HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 (2011)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sequences of Intense Action Violence and Frightening Images

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Directed by: David Yates

Written by: Steve Kloves

(based on the novel HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS by J.K. Rowling)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Tom Felton, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, John Hurt, Jason Isaacs, Kelly Macdonald, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith & David Thewlis

Though the decision to split HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS into two films still seems like a mistake on Warner Bros.’ part, this eighth (and final) film in the HARRY POTTER saga is cinematically spectacular final installment nonetheless. Sure, Part 2 understandably feels like the second half of a better whole, but that narrative flaw doesn’t have nearly the same impact in dipping quality that 2010’s Part 1 saw. Details from the previous films come into play, major plot revelations about certain characters come to light, and the HARRY POTTER saga comes to an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

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After narrowly escaping the clutches of Death Eaters, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) are searching for Voldemort’s remaining Horcruxes (dark magical objects that contain pieces of his soul). Their magical scavenger hunt takes them into the dark vaults of Gringotts Bank and then to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. With only three Horcruxes left and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) determined to kill “chosen one” Harry, Hogwarts will become the battleground for a massive confrontation. Prophecies will be fulfilled, truths will be revealed, deaths will occur on both sides and a final battle will decide the fate of the wizarding world.

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DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 is the exciting second half of a cohesive whole. This leads to some narrative issues as viewers will have to be fresh off DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 to fully appreciate Part 2 picking up mere seconds after that far lesser film concluded. There are only two major settings in this movie: Gringotts and Hogwarts. Gringotts Wizarding Bank was briefly glimpsed in THE SORCERER’S STONE, but Part 2 treats the viewer to a more in-depth look at the Goblin-run bank’s treacherous vaults filled with curses, elaborate security precautions and a show-stopping set piece that delivers excitement early on. As for Hogwarts, old places and familiar faces come into play as Harry desperately searches the corridors for a hidden chunk of Voldemort’s soul.

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In terms of spectacle, DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 delivers action that fans wanted to see on the big screen since the series began. There’s a massive battle featuring damn near every major character and supporting actor from the previous films, even Jim Broadbent and Emma Thompson pop in just to reprise their professors in the final conflict. The special effects and make-up work are just as solid as ever, though director David Yates occasionally goes a bit too over-the-top during final Harry vs. Voldemort fight. Though a tense wand duel throughout Hogwarts is stellar, a scene of Voldemort and Harry whizzing through the air like Superman is silly to say the least.

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There is no need to recap this final film’s many performances, because we’ve seen all these characters and cast members before. Nothing has changed in their greatness. However, I will say that there’s a sense of maturity in seeing these beloved characters and the series as a whole grow throughout the years. There’s something deeply satisfying about watching the conclusion to this eight-film-long franchise, be it from sheer nostalgia or fantastic storytelling. Voldemort’s speech to the tearful wizards and witches of Hogwarts is affecting. Two major plot revelations bring about the yearning to rewatch previous entries and cast a new light on the series as a whole. However, the titular Deathly Hallows once again feel like a throwaway subplot that’s merely there as a cheap plot device. Also, Alan Rickman’s Snape story arc delivers one of the most emotional sequences in the entire series.

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Would HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS have functioned better as one big three-hour film? I think so and it might have stood next to PRISONER OF AZKABAN as the best film of the series. Part 2 and (to an annoying degree) Part 1 both have scenes that could have been excised for a tighter, better film. I feel this finale could have functioned better as one long seventh movie. Still, in spite of being the second half of a whole story, DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 stands as one of the better films in the long-running fantasy series. Plot points are wrapped up in emotional ways with revelations that cast a new light on previous movies. We get to spend one last time with a large cast of beloved characters. The battle at Hogwarts also stands as the series’ most epic moment. DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 is a deeply satisfying final installment to an unforgettable cinematic saga.

Grade: A-

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Scary Images, some Violence, Language and mild Sensuality

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Directed by: David Yates

Written by: Steve Kloves

(based on the novel HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE by J.K. Rowling)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Jim Broadbent, Robbie Coltrane, Tom Felton, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall & David Thewlis

This may be my shortest HARRY POTTER review. The key reason being that HALF-BLOOD PRINCE revolves around one major event in the final minutes and one major discovery that impacts the rest of the series, but that’s about it. Though this film broke records at the time of its release and has gone on to be one of the most well-reviewed entries in the HARRY POTTER series, it feels like filler. It’s well-shot, entertaining filler…but filler nonetheless. This mostly faithful adaptation is the second-worst film of the series, only topping the okay mess that was GOBLET OF FIRE.

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The wizarding and Muggle worlds both face dark times. Frequent disappearances and unexplained tragedies keep making headlines, forcing Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) to do all he can to prevent Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his followers from attaining power. Dumbledore tasks Harry with retrieving a hidden memory from new potions professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), while rival Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) has become a Death Eater and been assigned an important task that he must carry out. To further complicate his sixth year at Hogwarts, Harry finds a worn-out potions textbook that gives him new spells and potions tips from a so-called “Half-Blood Prince,” but this book also contains a dark side.

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Of the first six films, HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE feels like the most “normal” school year. Nothing much of significance happens until the final third. We do see romance blossom for Ron, Hermione and Harry, which results in lots of annoying teenage angst. If it weren’t for frequently seen spells and potions, you might mistake this for a boarding school drama as opposed to the sixth installment in a fantasy series. It’s not as if these events aren’t entertaining to watch, because are plenty of humorous moments that work and the characters continue to develop. However, it just feels like HALF-BLOOD PRINCE mainly exists for the purpose of connecting ORDER OF THE PHOENIX and DEATHLY HALLOWS.

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Not much can be said about Daniel Radcliffe’s, Rupert Grint’s, and Emma Watson’s performances that hasn’t already been stated in my other reviews. They’re three entertaining protagonists and the only difference this time around is that Harry is finally accepting his status as “the chosen one,” while Ron and Hermione battle hormones. HALF-BLOOD PRINCE further demonstrates the need to pad out its running time by including the most Quidditch drama of the entire series. Dark forces are on the horizon, a crucial character died in the last film and that should be heavily affecting Harry’s emotional state, and Dumbledore is apparently onto secret dark magic that could stop Voldemort…but we apparently need many scenes of teen romance and sports to stretch this movie longer than 150 minutes.

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HALF-BLOOD PRINCE’s shining moments are in its finale (which is deeply affecting and ushers in new level of maturity for the series), scenes of dark forces rising (with a newly indoctrinated Draco Malfoy), creepy bits of Voldemort’s backstory, and Harry’s borderline addiction to the Half-Blood Prince’s textbook. However, these only make up about half of the running time. The other half is spent on interactions between students and, as I’ve already mentioned numerous times, various romances (only two of which actually seem remotely convincing).

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I may sound more bitter than I actually am. Some of this movie’s problems stem from the source material itself. There are many things to like about HALF-BLOOD PRINCE. The scenes are well-acted and funny in the right moments, even if half of them feel like they add nothing to the main story. Jim Broadbent does a wonderful job as Professor Slughorn. The finale is appropriately dark and makes two massive steps in the series, while the titular story arc with the Half-Blood Prince is mostly well-executed. However, the sheer unnecessary amount of romance and school drama detracted from my overall enjoyment of the sixth film, making HALF-BLOOD PRINCE the second-worst HARRY POTTER in the series.

Grade: B

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Action and Violence, some Sensuality and brief Rude Dialogue

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Directed by: David Yates

Written by: Adam Cozad & Craig Brewer

(based on the TARZAN novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs)

Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent & Christoph Waltz

Hollywood loves to revisit classic characters (e.g. The Lone Ranger, Zorro, The Shadow, etc.), so it’s a bit odd that we haven’t seen a big-budget, live-action Tarzan film since 1984’s GREYSTOKE. It should be noted that a Tarzan reboot has been in the works since the early 2000’s, but kept running into various production problems and fell in development hell multiple times. This July, we finally have a new Tarzan film. However, this new adventure has been receiving negative reviews and might wind up as a box office flop. That’s a bit depressing, because THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is endearingly old-fashioned entertainment that is bound to make you laugh, get your adrenaline pumping, and feel the unique brand of movie magic that only good summer blockbusters can bring.

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In 1889, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) has become civilized into London life. Now going under the name of John Clayton III and sipping tea with his pinky out, Tarzan hasn’t been back to the jungle or African Congo villages in years. Instead he spends his days at a sophisticated manor with his lovely wife Jane (Margot Robbie), but that changes when Tarzan receives an invitation from King Leopold of Belgium. Accompanied by Jane and American freedom fighter George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), Tarzan soon learns that the royal summons was not exactly what it appeared to be. If he wishes to save his wife and countless people from the tyranny of evil Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), Tarzan will have to revert back to his wild ways and trek through the treacherous jungle.

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LEGEND OF TARZAN is directed by David Yates, who also helmed the latter half of the HARRY POTTER series. Injected with a grand visual style and capturing the sense of jungle adventure that its main character represents, this Tarzan story is simple to a fault and packs a ton of entertainment into less than two hours. What’s even more impressive is that it tells an origin story through flashbacks, while giving us a fresh adventure at the same time. The non-linear structure allows for well-placed flashbacks to fill us in on Tarzan’s beginnings and first encounters with Jane, while the main plot shows John Clayton III reverting to his old animalistic ways to save the day. If handled poorly, this approach could have backfired in a horribly misguided way. However, the flashbacks and 1889 storyline are perfectly balanced in that when one story begins to slow down, we are given more of the other narrative.

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Alexander Skarsgard is a likable lead as Tarzan and looks massive compared to everyone else around him. Though I praised how cool the non-linear story is for a classic character like Tarzan, this structure doesn’t leave a lot of room for supporting characters. Samuel L. Jackson serves as comic relief and gets a lot of hilarious moments, trying to keep up with Tarzan as he ventures through the jungle to rescue Jane. Speaking of which, Margot Robbie isn’t necessarily good as Jane. She’s plays a damsel in distress, which I guess was her character’s sole function to begin with, but I didn’t see a believable romantic connection between her and Tarzan. Jane also seems to get captured more than Lois Lane.

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On the villainous side of things, the always great Christoph Waltz plays sinister Captain Rom. Waltz seems to elevate any movie he’s in, especially when he’s playing a diabolical antagonist. That being said, I’d be lying if I said that Rom wasn’t a bland baddie. He just wants money and power, only receiving a handful of scenes to show off his evil chops. The only unique thing about his character is a strange weapon of choice, but that feels underdeveloped as well. Waltz is a fun enough villain, but I wish more time had been spent developing the character of Rom. Still, he seems entirely fleshed out when compared to Djimon Hounsou’s violent tribal leader who receives a whopping two scenes and better motivation for his villainy in a single less-than-a-minute-long flashback.

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As far as the look of the film goes, LEGEND OF TARZAN was clearly put together with a lot of attention to detail and fantastic CGI. The animals look completely realistic, even when they’re doing things that animals wouldn’t normally be doing, such as engaging in a one-on-one fist fight with a human being. The action isn’t strictly limited to apes, elephants, and cheetahs either, as other wildlife pops up purely for exciting action, a satisfying villain comeuppance, and comic relief that’s actually funny. Even though the film wasn’t shot in Africa, the locations come off as totally believable. The film is gorgeously put together all around and an atmospheric soundtrack adds a further air of sophistication and excitement.

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THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is one of the summer’s biggest surprises thus far. The film is exciting from start to finish, capturing the viewer’s imagination through an entertaining adventure that doesn’t feel the need to modernize itself through cheap jokes and revamped origins. The humor works on a timeless level. Samuel L. Jackson steals the show in certain scenes. Alexander Skarsgard plays a compelling Tarzan. The non-linear storytelling keeps things interesting and doesn’t simply retread a familiar origin story. Even in its faults, the film is still a lot of fun to watch. Christoph Waltz is always entertaining as a villain and the same can be said about his one-dimensional character here. Margot Robbie is simply a damsel in distress, but does what she can with those limitations. LEGEND OF TARZAN is simply a great adventure on the big screen and should satisfy those looking for pure old-fashioned entertainment.

Grade: B+

BIG GAME (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 27 minutes

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

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Directed by: Jalmari Helander

Written by: Jalmari Helander & Petri Jokiranta

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Onni Tommila, Felicity Huffman, Victor Garber, Ted Levine, Jim Broadbent & Ray Stevenson

In 2010, a little Finnish movie by the name of RARE EXPORTS got a small theatrical release. That film was a decidedly darker take on the legend of Santa Claus and wound up being one of my favorite movies of that year. I eagerly awaited to see what director/writer Jalmari Helander would do next. Over four years later, we’ve now been given his sophomore feature: BIG GAME. People planning to watch this movie should know in advance that this isn’t a massive action-packed extravaganza. Instead, it’s a family friendly adventure that would fit right in during the 80’s with GREMLINS, GOONIES, and MONSTER SQUAD audiences. BIG GAME is a fun homage to cheesy adventures of yesteryear that wholeheartedly embraces every cliché that comes with that territory.

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Oskari’s thirteenth birthday has arrived and he is going on a ceremonial trip through a thick forest countryside to become a man. Oskari’s solo hunting venture through Finland’s woods takes a surprising turn when Air Force One (conveniently flying over Finland) is shot down. Miraculously, the President of the United States has survived and is rescued by Oskari. The destruction of Air Force One was only the first step in an assassination plot conceived by a traitorous secret service agent and a demented big game hunter. Oskari and the cowardly President must work together if they plan on getting out of the woods alive.

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BIG GAME isn’t a full-blown action flick and is purposely ridiculous. I think that the marketing has made this film look like something it isn’t and that’s upsetting some folks who wouldn’t necessarily be fans of stuff like RARE EXPORTS. The movie may be clichéd to a fault, but that was entirely intentional and helps boost the fun/nostalgia factor being dished out. The script is a basic, by-the-numbers story, but the execution is where everything shines in BIG GAME. The film looks gorgeous. RARE EXPORTS had a beautiful visual style too and BIG GAME benefits from using the same cinematographer. As far as the effects go, they all look up to snuff and far better than recent CGI messes that have been brought to the screen (I’m thinking of a few scenes in the latest TERMINATOR). If there are any major complaints that I have with this film, they lie in the pacing and a really short running time. The story certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome, but rather, understays it. I wanted the film to last longer, especially given that one certain glaring plot thread isn’t tied up in a satisfying way.

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BIG GAME sports a cast with some famous faces. Samuel L. Jackson plays the President of the United States, but is far from his conventional bad-ass hero archetype. Instead, this President is a wuss from the get-go (as evidenced by a newspaper headline that reads “Lame Duck President”). Though I imagine that a few Jackson fans will be pissed that he’s not kicking ass and taking names for most of this film, I thought it was a lot of fun to see him in an unconventional role. Ray Stevenson is clearly having a blast as the corrupt secret service agent and seems like he’s naturally built for the part of a villain. He was awesome as a big bad gangster in DEXTER Season 7 and pretty much seems to be channeling that same fun, charismatic baddie in this film. Onni Tommila isn’t a well-known face to Americans, but he was the awesome leading kid in RARE EXPORTS and shows that he has a knack for this type of role yet again in BIG GAME. Ted Levine and Jim Broadbent pop up as two of the President’s men in the White House. It was amusing to see White House staff members’ react to the mayhem playing out in the Finland countryside, but these scenes feel unneeded and really slow down the action when it does get going.

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Much like RARE EXPORTS, BIG GAME isn’t a movie for everybody. It’s purposely ridiculous, over-the-top, and very campy. I don’t think it’s on the same level of RARE EXPORTS, but this sophomore effort remains a wholly enjoyable (surprisingly) family friendly adventure that serves it’s purpose in being a fun B-flick with really excellent cinematography and locations. BIG GAME should entertain its intended audience and is well worth checking out as long as you keep your expectations at a reasonable level.

Grade: B

HOT FUZZ (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: R for Violent Content including some Graphic Images, and Language

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Directed by: Edgar Wright

Written by: Edgar Wright & Simon Pegg

Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jim Broadbent, Paddy Considine, Rafe Spall & Timothy Dalton

In the realm of action-comedies, you really can’t do better than HOT FUZZ. The second installment of the so-called “Cornetto Trilogy” (also consisting of SHAUN OF THE DEAD and THE WORLD’S END) perfectly compresses tons of fun and clever humor into a perfectly paced two-hours. This feels like a British take on THE NAKED GUN with more action, an even better story, and non-stop laughs. Though I feel WORLD’S END may be the most emotionally executed and accomplished of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost’s Cornetto (a.k.a. Blood and Ice Cream) films, HOT FUZZ is my personal favorite entry!

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Nicholas Angel is an outstanding Constable patrolling the streets of London. His flawless arrest record and vast achievements are making all other officers look bad in comparison. Therefore, he’s unwillingly promoted to the position of Sergeant and moved to Sanford, a small quiet countryside town. Angel’s overachiever attitude draws frustration from his new laid-back department, scrutiny of the small townsfolk and admiration from dimwitted Constable Danny Butterman. After a number of suspicious deaths are ruled as mere accidents, Angel and Butterman try to capture a mysterious hooded assailant and prove that a murderous plot is occurring under the squeaky clean surface of Sanford.

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The script behind HOT FUZZ is a work of comedic genius and has multiple layers of jokes that reward repeat viewings. The film works as three distinct different genres at once. It’s an original flick that holds up on its own sense of humor, but manages to perfectly spoof action movie clichés in a way that simultaneously ridicules the tropes of the genre and shows love for them. Besides working as two distinctly different types of comedy, the film is also an action flick through and through. This is complete with gun-fights, a suspenseful mystery, bloody murders, and explosions. Just because there’s a sense of humor to be had, that doesn’t mean the violence is in short supply. This is a bloody movie that sports one of the most memorable gory kills of all-time, but it’s all played in a humorous way. The final 30 minutes are also something special to behold in one of the most amazing showdowns in cinematic history and I’m absolutely serious in that compliment.

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HOT FUZZ fires jokes like the high-speed of a machine gun. These laughs are hilarious during the first watch, but actually grow even funnier with each consecutive viewing. Lots of subtleties become obvious in clues thrown into foreshadowing bits of dialogue. This makes the film absolutely hysterical and reveals just how much attention to detail was paid during every step of construction. One running joke involving an escaped swan that pops up throughout different points of the action had me in stitches. Aside from being slightly better than SHAUN OF THE DEAD, this installment from Edgar Wright showcases a massive improvements on the technical side of things as the film looks slick (much like the action movies that it’s poking fun at).

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The real meat of the movie comes in the characters as every one of these people could be a star in their own movie. Simon Pegg shines as Nicholas Angel playing a completely straight-faced character and stand-up action hero the entire time. Some of the biggest laughs come from him being out of his element in the small country environment. Nick Frost could have just turned the character of Danny into a bumbling sidekick, but adds a sweetness to him that makes the viewer root for this good-natured moron to kick some ass. Other stand outs (all of the cast members are too many to list) include Timothy Dalton as a smug obvious suspect who throws out murderous puns in his dialogue and two lazy moustached detectives known as “The Andys.” Memorable little cameos also are sprinkled through the run time as well, including a particularly awesome one from Cate Blanchett that could easily sneak by unnoticed.

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Extreme attention to detail, smart writing, and well fleshed out characters make HOT FUZZ one of the best comedies to come out of the 2000’s and one of my all-time favorite comedies. This is one of those rare films that keeps increasing in quality with each repeat viewing, but was already perfect to begin in the first place. HOT FUZZ works as an action movie, a spoof of action movies, and a standalone comedy. If you haven’t seen this film yet, check it out as soon as humanly possible. Fun and laughs are guaranteed!

Grade: A+

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (2011)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some mild Rude Humor

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Directed by: Sarah Smith & Barry Cook

Written by: Peter Baynham & Sarah Smith

Voices of: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Marc Wootton, Laura Linney, Eva Longoria, Ramona Marquez & Michael Palin

Aardman Animation is primarily known for their Claymation (WALLACE & GROMIT, THE PIRATES!), but have dipped their hands into computer animation back in 2006 with FLUSHED AWAY. That flick didn’t exactly impress. This past iffy effort and poor marketing are why I was turned off from watching ARTHUR CHRISTMAS for about three years. Turns out that I was cheating myself out of a modern Christmas classic. ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is one of the best animated films to come out of the new millennium that doesn’t have the Pixar label attached to it. Combining imagination, lovable characters and a heartwarming sense of childlike wonder make for a phenomenal film that is sure to become a holiday tradition.

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Santa Claus is very real, but not an immortal jovial old man flying around the world in a single night. There’s a dynasty of Clauses living in the North Pole and they are aided by tons of elves. The current Claus family has three completely different generations of Santas. There’s the retired grand-Santa, the active Santa, and his two sons, technologically advanced Steve and bumbling Arthur. Santa and his elves are in charge of delivering presents and Steve is in charge of the S-1 (an enormous computer-powered sleigh), but Arthur is in charge of reading the letters of children around the world. After a child’s gift is mistakenly undelivered, Arthur takes the initiative and journeys across the world to make sure that one little girl has a merry Christmas. Since Arthur isn’t exactly a trained Santa, his race against time goes a little awry to say the least, which causes conflicting views in the Claus family to butt heads.

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One special factor that makes ARTHUR CHRISTMAS unique from other family films of this kind is that there’s no real antagonist. The family members have conflicting viewpoints causing friction in their relationships, but nobody is perfect as each generation of Santa has their own flaws. Grand-Santa glamorizes the good old days and yearns for the fame he once had. The current Santa is too self-centered to realize that he’s hogging glory that should rightfully be passed down to his sons. Steve is so obsessed with the technical side of Christmas that he neglects the pure emotion surrounding the season. Arthur is a clumsy and cowardly guy who’s sort of roped into this quest.

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These characters are all essential pieces in a brightly colored world that’s filled with imagination around every corner. The visuals here are crisp and vibrant. There’s a warm holiday glow around the environments, but each location is given a unique flare. Let’s just say that England isn’t the only place that Arthur rides a sleigh through. Vocal talents of big actors bring these various Santas to life. James McAvoy’s voice disappears into the overly eager Arthur. Bill Nighy nails it as Grand-Santa and Jim Broadbent plays the current Santa. Hugh Laurie is excellent as Steve. Finally, there’s my favorite character, Byrony. This punkish elf (complete with unique hair-style and facial piercings) provides the biggest laughs in the whole film. She’s in charge of wrapping presents and accompanies Arthur on his trip. Not to mention that’s she is just plain adorable. I want a stuffed Byrony and I’m a grown-ass man.

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Another top-notch quality that seals the deal in ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is a brilliant sense of humor. There are jokes being thrown out at a mile a minute. Running gags pop up frequently and one of them (involving wild life that gets in when you leave the door open at the North Pole) absolutely cracked me up on multiple occasions. There’s plenty of witty banter among the characters and the script is far more clever than one might initially expect going into this film.

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The best thing about ARTHUR CHRISTMAS that separates it from many other holiday films and animated family fare is that a lot of heart was clearly put into this whole movie. The story is funny and imaginative, but also has the genuine sweetness that makes beloved Christmas classics worth watching year after year. It’s simultaneously heart-warming and hysterical, which are two good qualities that go great together.

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I’ve said before and will say again that the best children’s films are the ones that make adults feel young at heart as well as delighting younger viewers. These movies respect the intelligence of the audience, in spite of supposedly being constructed only for kids. ARTHUR CHRISTMAS nails every quality that matters in a story like this and manages to be perfect all around. I don’t have a single complaint or problem with any part of this movie. The feeling that ARTHUR CHRISTMAS leaves is specific to the holiday season should be cherished by viewers of every age. ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is a modern, magical holiday classic that I will watch repeatedly for years to come.

Grade: A+

GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Intense Strong Violence, Sexuality/Nudity and Language

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Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian & Kenneth Lonergan

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, Jim Broadbent, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Lewis, John C. Reilly & Stephen Graham

Martin Scorsese is one of my favorite directors. That’s part of the reason this film comes off as underwhelming. There are makings of a great movie in GANGS OF NEW YORK, but things eventually disappoint in a last hour that feels totally separated from the solid first two acts. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards in the year of release (including Best Picture, Director and Actor), GANGS seems like it was tampered with a lot in its production stages from (mostly likely) the studio and (least likely) the screenwriters. Though there are fantastic qualities about it, GANGS OF NEW YORK is a slight disappointment when you consider it’s from Scorsese.

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The film begins in 1846, a bloody battle between the Natives (born New Yorkers) and the Dead Rabbits (an Irish Immigrant gang) takes place in the snow-covered Five Points of Manhattan. This bout of hand-to-hand combat leaves the Natives victorious and a priest bleeding to death on the ground. The priest’s son witnesses the whole affair and vows revenge on his father’s killer, a greasy maniac called Bill the Butcher. 16 years pass and the priest’s son has grown up into a young man named Amsterdam. Returning to New York from an orphanage, Amsterdam gets in deep with Bill’s gang and enacts a slow revenge. However, Bill is clever and remains highly dangerous. Amsterdam’s plot gets more complicated as things go along as New York’s political background is changing, inciting many outraged citizens.

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Leonardo DiCaprio worked his way from the pretty boy in TITANIC to a phenomenal actor in THE DEPARTED. GANGS OF NEW YORK was taking place when he was going through this transformation. He’s solid enough in the role, but his character is a blank slate. Cameron Diaz plays his love interest in the form of a thieving Irishwoman and her accent is a bit appalling. Besides being unable to pull off her would-be accent, she just seems miscast. Other familiar faces pop up in Jim Broadbent as the actual historical figure Boss Tweed, Liam Neeson is Amsterdam’s father, and Brendan Gleeson shows up for a few quick scenes. Another good character is John C. Reilly as a dirty cop who takes bribes from Bill’s Natives. Speaking of which, if there’s one reason to watch GANGS OF NEW YORK, it would be Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher. He demolishes every other performer as the best villain to ever grace a Scorsese film. Day-Lewis also shows an emotional side to his character and doesn’t make him a total monster, but remains a frightening bad guy regardless.

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GANGS OF NEW YORK also has tons of atmosphere. Cinematography is slick and the sets are fantastic. It feels like you’re watching a piece of history unfold in front of your eyes. Some of the political corruption, set around the main story, did actually happen. Thus adding an interesting layer onto the film for history buffs who might be intrigued to check out more information on New York Draft Riots. Scenes between DiCaprio and Day-Lewis are fantastic, especially one discussion that packs a powerhouse of emotion for both of their characters. The violence itself is unflinching and arguably bloodier than Scorsese’s other work. GOODFELLAS and CASINO may have spurts of gun fire and beatings, but they didn’t have a central villain talented in the art of meat-carving as a side job. You can see where that might lend to the violence.

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The film works phenomenally as a simple revenge story until a certain point. Politics and historical context floods its way into the almost Shakespearean tale of revenge and derails the ending entirely. Certain choices seem odd, given everything seen in characters up to that point. The final conflict is disappointing in how rushed it is. Things almost come off as more of an obligation than an actual conclusion. One might argue that the ending of GANGS OF NEW YORK wastes the viewer’s time invested in the two hours before that decline.

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GANGS OF NEW YORK is just okay. It seems like a lot of potential faded by the shrug-inducing ending. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance is the sole reason that you might want to check this film out. He’s amazing as Bill the Butcher! Everything else ranges from great to disappointing. Leo was good in his role, but the character is a blank slate. He’s a guy who wants revenge and loves Cameron Diaz (with a bad Irish accent), but I can’t describe a discernable trait that makes him a good character. The atmosphere and sets are impressive, but this is one of Martin Scorsese’s lesser efforts. Slightly recommended, if you want to see Daniel Day-Lewis scare the hell out of you as an awesome villain.

Grade: B-

RICHARD III (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Sexuality

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Directed by: Richard Loncraine

Written by: Ian McKellen & Richard Loncraine

(based on the play RICHARD III by William Shakespeare)

Starring: Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, John Wood, Nigel Hawthorne, Adrian Dunbar, Edward Hardwicke, Tim McInnerny, Jim Carter & Dominic West

One of the common misconceptions about Shakespeare is that his plays are all old, dusty and can only be told in the same way every time. This is simply not true. The coolest thing about his material is most of it remains relevant (in one way or another) and the stories are phenomenal. There are many different ways that his work can be interpreted and this has been seen in plenty of unique takes on the bard’s tales. Shakespeare’s history plays were very much in the same vein as “based on a true story” movies are today. RICHARD III introduces one of Shakespeare’s best villains ever and this 1995 movie interpretation has Ian McKellen in the title role. As if that weren’t enough, the location has been shifted to 1930’s Britain and Richard III resembles a sort of Hitler archetype. A little creativity goes a long way.

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It is the calm after war, during which Richard III was a killing machine and admired by his family for it. Now that peace has come, he’s reviled by most. Being physically repulsive (hunchbacked and a deformed hand) and so ugly that dogs bark at his appearance, Richard III takes it upon himself to become the villain. He’s hatched many plans to turn one family member against the other and wipe them all out. With the help of his slimy associates (mainly, the Duke of Buckingham), Richard III is literally executing his way into the top position of king. As we’ve seen with folks like this (in both actual history and Shakespeare’s plays), things don’t exactly work out for them in the end.

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The fourth wall was less omnipresent when plays were being performed on stage with little to no props, in daylight, featuring men cross dressing as female characters. All that the audience of the 1500s wanted to see was a good story that would entertain them, hence the reason that Richard III is such an obvious villain here. He was not well-liked by the people and Shakespeare’s version of this king constantly breaks the fourth wall. Ian McKellen delights in using this to his full advantage, compete with winks and smirks. Richard is making us silently complicit with his horrible deeds. He’s the main character and the story completely follows him, so everyone else falls by the wayside as he parades around in his wicked glory. This doesn’t mean that the side performances aren’t good for what they’re worth. Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., and Dominic West all deliver in their roles, whether they’re fighting Richard or aiding him.

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The updated setting lends itself to a dark sense of humor, but things get downright grisly given that the main focus is a psycho slicing his way to the top. RICHARD III is actually Shakespeare’s third longest play, but this film edited down the not-so-vital pieces. The screenplay goes as far as shortening lengthier exchanges of dialogue, cutting scenes out and combining two characters into a single person. It’s an approach that works in transforming this into cinematic form. As much as I love the source material, it plays out better on the stage with a longer running time that risks becoming tedious on film. My problem (it’s sort of a big one) is that the conclusion feels a bit sudden. The film excitingly stretches a single sentence scene into an intense cat-and-mouse sequence. This being said, there’s not a hugely satisfying ending. I wanted an epilogue (which the play does have) in order to close events out in a better way. It’s not hugely detrimental flaw to the movie, but I noticed enough that some enjoyment was sucked out for me when the end credits began to roll.

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RICHARD III is far more fun and brilliantly stylized than most of the traditional retellings of Shakespeare. That very style also negates the conclusion (feeling a tad off thanks to a missing final scene). Otherwise, the cutting, trimming and combining different scenes/characters works well in translating this into a film. It’s still very much Shakespeare, but a side that you may not have known from the man’s work. This should entertain fans of the source material, as well as possibly interest those who think Shakespeare is just for old farts. Highly recommended!

Grade: A-

BRAZIL (1985)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Strong Violence

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Directed by: Terry Gilliam

Written by: Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, Charles McKeown

Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Michael Palin, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Bob Hoskins, Ian Holm, Jim Broadbent

BRAZIL is George Orwell’s 1984 with a sense of humor. This is an overly comical view of a depressing industrial world where paperwork proceeds every tiny action. This is a bleak future where a totalitarian government monitors everything, keeps the public in a constant state of fear from supposed unseen terrorists, and specializes in making free-thinkers simply vanish in the blink of an eye. BRAZIL, much like 1984, strongly resembles some issues currently happening in various countries around the world. Besides maintaining some solid laughs throughout, the film also is unrelentingly dark and never loses focus of the story being told. This is the kind of science fiction satire that simultaneously made me laugh and want to cry from the dire circumstances unfolding before my eyes.

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In a metallic-tinted bureaucratic-laced future, Sam Lowry lives a perfectly suitable existence in his meager position as a low-level government worker. He has frequent dreams about flying the skies and rescuing a beautiful girl he has never met before, but is completely content with his way of life. After a minor error is made in a typewriter that sends an innocent man to a horrible fate, Sam finds himself caught in the web of dangerous repercussions following that paperwork mistake and indeed trying to save the very girl of his dreams.

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To give anything more specific away would spoil some of the fun. The plot of BRAZIL is at the same time overly complicated and extremely simple, much like the processing system of the asinine society running the show. The film also blends the dark nature of the plot with frequent laughs. One thing that should be noted about the tone is that it grows progressively more grim as things go along. The first 40 minutes are comedic genius and then things begin to get more twisted and serious. If you go into this film expecting an all-out comedic tour-de-force, then you’ll finish the experience mighty depressed from just how alike it is to 1984 (a story you really have to prep yourself for due to the sheer unrelenting bleakness of the content).

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The real complaint I have about BRAZIL is that the movie comes close to wearing out its welcome on more than one occasion. There were some scenes that could have easily been cut. The film runs at over two hours (nearly two and a half if you’re watching the director’s cut). It’s not that things drag out to the point of being insufferable, but some sequences do seem to go on a bit too long. One thing that might annoy certain viewers, but I totally dug it was that lots of different variations of the song “Brazil” were used throughout the entire film. I know there was probably some other music in the score, but that piece of music (used hauntingly as the end credits roll) will forever stick out in my mind when this film is brought up in conversation. Some of the running gags (of which there are quite a few) work better than others, but I did appreciate that there were still some chuckles as the story tauntingly played with my emotions.

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Terry Gilliam is known for being a visionary director and that’s certainly the case here. Every little detail added to the sets is well-realized. Little touches to this world only further enhance the sensation that I was looking into a vision of the future and what I saw made me wish that tomorrow would never come. The depressing roots of 1984, which Gilliam admitted to liberally borrowing from, are still very much intact in Gilliam’s vision of Orwell’s novel. In fact, I’d dare say that the final 30 minutes play out like one long extended nightmare that had me glued to the screen.

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As far as the cast goes, there are some great performances and a notably mediocre one. Jonathan Pryce is a phenomenal lead and it helps that Sam Lowry is a likable character. He signifies a good man trying to keep his moral compass in a broken society, which makes his struggles all the more difficult to watch. Katherine Helmond, covered with layers of make-up, appears as Price’s mother at varying ages and a friend of hers provides one of the best recurring jokes throughout the film. Those interested in seeing younger versions of Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent, and Ian Holm need look no further as they appear as a maintenance man, a plastic surgeon, and Price’s boss, respectively. Robert De Niro has a few scenes as a wanted would-be terrorist that are entertaining. The only real let-down is Kim Greist as Price’s love interest. I don’t know which direction to point the blame in. Her character isn’t exactly given a lot of development, but Greist doesn’t raise her above a one-note rebellious damsel-in-distress whom Price to trying to save.

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BRAZIL may wind up pushing the time limit this story might have been told in (over two hours was a tad too long) and some jokes may fall flat, but it remains a wonderful classic dystopian future tale. One entirely forgettable love interest aside, the film is packed full of colorful characters and great performances. The contrast of dark material and quirky humor works wonders, though the humor really begins to disappear as the film reaches nightmarish levels in the final act. Gilliam’s unofficial adaptation of Orwell’s famous novel is weird, strange, oddly funny, and doesn’t skimp on the entirely grim subject matter within the book. I recommend bracing yourself for a tough, heady piece of art before sitting down to watch BRAZIL. This all being said, the film is phenomenal and comes highly recommended for those wanting something completely out of the ordinary.

Grade: A-

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