RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

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

Directed by: Rupert Wyatt

Written by: Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver

Starring: Andy Serkis, James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo & Tyler Labine

A prequel to 1968’s PLANET OF THE APES sounded like a big gamble, but Fox wisely poured money into this project. Thanks to passionate writing from screenwriter team Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, alongside steady direction from Rupert Wyatt, masterful motion-capture work from Andy Serkis, and an all-around great story, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES has gone down as one of the best prequels to ever hit the big screen. This origin story of the primate uprising hits strong emotional notes, playing out like a prison drama combined with a tale of self-discovery…all with intelligent monkeys. If you haven’t seen RISE yet, you’re missing out on one of the best opening chapters of a series in the 21st century!

Scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is working on a potential cure for Alzheimer’s disease and his lab tests have moved onto monkeys. When his star test subject is gunned down whilst protecting her baby, Will takes the ape to his house to raise it and possibly give his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father Charles (John Lithgow) a pet. However, the ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) proves to be far smarter than Will anticipated and functions with beyond-human intelligence. Soon enough, Caesar is questioning his place in the world and his tragic quest of self-discovery reaches a breaking point when he’s sent to an abusive primate shelter. Humans had their chance on this planet and now, it’s time for super smart apes to rise!

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES has three distinct acts. The first has the relationship between Will and Caesar. The second has Caesar’s captivity at the primate shelter, which plays out like a mostly dialogue-free prison drama. The third (and final) act brings us the uprising/revolution that was frequently shown-off in the film’s marketing. The film isn’t exactly unpredictable, because we already know where everything will end up…as a planet of intelligent apes awaits us in the future. However, the emotional depth of the ape characters and an action-packed primate vs. human revolution make this entire film well worth a watch.

Andy Serkis dominates the screen as Caesar. The special effects on this ape protagonist are amazing to behold, but they are heightened by Serkis’s expressive performance that was brought to life through tiny dots on his face. This technology was used for Gollum in the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy and the titular giant gorilla in KING KONG. These effects and the unique style of acting has reached its highest point yet with the APE prequel trilogy. Serkis more than deserves an Academy Award nod…though the Oscars will seemingly never acknowledge the art of motion capture performances. Caesar is a fleshed-out protagonist who’s given a deep story arc (discovering his monkey place in a human world) and we understand his motivations, even though they will lead to humanity’s eventual downfall. Serkis’s powerful performance doesn’t have a single spoken word for two-thirds of the film. When he does eventually speak, it’s simple and powerful.

As far as human characters go, John Lithgow elicits some real sadness as the Alzheimer-stricken father and gives his best performance since his stint as DEXTER’s Trinity Killer. David Oyelowo does a damn fine job as the film’s central human antagonist, even if his villain is a bit thin. Meanwhile, Brian Cox and Tom Felton will make you hate them as the abusive staff of the ape shelter. RISE’s only lackluster performances come from James Franco and Freida Pinto as a human couple that are given an ample amount of screen time for the first third as they bond with Caesar and then carelessly thrown to the side as afterthoughts for the rest of the film. Franco’s Will occasionally shows up to make a sad face at Caesar’s captivity and Freida just sort of timidly stands in the background.

RISE’s rousing final third has excellently crafted set pieces as apes use improvised weapons, their climbing skills, and their natural strength against loads of people (mostly humans trying to capture or kill them). I never thought I’d be so happy to watch animals ferociously take humans down…until I saw RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. The emotion injected into Caesar and the natural progression of his prison-like revolution make the adrenaline-pumping action so much more satisfying and powerful than if this were simply a B-movie level approach of nature vs. man. Be sure to watch the mid-credits scene to get a brilliant plot development in this series too. Though not every element of its script works (mainly Franco and Pinto’s characters), RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is one of the best reboots and prequels of the 21st century!

Grade: A-

THE ACCOUNTANT (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 8 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language throughout

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Directed by: Gavin O’Connor

Written by: Bill Dubuque

Starring: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jean Smart, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Jeffrey Tambor & John Lithgow

THE ACCOUNTANT is a film that I vaguely heard about last year as it was scheduled to be released in January 2016 (usually a dumping ground for films that studios have no faith in). However, that release date was moved to the fall and the film’s marketing promised a smart, mature, and action-packed movie. Color me surprised, because THE ACCOUNTANT easily blows most other recent action films away in terms of its writing and characters. Though not without a few flaws, THE ACCOUNTANT also ties autism into its story in a way that never feels exploitative and levels the playing field by giving us an action hero unlike any we’ve seen before.

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Chris Wolff (Ben Affleck) is a mysterious autistic accountant who uncooks the books for very dangerous people. Chris has a talent for crunching numbers and, when necessary, bones. That latter talent becomes a necessity when Chris finds himself on the run with fellow mathlete Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) as some bad guys are trying to kill both of them. In order to stay alive, Chris will have to figure out who wants to kill him and how that relates to his last “official” job. This is easier said than done as bullets begin flying, the mystery thickens and we learn more about Chris’s shadowy past. Meanwhile, renegade Treasury agent Ray King (J.K. Simmons) and his protégé Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) are hot on Chris’s tail.

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Though some people have labeled THE ACCOUNTANT as a generic action movie, I think that description does this film a bit of a disservice. The plot isn’t about the action (rest assured, there is still plenty of it), because it narrows in on a unique character and subplots occurring around him. Ben Affleck plays Chris Wolff as a mostly believable autistic man, complete with social awkwardness, unique ways of bonding, special interests and extraordinary capabilities in certain areas. The script doesn’t exploit Chris’s condition, but rather shows how his state of mind has helped shape him into the antihero/action lead that he’s become. Details about his past are shown through well-placed flashbacks that fill in the blanks as the movie progresses, making THE ACCOUNTANT just as much of a mysterious thriller as it is an entertaining action flick.

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The supporting performances are stellar as well. Anna Kendrick plays a nervous potential love-interest for Chris, though the film never goes into fully clichéd territory that it seemed to be building towards. John Lithgow plays the head of the robotics company as a kindly old man who’s trying to find the rat in his company. J.K. Simmons is fantastic as a hard to read special agent with many reasons for tracking down Chris, while unfamiliar face Cynthia Addai-Robinson does a great job as his morally conflicted assistant. Jeffrey Tambor has a brief role as Chris’s former mentor, though I wish more time had been spent with his character. Finally, John Bernthal is clearly having a blast as an overly confident hitman who makes his way across various characters.

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With lots of big talent crammed into little over two hours, THE ACCOUNTANT occasionally seems crowded and I wish that certain characters received more focus. However, this isn’t necessarily a big complaint when you consider that the film holds the viewer’s interest the entire time and smartly lets its complicated web of a story unfold through well-placed flashbacks, evolving subplots and pacing that builds a solid amount of suspense. THE ACCOUNTANT is cleverly written and brings its bone-breaking, bullet-firing action into play when it serves a purpose in the plot. It’s not simply action for the sake of spectacle, because each bullet/punch is shot/thrown with a purpose…making them hit harder as a result.

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If I have any major annoyances with THE ACCOUNTANT, they stem from one scene during the final minutes that feels a bit too silly in a movie that seemed grounded in a bit of reality…despite how crazy the story got. Despite that problem, this is one of the best action films to hit the big screen in quite a while. Ben Affleck brings his A-game to this unique action hero and the rest of the cast excel in their roles as well. The plot is smart, kept me hooked into the movie for the entire running time, and delivers its violence with a purpose. It’s an all-around great movie that’s getting great responses from most audiences and I believe this is an example of when the critics got it wrong (it’s wavering at 50% on Rotten Tomatoes as I type this). Though it’s not perfect, THE ACCOUNTANT is solid entertainment that’s sure please action fans and those who just want to watch an out-and-out good movie!

Grade: A-

TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

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Directed by: John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante & George Miller

Written by: John Landis, George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, Melissa Mathison & Jerome Bixby

Starring: Albert Brooks, Dan Aykroyd, Vic Morrow, Doug McGrath, Charles Hallahan, Scatman Crothers, Bill Quinn, Martin Gamer, Selma Diamond, Helen Shaw, Kathleen Quinlan, Jeremy Licht, Kevin McCarthy & John Lithgow

From 1959 until 1964, Rod Serling made a splash on the small screen with a hugely influential and acclaimed anthology series called THE TWILIGHT ZONE. The episodes could range from scary to heartfelt and almost always had an otherworldly edge around them. During the early 80’s, four influential directors became attached to a big screen adaptation of Serling’s small screen series. Drawing inspiration from original episodes and turning them into four distinct segments of this movie, each director delivers their signature style in a TWILIGHT ZONE story of their own. What results is a sometimes mixed bag, but mostly quality horror/sci-fi anthology. Now, onto the stories themselves…

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PROLOGUE: This opening segment (running at just under 10 minutes) follows two men driving along a desolated road. When the radio breaks, the pair entertain themselves through casual conversation and little road games, but this all takes a dark turn when one man asks the other if he wants to see something “really scary.” This opening runs a bit too long as it’s just one big set-up for a jump scare that is tame by today’s standards. This brief prologue is not particularly great, but still has its charming qualities. B-

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TIME OUT: Bill Connor is an ill-tempered bigot. After getting drunk at a bar and going on a verbal insult spree against black people, Asians, and Jews, Bill finds himself stuck in a shifting timeline of hatred as he runs for his life from Nazis, American soldiers in Vietnam, and the KKK. This segment gave the film notoriety after a fatal on-stage accident claimed the lives of Vic Morrow and two illegally hired child actors. That tragedy and legal trial overshadow what is a fairly good story with a grim moral message. In spite of never actually completing this segment (which originally had a far more uplifting ending), the continuity blends together well. It’s a dark segment with great acting from Vic Morrow as a hate-filled man forced to sympathize with those he despises. Good moral, good ending, but a horrible on-stage accident casts a shadow over the whole film. A-

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KICK THE CAN: It’s pretty easy to identify the worst story in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE. Ironically enough, it comes from the biggest name out of the four directors. Steven Spielberg strays from the dark and eerie tone of the rest of the anthology to tell a charming/cheesy story about old folks in a retirement home recovering their youth in a magical game of Kick the Can. This segment starts off well enough, but quickly devolves into an overly sappy, melodramatic mess. Besides the story going far too over-the-top and not tonally blending in with the rest of the film, the child actors are really bad. It seems that Spielberg had the kids try to imitate elderly people as opposed to just being kids and it doesn’t work at all. C-

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IT’S A GOOD LIFE: Based on one of the TWILIGHT ZONE’s best episodes, this story follows a schoolteacher who befriends a young child named Anthony. After she driving Anthony to his home, it becomes quickly clear that his living situation is abnormal to say the least. The teacher quickly learns the frightening truth that the saying “If you can dream it, you can do it” takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to Anthony. This second best installment of the bunch manages to nail down the right balance of over-the-top and scary. It starts off a little slow, but quickly gains momentum with impressive visuals and a crazy storyline. Honestly, I think director Joe Dante would have been right at home doing a whole TWILIGHT ZONE anthology all by himself, but then we wouldn’t have this film’s closing segment (more on that in a moment). A

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NIGHTMARE AT 20,000 FEET: Talk about going out on a high (no pun intended), NIGHTMARE AT 20,000 FEET is an adaptation that’s actually better than the iconic episode that inspired it. A nervous passenger on an airplane is flying through a turbulent storm. He’s scared out of his wits, but tries to maintain a positive attitude that the plane will land in once piece…that is, until he sees something on the wing of the plane. This story truly is the best this film has to offer. Directed by George Miller (the same man who brought us the MAD MAX series), NIGHMARE AT 20,000 FEET literally feels like a nightmare put onto the screen. To merely call this story intense or creepy would be doing a disservice to the material. Aided by John Lithgow’s stellar performance, Miller manages to capture a sense of claustrophobic chaos that will have you on the edge of your seat through the whole story. Also, there’s a nice call-back to an early segment that will at least get a chuckle out of you (if not a shiver down your spine as well). A+

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TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE is, like most anthologies, a bit of a mixed bag. There’s only one really disappointing story (ironically enough, it happens to be from the most accomplished director attached to this project), a decent prologue, and three tales that measure up to varying degrees of greatness. This film is worth seeing if only for the last two segments. Overall, TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE is an anthology film that’s well worth seeking out.

Grade: B+

THE HOMESMAN (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Sexual Content, some Disturbing Behavior and Nudity

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Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones

Written by: Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald & Wesley Oliver

(based on the novel THE HOMESMAN by Glendon Swarthout)

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, James Spader, Hailee Steinfield, Tim Blake Nelson & William Fichtner

On paper, THE HOMESMAN sounds like a cinematic recipe for success. This is a dark Western with a cast full of A-list talent and an interesting premise behind it. I was quite excited to watching this promising film and that makes the lackluster end result so much more underwhelming. There are good qualities in HOMESMAN, but the film betrays its characters and wastes a solid period setting. By the time the credits roll, the whole experience feels pointless and dreary.

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In pioneer populated Nebraska, three women have gone insane. Mary Bee Cuddy is a spinster (woman past the typical age of marriage) with an independent attitude. She bravely volunteers to take the three crazy women to Iowa, in spite of scorn from those around her. Before Mary can begin her journey, she comes across George Briggs, a claim jumper about to be hanged. Mary frees George in exchange for his services in aiding her journey. The territory is filled with bandits, harsh elements, and Indians. George and Mary must face overwhelming odds to get these three mentally damaged women to safety…as well as themselves.

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Tommy Lee Jones directs, co-writes, and acts in this Western. He pulls off the role of George with a passable performance. Jones doesn’t necessarily make this character his own though. This “bad man with a good heart” type of character is a familiar stereotype. Hilary Swank is another story. She seems to be trying way too hard as Mary. When she says certain comic relief lines, they feel stiff and lifeless. However, when she tries to be deadly serious (including an over-the-top bit of sobbing), she becomes unintentionally laughable and not convincing in the slightest. James Spader is a welcomed presence, but barely has any screen time. Tim Blake Nelson also seems suited to his one-scene scumbag, but comes off as wildly cartoonish…again, eliciting unintentional laughs from a scene that should be intense. Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, and William Fichtner are forgettable as brief side characters. Meanwhile, the crazy women themselves aren’t given enough personality to resemble actual people as opposed to human cargo.

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In spite of all the flaws, THE HOMESMAN gets a couple of things right. The music is good, as in it feels like it belongs to a far better film. There is also attention to details of the time period that can be cool, though the overall production values resemble a made-for-TV movie. Aside from mixed acting and so-so technical work, THE HOMESMAN really drops the ball in the screenplay department. The script is based on a 1988 novel that I haven’t read, but this plot feels very disjointed and muddled. There is a character decision about halfway through that betrayed everything that was shown up until that point. There’s also a nasty streak of the story being dark merely for the sake of being dark. We already understand that the Old West was a dangerous and rough time, but this film feels the need to do things just for unnecessary shock value. This is especially notable in James Spader’s sleazy character. He’s one of the best things about this movie, but his scenes feel like they were only added for edginess and pointless violence.

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Westerns are a tough sell, especially in this day and age. I appreciate certain aspects about THE HOMESMAN, including a few well-executed scenes, a solid soundtrack, and two good performances. However, I can’t help but be let down by the forced bleakness (which didn’t add much to the story), an overall unfocused narrative, and poor performances that seemed as if everyone is trying too hard to sell themselves in a role as opposed to bringing an actual character to life. THE HOMESMAN is disappointing to say the least.

Grade: C-

INTERSTELLAR (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Intense Perilous Action and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Written by: Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Jessica Chastain, Mackenzie Foy, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, John Lithgow, Topher Grace & Matt Damon

INTERSTELLAR has been my most anticipated movie of 2014 and there are many reasons for that. The biggest of which is Christopher Nolan directing and writing. I love every single film that I’ve seen from Nolan. These include his DARK KNIGHT trilogy (RISES is actually my favorite of the three), INCEPTION, and THE PRESTIGE. INTERSTELLAR looked to be Christopher Nolan treading similar ground to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and that made me even more excited, not to mention throwing in a couple of brilliantly constructed trailers and promotional material that made me absolutely giddy. Now that I have seen INTERSTELLAR, I can safely say that it’s good, but far from perfect or even great. Part of my slight disappointment might come from high expectations, but most of it comes from the film’s problems that are too big to overlook. I repeat, this is a good movie, but you should temper your expectations walking into it.

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An entirely different sort of apocalypse is hitting Earth. It’s full of blight and dust storms that’s slowly killing food supplies bit by bit. Cooper is a former pilot turned farmer in these troubled times and things are looking bleaker by the minute. When he stumbles across a top-secret NASA base, he’s recruited to pilot an interstellar mission to another galaxy that might hold hope for survival. Aided by three scientists and a highly intelligent robot, the crew make their trip through the worm hole and visit planets that could potentially be habitable for the humans. Meanwhile on Earth, things are looking even more grim and Cooper’s daughter tries to figure out a solution for humanity’s survival by herself.

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INTERSTELLAR does a nice job of setting up this unique apocalyptic future. There are enough modern technology (cars, electricity) and customs (school, baseball games) to relate to, but there’s also addition of odd robots and severe dust storms that almost look like blizzards. I bought this world and the family living in it. A fantastical concept of time is made seeing as the intergalactic trip takes years to even reach the worm hole and time passes different on certain planets that the explorers are discovering. I didn’t buy a few clichéd elements that are fed to the audience later on in the film. Splitting the plot between McConaughey’s outer space adventure and the human struggle back on Earth mostly feels messy. Occasionally, one thread will flood the screen for too long and drown the momentum in the other plot. In a specific instance, Nolan cuts between both journeys at a jumbled pace. I was still interested in what was happening for the most part, but pieces of the story felt like they needed a little more work.

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As for the cast, there are a lot of big names. Almost too many and it feels that way watching the characters. Some people pop in and out of the movie without much thought to them. These include bigger actors with minor parts. One of the characters is so unceremoniously disposed of that it made me wonder what the point was of including them in the first place. The cast of characters feels crowded and major people are pushed to the side in order to further along the plot. McConaughey is definitely the best performer here with Anne Hathaway being another solid presence. However, Jessica Chastain is wooden and Michael Caine is absolutely wasted in a throwaway part that merely lasts for a couple of scenes of exposition.

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With all this complaining and praising aside, the film looks phenomenal and is further boasted by the always great Hans Zimmerman’s music. Spectacle used in bringing this new galaxy to life is hugely effective. I was on the edge of seat during numerous occasions in wondering how the characters were going to get out of the current messes they kept finding themselves in. If you have amazing looking worlds and keep cutting back to a dusty wasteland of Earth, the other planets become far more appealing to watch. I wanted to view the Interstellar voyage far more than someone trying to figure out a math equation to save humanity. This might be part of the reason that Chastain feels hollow in this particular film as she’s saddled with the latter storyline.

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The biggest problems I have in INTERSTELLAR are one particular plot detail (no spoilers) and the lengthy running time. INTERSTELLAR is almost three hours long and feels like its three hours long. I wasn’t ever bored, but there were moments in which I wanted a scene to move faster than it was going. A certain plot detail is brought up early on in the film that seems out-of-place for this sort of story and it makes a few more appearances throughout the story. We are given a full revelation of this detail and I had predicted what it was in the first hour. This bit of circular logic opens a noticeable plot hole and has been seen before in many other stories.

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INTERSTELLAR is good. It’s not great, spectacular, masterful or fantastic. It’s not even very good, but it’s just plain good. I had fun watching it and will watch it again in the future, but not in the near future. The overall movie is cool and highly enjoyable, but the plot can also be convoluted and silly. In the end, I felt like INTERSTELLAR was a three-hour-long glorified episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. There are merits and problems with that, but INTERSTELLAR is still well worth watching for fans of science fiction.

Grade: B

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