibilities. The end result is a lackluster, overly familiar disappointment.

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More dinosaurs, bloodier deaths, and a T-Rex running through the streets of San Diego does not a good sequel make. There is some dumb fun to be found in THE LOST WORLD purely for seeing deserving dumbasses meet their doom at the jaws of dinosaurs, but a boring story and wooden protagonists make this a drag for the most part. When you’re simply counting the seconds until the movie to ends during a would-be exciting climax, there’s a serious problem with your so-called adventure. THE LOST WORLD is a middle-of-the-road monster movie when taken on its own. That doesn’t stop this sequel from being a massive disappointment when viewed after its incredible predecessor.

Grade: C

JURASSIC PARK (1993)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Science Fiction Terror

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Michael Crichton & David Koepp

(based on the novel JURASSIC PARK by Michael Crichton)

Starring: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Ariana Richards, Joseph Mazzello, Bob Peck, Martin Ferrero, Wayne Knight & Samuel L. Jackson

JURASSIC PARK holds a special place in my heart. Aside from a couple of Disney movies, this is one of the first films I have vivid memories of watching. When the movie wasn’t scarring me with its scary moments, I was taken on a cinematic adventure that I enjoyed over and over again (damn near wearing out the VHS copy that my family had). It’s been years since I had seen this 1993 dinosaur flick. I figured it was time to revisit the franchise with an approaching fourth film on the horizon. No sugar-coating in any way, the story of JURASSIC PARK basically boils down to a good, old-fashioned, science-gone-wrong monster movie. The monsters just happen to be dinosaurs and the result just happens to be one of the greatest cinematic adventures ever crafted!

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In case you’ve somehow been left in the dark about the general premise of this movie, JURASSIC PARK is about a fantastical theme park where dinosaurs literally come to life. Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler are two romantically involved paleontologists invited by mad scientist Dr. Hammond to certify that his newly created island theme park is safe. Along with a handful of other specialists, the scientist couple are wowed by living, breathing clones of prehistoric animals. However, we wouldn’t have much of an exciting adventure if this movie was merely about a group of folks casually walking through a theme park looking at dinosaur exhibits. So thanks to a security glitch, electric fences shut down and dinosaurs freely roam the park…which leads to people dying. Grant, Sattler, Hammond, and the rest must fight for their lives to survive the massive amusement park turned bloody hunting ground.

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Make no qualms about it, JURASSIC PARK is a simple story. It’s an effectively crafted one as master filmmaker Steven Spielberg manages to capture the same sense of slow-building suspense that he did in JAWS. We know we will get a glimpse of all of these dinosaurs that we hear details about, but we don’t know exactly when it will happen. The viewer’s patience is constantly rewarded with multiple big reveals spread throughout the film (one of which doesn’t even hit until the final 30 minutes). Without playing all of his cards at once, Spielberg and screenwriters Crichton and Koepp maintain a solid sense of excitement all through the entire film.

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The 63 million budget (at the time, this number was huge) is brought to the screen as this film feels like a window into another world. The location of Jurassic Park looks real enough that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone actually stumbled across it. Little details are evident in small set design decisions. The characters populating this world feel genuine. At first, I felt like Alan was a bit of a one-dimensional protagonist at the start of the film. However, the character development given through small interactions and brief comments give all the character information needed about every single person in this story. A perfect example of this comes in Alan’s crotchety attitude towards Hammond’s grandchildren, which seems quietly annoyed upon meeting them and rapidly grows into concern as prehistoric shit hits the fan. I can’t think of a character that I actively disliked or thought was performed poorly by a cast member. A questionable exception would be the game warden’s reaction of saying “clever girl” in the face of imminent death which winds up being silly and awesome at the same time.

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On the main subject of the dinosaurs themselves, the combination of CGI and practical effects still holds up perfectly. The movie could have simply relied on the carnivores running loose, but there’s equal time devoted to the beautiful herbivore dinosaurs as well (including a great tree-top sequence with a Brachiosaurus). This decision only heightens the frightening encounters with the man-eating monsters. Though Steven Spielberg considered the impressive T-Rex as the “star of the show,” I actually find the smaller beasts to be scary. The poison-spitting Dilophosaurus is given one moment of screen time, but it’s definitely a memorable moment that will have young kids and grown adults screaming in terror. To me, the main attraction of JURASSIC PARK is the Velociraptors. A lot of dialogue and small scenes are devoted to building up these fearsome predators and they certainly don’t disappoint when unleashed at full force, becoming the main antagonists in the final act.

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JURASSIC PARK is truly one of the huge stand-out moments of film history. Besides introducing revolutionary special effects onto the screen (bringing convincing dinosaurs to life), the story is terrifically exciting and endlessly rewatchable. This is a creature feature, but it’s one of the absolute best. JURASSIC PARK holds up flawlessly as a masterful cinematic adventure to this day!

Grade: A+

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

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

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Directed by: Wes Anderson

Written by: Wes Anderson

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Lea Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson & Tony Revolori

Wes Anderson has gained a reputation over his career for unique style and an oddball sense of humor. Anderson’s newest film carries an air of sophistication and the logistics of a cartoon. Layered with quirky sensibilities and having a genuine heart at the center, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is my favorite film of the year thus far! This already has a spot reserved on my Best of 2014 list. The entire affair is an absolutely entrancing experience of wonderful magic that only phenomenal filmmaking can bring.

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Beginning in the present, a young girl visits a memorial and reads a book by a character known simply as “The Author.” The film then cuts back to the 1980’s to find the Author describing a trip he made in the 1960’s. Flashing back to the 1960’s, we see a younger Author meet the elderly owner of the once prestigious/now rustic Grand Budapest Hotel. This elderly fellow relates the tale of how he came to own the Grand Budapest. So to break this down we open with a narration within a book that takes us to a flashback that then takes us to another flashback. Instead of coming off as convoluted in the slightest (as it almost certainly would have in any other film), this technique offers satisfying bookends to the main story at hand. Speaking of which…

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Set in the 1930’s, the main plot (e.g. the elderly owner’s story) is the tale of a famous concierge and his loyal lobby boy. The concierge is Gustave H., a philosophical and poetic gentleman, who takes to romancing many of the rich elderly (blonde) women who frequently visit the hotel. The lobby boy is Zero, a refugee from a less fortunate country, who has found a fatherly figure and devoted friend in Gustave. After Madam D (a former lover of Gustave) is found murdered, a priceless painting (titled Boy With Apple) is left in the possession of the two. Unfortunately for Gustave, something sinister is afoot and he’s been framed for Madam D’s death. Zero must rise up to the occasion, band together with Agatha (love of his life and candy-maker), and prove Gustave’s innocence!

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From the onset, there are many things unusual about THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. Model work was done for the landscape shots and the film has a candy-colored sensibility in nearly all of the sets. Everything has been put together with care and attention to detail. In its most unusual opening, the viewer is sucked into the oddball world of this story. A thick atmosphere covers the whole thing like frosting on one of Agatha’s cakes. The amazing soundtrack adds even more flavor and perfectly encapsulates the tone of the movie. It should also be noted that the frame ratio of the film changes based on the time period the film is currently in. For example, its widescreen (2.35:1) in the present day, goes down to 1:85 when the Author is relating his story, and goes to traditional 1:33 for Zero’s tale. Purposely executed, this added yet another sense of wonder to an already amazing film.

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The film sports a large cast of big names. Some of these notable actors only appear for a minute or two, but their presence was a nice touch. Tony Revolori doesn’t have a long list of titles to his name, but delivers as young Zero. It’s easy for the viewer to sympathize with his bad history and root for him to overcome the odds to get his beloved mentor back. Speaking of which, Ralph Fiennes is simply brilliant as Gustave H. This character goes from waxing poetic to fowl-mouthed ruffian in the blink of an eye. Though the character might have come off as a quirky scumbag in any other film, Fiennes makes him into lovable guy. There’s certainly something to be said for that. Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe both appear as villains. Brody is hysterical as the ill-tempered fascist son of Madam D. His off-the-cuff profanity is only outweighed by Gustave’s frequent outbursts. Dafoe is a quiet, intimidating, leering man whose fashion sense includes a constant pair of brass-knuckles. Last but not least, Saoirse Ronan is Agatha. Though her character isn’t devoted nearly as much time as Gustave or Zero, she’s an essential part of the film.

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As the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end. This was the case when the end credits began to roll on GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. The film is a true crowd-pleaser in every sense of the term. The humor is hilarious, but there’s also an unspoken sentimental factor that doesn’t truly reveal itself until the final moments. In some comedies, this might be uncalled for or felt forced. In GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, every emotion is genuine and absolutely earned. The best way of describing the magic and wonder this film holds is by saying it’s an adult story set in an absurd fairy-tale landscape. Walking out of the darkened movie theater, a nearly overwhelming wave of awe washed over me from the whole adventure I had just gone through with a colorful cast of characters. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is phenomenal and nothing short of a masterpiece!

Grade: A+

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