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+

THE GOOD DINOSAUR (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Peril, Action and Thematic Elements

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Directed by: Peter Sohn

Written by: Meg LeFauve

Voices of: Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, AJ Buckley, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn & Peter Sohn

2015 is the first year where Pixar has released two original movies, those being INSIDE OUT and this. While the story about emotions in a little girl’s head is far superior, THE GOOD DINOSAUR serves as a simple adventure that’s clearly geared for younger ages. Just because it’s better suited for little kids doesn’t mean that this film won’t entertain older viewers though. THE GOOD DINOSAUR is worth a watch thanks to beautiful animation and a strong emotional core. The lower end of the Pixar filmography is not a bad place to be as the company consistently produces great family entertainment (MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, CARS, and CARS 2 are all worse than this).

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In an alternate course of history, the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs goes slightly off track and misses Earth entirely. Millions of years pass and dinosaurs evolve into a farming society. Arlo is a cowardly Apatosaurus trying to make his mark in the family. When capturing a critter that’s been snacking on his family’s crops, Arlo discovers the corn-eating pest is a feral human child. Through a few acts of fate and a river with a strong current, the long-necked dinosaur and the little boy (later named Spot) get stranded miles away from home. With predators and various other dangers laid in their path, the unlikely pair must form a friendship and rely on each other to survive the long journey ahead of them.

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The first thing that I immediately noticed about THE GOOD DINOSAUR is how great the animation looks. I’m not talking about the character design (which is more cartoony than other recent Pixar films), but rather the background designs and landscapes that these dinosaur travel through. It looks as if someone shot actual footage of wilderness and then added the cartoon dinosaurs at the last second. I was thoroughly impressed with how the small, beautiful details stuck out in this film.

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The characters are a bit of a mixed bag. I like Arlo and Spot, but the rest of the dinosaurs come and go when the film needs them to drive the familiar plot forward. A family of T-rexes show up to guide our heroes for approximately ten minutes and then promptly disappear into the background as forgotten plot devices. The same happens with a quirky dinosaur who shows up for one brief scene (given away in the trailer) to give Spot his name. While FINDING NEMO sort of had the same formula, those undersea creatures were far better, more memorable characters than these so-so prehistoric reptiles.

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I was especially disappointed with the villains in this movie because they had real potential to add a darkness to the film that something like LAND BEFORE TIME had (not to compare this to another animated dino adventure). I really enjoyed their presence, but they only pop up for two scenes. I wouldn’t necessarily have a big issue with this, but the movie feels the need to throw in a pack of Velociraptors for one pointless moment that could have been used to further flesh out the main antagonists. This being said, Arlo and Spot are strong enough to carry the weight of the film on their shoulders. I enjoyed watching these two main characters evolve over the course of the film. The main message of the film is a familiar one (overcoming fear to do what is right), but the way it’s executed is undeniably emotional.

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For a movie that really isn’t on the same level as most of Pixar’s other creations, THE GOOD DINOSAUR had me teary-eyed during a couple of emotional scenes. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way either as a younger child in the theater knew precisely what was going on and was bawling her eyes out during the heartfelt final moments. This is one well-animated family film that will entertain viewers of all ages, though it’s obviously geared more towards younger viewers. While the movie definitely could have been better with a few creative decisions (the screenplay suffers from apparent rewrites) and remains on the lower end of Pixar’s scale, THE GOOD DINOSAUR lives up to its title in being good (but not great).

Grade: B

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 2 (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, and for some Thematic Material

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Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Written by: Danny Strong & Peter Craig

(based on the novel MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Natalie Dormer, Willow Shields, Jeffrey Wright & Stanley Tucci

This year marks the conclusion of THE HUNGER GAMES. Fitting snugly into the young adult fiction void left by HARRY POTTER and TWILIGHT, Suzzanne Collins’ teeny-bopperized version of BATTLE ROYALE made huge waves on the big screen. While I didn’t care for the first film at all, I found CATCHING FIRE to be surprisingly well-executed. Like seemingly all modern book adaptations, the final novel of the series was split into two separate films. As a result, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 felt like a feature-length first act. Picking up from the exact final seconds of Part 1, MOCKINGJAY Part 2 returns to the level of quality that CATCHING FIRE brought to the franchise. This is a very dark, intense, and satisfying final chapter to the HUNGER GAMES saga.

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Katniss’s propaganda campaign worked wonders for the rebels of Panem and the nation is in the midst of a full-blown revolutionary war. While the united Districts may have a massive army of soldiers, the sinister President Snow still has a few dirty tricks up his sleeve. He’s employed brainwashing techniques to turn Peeta against Katniss and has rigged the Capitol with hundreds of deadly booby traps. As this war progresses towards its darkest final hours, Katniss (aided by a handful of former Hunger Game survivors and freedom fighters) sets out across the deadly city landscape to assassinate President Snow. However, she discovers that there are few people that she can trust in this war.

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MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is dark, really dark. This fourth and final HUNGER GAMES installment is more horrific and intense than any of the previous chapters. Though it still contains a slight level of silliness, I found myself sucked into this story more than I was during the entirety of Part 1. Instead of merely using the repeated formula of a group of individuals trying to kill each other in a booby-trapped stadium, MOCKINGJAY Part 2 instead makes the viewer realize how big and bad the war raging in the Capitol is. As a result, the script is far more mature than I expected it to be. There’s a very strong anti-war message that’s undeniable as lives are lost on both sides and certain individuals twist the chaotic violence for their own personal gain.

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As far as the cast goes, Jennifer Lawrence has never been better as Katniss. The character has a quiet intensity for most of the film that feels convincing (especially given everything that’s happened to her throughout the past three movies). Lawrence’s strongest scene comes from her character having a pure emotional meltdown during a moment in the final third that was completely believable. I imagine that particular scene is bound to get a few fans crying in the theater. Though MOCKINGJAY Part 2 still has an annoying love-triangle aspect (which did remind me of the horrible TWILIGHT movies), I felt that both Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth brought their A-game as Peeta and Gale. They are more than just eye candy for teenage girls and actually serve a purpose in the plot.

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Julianne Moore returns for a much bigger role than she had in Part 1 as President Coin. Next to her side is the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final on-screen performance. Though he only receives about 5 minutes of total screen time, Hoffman is just as talented as he ever was. Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson reprise their roles, but don’t necessarily have a ton to do in this final chapter. The colorful-haired Stanley Tucci also pops in for a one scene appearance, while Jena Malone (who plays one of my favorite characters in the whole series) is mostly regulated to the sidelines for about three good scenes. Natalie Dormer, who was an important player in Part 1, only receives about a handful of lines and mainly stands in the background as an extra gun. Donald Sutherland owns the role of President Snow as a menacing politician who’s always the smartest, and most dangerous, person in the room. Most of the supporting cast members aren’t necessarily given a ton to do, because this is Katniss’s story.

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MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is beautifully shot and has many stand-out sequences. Creative booby traps provide some of the more exciting moments (an oil pit being a definitely highlight). There’s a nice atmosphere of tension and hopelessness (despite us knowing full well how this story is probably going to play out). Though most of the CGI works well, there’s one scene in a sewer that looks as if it took a page out of RESIDENT EVIL or (more recently) THE SCORCH TRIALS with some silly-looking creatures. There’s also a minor plot hole that annoyed me for a few minutes when it popped up. The running time runs a tad too long thanks to this film having the same amount of endings as RETURN OF THE KING. There were about three shots where the movie could have ended perfectly and it kept going as if to show us every minor detail to the point of annoyance.

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Truthfully told, there’s no reason why MOCKINGJAY couldn’t have just been a three-hour long final movie. The decision to split the story in two films was purely financial and contributes to pacing problems. Part 1 feels like the first act of a movie and Part 2 feels like the last two acts of that same movie. With some complaints aside (silly monsters, an ending that overstays its welcome, and a few wasted performances), MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is on the same level as CATCHING FIRE for me. It was nice to watch a young-adult movie series that started off on a shaky note and became something far better than it probably should have been by its finale. THE HUNGER GAMES franchise has left a mark in cinema as a new blockbuster sci-fi saga that will be remembered for years to come. MOCKINGJAY Part 2 serves as a more than satisfying final note to go out on.

Grade: B

QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, and some Sexual Content

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Directed by: Marc Forster

Written by: Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis & Robert Wade

Starring: Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Gemma Arterton, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, Judi Dench & Anatole Taubman

2006’s CASINO ROYALE made a huge splash at the time of its release. This was Bond for a whole new generation and seemed to be turn the iconic 007 into a more human hero. Anyone penning the sequel to ROYALE was guaranteed have their work cut out for them. Two years later, QUANTUM OF SOLACE hit theaters to an apathetic “meh.” Though this follow-up to the Bond reboot held a lot of promise in its premise, it simply doesn’t do anything remarkable with it. Daniel Craig remains top-notch as 007, but he’s the stand-out in a sequel that’s a disappointing step-down from its predecessor.

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QUANTUM picks up where CASINO ROYALE left off. Seeking revenge for the death of his lover, Bond has tracked down the mysterious Mr. White (a member of the organization that killed both Vesper and La Chiffre). However, James soon discovers that Mr. White is merely one brick in a much larger, more intimidating wall. A secret organization, known as Quantum, has it out for Bond and they have members everywhere. 007 soon finds himself wooing more women and trying to take down the head of Quantum, Dominic Greene.

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Unlike previous Bond disappointments, where main actors seemed bored, Daniel Craig is still in full force as 007. He’s made the character into a heartbroken man who merely wants to satisfy his aching vengeance for Vesper. Unfortunately, his performance is the one shining moment in an otherwise mediocre film. Olga Kurylenko and Gemma Arterton fill the roles of Bond girls and both seem kind of bland. Arterton simply isn’t given enough time to develop, while Kurylenko’s character is pretty one-note. What makes this even more confusing is that Kurylenko has played better “Bond girls” in non-Bond films (e.g. THE NOVEMBER MAN, and even 2007’s HITMAN). Mathieu Almaric comes off woefully miscast as the villainous Greene. Though his character is a violent businessman, I couldn’t fully buy him as a baddie deserving of Bond. Other nebbishy bad guys have appeared in the series (Jonathan Pryce’s Carver in the underrated TOMORROW NEVER DIES), but Almaric’s Greene comes off as bland and unintentionally hilarious. The latter arrives in a fiery fight scene in which Greene keeps letting out high-pitched squeals as he battles Bond with an axe. The scene was supposed to be intense and I was just trying not to laugh. Jeffrey Wright and Giancarlo Giannini also reprise their roles from CASINO ROYALE, but merely serve as two plot devices instead of returning characters.

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Besides every character who isn’t James Bond being underwritten, QUANTUM’s action doesn’t fare much better. There are a couple of intense moments, but most of the action is made up of chaotic BOURNE-like scenes. In the opening car chase there is a headache-inducing amount a quick editing. Shaky-cam is also frequent throughout the entire film. For my money, the best scene in the whole movie is a stalking scene at an opera in which Bond tries to capture the identities of Quantum members. Unfortunately, this suspenseful moment is then compromised by an incoherently edited action scene that follows. Unconvincing fights aside, the Quantum organization comes off as a low-rent form of SPECTRE (which might actually link to it in the upcoming film). Instead of getting me excited to watch Bond take down a villainous organization that has people everywhere, I was more bored by everything that followed. This seems like a major step backwards for the franchise.

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CASINO ROYALE’s high momentum sinks to a lackluster crawl in QUANTUM OF SOLACE. The premise holds a lot of potential and none of it is fully utilized to the extent that it should have been. Daniel Craig still stands as my favorite Bond and he’s easily the best part of this whole film. However, the follow-up to the rebirth of the franchise comes off like a combination of a lesser Roger Moore flick (in which Bond is trying too hard to emulate other films, like the BOURNE series) and a disappointing Dalton installment (becoming far too grim to be fully enjoyed as a Bond film). Overall, I would just skip this middle entry and go directly from CASINO ROYALE to SKYFALL. Just pretend that QUANTUM doesn’t exist.

Grade: C-

CASINO ROYALE (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violent Action, a scene of Torture, Sexual Content and Nudity

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Directed by: Martin Campbell

Written by: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & Paul Haggis

(based on the novel CASINO ROYALE by Ian Fleming)

Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini & Simon Abkarian

The original James Bond series ran four decades and twenty films. Like any other movie franchise, it had definite ups and downs. 007 may have started off as a trend-setter in the cinematic world, but the franchise constantly found itself cashing in on other popular genres (e.g. kung-fu in MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, cop dramas in LICENCE TO KILL, etc.). When DIE ANOTHER DAY (the fourth and final Brosnan entry) turned out to be an embarrassment, it became apparent that Bond was in desperate need of a reboot. Most reboots are seen as useless cash-ins or lame-brained attempts to reinvigorate doomed franchises. 2006’s CASINO ROYALE manages to surpass any and all preconceived notions about reboots as well as 007 films. This is one of the very best Bond movies we’ve ever received!

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James Bond is an MI6 agent who has recently received his 00-status. Armed with a license to kill, Bond draws some attention when he kills a terrorist at an embassy. As much as the strict M (Bond’s boss) doesn’t care for his radical tactics and hot-headed ego, she recognizes that he’s the best card-player in MI6. This skill will come in handy as Bond is assigned to enter a high-stakes poker tournament run by Le Chiffre, a nefarious banker who funds international terrorism. Aided by an HM Treasury agent, Bond finds himself sucked into an intense mental battle between himself and La Chiffre that gets more dangerous with each passing second.

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Out of all the actors to don the tux, I do believe that Daniel Craig might be my favorite Bond. Part of this stems from him being so unlike any of the other actors who have played the character before him. The rest of this comes from the iconic secret agent being written as a vulnerable, flawed human being. As fun as the original Bond is, you can’t deny that he’s one-note in his sexist treatment towards women and smart-ass attitude (complete with bad puns). Craig’s Bond is still a suave ladies’ man and action hero, but has a sensitive appeal as well. The script develops him as an emerging secret agent and serves as a compelling origin story. As Bond girl Vesper Lynd, Eva Green does a damn fine job and serves as a strong character in her own right. Much like Craig, Green is far different from any other Bond girl previously glimpsed in the series. Serving on the side are Jeffrey Wright (as CIA operative Felix), Giancarlo Giannini (as an aid to Bond) and Judi Dench (reprising her role as M).

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Besides the protagonist serving as a welcome change of pace in the series, Mads Mikkelsen also serves as a phenomenal antagonist. Mads has proven through NBC’s HANNIBAL that he’s very good at being bad. CASINO ROYALE sees him the role of a well-developed villain. He’s not just a cookie-cutter madman with a nuke. Instead, there are scenes that humanize him and make him that much more intimidating for it. We see how desperate La Chiffre’s situation is. We know how far he’ll go to keep his money from getting into Bond’s hands and why he’ll resort to such violent lengths. The tone of CASINO ROYALE is far more intense and brutal than any of the previous Bonds, but doesn’t ever go too dark. The visuals are well-shot and there is plenty of crazy action to be had, though the movie also takes time to dramatically develop the proceedings. What results is a beautifully constructed film in which scenes of people playing poker become just as intense as gun fights or car chases. The screenplay does a wonderful job of keeping the viewer on their toes and (unless you’ve read the book) you never really know where things are heading next.

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CASINO ROYALE is my favorite Bond movie thus far (though I haven’t seen SKYFALL yet). Opening with one of the catchiest tunes in the franchise, this secret agent reboot weaves together a fantastic origin story. Craig delivers a 007 that’s far different from anyone else in the series and is made all the better for it. The action is harshly realistic, but never crosses the line into being unnecessarily gratuitous. Mads’s villain is also fleshed out far more than other Bond baddies in the franchise. Simply put, CASINO ROYALE is not only one of the most spectacular Bond films yet, but it’s also one of the best reboots to ever hit the big screen!

Grade: A+

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