JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action

Directed by: Zack Snyder

Written by: Chris Terrio & Joss Whedon

(based on the JUSTICE LEAGUE comics by Gardner Fox)

Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciaran Hinds, Amber Heard & Billy Crudup

To put it lightly, the DC Extended Universe has gotten off to a rocky start. 2013’s MAN OF STEEL was passable enough. I really enjoyed it the first time around, but its many flaws stuck out like a sore thumb upon a second viewing. BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE was a massive disappointment that had a few positive qualities and suffered from tons of problems. I thought SUICIDE SQUAD was big dumb fun, but it definitely fell short of its potential. Only this year, did the DCEU produce its first great film in WONDER WOMAN. I was hoping that JUSTICE LEAGUE might keep some of that greatness going, but I was sadly mistaken. JUSTICE LEAGUE is only a mere step above the lackluster BATMAN V SUPERMAN in disappointing mediocrity.

After experiencing apocalyptic nightmares of a monstrous future and encountering a few aliens, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) is determined to gather a team of superpowered individuals. With Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) by his side, Bruce attempts to recruit the reclusive Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the overly eager/super speedy Flash (Ezra Miller), and the half-man/half-machine Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Alien military officer Steppenwolf (played through a motion capture performance by Ciaran Hinds) is trying to collect three all-powerful “mother boxes” in order to bring about the destruction of our world. Only this newly formed “Justice League” of heroes can possibly hope to stop him…but they’ll need help from someone else. Hint: his real name is Kal-El (Henry Cavill) and he’s buried six feet underground.

JUSTICE LEAGUE suffers from many of the same problems that plagued BATMAN V SUPERMAN. One of those problems being that Warner Brothers seems to be trying to rush the DC Extended Universe. Instead of taking the time to deliver movies for Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash, we’re introduced to them in this film. While this might delight diehard DC comic fans who know this material inside and out, this is a bit underwhelming for newcomers to these certain superheroes. I knew next to nothing about Aquaman or Cyborg when I walked into this movie and I still knew very little about them when the end credits began to roll.

This complaint isn’t meant to discredit any of the cast members’ performances though, because they all seem to be mostly trying. Jason Momoa (who I mainly know from GAME OF THRONES) gets a lot of laughs as Aquaman and turned this lame excuse for a comic book hero into someone who I’m excited to see more of in his own movie (which is currently scheduled for next December). Gal Gadot is still awesome as Wonder Woman and receives the best scene in the film as she thwarts a terrorist plot in her introductory sequence. Ben Affleck remains well-cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jeremy Irons is perfect as sassy butler Alfred. Also, the role of Superman still fits charismatic Henry Cavill like a glove. Also, Amy Adams briefly pops up as gal pal Louis Lane and Diane Lane is also briefly here as Superman’s grieving mother.

One performance that’s been getting a lot of warm reception from audience members and fans, but left me rather cold is Ezra Miller as the Flash. While many people seem to find the Flash’s quick quips and one-liners to be hilarious, I found Miller’s Flash to be far more annoying than he was funny. If we’re going for sheer laughs and charisma, I thought Momoa’s Aquaman easily topped him in pretty much every way. Also, you’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned Ray Fisher’s Cyborg yet, that’s because his “tortured soul” character is altogether forgettable. Fisher tried to get as much as he could out of him, but his performance felt (dare I say it) robotic in the worst way possible.

A huge problem in JUSTICE LEAGUE comes from the lame antagonist. I watched JUSTICE LEAGUE right after sitting through THOR: RAGNAROK and while I didn’t like Hela as a villainess, she was a hell of a lot more interesting than Steppenwolf. On the heels of a well-developed cinematic universe for Marvel (that will stretch to over 20 movies before its completed), this rushed-to-production DC Extended Universe’s Steppenwolf feels like a low-rent version of Thanos. I realize that DC has its own “Thanos” in the form of Darkseid, but the idea of collecting three all-powerful boxes to bring about the end of the world seems a bit dusty on the heels of the constant “infinity stones” in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (and even that occasionally got old). Steppenwolf is a bland, boring, and lame villain who has a glowing axe, a metal helmet, and a few horns…and that’s about all there is to his character.

JUSTICE LEAGUE’s biggest issues stem from mixed bag pacing and sloppy storytelling. When the titular Justice League are kicking generic alien ass on the big screen, it’s big dumb fun. I enjoyed the film’s action scenes, but there are far too few of them. By the time that JUSTICE LEAGUE has finally fixed the mistakes committed by BATMAN V SUPERMAN (like killing off a major superhero in the second film of a franchise and leaving no real emotional impact), nearly 3/4ths of the film has already passed. Again, DC diehard fanboys might be head-over-heels in love with their story arcs finally hitting the big screen, but this simply doesn’t function as a cohesive film.

At the end of the day, JUSTICE LEAGUE should have been great. This should have been a major tentpole film that arrived after establishing origin stories and prepping audiences to finally see their beloved superheroes uniting on the big screen. Instead, this is a team-up film that’s arriving as the fifth installment in a franchise that’s only properly established two(!) of its six main characters. JUSTICE LEAGUE is the depressing result of what happens when a studio wants to bank on fandom, but doesn’t make the time or effort to carve out a proper franchise. JUSTICE LEAGUE should have been great and instead, it just exists.

Grade: C

The Top 15 Movies I Reviewed in 2016

List by Derrick Carter

2016 has been a crazy year both on film and in real life. I’ve reviewed just under 200 movies in the course of the last twelve months and for the most part, have fared pretty well in catching cool new flicks as well as crossing many revered classics off my cinephile “shame list.” As a result, my focus in 2016 wasn’t necessarily on catching every new film that graced the big screen and I instead went off whatever the hell I felt like watching/reviewing. Though I didn’t get as many reviews up during 2016 as I have in previous years (for a myriad of reasons), I do feel that For the Love of Celluloid sort of matured over the past twelve months and deeply appreciate the support of anyone who bothers to read my little movie blog.

Apologies if I briefly bore you with a technicality, but my year-end lists will now focus on first time watches in the course of the year and not specifically releases from the year. Without further ado, here are my fifteen favorite first time watches from 2016…

Honorable Mentions: If I hadn’t previously seen RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, THE SHINING, and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE before 2016, then they all would have easily made this list. ANTHROPOID, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, ZOOTOPIA, SAUSAGE PARTY, THE NICE GUYS, THE HANDMAIDEN and TRAIN TO BUSAN were all stand-out movies in this rather mixed bag cinematic year. SPIRITED AWAY, UNITED 93, and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY also barely scraped by in missing this list. So, what did make the list?…

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15. LADY SNOWBLOOD: Before getting into how much I love this movie, this film deserves some context. A local cinema pub runs monthly Kung Fu Movie Nights here and a buddy of mine occasionally drags me to them. I’m not a big martial arts aficionado and most of the movies I’ve seen at this pub have been entertaining and undeniably stupid. However, LADY SNOWBLOOD blew me out of the water. This was more than just a martial arts flick being shown in a cinema pub, but rather a beautiful, bloody revenge tale that carefully unwound its plot and sold its bad-ass heroine as someone to root for as she sliced and diced her way to vengeance. Featuring geysers of blood, gorgeous visuals, and a calculated delivery of fun, LADY SNOWBLOOD may likely go down as my favorite martial arts flick of all-time!

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14. THE INVITATION: Easily the best horror film that I saw this year, THE INVITATION is brilliant in planting the viewer on the edge of their seat for 100 minutes. The premise is simple. A man goes to a suspiciously casual dinner party held by his ex-wife. Through the course of seemingly mundane actions and a possibly paranoid protagonist, we are taken on a tense ride of two terrifying possibilities. This film does a fantastic job of keeping the viewer flip-flopping on their stance and trying to figure out the dark mystery behind the plot, which fully unleashes itself in a truly frightening third act. Don’t watch the trailer. Don’t read any long plot synopsis. If you want to be scared and appreciate a classy Hitchcockian sense of unease, then definitely go into this film as blind as possible!

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13. DREDD: When DREDD came out in 2012, I quickly wrote it off as a RAID rip-off in spite of the comic book source material. Having finally watched the film four years later, I realize just how wrong I was. Though it may resemble THE RAID on the surface, DREDD could not be any more different. This ultraviolent, highly entertaining and fully loaded sci-fi action extravaganza had me laughing and cheering from start to finish. The film doesn’t present its action in a gritty, heavily edited, shaky-cam style as attention to detail and beautiful lenses have been used to portray the gory chaos. I really hope that DREDD 2 eventually becomes a reality, because this needs to be a franchise!

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12. DOCTOR STRANGE: The Marvel Cinematic Universe has now been running for nine years and fourteen films. Though none of its installments have failed to entertain me (some far more than others), I wouldn’t call any of them perfect entertainment…until now. Telling the most inventive origin story thus far in the Marvel universe and simultaneously functioning as a mystical adventure, DOCTOR STRANGE is easily the best MCU movie yet! The acting is stellar, making the main character’s transformation from selfish jerk to courageous hero all the better as a result. The effects are mindblowing (not to sound cliché) and deliver some of the most memorable sequences to hit the big screen in quite some time. It’s like a magical acid trip had a baby with a superhero movie and I loved every second of it!

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11. THE BREAKFAST CLUB: Yes, I know. I hadn’t seen this movie before and was only pressured into watching it by a co-worker who kept bugging me about it. After finally caving in, I discovered why this John Hughes classic has so many fans and is widely considered to be one of the best films to come out of the 80’s. Revolving around five fleshed-out characters and skewing teenage clique stereotypes (that still exist to this day), THE BREAKFAST CLUB is equally funny as it is insightful. The film is a perfect balance of comedy and drama, resulting in an emotionally involving and beautiful story about how people are alike in spite of their differences. Maybe, in a world that’s so divided by differences and labels, we should all just kick back, watch this movie and remember that we can get along. I’ll never forget about this movie. Get it? That’s a reference to the song that plays during the end credits. Whatever, let’s move on…

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10. THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY: Yes, I know this is technically a miniseries, but you know what? This is my list and I don’t care. THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON is better than damn near every true-crime film I’ve seen in my lifetime. Featuring a bevy of great acting talent and more than guaranteed to push a few buttons on every viewer, this 10-part miniseries stays true to the facts and relives the “trial of the century” in painstaking detail. I was addicted to this show when it aired earlier this year and have since binge-watched it as a complete cinematic experience. When paired with ESPN’s excellent five-part documentary O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA, there isn’t much left to be examined about the O.J. Simpson case. If you are the least bit intrigued by true crime, then PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON is a must-see!

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9. DEADPOOL: Though this year had more than its fair share of disappointing superhero flicks, 2016 still managed to deliver two spectacular comic book movies. I loved DOCTOR STRANGE, but DEADPOOL might just be one of my favorite superhero movies of all-time (next to the DARK KNIGHT trilogy). This rowdy X-MEN spinoff did everything in its power to be entertaining as hell and milked the R rating for everything it was worth. Because of DEADPOOL’s massive success as an R-rated money-maker, I truly hope that more studios will realize older audiences will pay to see great R-rated movies on the big screen too. Not everything needs to be accessible to younger viewers and every demographic, DEADPOOL was refreshingly bonkers and the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater since MAD MAX: FURY ROAD!

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8. ON THE WATERFRONT: Another title that I crossed off my shame list this year, ON THE WATERFRONT never seemed that appealing to me. Sure, I had seen Marlon Brando’s contender speech out of context and heard the basic premise, but none of it sounded particularly special. This movie isn’t about a corrupt union and poorly-treated dock workers though, instead it’s a story about broken souls and a long walk to redemption. Marlon Brando’s performance is breathtaking as he disappears into the role of a tough guy with a soft heart. This film progresses naturally and doesn’t cheat out on its dangerous stakes, resulting in some very tense moments. The final minutes are unbelievably emotional as a simple dockside walk becomes a test of willpower and ultimately sums up the entire film. ON THE WATERFRONT is an emotional, brilliantly acted, and spectacularly written piece of art that deeply moved me!

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7. ANIMAL HOUSE: Here’s another movie I crossed off my shame list during 2016. I had never seen ANIMAL HOUSE before, though I was well aware of its reputation. No hyperbole, this film changed the face of movie comedies and opened the door for crass humor to hit the big screen in gross-out fashion. This movie has plenty of hilarious scenes and quotes, but taken within the film’s context, they become ten times funnier. The dark sense of humor in areas had me cackling while the many sex jokes easily contributed to the likes of AMERICAN PIE and SUPERBAD further down the line. Also, John Belushi was a comedic tour-de-force to be reckoned with. With jokes about sex, death, horses, chainsaws, beer, racial differences, impressions of zits, and much more, ANIMAL HOUSE truly is one of the greatest and wildest comedies of all-time!

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6. TRAINING DAY: Though it was released fifteen years ago, TRAINING DAY still seems frighteningly relevant in today’s world. Showcasing a dark underbelly of corrupt cops and street gangs, this film takes place in the space of 24 hours and sunk its hooks into me from start to finish. Ethan Hawke is a naïve protagonist (that’s kind of the point of the story) and we are forced to follow in his footsteps as he stands alongside one of my new favorite cinematic villains. Denzel Washington’s character is a beast and delivers one of the greatest movie monologues (for my money) of all-time in Detective Alonzo Harris’s street-side closing speech. Grim, gritty, and suspenseful the whole way through, TRAINING DAY is one of my new favorite movies!

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5. ARRIVAL: A beautifully crafted and mature piece of science fiction, ARRIVAL’s true brilliance didn’t fully hit me until the closing credits began to roll. This film takes the alien invaders trope and spins in a mature, realistic direction. Though this has already been done in films like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and CONTACT, I guarantee that it hasn’t been executed in the complex and thought-provoking manner that ARRIVAL delivers. Seemingly innocuous scenes take on whole new meanings when you realize the story’s true nature. The ending also guarantees that you won’t be able to watch this film in the same way upon a second viewing, much like Christopher Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE becomes a completely different movie once you’ve been wowed the first time around. ARRIVAL is a science fiction masterpiece and continues director Denis Villeneuve’s winning streak.

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4. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD: Despite stemming from a book that’s required in many classrooms and existing for decades as a beloved classic that’s cherished by countless film fans, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD somehow never made its way across my eyeballs before 2016. However, I now count it among the most emotional dramas that I’ve ever seen. This film tackles hard-hitting issues through the innocent eyes of a child in a coming-of-age tale crossed with a courtroom drama. Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch is outstanding and the rest of the cast put in stellar work as well. This profoundly powerful film deeply moved me and left me on the verge of tears with its beautiful conclusion. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a masterpiece!

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3. THE REVENANT: The film that finally won Leo an Academy Award, THE REVENANT is an amazing cinematic feat that was created by both madness and brilliance. Did Leo look like he just puked when biting into a buffalo liver? That’s because he did. Do these cast members look like they’re freezing their asses off? That’s because they are. Does it seem like these are real locations? That’s because the director shot in natural light and proceeded to put his cast and crew through a hellish outdoor shooting experience. Production accomplishments aside, THE REVENANT remains a riveting tale of revenge and survival in harsher than harsh circumstances. This film is a gritty, unforgiving, and awe-inspiring piece of cinematic art that has blown me away twice at this point and will continue to do so many times in the future. Also, this movie may have given me a fear of bears too.

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2. THE LOBSTER: The best love story I’ve seen all year belongs to a twisted dystopian dark comedy about a guy who’s forced to choose between finding a romantic partner or being turned into an animal. Sound weird? Oh boy, it is! Besides being strange all the way around, THE LOBSTER is also a wonderfully unique flick that’s equal parts charming and disturbing. This cinematic world felt like Terry Gilliam made a movie with David Lynch. The feelings this film gave me are almost impossible to properly describe as there really hasn’t been anything like it before. It’s a romance like no other and if you have a penchant for weird arthouse cinema, then I highly suggest that you watch THE LOBSTER at your earliest convenience…preferably with a significant other who’s also into awesome cinematic oddities.

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1. HIGH-RISE: So if you thought THE LOBSTER was an odd choice for this list, then brace yourself because I can see people flat-out hating my number-one pick. HIGH-RISE is one of the few movies to be adapted from the work of British science fiction author J.G. Ballard. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because David Cronenberg adapted his work into twisted romantic thriller CRASH. That’s the level we’re at here, folks. HIGH-RISE is a grim, darkly hilarious and disturbing tale about a high society that devolves into a bloody class war in the space of a forty-floor apartment building…and I absolutely friggin’ adored this film! I’ve watched it four times within the space of the year and plan on revisiting it many more times in the future. The stylish visuals, colorful characters, twisted story arcs, oddball humor mixed with darkly disturbing content, a suffocating atmosphere, and shocking social commentary blew me out of the water. I love this movie so much that I actually listened to the DVD commentary. It’s the first film to make me do that in years! Though it’s definitely not for everyone (see THE LOBSTER’s divisiveness and crank it up to 11), HIGH-RISE is my favorite movie of 2016 and makes me hope for more big screen adaptations of Ballard’s work.

2016 was a pretty insane year in a lot of different ways. Many movies disappointed me in the theater, but I still saw plenty of good and great films. I also crossed many titles of my cinephile “shame list,” though I still have many more to eventually get through. Here’s hoping for an even better 2017!

ASSASSIN’S CREED (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, Thematic Elements and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Justin Kurzel

Written by: Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper & Bill Collage

(based on the video game ASSASSIN’S CREED by Ubisoft)

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams, Ariane Labed & Matias Varela

Before diving into the nitty gritty of this review, it should be noted that I haven’t played a minute of the ASSASSIN’S CREED video games and am judging this purely as a film. To be perfectly honest, I walked into this movie blind and didn’t know what to expect from the plot at all. I simply went into theater wanting a cool action flick with some neat ideas. Though there are definitely a few neat ideas at work and three stellar action sequences, ASSASSIN’S CREED suffers from never reaching its full potential and wasting great talent (both on the screen and behind the scenes).

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Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is a murderer facing his execution by lethal injection…only to awake in the mysterious Abstergo facility after he’s “died.” This strange corporation is heavily guarded, shrouded in secrecy and has a bunch of violence-prone individuals being subjected as human guinea pigs to a genetic scientific experiment. Scientist Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard) wishes to use Callum to discover the key to world peace. She hopes to accomplish this by unethically forcing Callum to relive memories of a long-dead assassin ancestor in 1492 Spain and then using that knowledge to recover an ancient artifact known as “The Apple of Eden.” However, Sophia’s father Alan (Jeremy Irons) may have nefarious motives for possessing this powerful device. As Callum lives out centuries-old genetic memories, he finds himself becoming slowly gifted with extraordinary abilities and realizing that a creed of ancient assassins is still very much alive.

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From what I can gather, this film follows a similar structure to the ASSASSIN’S CREED video games. However, this cinematic version of the story has a difficult time balancing the present and the centuries-old past storylines. This is especially a bummer, because both narratives have potential in different ways. The present-day scenes disappointingly come off as exposition-crammed filler between the past’s action that showcases a major conflict between the assassins and the Spanish Inquisition. If this movie had taken place entirely in the past, it might have been a hundred times better in quality. The three flashbacks/genetic memories are easily the film’s highlights, with the middle portion being a stellar chase sequence and sticking out as the best scene in the movie.

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To further add insult to injury, CREED wastes a significant amount of time in repeating information that has already been shown to us. Even though it repeats certain plot points to the peak of annoyance, the script somehow manages to remain frustratingly vague in other key details of the storyline. We are told about the Apple of Eden in an opening text crawl, then it is reiterated in a prologue (rendering the opening text as totally useless), and then this information is repeated about three more times in the Abstergo building. Once or twice would have been enough to inform the viewer of this literal plot device, but this repetitive approach managed to make me feel like I was being treated like an idiot. The same can be said of Callum’s character, whose entire development hinges on a single incident from his past and a throwaway line of dialogue detailing the reason for his execution. The former is harped upon for about 15-20 minutes of screen time. A single memory doesn’t make for a well-developed protagonist, especially when his past ancestor is far more interesting.

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The annoying repetition of information also occurs during the film’s (mostly) stellar action sequences, which feel the need to frequently cut back to Callum in the Animus (the genetic memory machine). Though this may have worked in the games(?), it feels like we’re just watching Callum play an extreme virtual reality game…as opposed to reliving memories of his long-dead assassin ancestor Aguilar de Nerha (also played by Fassbender). This effect slightly diminishes the enjoyment of the action scenes at hand, constantly reminding the viewer of their purpose as opposed to simply letting us enjoy the lethal mayhem.

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The script’s frustrating vagueness mainly involves a shadowy group of villains, known as the Templars (based on actual history), and these antagonists are barely mentioned with any sort of context. The biggest issue with this lack of detail is that the Templars play a huge role in the story and newcomers know next to nothing about them. There’s also an eye-rolling leap into supernatural territory towards the last third that may outright lose viewers who were enjoying the film up to that point, mainly because there was no hint or explanation of why the plot would suddenly move into that genre. On a similar and yet slightly unrelated note, ASSASSIN’S CREED really drops the ball in its finale that seems to feature a ton of build-up to a very weak pay-off that ultimately ended with an obvious cliffhanger for a sequel.

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Most of this review has been spent with me writing about the action-packed pros of the past plot and the many cons of the present plot with no mention of acting, cinematography, soundtrack, and other details. Well, that’s because all of those things are well above average for your typical video game movie. Fassbender, Cotillard and Irons add a classy sense that ASSASSIN’S CREED is trying to set itself apart from past game-to-movie misfires. The film’s visuals, set design, action choreography, effects and rousing score kept me interested in the proceedings. However, these good qualities only further show how 99% of the film’s impossible-to-ignore problems stem from the sloppy script.

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At the beginning of 2016, many moviegoers were hoping that this year would change the bad reputation of video game movies. WARCRAFT was being touted as a summer tentpole and ASSASSIN’S CREED was something to look forward to in the holiday season. In true 2016 fashion, both of these films let folks down. Neither of these movies are truly terrible in my opinion, though I definitely enjoyed WARCRAFT more than ASSASSIN’S CREED, but they only serve as okay entertainment at best. With better writing, ASSASSIN’S CREED really could have been something special. Instead, this movie is just another messy attempt to bring the excitement of a video game to the big screen and not quite pulling it off.

Grade: C+

HENRY IV (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 4 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: Richard Eyre

Written by: Richard Eyre

(based on the plays HENRY IV Part 1 and HENRY IV Part 2 by William Shakespeare)

Starring: Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale, Julie Walters, Alun Armstrong, Joe Armstrong, David Bamber & Niamh Cusack

William Shakespeare is regarded as one of the greatest writers in history for many good reasons. This playwright coined tons of new words, reshaped the English language as we know it, and told timeless tales of tragedy, comedy and love. His histories are usually regarded as his less interesting works, but that didn’t stop BBC from creating a series of TV movies titled THE HOLLOW CROWN. Featuring big names like Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, and Benedict Cumberbatch, this series has invigorated new takes on centuries-old material. Shakespeare was not without a few stinkers in his career (e.g. ANTHONY AND CLEOPATRA) and HENRY IV Parts 1 and 2 are among those. Even with a talented cast and stand-out production values, HENRY IV is a strictly middle-of-the-road affair due to an unfocused narrative…courtesy of William Shakespeare’s original text.

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Decades after dethroning Richard II (seen in the previous HOLLOW CROWN movie), an aging Henry IV (Jeremy Irons) finds himself plagued by a series of problems. Tensions are brewing between Wales and Scotland, all while the noble Percy family plots a rebellion against the king. As if bloody chaos wasn’t enough to upset Henry IV, his son Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston) has become a drunken belligerent who hangs out in poor taverns amongst the trashier sects of society. Henry IV wishes to bring peace to his country, squash the violent rebellion and prepare his delinquent son for the crown. This is all easier said than done and begins to take a toll on the ailing Henry IV’s health.

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The title of Shakespeare’s play is HENRY IV, but the narrative focuses on every character who isn’t the titular ruler. This means that Jeremy Irons’ terrific performance takes a backseat to everyone else…who all happen to be less interesting characters. The only possible exception is Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal (a.k.a. future Henry V), whose transition from delinquent troublemaker to responsible adult feels a tad rushed and unbelievable. Part of this might be attributed to writer/director Richard Eyre, but I’d say that most of it falls onto Shakespeare’s shoulders. This really isn’t one of his better histories or plays in general and it really shows.

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Back to less interesting characters. HENRY IV’s potentially complex villain is portrayed in a mostly bland way. Hotspur (Joe Armstrong) not only serves as an antagonist towards Henry IV, but also comes off as would-be rival to Prince Hal. We only know about the latter through one powerful speech early on, but that is damn near forgotten by the time Hal and Hotspur actually encounter each other face-to-face. HENRY IV Part 1 is mainly where all of the rebellion stuff comes into play, as these battles are mentioned only during a few passing scenes in Part 2.

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A prominent character in both HENRY IV plays/parts is Falstaff (played by an unrecognizable Simon Russell Beale), who is a pompous oaf and also serves as a bad influence for Prince Hal. This comic relief drunkard is beloved by certain generations of Shakespeare critics, but has rightfully lost a lot of popularity over time. That becomes apparent in this buffoon essentially being Shakespeare’s equivalent of Jar Jar Binks. He’s annoying, aggravating, and got on my nerves during every scene. To make matters even worse, he’s featured in a majority of Parts 1 and 2. Not even the stellar battle sequence is safe from his over-the-top delivery and silly antics. Part 2 sees Falstaff stealing half of the running time in a subplot that’s entirely separated from the rest of the play. It’s safe to say that a majority of HENRY IV’s problems, pacing issues, and dull patches are direct results from Falstaff’s presence.

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Even when he phoned it in, Shakespeare always knew how to entrance the ears with his masterful use of the English language. His dialogue is pure poetry and certain scenes stand out as highlights in an otherwise very tiring viewing experience. The fight between Prince Hal and Hotspur is made even more intense by the battle of insults and threats occurring alongside the swords and shields. One conversation in Part 2 between Hiddleston’s Hal and Irons’ Henry IV is the best scene of the entire movie though as it captures what this whole story should have been about from frame one…and what Shakespeare attempted to do, albeit in a half-assed way.

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As a whole, HENRY IV is one of Shakespeare’s lesser works and this movie adaptation doesn’t do anything particularly special to entice one to watch both parts. There are definitely highlight scenes, amazing lines of dialogue and a great backseat performance from Jeremy Irons. However, the potentially great villain is one-dimensional, far too much time is devoted to horribly annoying comical Falstaff, and the overall experience drags throughout. Unless you’re a diehard Shakespeare fan, I’d say that you’re better off skipping HENRY IV Parts 1 and 2 in THE HOLLOW CROWN series.

Grade: C

HIGH-RISE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

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

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Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Written by: Amy Jump

(based on the novel HIGH-RISE by J.G. Ballard)

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elizabeth Moss, James Purefoy & Keeley Hawes

A film adaptation of HIGH-RISE has been in the works for decades. The project passed through many hands and was originally thought to be unfilmable. Despite the odds being stacked against him, director Ben Wheatley took the reins of J.G. Ballard’s novel with a screenplay written by Amy Jump (who also happens to be Wheatley’s wife). It should be noted that I had read Ballard’s novel before walking into this movie and I was still taken aback numerous times by on-screen shocks, unforgettable moments, and a consistently uncomfortable tone. This oddball dystopian-ish sci-fi thriller is sure to gain a steady cult following over time, wind up the subject of many film theory essays, and serve as one hell of a unique ride!

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Searching for a fresh start in life, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) decides to move into the 25th floor of an illustrious high-rise apartment tower. The building is extravagant in its layout and has everything you could possibly want available within its walls. These accommodations include: swimming pool, roof garden, school, spa, gym, and even, a supermarket. There’s practically no reason to leave and after one man plummets to his death from the 39th floor, residents become more reluctant to venture into the outside world. A class system forms in the building, with the most powerful residing on the highest levels and the poverty-stricken surviving on the lower floors. As the tower deteriorates (frequent power failures, no running water, clogged garbage shoots), so do its residents. The high-rise becomes a forty-story battleground for a literal class war.

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HIGH-RISE’s script follows a handful of main characters through various levels, but disturbing deeds and darker than dark humor are equally present in a number of the film’s subplots. The lack of a consistent main story might turn certain viewers off. The film doesn’t give you a likable protagonist, but that’s sort of the point. This is basically LORD OF THE FLIES relocated to a high-rise apartment tower. Speaking of which, this movie’s atmosphere is unnerving in part because it feels like an alternate version of the ’70’s. Completing this illusion are a few tongue-in-cheek song selections, including two covers for ABBA’s S.O.S. (one of which is used to highlight an especially disturbing sequence). The detail put into every inch of the high-rise setting is breathtaking as it seems like you’re gazing into another world, one that’s simultaneously familiar and eerie. One might argue that the high-rise tower itself is the real star of the movie and sets most of the action in motion.

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Even though the main character is wealthy and has a medical degree, Tom Hiddleston plays Robert Laing as an everyman. He’s obviously supposed to represent the middle-class and doesn’t necessarily want to get involved with the ever-growing chaos in the building. However, we see his attitude slowly shift as the film moves forward, captured wonderfully in a particularly chilling montage. As Laing’s upstairs neighbor/love interest, Sienna Miller is great as single mother Charlotte Melville. This character wasn’t given too much thought in the novel and has more time dedicated to her here. The same can be said for the characters of lower-class pregnant mother Helen Wilder (Elisabeth Moss), snobby actress Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory), and sadistic top-floor resident Ann Royal (Keeley Hawes).

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Jeremy Irons is somewhat sympathetic as Anthony Royal, a top-floor architect who stands out from the horde of murderous aristocrats. The most memorable of these high-society monsters is gynecologist Alan Pangbourne, played to teeth-snarling perfection by James Purefoy. Finally, Luke Evans steals every scene he’s in as lower-level Richard Wilder, who becomes a literal social climber as he begins to scale his way to the top of the building. Wilder is arguably the film’s main antagonist and his frequent rage-filled outbursts are equally amusing and frightening to behold.

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The structure of HIGH-RISE can be split into two distinct halves. The first half slowly builds tension and unease, while developing the story’s many characters along the way. We see petty squabbles become borderline fist-fights and witness injustices between floors (lower levels suffer from power failures, rich dwellers have a fancy private elevator). Then we get the 39th floor incident (already mentioned in my summary) and things go to hell in a hand-basket. Charlotte notes that “It’s as if everybody suddenly decided to cross some line,” and she couldn’t be more correct. Viewers craving mayhem with manners will find their thirst quenched by sophisticated madness in the last hour.

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HIGH-RISE is not necessarily pleasant or easy to watch (nor should it be), but it’s entertaining, thought-provoking, wholly unique, and disturbing as bloodshed is treated with a casual indifference. A child calmly munches on corn flakes whilst watching a man brutally beat another man to death over a bucket of paint. People casually walk by a swimming pool littered with floating corpses. Hulking piles of garbage bags become prevalent in every shot as the building slowly falls apart and many residents decay along with it. Even though I had read the novel before watching this movie and knew what to expect, I was constantly being thrown for a loop in very good ways. HIGH-RISE is definitely not for everybody. People will love it and just as many people (if not more) will absolutely hate it. I imagine that fans of experimental and counter cinema will appreciate the dark genius of this film. I surely won’t forget my visit to the HIGH-RISE and plan on returning many times in the future.

Grade: A+

BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action throughout, and some Sensuality

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Directed by: Zack Snyder

Written by: Chris Terrio & David S. Goyer

(based on the DC Comics)

Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter & Gal Gadot

The cinematic Cold War between DC and Marvel has officially begun! As a result, many films will be arriving in the next four years from both companies, much to the delight of superhero fans everywhere. After delivering a brand new Superman with 2013’s MAN OF STEEL (which was a polarizing film, but I fell on the side that liked it as big dumb fun), DC is back with a clash of superhero titans that also serves as a backdoor for the Justice League to be formed. However, DC might have been better if they had slowly built up their Extended Universe before getting into crossover plotlines, because BATMAN v SUPERMAN is a movie that is brimming with potential and almost none of it comes to the screen. I really wanted to love this film or even just enjoy it as another big budget superhero blockbuster, but I walked away very disappointed.

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The story kicks off with MAN OF STEEL’s final fight from a different perspective: Bruce Wayne/Batman’s (Ben Affleck) who frantically rushes to save civilians from falling rubble. Traumatized by Clark Kent/Superman’s destructive powers, Wayne becomes obsessed with the Man of Steel being able to wipe out humanity. This eats away at his personal life as Batman’s crime-fighting tactics become more vicious. Meanwhile, Clark Kent becomes obsessed over the violent vigilante in the neighboring Gotham City. Once Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne cross paths at a party held by the villainous Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), a conflict arises between both heroes that can only resolve in a brutal fight…with possible world-ending stakes also at hand.

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I’ll list the positives about this film first. Despite many overreactions to his casting announcement, Ben Affleck is pretty damn good as Bruce Wayne/Batman. He brings a level of intensity and grittiness to the character that we’ve come to expect and goes slightly darker (akin to Frank Miller’s more violent take on the hero). Jeremy Irons is perfectly cast as Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler/Batman’s loyal servant. Though he isn’t given much to do…other than delivering a handful of snappy one-liners and quick-witted remarks, Irons is a lot of fun in the role. Finally, the expected fight scene between Batman and Superman is well-done. There are creative set pieces utilized (leveling the playing field between the two) as well as the sequence just being plain cool to watch as two iconic superheroes duke it out!

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Now that those positives have been stated, allow me to mention the many downsides to this film. Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill don’t have a hell of a lot of screen time together. In fact, Batman and Superman aren’t given much to do before the big fight scene (that arrives in the second half of the film). We see Batman hide in a corner and chase a truck, but that’s about all we get. As far as Kal-El is concerned, we get a montage of Superman rescuing people from disasters and occasionally saving Louis Lane (as per usual)…but not much actual crime fighting. Instead of any superhero action or excitement, we’re treated to Bruce Wayne having horribly cheesy nightmare sequences (one of which actually used the dream-within-a-dream cliché) and Superman being demonized by a Senator.

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If only the villains were entertaining to watch while Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent go about their daily lives. Instead, Luthor and Doomsday are two underwhelming antagonists. Lex Luthor is being played by a woefully miscast Jesse Eisenberg. Though its clear that they were trying something new with the famous comic book villain (who was previously portrayed by Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey), this young and hip approach didn’t work as Luthor comes off as a whiny spoiled rich kid as opposed to being a legitimately intimidating, despicable baddie. I didn’t hate this villain like I should have, but was rather annoyed every time he was on the screen. It’s like they told Jesse Eisenberg to do a slightly quirky, hyperactive version of Mark Zuckerberg from THE SOCIAL NETWORK and then played classical music over it. Eisenberg’s Luthor is laughably bad to behold.

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As for Doomsday (playing a major role in the second half of the film), his inclusion feels arbitrary, half-assed and useless. Poorly rendered CGI cause this alien foe to resemble a radioactive version of the cave troll from LORD OF THE RINGS. This monster looks like it belongs in a Syfy Channel movie as opposed to a 250-million-dollar blockbuster. The only positive thing to come out of his appearance is a glorified cameo from Wonder Woman. However, watching the trio of DC heroes fight off this damn near unstoppable villain becomes repetitive and dull after five minutes.

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There are a number of reasons why BATMAN v SUPERMAN is a disappointment. One might be from the DC Extended Universe shooting themselves in the foot by shoving this tent pole title out too soon. Imagine if Marvel had put out THE AVENGERS before developing any other characters besides Iron Man? Another big reason why this clash of superheroes underwhelms is due to its messy, unfocused script. There’s not nearly the level of action, excitement and humor that there should be in a film where Batman is fighting friggin’ Superman! The animated series had a better well-rounded conflict between these characters. Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne barely encounter each other before the admittedly well-done fight scene. The main problem though is that BATMAN v SUPERMAN is a film packed with too much filler and obvious bridge-building for future installments (something that Marvel’s AGE OF ULTRON also suffered from), and not nearly enough of the titular promised hero vs. hero conflict.

Grade: C-

LOLITA (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Aberrant Sexuality, a strong scene of Violence, Nudity and some Language

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Directed by: Adrian Lyne

Written by: Stephen Schiff

(based on the novel LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov)

Starring: Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Frank Langella, Melanie Griffith & Suzanne Shepherd

If you think FIFTY SHADES OF GREY generated controversy in book stores everywhere? You haven’t seen anything yet! In the world of American Literature, things certainly don’t get more notorious than Nabakov’s LOLITA. This novel is often considered to have some of the most beautiful romantic verses of all time, but there’s just one tiny, little problem: the love story happens to be between a manipulative pedophile and a young girl that he’s preying upon. I never plan on reading Nabakov’s novel due to the content alone and only dared to cover this film based purely on a discussion in a college course from those who had read the material. Suffice to say that this movie masquerades as a would-be romance, but is by far one of the most unintentionally uncomfortable viewing experiences that I’ve ever had in my entire life.

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Humbert Humbert has always had a fondness for nymphets as he calls them (girls in the 9 to 14 age range). Upon accepting a teaching position in New Hampshire, Humbert rents a room in the house of a single mother and his reasoning for this is frightening as all get out. Humbert has fallen head over heels in love with the mother’s teenage daughter, Dolores, whom he nicknames “Lolita.” Humbert tries desperately but cannot keep his passion hidden for long and finds himself in a doomed relationship with Lolita that will have dire consequences for everyone.

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There are a couple of nice compliments I can give this movie. The first good thing comes in some of the stylistic choices. During a number of scenes in this movie, the film uses oddly framed shots that represent a paranoid state of mind that Humbert is inhabiting at that moment. I’ll admit that all of my problems with this movie are pretty much are the fault of the celebrated (and deeply controversial) source material. I really couldn’t get beyond the fact that what I was watching was monstrous. LOLITA plays itself off as a beautiful love story, disturbingly narrated by Humbert throughout the entire film. We hear his passionate speeches about Lolita and see friggin’ disturbing moments where the implications are downright stomach-churning. There are very few subjects in film that seem all around nasty to me, but pedophilia is one of these subjects. Pacing wise, the film also runs far too long by rushing through more interesting plot points in the first act and dragging out other moments to an unnecessarily dull degree.

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Without a doubt, Jeremy Irons is a talented performer and has taken on some fantastic roles in the space of his career (though I’ll always know his voice as Scar in THE LION KING). He tries here. He really puts an honest effort into his performance, but he simply cannot make the character of Humbert Humbert into a likable character or someone who we want to watch for over two hours. Dominique Swan mercifully looks older than she actually was while filming this movie, but is insanely annoying as Lolita. I know that part of her “charm” to Humbert is her childlike innocence and smart-aleck sass, but I felt that the bratty kid was extremely over-the-top to the enth degree. Finally, there’s the second compliment I can give this film in the antagonist played by Frank Langella. Though he’s sadly absent for a majority of the screen time, Langella gives a brilliantly unhinged performance in the only stand-out great scene to come out of the whole film.

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LOLITA is easily one of the most uncomfortable, unnerving films that I’ve ever sat through. Nearly all its problems seem to spring from the troubling source material which almost seems to be a pedophile wish-fulfillment book. Though the style of the film is definitely interesting in moments and Frank Langella delivers a really solid performance, the movie is far too long as a whole and really just plods along in its icky feelings (which seem to be unintentional). While some folks might be able to overlook the horrific nature of what’s going on here, I was never out of the woods in thinking that this was a sick movie based on a sick novel about a sick man.

Grade: D

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (2004)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 11 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Nudity

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Directed by: Michael Radford

Written by: Michael Radford

(based on the play THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by William Shakespeare)

Starring: Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins, Zuleikha Robinson, Kris Marshall, Charlie Cox & Heather Goldenhersh

Shakespeare definitely has his share of overplayed works with countless adaptations (ROMEO & JULIET and HAMLET being the biggest offenders), but also supplies a fair amount of underperformed stories. For a variety of reasons, these other plays only receive one or two quality film adaptations at most. MERCHANT OF VENICE is one of these works and there’s a valid controversy behind this play that has kept many filmmakers from attempting a proper movie adaptation of it. This 2004 dramatic take on the material is the first English-language film production of this particular play with sound. Though it does have a couple of minor flaws, MERCHANT OF VENICE is a beautiful take on one of my favorite Shakespeare plays!

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Antonio, a wealthy merchant of Venice, frequently bails his financially troubled friend, Bassanio, out of predicaments. As a result, Bassanio owes Antonio a large sum of money, but has thought of a get-rich-quick scheme that will also include a beautiful wife. A lovely woman, named Portia, lives on an island in Belmont and is extremely wealthy. To marry her, Bassanio must borrow the means to get to her home, but Antonio isn’t exactly in the best spot to lend cash at the moment. So the two visit a disgruntled Jewish creditor by the name of Shylock. Shylock hates Antonio for a variety of reasons, but makes a deal with him nonetheless. This loan includes a gruesome price. If Antonio should forfeit on his bond, then the punishment will be a pound of his flesh cut by Shylock. While Bassanio woos Portia, Shylock experiences despair that makes him even more bitter. This isn’t exactly helpful when Antonio must default on his loan…

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Firstly, MERCHANT OF VENICE is stunning to look at. Gorgeous locations and costumes give the effect of watching a living art gallery. Fog-laden streets, a beautiful island, and fancy clothing bring out an air of sophistication that is neglected in so many Shakespeare adaptations. This isn’t to say that every one of the bard’s stories on film needs to be a faithful to the location/time period. Though, seeing as this is the first English-language film with sound of this particular play, that was a nice touch. The soundtrack, made of various period appropriate musical pieces, adds to the already prevalent atmosphere seen in every frame. A nice addition to the source material comes in a brief text prologue that gives historical context for the period in which this play was written/set and lends to Shylock becoming the film’s strongest character.

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This also comes to the controversy involved in MERCHANT OF VENICE. The play depicts Shylock as an evil Jewish stereotype of the highest order and Anti-Semitism spews out of the supposed good guys. In writing and directing this film, Michael Radford has done his utmost to save Shylock from being an offensive one-note character. Al Pacino has mostly become an over-the-top ghost of the actor he once was, but is excellent in the role of Shylock. The Jewish loan shark is made out to receive the viewer’s sympathy as a horrible product of the scornful citizens around him. This being said, Portia is the film’s second best character and wonderfully performed by Lynn Collins. Playing Antonio and Bassanio are Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes respectively. These two actors deliver in their performances, but the characters remain slightly unlikable. The ending scene might also feel a little anti-climactic to some viewers, but that can be attributed to Shakespeare’s actual writing in that case. Nobody expects Michael Radford to write an entirely new closing scene that feels authentic to Shakespeare, but the final scene may leave some people shrugging their shoulders.

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MERCHANT OF VENICE is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, so I’m pretty much admitting there might be a tiny bit of bias in this review. This taken into account, I love the story and thought that Michael Radford brought it to the screen in a nearly flawless fashion. There’s not much you can do about two unlikable leads, but the character of Shylock is greatly saved into being far more complex than a radical Jewish stereotype. The cinematography, costume design, sets, and soundtrack all lend to this feeling like a completely authentic retelling of Shakespeare’s most controversial play. For those interested in Shakespeare and fans of this particular play, MERCHANT OF VENICE will not disappoint!

Grade: A-

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