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.

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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.

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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.

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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-

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 11 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Action and Violence, and brief partial Nudity

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Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie

Written by: Christopher McQuarrie

(based on the TV series MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE by Bruce Geller)

Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin, Simon McBurney & Zhang Jingchu

Before June of this year, I had never seen a single MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie. I didn’t grow up watching the series, so I didn’t have any nostalgia for it. Watching those four movies for the first time, I saw the series like this: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is big dumb fun, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 tries too hard to be cool, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III has the best villain of the series, and GHOST PROTOCOL is a better-than-expected fourth installment. All my preparation of watching those films was for ROGUE NATION (the fifth film in the franchise) and I’m so glad I got into this series at all, because MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION is one of the best films to hit the big screen this summer!

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IMF agent Ethan Hunt is convinced that there’s a threat out there far bigger than any he’s ever faced before. This enemy is a group known as The Syndicate. Though they only serve as tall-tales for the C.I.A. and the rest of IMF, Ethan discovers that the Syndicate is very real and have it out for him. They are an anti-IMF. They assassinate world leaders and collapse foreign economies. It’s a mastermind criminal group made to break societies. With IMF torn down by the C.I.A., only Ethan and a handful of former IMF agents (as well as a questionable femme fatale) have any hope of stopping this terrorist organization from completing their master plan.

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The plots in the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise range from clichéd and stupid (a deadly virus being used by a terrorist, a madman armed with some nukes) to complicated and clever (a weapons dealer enacting revenge on an IMF agent). Having sat through all four films recently, I find ROGUE NATION’s plot to be the most complex story yet in the series. This feels like the most mature and adult MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie yet. It’s a result of the series slowly evolving over the later sequels. Tight editing and strong momentum make the film seem neat and compact in its 131-minute running time.

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It should come as no surprise that Tom Cruise slips right back into the role of Ethan Hunt with ease. As an action hero, there’s no denying that Cruise can still carry a blockbuster squarely on his shoulders. However, ROGUE NATION also lends bigger roles to the side characters this time around. Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames and Jeremy Renner all have big parts to play. It was nice seeing them used as equal members of a team and not merely as means to an end. Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson (coming off last summer’s awful HERCULES) plays one of the most interesting female characters in this franchise. You’re never fully certain which side she’s on, but her mere presence forces you to like her either way. While Philip Seymour Hoffman remains a vicious baddie who cannot be topped, Sean Harris plays my second-favorite villain in the series. He’s evil and calculating, but there’s also an understandable motivation behind his actions (explained as the film goes along). He was perfect in this role and can’t wait to see what he takes on next.

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Of course, what’s a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie without insane action scenes. Opening with an airplane stunt (that’s been posted in every piece of marketing for this film), ROGUE NATION packs a ton of adrenaline-pumping excitement into a story that knows where to place these crazy scenes. The gun fights and car chases don’t feel pointless or forced in the slightest. Instead, they weave right into the complex plot. One lengthy sequence set at an opera house was a special highlight for me. I was constantly on the edge of my seat through the whole film though. Every scene is riveting for one reason or another.

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It’s crazy how the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise seems to have come full circle and become the highest possible version of popcorn entertainment. However, this fifth film is far from big and dumb. Instead, it’s the most mature, complicated entry yet and made all the better for it. It was originally rumored that this fifth entry would be the final MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie and I can say that the franchise would have gone out on its highest note. However, if the sixth film (now in production) is anywhere near as accomplished and hugely entertaining as this fifth entry, bring it on! I have nothing negative to say about this summer blockbuster. I loved every second of ROGUE NATION!

Grade: A+

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL (2011)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

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

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Directed by: Brad Bird

Written by: Josh Appelbaum & Andre Nemec

Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Michael Nyqvist, Vladimir Mashkov & Samuli Edelmann

Of all the series I’ve covered for 2015’s summer movie releases, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was the one that I was least enthused about. I had never seen any of the Tom Cruise blockbusters until about a week ago and (aside from the second film) I’m very glad that I finally took the plunge into the franchise spawned by a 1960’s TV series. The 1996 original is the epitome of big, dumb popcorn entertainment. 2000’s sequel was too concerned over style and weighed down by a bad screenplay to be any fun. 2006’s third installment easily surpassed both films to become an outright great movie. So five years after that second sequel, director Brad Bird delivered MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL. Where does this fourth film sit? It’s somewhere snuggly between the first and the third.

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Ethan Hunt is doing time in a Russian prison, but IMF extracts him for another seemingly impossible task. This time around, Ethan and his team are being sent into the Kremlin to retrieve files on a terrorist known as “Cobalt.” Unfortunately for them, the mission doesn’t run as smoothly as planned (do they ever?) and the Kremlin is bombed by the very terrorist they were looking for. Ethan and his team members make it out alive, but tensions between the USA and Russia have risen to a level where IMF is disbanded. It’s up to Ethan and his small band of former IMF agents to take down Cobalt, prove their innocence, and retrieve nuclear codes before the unthinkable occurs.

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You might notice that plot sounds a bit generic this time around, almost as generic as your typical spy thriller a.k.a. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2. However, it’s all in the execution. Director Brad Bird (who is most famous for his animated work) knows exactly how to pull off a “been there, done that” script in a way that feels fresh. He throws a number of suspenseful scenarios and the most grandiose action to grace a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie thus far. Though number three is still my favorite for a variety of reasons, the action is definitely most exciting and ridiculously awesome in GHOST PROTOCOL. We get intense chase scenes, fights while the stakes are at the their highest, and Tom Cruise scaling the world’s tallest building with a pair of faulty gloves. That last scene ramps up unbelievable levels of tension and is bound to make those afraid of heights wet their pants. Though the formula of making the action even more over-the-top with each entry can easily backfire, it works well for the fourth MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.

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As far as the performances go, Tom Cruise is back in true action hero form as Ethan Hunt. Whatever you may think of his personal life, Cruise shines as this memorable agent always facing off against impossible odds. Though previous characters pop up for cameos, Simon Pegg is the only other big name to return from any of the previous films. He serves as the obvious comic relief, but does a damn fine job of it. Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner are new additions to the M:I team, but pull their weight. Renner is especially enjoyable in his role as an analyst turned amateur agent. While the good guys are worth rooting for, the villain is super bland this time around. It seems like the filmmakers knew that they would never be able to top Hoffman’s arms dealer, so they went in an entirely new direction. While I liked the concept of this nuclear extremist (played by Michael Nyqvist of the original GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO), he simply doesn’t have much dialogue or enough screen time. I knew he was a baddie and that’s about all there was to his character. He just seems a little anti-climactic when compared to his competition in the series, even the moronic villain in M:I 2 is slightly more fleshed out in comparison.

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GHOST PROTOCOL stands as the second-best MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie thus far. Though it suffers from clichés and a boring villain, the fourth film in the franchise manages to up the excitement and entertainment through crazy action and solid suspense. If you’re a fan of the first three films (or even just one and three, like myself), then GHOST PROTOCOL should be right up your alley. This leaves me excited for the fifth (and supposedly final) film in the franchise coming on July 31. So far, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is three for four and those aren’t bad odds.

Grade: B+

NORTH COUNTRY (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences involving Sexual Harassment including Violence and Dialogue, and for Language

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Directed by: Niki Caro

Written by: Michael Seitzman

(based on the book CLASS ACTION by Clara Bingham & Laura Leedy Gansler)

Starring: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek, Michelle Monaghan, Jeremy Renner & Woody Harrelson

NORTH COUNTRY sounds like a surefire winner on paper. You have an important story being brought to life with an A-list cast. Though it bombed at the box office, the film even managed to garner two Academy Award nominations (Best Actress and Supporting Actress) and rightfully so. Based on the Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Company case, NORTH COUNTRY showcases great performances and a hard-hitting issue that happens to be driven by a muddled script trying to tell two tonally different stories at once. One involves a court case over sexual harassment in the workplace and is obviously the more important and compelling of the two. However, screenwriter Michael Seitzman tries to tie this into a story of a woman returning to her childhood home. He seems focus too much on the less-interesting latter.

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After years of abuse, Josey Aimes has decided to leave her spouse, take her two kids with her, and move in with her parents. While her mother seems to support Josey, her father less than approves and is ashamed by her presence. In order to make ends meet and earn some real money, Josey starts to work at the Mesabi Iron Range. The company is less than welcoming and Josey (along with her female coworkers) are subjected to frequent sexual harassment. To boot, an ex-boyfriend of Josey’s happens to be working at the mine and instigating more verbal/physical abuse towards her. Josey decides to file a class-action lawsuit against the company, but struggles to find members of the community that will stand in support of her case. It’s all a fictionalized take on an actual court case that changed the working world forever, but the film seems to only marginally focus on that…changing into something else entirely by the conclusion.

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Aside from the important issues being addressed (however glossed over they might wind up being), the main reason to watch NORTH COUNTRY is for the cast. I mean, look at those names! I was originally sold on seeing this movie because of the plot, but the A-list talent in this film got me even more pumped up to watch it. Charlize Theron has proven herself to be one of the best actresses working today and demonstrates both vulnerability and strength in equal measure as Josey. Seeing as her character is subjected to slut-shaming from the very beginning, it makes the viewer reevaluate how they treat certain people in our society who do get pregnant at 16 years-old and what not.

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Frances McDormand is sympathetic as a union representative whose health is slowly declining and Sean Bean has a side role as her husband. Meanwhile, Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins are outstanding as Josey’s parents, especially Richard Jenkins as the seemingly emotionless father who you want to punch in the face on multiple occasions. Jeremy Renner plays Josey’s ex with a sort of scumbag glee. Aside from playing Jeffrey Dahmer, I never really saw Renner in any antagonist role. So this was a nice change of pace. Woody Harrelson is great as Josey’s lawyer/possible love interest. All in all, the performances are great from everyone in this film and that would warrant at least one viewing in my eyes.

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NORTH COUNTRY is certainly effective in moments. These are the infuriating scenes of sexual harassment, the indifference of the higher-ups, and Josey’s courtroom scenes. However, the movie teeters close to Lifetime Original Movie territory whenever it goes into Josey’s past with little reveals coming to light (especially a bombshell in the final third that almost feels like a cop-out). Whenever the former moments are on, the movie is great. Whenever the latter is being focused on, the movie dips into mediocre and easy clichéd storytelling. I really wish that the movie had been a more accurate representation of the real court case that it was inspired by and not loaded with a lot of fictional soap opera level drama that seems to detract from the important issues being discussed.

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NORTH COUNTRY is a decent flick thanks to great performances from an awesome cast and the upsetting issues being discussed, but it’s weighed down by a subplot that really had no business being in this film. Charlize Theron’s performance is well worth the rental price alone and the rest of the impressive cast also boost this film’s quality above simply being a movie-of-the-week melodrama. However, it seems as if NORTH COUNTRY is two movies under one title. The first is a compelling drama inspired by one of the most important court cases in recent history. The second feels like a Lifetime script that somehow got a budget of 35 million. I really wish the former stood out more than the latter, but they’re given equal screen time and that’s the problem. NORTH COUNTRY is worth a watch, but don’t expect it to be as amazing as it could have been.

Grade: B-

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Action, Violence and Destruction, and for some Suggestive Comments

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Directed by: Joss Whedon

Written by: Joss Whedon

(based on the AVENGERS comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgard, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Andy Serkis & Julie Delpy

Hats off to Marvel. Seriously, it takes an indescribable level of skill to plan out different films that all tie into one massive storyline. I can honestly say that I haven’t disliked a single movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON doesn’t change that. This being said, I didn’t love the first AVENGERS. I found it to be a lot of fun with some flaws. With the initial set-up of the Avengers out of the way, I was hoping that AGE OF ULTRON might prove itself to be even better than 2012’s superhero opus. That was definitely not the case. It’s a serviceable piece of blockbuster entertainment, but ULTRON falls on the lower end of the spectrum in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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After raiding a Hydra station, the Avengers have finally retrieved Loki’s scepter. While much celebrating is in order, Tony Stark is haunted by the possibility of a day when the Avengers won’t be able to save the world. In order to stop that apocalypse from ever happening, Stark and Bruce Banner create the Ultron program. Ultron is an advanced A.I. that becomes all too self-aware. Unfortunately for the Avengers and humanity in general, Ultron sees the only solution to peace as world domination and destruction. It’s up to the Avengers to stop the threat that Stark created!

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The most enjoyable part about the original AVENGERS was watching well-known superheroes have casual banter and interactions with each other. That holds true of this sequel too. A lot of the humor and running jokes between the characters work well. Though we know there will be plenty of explosions and fights down the line, one can’t help but laugh during an early party sequence in which War Machine tries to impress Thor with a pretty basic story or Iron Man and Thor trying to one up each other in comparing their girlfriends. Running jokes about Thor’s hammer and Captain America’s reluctance to swearing got laughs out of me every single time they appeared. Audiences aren’t simply there to watch the superheroes have casual conversations and hang out though, they are expecting rollicking action scenes and high stakes. ULTRON delivers in a few stand-out sequences. The show-stopper of which is a scene involving Hulkbuster armor.

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We’ve already seen plenty of Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor to know who their characters are and what they stand for. Credit to ULTRON for bringing out more development on both Black Widow and Hawkeye. The former is far more interesting than the latter. There’s also possibly too much time being spent on the latter, but this sequel made an honest effort to flesh these side characters out further. Hulk is a far more interesting character here too, not to mention that his CGI design doesn’t look nearly as cartoonish this time around. New faces come in Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch (who are both entertaining, but underused) as well as Vision (wonderfully played by Paul Bettany). Finally there’s the title villain: Ultron! James Spader voices the mechanical menace with humor being injected into his performance, but he’s about as clichéd a bad guy as you can find.

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AGE OF ULTRON’s overlong running time doesn’t necessarily help matters either. There are far too many scenes spent setting up future films (CIVIL WAR, RAGNAROK, and IFINITY WARS) at the expense of putting the main storyline in the backseat during solid chunks of this movie. There are spots in AGE OF ULTRON that easily could have been snipped out for a far tighter and better film. The finale also gets pretty repetitive with the Avengers facing off against a massive army of Ultron-controlled droids whose only purpose is to get smashed up by the Avengers. It makes sense to pit an army against a band of superheroes, but I wish the actual climactic showdown was far more interesting and entertaining than it wound up being.

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Though it’s far from bad or mediocre, AGE OF ULTRON is the third worst movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far. The two MCU films that I would consider worse than ULTRON would be IRON MAN 2 (which also spent too much time setting up future films and not focusing enough attention on the story at hand) and THE INCREDIBLE HULK. AGE OF ULTRON has both good and bad qualities. The good far outweighs the bad, but enough problems (flawed pacing, a repetitive finale, clichéd villain, etc.) remain to make this a step down from the first AVENGERS. AGE OF ULTRON is an okay superhero flick, but we’ve come to expect a lot more from Marvel.

Grade: B-

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