THE HOUSE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout, Sexual References, Drug Use, some Violence and brief Nudity

Directed by: Andrew Jay Cohen

Written by: Brendan O’Brien & Andrew Jay Cohen

Starring: Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Jason Mantzoukas, Ryan Simpkins, Nick Kroll, Allison Tolman, Rob Huebel & Jeremy Renner

Despite starring in hilarious comedies throughout the 2000s, Will Ferrell has been in some real stinkers lately. With the exception of a few animated comedies (MEGAMIND, THE LEGO MOVIE), Ferrell’s recent output has included stale attempts at recapturing past comedic magic (ANCHORMAN 2), lazy executions of fairly funny premises (GET HARD), and some of the worst films of his entire career (DADDY’S HOME). I was hoping that THE HOUSE might wind up being Ferrell’s return to form. The premise was funny, the cast looked solid, and the R-rating allowed extra room for irreverent hijinks. THE HOUSE falls between GET HARD and DADDY’S HOME on Ferrell’s cinematic totem pole. This film is mostly lazy and lots of dull patches frequently overshadow its better moments.

Scott (Will Ferrell) and Kate (Amy Poehler) are ecstatic for their daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) to head off to college. Alex has been accepted into a prestigious university, but Scott and Kate realize that they don’t have the cash to cover her tuition. To make matters even worse, the town’s annual scholarship program has been shut town by shady councilman Bob (Nick Kroll). Things might turn around though, because Scott and Kate’s eccentric friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) has a brilliant idea to raise lots of funds in a short amount of time. Frank turns his house into an illegal underground casino, while Scott and Kate become his business partners. Wacky hijinks ensue.

I’ll address THE HOUSE’s positive qualities first because there are a few redeeming factors. One of those factors arrives in Jason Mantzoukas. Though the selling points of this film were Ferrell and Poehler, Mantzoukas steals most of the show as the overly eccentric Frank. A subplot about him trying to win back his recently separated wife is tedious, but Mantzoukas even makes these scenes watchable in his absurd line delivery and over-the-top body language. Mantzoukas was one of the best things about last year’s not-as-bad-as-they-said-it-was DIRTY GRANDPA and he’s easily one of the best things in THE HOUSE. Maybe, Mantzoukas’s roles are simply meant to improve low-quality comedies, because he seems to be doing a bang-up job so far.

I’d be lying if I said that THE HOUSE didn’t have a couple of funny scenes. The best bit has already been given away by the red band trailer, though the actual scene lasts longer than the 30 seconds and had me cracking up. If the entire film was as funny as that single sequence, then this would be a very different review. Unfortunately, this scene and a couple of other bits (mostly involving Mantzoukas) are the only things worth praising about THE HOUSE. The rest of this film feels boring, lame, and lazy.

Even though they are the main selling points, Ferrell and Poehler really don’t have much to do in this film. Aside from occasionally mugging at the camera, their married couple characters mostly remain straight-faced and don’t receive many great jokes. We see them acting like dorky parents with their daughter. We watch as they worry and celebrate with Mantzoukas. By the time the film tries to throw them into an over-the-top style, it feels drastically out-of-place and unearned. Most films like this have a natural progression as a character transforms from a boring suburban nobody to a stylish interesting somebody. THE HOUSE never executes that story arc in a natural or funny way, so the viewer is left to roll their eyes and remain completely disconnected towards these characters.

THE HOUSE’s plot troubles don’t stop at its unconvincing story arcs for the two dimwitted protagonists though, because a lot of this film feels like filler. It’s as if somebody was brainstorming what happens in Las Vegas casinos and decided to write those ideas down…and then just threw them into the movie with no rhyme or reason. Stand-up comedians, air bars, massages, fight night, and CASINO-style torture all just come and go, leaving few laughs to be found. Bits of this film might have served better as Funny or Die/College Humor web skits…as opposed to scenes in a comedy that was funded on 40 million and had big names attached to it. A subplot with an unnecessary bland antagonist feels like an afterthought, while Jeremy Renner as a mobster (who shows up for two scenes) would have been a much better baddie to focus on.

THE HOUSE is a missed opportunity. The pieces were there to craft a really funny R-rated comedy, something to draw in crowds who wanted to laugh in 2017’s lackluster summer movie season, and a possible comeback film for Ferrell. Instead, THE HOUSE is lazy, uninspired, and drowns out its funny bits with lots of filler and a script that feels like it never got past the brainstorming stage. There are loads of better Will Ferrell movies and far funnier R-rated comedies out there. If you bet on this flick, everybody loses.

Grade: D+

WIND RIVER (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, a Rape, Disturbing Images, and Language

Directed by: Taylor Sheridan

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Chow, Graham Greene & Martin Sensmeier

Taylor Sheridan has been making quite the impression in the independent film scene. He made waves with his script for the bleaker-than-bleak cartel thriller SICARIO (which I’d rank as one of my favorite thrillers of the 2010s) and received praise for penning the modern-western HELL OR HIGH WATER. Sheridan finally directs one of his own scripts in mystery-thriller WIND RIVER. The premise for this movie sounds very simple, but Sheridan is prone to breaking conventions and loves to focus on complex characters. His unique style of storytelling elevates this film far beyond its seemingly clichéd set-up.

The body of a young woman has been found on the desolate, snow-covered landscape of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a tracker who’s used to hunting and killing predators. Saddled with a deeper emotional motivation than you might initially think, Cory takes to hunting down the person responsible for this homicide. Fish-out-of-water FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) also finds herself facing unfair odds in a no man’s land where back-up is a myth and survival is key. Together, Jane and Cory must piece together the clues behind this mysterious death, but Wind River’s harsh elements and tense environment are stacked against them.

Much like his previous two screenplays, WIND RIVER is a film that works because of its attention to characters, a genuine emotional core, and tense atmosphere. Though it’s not nearly as dark as SICARIO, I’d argue that WIND RIVER is a step higher than HELL OR HIGH WATER. This thriller isn’t perfect in its pacing, because there are a few scenes that noticeably drag a little longer than they needed to. However, the end result is a riveting thriller that will frequently punch you in the gut and constantly keep your eyeballs glued to the screen.

Jeremy Renner might have put in his finest performance yet as tracker-turned-investigator Cory. The film feeds us little vague tidbits about Renner’s character’s past and shows enough respect to let the audience put those puzzle pieces together for ourselves, though we do get a scene where more revealing details come out. Still, this slight bit of exposition keeps things enough of a mystery to remain realistic. Renner’s character has a bad past and this makes him a stronger protagonist to bring his own brutal style of justice to the proceedings. I was rooting for him the whole way through and found his final on-screen moments to be especially satisfying in two totally different emotional ways.

Elizabeth Olsen is the fish-out-of-water FBI agent, who’s appropriately outraged and concerned when she realizes the many injustices that the Wind River residents have to endure in a search for justice. Olsen’s Jane starts off as a tad unlikable, but gradually grows on the viewer as she begins to understand that she’s stumbled into especially dangerous territory and is investigating a case that nobody else wants to touch. Gil Birmingham gave a strong performance in last year’s HELL OR HIGH WATER as the Sheriff’s Native sidekick, but steals scenes here as a grieving father who has tons of baggage.

WIND RIVER’s unique setting adds a lot to the proceedings as well. The harsh, frozen elements are a constant plot point in this mystery and manage to pack in unexpected social commentary about the current sad state of how Native Americans are treated. This message isn’t overly preachy or forced in any way, but instead serves as a further powerhouse to the already depressing tale. The film is well-shot and there’s a constant air of menace lurking around this deadly white location. The mystery is further heightened by small clues that lead to big revelations. One particular moment, that cuts from a flashback to present day, is especially masterful. This carefully edited sequence racks up the suspense by giving the viewer damning information that the main characters are about to discover.

The biggest reason why WIND RIVER succeeds as a thriller, a mystery, and a great film in general is because it has a living, breathing emotional core. The characters, writing, atmosphere, and feelings elevate the material far above its meager set-up. I cared about these people. I cared about their plights. I wanted to see this mystery solved. I wanted to see justice delivered in a satisfying way. I gave a shit about every single thing in this film and that’s why Taylor Sheridan is a cinematic storyteller to watch. He forces his viewers to care by connecting them to believable fleshed-out characters and seemingly simple stories that are emotionally complicated. WIND RIVER is a must-see!

Grade: A

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!

ARRIVAL (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Written by: Eric Heisserer

(based on the short story STORY OF YOUR LIFE by Ted Chiang)

Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma & Mark O’Brien

Denis Villeneuve is one of the best directors working today. Besides delivering two of the best thrillers of the 2010’s (PRISONERS and SICARIO), he’s also currently attached to helm the upcoming BLADE RUNNER sequel. After doing many realistic and human stories, ARRIVAL showcases what this man can do with a big budget, the sci-fi genre, and lavish effects. Half extraterrestrial tale and half emotional human drama, ARRIVAL is a refreshingly uplifting, emotional, and brilliantly written piece of smart science-fiction!

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After twelve shell-shaped UFOs touch down across Earth, expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) finds herself recruited on a top-secret government mission to forge communicate with the aliens. Nations across the globe are uniting together in an effort to discover what the aliens’ reason for coming to our world is and if they come in peace. However, rifts form between the countries as international paranoia sets in. Aided by scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and well-spoken military man Colonel Weber (Forest Whittaker), Louise is in a race against time to discover the purpose of the aliens’ visit…before potentially dire mistakes and miscommunications are made.

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While most alien films revolve around invasions and potentially apocalyptic scenarios, ARRIVAL has a refreshingly positive outlook on first contact. This is especially surprising when you consider that this director’s previous films have revolved around kidnappings, tragedies and drug cartels. ARRIVAL is an uplifting, beautiful film that had me walking out of the theater appreciating life and the world in general. The aliens are a huge plot point, but not necessarily essential to the film’s deeper message. As Louise Banks, Amy Adams sells herself as a genius linguist with tragic memories…while Jeremy Renner provides some laughs as her at-odds partner. Forrest Whitaker plays a three-dimensional military man, who doesn’t ever fully revert to the clichéd one-note “we need to blow them out of the sky” mentality. Michael Stuhlbarg is believable as a cynical jerk who is the closest thing to a full-blown antagonist in this story.

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ARRIVAL’s plot plays like an arthouse drama mixed with a sci-fi film as dual storylines move forward. We’re shown the alien encounters and attempts to communicate through their language, all of which are handled in a technical way that’s made easy to understand for the average viewer who doesn’t have a college-level knowledge of languages (myself included). Meanwhile, the emotional Amy Adams story arc almost seems like it might become cheesy or melodramatic at any moment, but surprisingly never crosses that line. The dual plotlines are expertly weaved so that they feed off each other and make the hugely impactful ending even more powerful. I won’t give any spoilers or details away, but I wanted to rewatch this film the minute that it was over. This complex plot will only get better with multiple viewings (ala THE PRESTIGE).

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Denis Villeneuve really hasn’t played around with large-scale special effects before and this is easily the biggest film that he’s made yet. The aliens almost resemble Lovecraftian creatures with their features wisely remaining obscured for the most part. Their visual language is creative and detailed, lending to a few of the plot’s later developments. The “shell” spaceship is simple, but executed with style and trippy gravity effects (making for one of the opening act’s more awe-inspiring moments). The effects aren’t the main focus of ARRIVAL though, instead that is firmly planted on the characters and story. Much like last year’s EX MACHINA, this is a brilliant piece of science fiction cinema that could easily go down as a future classic in the genre.

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In a year that’s been filled with a divided society and lots of big-screen movies based on depressing true life stories, ARRIVAL arrives as an unexpected bit of welcomed optimism. Though I can’t say for sure if this is my favorite of Villeneuve’s filmography (he’s delivered a few A+-worthy movies throughout the years), ARRIVAL definitely keeps his reputation high as one of the best filmmakers working today. Amy Adams plays a compelling protagonist, while the side characters are fleshed-out and never become walking clichés. The effects look impressive. The cinematography is gorgeous and the soundtrack subtly aids the film’s already strong emotional core. Most importantly, the writing is fantastic. ARRIVAL has one of the best endings that I’ve seen in years and makes me want to watch the film again through new eyes. This is one of the best science fiction films of the 2010’s and is sure to please those who love blockbuster entertainment with brains.

Grade: A+

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of Violence, Action and Mayhem.

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Directed by: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

Written by: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

(based on the CAPTAIN AMERICA comics by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Holland, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Bruhl, Martin Freeman & Marisa Tomei

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is the thirteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has hit varying degrees of quality throughout the years. While a couple of MCU installments have been disappointing, none of them have been downright bad and Captain America currently has the best entry with THE WINTER SOLDIER. CIVIL WAR is very much a CAPTAIN AMERICA film and never loses sight of that, but also happens to feature most of the Avengers and even introduces a few new faces into the mix. With all of these characters, lots of action, and a fast-paced narrative, CIVIL WAR is a hugely entertaining ride for superhero fans!

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Set a year after AGE OF ULTRON, we open with a handful of the Avengers botching a mission to wrestle a biological weapon away from havoc-wreaking terrorist Crossbones (Frank Grillo). In the chaos, some innocent civilians are accidentally killed. This disaster results in 117 countries coming together to establish the Sokovia Accords, which would give the United Nations control over the Avengers. While Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and other Avengers (Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany) see this as a bittersweet necessity, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and the remaining Avengers (Anthony Mackie, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen) find themselves at odds over the potentially unethical side to this political deal. When Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) re-emerges, the Avengers literally fight amongst themselves and Captain America discovers that other dangerous forces are also at work.

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Seeing as this cast of characters contains a whopping twelve superheroes and ten of those are returning faces, I’m only going to mention my personal points of interest so we’re not here all day. It was nice to see Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) receive better treatment here than they got in ULTRON, while Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) delivers a stand-out moment that generated thunderous applause from the audience in my theater. The already established rivalry between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers becomes even more heated and fists are thrown. CIVIL WAR does a fantastic job of forcing the viewer to understand the two differing points of views and sympathizing with both of them. There were multiple moments where I was emotionally confused as to who I was rooting for, because I loved these characters so much and didn’t want to see either of them get hurt (let alone by each other). You’ll probably have your loyalties tested and I was certainly switching sides during a couple of key scenes.

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CIVIL WAR also introduces two hotly anticipated superheroes into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these being: Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). I didn’t know much about Black Panther walking into this movie, but enjoyed seeing this clawed hero in action during a handful of stand-out moments, including one very tense chase. As the third big-screen incarnation of Spider-Man, Tom Holland is far and away the best Peter Parker we’ve seen yet. Besides a great-looking suit and trademark webbing, Holland’s version of Spidey is armed with the perfect amount of quips and a smart-aleck sense of humor. Though he has a short amount of screen time (three scenes), Holland definitely stands out as one of CIVIL WAR’s biggest highlights and I’m very excited to see him  take center stage in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.

CivilWar 4

CIVIL WAR falters when it comes to the antagonists, because all three of them are undeveloped. William Hurt reprises his role as a bland government official who sees the Avengers as a potential threat and wants to exert some form of control over them. Frank Grillo shows up for a glorified cameo as Crossbones, which was a disappointment when you consider the character development he received in WINTER SOLDIER. I won’t say much about Daniel Bruhl’s character for fear of spoilers, but I will say that the film dishes out little details about him until one big exposition dump. While I liked his character’s motivation and plan, these were both revealed in a heavy-handed manner that opened up a few minor plot holes.

CivilWar 5

One of CIVIL WAR’s most impressive qualities is that it never comes close to overstaying its welcome. This is the longest movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and never feels like it. Packing twelve heroes into one script might signal a potential overcrowding problem, but that is far from the case here. Even brief side characters receive their time to shine. CIVIL WAR gives me faith that the Russo brothers will pull off INFINITY WAR with more skill than Joss Whedon utilized in the overlong and overcrowded ULTRON. My only other complaint with this third CAPTAIN AMERICA outing is evident in earlier scenes, which rely on quick editing and annoying shaky-cam that slightly obscure the action. These problems are quickly remedied during the second half, when the camera becomes steadier.

CivilWar 6

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is my third favorite film of the thirteen established Marvel Cinematic Universe entries thus far (falling behind WINTER SOLDIER and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY). Early action scenes and underdeveloped antagonists keep the film from reaching perfection, but the sheer amount of hero on hero conflict and strong writing cement CIVIL WAR as another winner for both Marvel and Captain America. You probably already know if you’ll be seeing this film and it’s bound to be one of 2016’s biggest money-makers (if not the biggest). It’s great to see a summer blockbuster that relies on more than special effects and fan service. CIVIL WAR contains both of those, but they happen to be executed with smart storytelling and emotional weight behind them. In the end, that makes a world of difference.

Grade: A-

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