NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Graphic Violence and some Language

Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

(based on the novel NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN by Cormac McCarthy)

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper, Barry Corbin, Beth Grant & Stephen Root

Throughout their filmography, the Coen brothers have written and directed plenty of great films. It wouldn’t be a stretch to list them amongst the greatest filmmakers working today and their crowning cinematic achievement will likely go down as their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. This ultra-bleak cat-and-mouse thriller won four Academy Awards and is frequently listed as one of the best films of the 2000’s. As a fan of the Coen brothers, a person who frequently indulges on dark thrillers, and an admirer of cinema as art, I have to say that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is one of my favorite films.

In 1980’s Texas, Vietnam war veteran Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is hunting when he stumbles across a drug deal gone bad. Amongst the blood, corpses and bullet shells, Llewelyn finds two million dollars and one thirsty survivor. After he steals the money and feels guilty about leaving the dehydrated man behind, Llewelyn returns to deliver a gallon of water and finds himself on the run from very dangerous people who want their stolen cash back. Though gun-wielding Mexicans and a good ol’ boy bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson) are searching for Moss, his main hunter is psychopathic Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Moss and Chigurh find themselves in an increasingly deadly game of cat-and-mouse, all while aging Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) chases both men.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN has many amazing qualities, one of the biggest easily comes in stellar performances across the board. Josh Brolin makes Llewelyn Moss into a likable protagonist, even if he makes a few bone-headed decisions. The entire plot is thrust forward by Moss making one giant mistake and it becomes a blood-soaked cautionary tale. Tommy Lee Jones delivers the most restrained performance of the film as the close-to-retirement sheriff, who’s sickened by the increasing violence and crime of the world. The film’s title mostly derives from Tommy Lee Jones’s character’s sullen storyline and the plot’s heavier philosophical content is packed into his scenes.

Woody Harrelson is charismatic as the cocksure bounty hunter, while Kelly Macdonald is convincingly naïve as Moss’s wife. The film’s scariest performance arrives in the form of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. This lunatic kills unfortunate souls in unique ways (e.g. cattle-gun, handcuffs employed as a deadly weapon, sound-suppressed shotgun) and is 100% terrifying. Bardem’s deliberate line delivery and dead-eyed stare create a foe that’s simply hard to read, which makes him even scarier. Chigurh also has a twisted set of principles that are never fully revealed to the viewer, but we see life-or-death coin tosses and chance encounters that end on quietly menacing notes (the “do you see me?” scene sends chills down my spine).

Though its set-up is simple, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN packs in plenty of deeper meanings, careful background details, and parallels between characters that are likely to be analyzed by viewers in many different ways. The quiet ending (that seemingly arrives out of nowhere) is sure to throw a few people for a loop, but I really enjoy how it book-ends the film alongside opening narration that sets up the violence to come. As far as background details go, small things like wires that resemble like nooses in a convenience store owner, Chigurh’s cattle-centric main weapon of choice, and a phone ringing as a symbol of death calling come into play. There’s also one distinct scene that’s repeated between Moss and Chigurh that surely means something, though I’m not entirely sure what.

Besides being pure pleasure for arthouse-loving cinephiles, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN functions just as perfectly as a modern western thriller. The violence is shocking and the tension is so thick that you could cut it with a knife. Most of NO COUNTRY functions without a musical score, which makes the stellar sound design and every line of cleverly constructed dialogue stick out that much more. The film also takes ambiguous turns that let the audience fill in the blank. There are moments that may not suit every viewer’s cinematic cravings, but NO COUNTRY’s unconventional storytelling seems to work for a bigger audience than most arthouse dramas would typically appeal towards.

When I was in high school, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was one of the most intense books I ever read. Through sheer filmmaking prowess and careful eyes behind the camera, the Coen brothers masterfully translated Cormac McCarthy’s simple-yet-profound tale into a masterpiece of a movie. The suspense and fast-paced action will please those who want a modern western thriller, while the deeper meanings and carefully placed dialogue will thrill serious film lovers. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is easily one of the best films from the 2000s and definitely belongs somewhere in my top 20 all-time favorite movies!

Grade: A+

AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Pervasive Drug Content and Language, Nudity and Sexuality

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Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Steven Zaillian

(based on THE RETURN OF SUPERFLY by Mark Jacobson)

Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Lymari Nadal, KaDee Strickland, Ted Levine, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Clarence Williams III, T.I., Carla Gugino & Common

AMERICAN GANGSTER is a project that probably sounded brilliant on paper. This gangster epic was helmed by Ridley Scott, based on one of the most notorious African-American crime figures in US history, and sports a cast of A-list talent. The film even got a couple of Academy Award nominations (Art Direction and Supporting Actress) and was in a long production hell (at one point the project was scrapped entirely). Ambition set aside, AMERICAN GANGSTER plays very fast and loose with its fact-based source material. To be fair though, Frank Lucas seems to have embellish certain events on his own. AMERICAN GANGSTER is undeniably well shot and has good production values, but the script isn’t all that interesting and the running time feels long-winded (the director’s cut stretches almost 20 minutes longer too).

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The time is 1968 and the place is Harlem. Driver-turned-drug-dealer Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is doing his best to take over illegal operations left by his recently deceased mob boss. Meanwhile, detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) has made the difficult decision of turning in 1 million dollars of mob money, therefore making himself a pariah in the deeply corrupt police precinct. As Roberts engages in a fierce custody battle with his ex-wife, Frank Lucas begins running a hugely successful heroin racket (100% pure and from the jungles of Vietnam). These two men progress through their very different lives until fate sets their paths against one another…with bullets flying and a body count rising.

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I cannot fault AMERICAN GANGSTER on either of the performances from its two leads. As Lucas, Denzel Washington plays the gangster with a quiet dignity. He’s not simply a heartless monster, but also a family man who shares his wealth. However, the film doesn’t exactly glorify him as we see that he can shift from loving husband/caring son to cold-blooded killer in a matter of seconds. On the opposite side of the law is Russell Crowe as the honest cop with questionable morals at home. Even though he’s based on a real-life police officer, the character of Richie Roberts feels familiar and clichéd. We’ve seen this type of cop before in many other crime thrillers. I felt that Roberts was like a slightly toned down version of Popeye from THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

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As far as the supporting cast goes, the remaining big names are wasted in brief cameo-like roles. Ted Levine shows up as a bland fellow officer on Crowe’s special team. Cuba Gooding Jr. is wasted in the role of a rival drug dealer, while Chiwetel Ejiofor and Common fall by the wayside as two of Frank’s forgettable relatives/partners in crime. Idris Elba makes a good impression as a rival gangster, but doesn’t receive much of a role in the grand scheme of things. The only supporting performance that I feel was undeniably strong belongs to Josh Brolin as a greasy-haired corrupt cop who serves as an antagonist towards both Washington’s Lucas and Crowe’s Roberts. It makes me wish that a lot of the other side characters (and family drama) had been excised in order to give Brolin more scenes as a threat to both sides.

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Ridley Scott has proven himself in the past to be a stellar director, even when taking on less-than-stellar projects. The same goes for this disappointment, because AMERICAN GANGSTER looks great and wanted to be a huge gangster blockbuster. Though the film was successful at the box office and definitely has its fans, I felt it was very underwhelming. The script seems like a mishmash of gangster tropes and melodrama. While the gangster tropes are fun to watch (especially in the final 30 minutes), the family melodrama is a dreary slog to sit through. The aspirations to make this into a gangster movie with heart were noble, but the execution feels like a been-there, done-that experience. I watched the theatrical cut and found myself frequently bored when I should have been invested in both Crowe’s cop and Washington’s criminal. Instead, the film feels overly familiar and frequently dull.

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Though AMERICAN GANGSTER definitely has its moments and two strong performances (three, if you count Brolin’s ten minutes as a side character), it ultimately feels like a by-the-numbers disappointment. I am an avid fan of gangster movies and frequently seek them out, but I was constantly bored throughout the nearly three-hour-long running time in this fictional version of Frank Lucas’s story. The movie isn’t necessarily made better by both of its actual counterparts coming out against it as exploiting a real-life story as a melodramatic fluff. Two solid performances, a few good scenes, and solid production values aside, AMERICAN GANGSTER is kind of a snoozefest.

Grade: C

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Suggestive Content and Smoking

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Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Alison Pill, Christopher Lambert & Clancy Brown

The Coen brothers make unique movies. You can automatically tell if you’re watching a Coen brothers film from the offbeat dialogue, awkward humor, or quirky characters. Something about their filmmaking and screenwriting is instantly recognizable. HAIL, CAESAR! is their latest film and its an oddball comedy that satirizes Hollywood’s Golden Age in hilariously weird fashion. Featuring a cast full of A-listers who seem to be having the time of their life on set and using a screenplay that’s impossible to predict, HAIL, CAESAR! is the kind of film that reminds me why I love movies to begin with and the sheer beauty (and questionable studio politics) within the industry itself.

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Eddie Mannix is a Hollywood fixer for the illustrious Capitol Pictures. The studio’s biggest film of the year is HAIL, CAESAR! (think BEN-HUR), a biblical epic featuring the biggest movie star: Baird Whitlock. However, something strange has occurred on the set. Whitlock has gone missing and a ransom note reveals that this is a kidnapping set to the tune of a $100,000 ransom. Mannix tries to track down Whitlock, while other cinema-related shenanigans break out in the studio. DeeAnna Moran (based on Esther Williams) is pregnant with a child out-of-wedlock, while marble-mouthed Hobie Doyle (think John Wayne crossed with Kirby Grant) has been called as a last-minute replacement in a classical drama. Mannix rushes to find complex solutions to all of these dilemmas in the space of a single stress-filled day.

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HAIL, CAESAR! is both a love letter to classical Hollywood cinema and a merciless riff on it. It makes for a film that’s hugely entertaining, captivating, and hilarious to watch from start to finish, even if you’re not necessarily familiar with the old-fashioned material that the Coens are lampooning. The entire audience in my theater was cracking up throughout the entire film at the oddball humor, goofy twists, and utter silliness of the story. The film is very light-hearted, but also carries profound writing in Mannix having his own personal arc/revelation develop during the course of the story.

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The visuals are shot in vibrant colors that illuminate off the screen and the film’s sets are elaborate. It’s hard to believe that the Coen brothers were able to recreate the 50’s in such detail on a meager budget of 22 million (which is nothing compared to most big films today). This is the kind of movie that I want to pause scene to scene in order to notice the smaller touches placed throughout each frame (movie posters at the studio, household appliances, etc.). HAIL, CAESAR! is a gorgeous film to look at and you can never fully predict where its story will head next. I kept wishing that Mannix’s various jobs and the amusing studio problems would go on long past the end credits.

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Performances from the cast are top-notch. Their colorful characters were inspired by Hollywood icons of the past and could easily serve as main protagonists in their own individual films. Josh Brolin landed the leading role as Eddie Mannix (based on the real-life “fixer” of the same name) and plays the part to perfection. Mannix is not without his flaws (he has a tendency of slapping certain problems away), but he’s a fascinating character to watch. I particularly enjoyed his personal story arc (which I won’t spoil here) that evolves over the varying degrees of chaos he endures in a single day’s time.

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George Clooney is hilarious as the overacting Baird Whitlock and receives some of the funniest moments of the entire film, but Alden Ehrenreich steals every scene he’s in as Hobie Doyle. His interplay with Ralph Fiennes’s frustrated director is utterly hysterical to behold. Channing Tatum also gets an equally hilarious moment to shine in a musical number (which had me laughing to the point of tears). Also worth mentioning is Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists (inspired by Hedda Hopper).

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HAIL, CAESAR! pays tribute to and simultaneously nails studio politics in a nutshell. This includes the Coen brothers shining amusing lights on: religious leaders critiquing potentially offensive content in films, disastrous last-minute studio casting decisions, intense production difficulties, multiple behind-the-scenes antics (that aren’t entirely unbelievable), early tabloid journalism, and certain controversies of the time. The films within this film are spot-on parodies of specific genres (musicals, biblical epics, dialogue-heavy dramas, and westerns). Though I do wish that certain subplots had received more screen time (we get a couple of plot points explained away via exposition dialogue), HAIL, CAESAR! is a unique and completely hilarious cinematic experience. This is the first great film of 2016!

Grade: A

My Top 15 Films of 2015

List by Derrick Carter

2015 was a great year for cinema. So much so, that I’ve decided not to make a “Top 10 Films” of the year, but a “Top 15” instead. It should be noted that I haven’t seen every single movie that came out during the past twelve months. I’m one man after all and only pay money for and spend time on stuff that interests me. That being said, I reviewed 132 new releases during 2015. There are a few movies that I plan on covering and could have potentially made this list if I had seen them in 2015. These are: THE REVENANT, CAROL, ANOMALISA, and SON OF SAUL. The fifteen titles that did make the cut are flicks that I absolutely loved, plan on adding to my collection, and rewatching many times for years to come. I don’t expect everybody to agree with all of them, but hopefully I’ve recommended a couple of films that peak your interest.

Before getting into list itself, I feel a few honorable mentions are in order. BRIDGE OF SPIES showed that Steven Spielberg has not lost a shred of talent over the years. THE JINX proved to be a groundbreaking true-crime documentary that literally made history. Coming off a string of misfires, Melissa McCarthy delivered her funniest comedy yet in SPY. Finally, on the scary side of things, KRAMPUS is a great holiday horror-comedy that I plan on making an annual Christmas tradition and GOODNIGHT MOMMY is a freaky shudder-inducing little nightmare. Without further ado, I’ll move onto my favorite films of 2015…

15. Black Mass

15. BLACK MASS: Throughout the years, Johnny Depp has become a ghost of his former talented self, but delivered one of his best performances ever this year. He disappeared into the role Whitey Bulger and became a terrifying on-screen monster. The story is a complex one that couldn’t easily be told in the space of a two-hour film. Though I feel it would have been a modern crime masterpiece if 30 more minutes had been tacked onto the final third, director Scott Cooper did a phenomenal job portraying one of the most notorious gangster stories in American history. Depp isn’t necessarily the star of this movie as the rest of the cast is especially strong. Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, and many more round out a great ensemble picture. It might not be a modern GOODFELLAS, but I’d rank it as a modern CASINO. BLACK MASS is easily one of the best real-life gangster films to come out of the new millennium.

14. It Follows

14. IT FOLLOWS: In the vein of the original HALLOWEEN and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, IT FOLLOWS is one of the single scariest viewing experiences that I’ve had all year. I attended a midnight screening at Sundance and everyone was losing their minds in the theater over this film. While it only has a few big jolts, IT FOLLOWS manages to get under your skin and stay there. I found myself getting progressively more creeped out when I arrived home and couldn’t stop thinking about the film. What’s even better about this movie is how it took the more difficult and complicated route instead of merely becoming a supernatural slasher. Instead, the film lets a dread-soaked atmosphere float around the viewer…and like “it” does to the characters themselves, that feeling follows you around long after the end credits have rolled.

13. Going Clear

13. GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF: The best documentary that I watched all year, GOING CLEAR is a fascinating and disturbing look into the inner workings of Scientology. Covering the formation of this so-called “religion” (you won’t blame me for calling it a cult after you watch this doc) to the huge amount of controversy surrounding it to the systematic abuse of its followers and opponents, GOING CLEAR is a harrowing watch. The testimonies from former members of the church are both chilling and heartbreaking. Some masterful editing also allows for brief moments of humor, such as a cheesy Scientology music video and an improvised awards ceremony invented specifically for Tom Cruise. As I stated in my review back in March, GOING CLEAR would almost be ridiculous and amusing, if it weren’t so devastating and terrifying.

12. Hateful Eight

12. THE HATEFUL EIGHT: It might not be Tarantino’s best film, but I loved the hell out of the HATEFUL EIGHT! A far more contained story than Tarantino’s recent Oscar nominees, this is pretty much RESERVOIR DOGS set in the Old West with more suspense. Besides that familiar set up, Tarantino manages to milk a massive amount of tension from each scene leading up to many unexpected revelations, over-the-top gore, and sick humor. I was on the edge of my seat throughout, almost fell out of my chair laughing at one point, and left totally satisfied.

11. Kingsman

11. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE: Nobody expected this movie to be nearly as good as it was. The two best descriptions I can give KINGSMAN are that it’s either the KICK-ASS of spy movies or a very R-rated take on SPY KIDS. The film is wild, crazy, fast-paced and never takes itself seriously. In a year that’s been populated by plenty of superheroes, KINGSMAN is my favorite comic book adaptation of 2015. The church scene alone was one of the most jaw-dropping sequences I’ve sat through all year. The rest of the film is hugely entertaining and has the balls to take risks. KINGSMAN was definitely one of the biggest cinematic surprises I had all year, but it was upended by…

10. Gift

10. THE GIFT: This is the biggest surprise that I had in 2015. The trailer made it look like a generic thriller that had already been done a million times before. However, this can all be chalked up to bad marketing because Joel Edgerton pulled triple duty and put his heart into this well-crafted shocker. The film intentionally misleads the audience through various points before unleashing big bombshells upon them. The ending also left me speechless and contemplating it for days afterwards. This is one of those films that is pretty much guaranteed to generate a discussion with other film-loving friends. THE GIFT is not a predictable black-and-white thriller, but something much deeper and far scarier.

9. MI5

9. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -ROGUE NATION: The MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series has had its ups and downs. The first was good. The second was crap. The third was great. The fourth was fun. However, I don’t think anybody could have predicted that the fifth installment of this high-octane spy series would be the best of the bunch thus far. That was definitely the case as ROGUE NATION unleashed compelling high stakes, brought back old characters as if no time had passed at all, introduced a cool new ones, and had some fantastic set-pieces. In many ways (Bond girl, villain, secret evil organization), MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -ROGUE NATION was a far better Bond movie than the actual Bond movie we received this year.

8. Crimson Peak

8. CRIMSON PEAK: This gorgeously realized film feels like Edgar Allan Poe and Jane Austen penned a novel together and then Guillermo Del Toro adapted it to the screen. Those who go in expecting endless jump scares and a typical ghost story will find themselves either let down or elated by the film being a gothic romance that happens to contain some very frightening ghosts and thick horror elements in its story. Every frame of the film is beautiful to look at and atmospheric beyond belief. There are shots of this movie that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since I originally saw it and I believe it’s among the very best of Guillermo Del Toro’s filmography. Jessica Chastain is also a fearsome force to behold!

7. Spotlight

7. SPOTLIGHT: A tastefully made movie about one of the most disturbing cover-ups in recent history. SPOTLIGHT could have easily gone for shock value and went all out to demonize religion as a whole. Actually, that’s sort of what I was expecting it to do when I walked into the theater. Imagine my surprise at how restrained and respectful this film is. Aided by one of the most realistic looks at journalism that you’re bound to see on film, the movie packs in so much emotion without ever crossing the line into anything that possibly resemble shock value or cheap shots. Instead, the film asks tough questions, brings powerful performances to the screen, and leaves the viewer with a lot to chew on. This is one of the most important movies of 2015.

6. Macbeth

6. MACBETH: Shakespeare has been brought to the big screen in many ways by many different filmmakers. This beautiful, bleak take on the Scottish Play might just be my favorite Shakespeare movie thus far. With dialogue being delivered in a naturalistic manner and some creative licensing thrown into the centuries-old material, this version of MACBETH somehow improves upon the already perfect tragedy by adding unexpected context into the mix. Michael Fassbender is stunning as the title character, but it’s Marion Cotillard who steals the show. Lady Macbeth is actually made into a sympathetic character which is something that I felt could never, ever be accomplished in any take on the play. It’s also worth noting that this is definitely not a Shakespeare adaptation that will be shown in many high school classrooms, which is a very good thing indeed!

5. Sicario

5. SICARIO: In 2013, Denis Villeneuve wowed me with PRISONERS. In 2015, he returned with the complex cartel thriller SICARIO. A movie that never allows you to get comfortable in your seat or breathe normally throughout its entire running time, SICARIO is a grim, bleak, and depressing movie…and all the better for it. This thriller had a number of stand-out sequences, an intense beyond words finale being one of them. Villeneuve knew precisely when to merely imply the dark deeds occurring just beyond a locked door and when to casually showcase disturbing sights in broad daylight. Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin are all fantastic in their parts. It’s likely that SICARIO will keep you thinking about it long after you’ve finished watching it, but just be prepared for that as there’s no glimmer of happiness or hope to be found within a single frame of this film.

4. Ex Machina

4. EX MACHINA: One of the best pieces of thought-provoking science-fiction to come out in a long, long time, EX MACHINA is a brilliantly crafted beast of a film. I loved everything about it when I first watched it back in April. The performances from the leads (likable Domnhall Gleeson, robotic Alicia Vikander, and scary Oscar Isaac) make for a film that’s pretty much a three character play. The uniquely designed house/research facility is almost a character as well, because the sense of claustrophobia and steadily rising tension become damn near nightmarish by the final third. The effects are excellently rendered and the film gets even better upon repeat viewings (little details stuck out more during the second and third times that I watched it). The hauntingly beautiful soundtrack is just the icing on the cake for my fourth best film of 2015.

3. Room

3. ROOM: Difficult and immensely rewarding, ROOM is a drama like no other. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name (which in turn was inspired by a real-life kidnapping case), this film is tense and remarkably uplifting. Throughout the whole running time, the story walks a tightrope between being heartwarming and heartbreaking. It ultimately winds up with the best of both worlds as various audience members (including myself) were crying at various points throughout the film. As sad as it can be, I left feeling immensely uplifted by this beautiful movie about love and courage. Brie Larson (the frontrunner for Best Actress of 2015) and 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay (giving one of the best child performances that I’ve ever seen in my entire life) are both wholly convincing and believable. I cannot praise this movie enough. It’s amazing!

2. Inside Out

2. INSIDE OUT: A family film that’s made more for adults than it is for children, INSIDE OUT wound up being one of the most emotional theater experiences of 2015 for me (pun fully intended). Though it may look sweet, innocent and cute on the outside, the movie packs a lot of emotional truths that will hit older viewers far more than kids who just want to watch a cartoon. It’s also the biggest tearjerker that I saw all year (right next to ROOM). The film is just beautiful and encapsulates everything that life itself in brilliantly creative ways. It also has one of the most mature messages that I’ve ever seen in a children’s film. It’s not only my second favorite movie of 2015, but my favorite Pixar movie thus far!

1. Mad Max Fury Road

1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD: Director/writer George Miller had over two decades to craft his fourth MAD MAX movie to perfection and that’s exactly what he did! MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was easily one of the most adrenaline-pumping, kick-ass movies that I’ve ever experienced in a theater. I loved it so much that I saw it twice within four days on the big screen and it has enjoyed many repeat viewings since its home video release. Though some fans have joked that it’s simply a two-hour chase scene, the story manages to encapsulate far more than that. There are issues of gender, slavery, religion, etc. that all come up in subtle (sometimes, obvious), smart ways throughout the film. The movie never stops to deliver heavy-handed exposition to the viewer and gives enough details so we can simply figure it all out for ourselves. The visuals look incredible as this apocalyptic wasteland was wholly convincing, in no small part due to practical effects, dangerous stunt work, and subtle green screen effects. FURY ROAD has joined the rare breed of perfect summer blockbusters that includes the likes of ALIENS and TERMINATOR 2. Bravo!

2015 was a year that was packed full of releases. Some were amazing, some were good, and others fell lower on the cinematic totem pole. It’s definitely been one of the most interesting years for cinema and I look forward to seeing what 2016 has in store for filmgoers!

EVEREST (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Peril and Disturbing Images

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Directed by: Baltasar Kormakur

Written by: William Nicholson & Simon Beaufoy

Starring: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Sam Worthington, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson & Thomas Wright

Having not read the book INTO THIN AIR (which many of my friends have endlessly recommended to me), I walked into EVEREST knowing next to nothing about the true events that inspired this film. I was sold strictly on the premise, cast, and marketing. This looked like an intense, beautifully shot, and emotional disaster flick. For the most part, it is. Though the sizeable cast and lengthy running time become detrimental to the storytelling, EVEREST serves as a thrilling “based on a true story” film in which a group of adventurers hike up the world’s tallest mountain and find themselves woefully unprepared for the danger that awaits them.

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The time is 1996 and various hiking organizations have set up camps at the base of Mount Everest. These groups (springing from New Zealand, America, South Africa, etc.) have taken it upon themselves to line the slopes of the world’s tallest mountain with various ropes and ladders. The purpose of this being that even mere novices could reach the summit of Mount Everest with a professional guide’s help. This year, New Zealander Rob Hall of Adventure Consultants has a rather large group of hikers and so does American Scott Fischer of Mountain Madness. Due to the sheer size of their teams and a potentially hazardous waiting time, the two men decide to combine their groups for an expedition to the summit of Everest. Unfortunately, nobody expects two vicious storms that arrive just as the group is turning around from the summit. This force of nature will cost some hikers their lives and inspire others to rise above overwhelming odds of certain death…

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Though pieces of the film were shot on location at the actual Everest base camp, most of the Mount Everest imagery is actually made up of the Otztal Alps in Italy. I’ll be damned if they’re not a convincing substitute. To be completely honest, the main reason you should see EVEREST is for the visuals alone. This film feels and looks huge. You get the sense that these characters are venturing into a place where Mother Nature has the ultimate upper hand. The cinematography, locations and sets all had me convinced that what I was seeing was real, if only for the two hours I sat in the theater. Speaking of which, the main way to experience this movie is on the big screen. For the sheer scope of the film, you will want to see it in a huge theater. I imagine that it won’t play nearly as well on home video or cable.

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As impressive as the visuals are and as harrowing as the film feels, EVEREST does encounter problems in both pacing and characters. We don’t simply start the film with the hikers venturing up Mount Everest, but get a long introduction of them trying to climatize to the environment because one does not simply climb Everest. This build-up portion of the film runs arguably a bit too long. That can be said for various other parts of the movie as well, even once the disaster is in full force. Rest assured, there are intense moments and I’m sure that the movie might hit the emotions harder of someone who has read INTO THIN AIR, but I felt the film noticeably dragged in spots.

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As far as characters go, there are a lot of them and EVEREST tries to juggle all of them equally. More time is definitely spent on Rob Hall (a well-cast Jason Clarke), Scott Fischer (the always solid Jake Gyllenhaal), Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin delivering the best performance of the film) and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes in a memorable part). Little pieces are shined on other characters such as two guides who don’t get along, Hall’s pregnant wife, the frantic crew at base camp watching helplessly as the storm gets worse and a Japanese woman who has scaled seven summits. The film simply tries to cram too many people into one movie. As a result, aside from the four main guys we follow, it feels like other characters exist simply to die or to help the main characters survive as best they can.

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EVEREST is based on a real life expedition and that story is fascinating for those who take the time to read it (whether it be in a book or simply on a Wikipedia page). As a film, there are problems in both the pacing and characters. It feels like the filmmakers tried to cram too much within the space of two hours, but also didn’t know how to keep the pace from dragging at points (this feels like two-and-a-half hours as opposed to two). There are emotional moments and I don’t regret watching this movie in the slightest, but the film can’t fully overcome its pacing and so-so characters. EVEREST is a good movie, but I’d recommend seeing it on the big screen or not seeing it at all.

Grade: B

SICARIO (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Grisly Images, and Language

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Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya & Jeffrey Donovan

SICARIO is a movie that’s been gaining steam for a while now. Premiering at Cannes and receiving huge word-of-mouth, Denis Villeneuve’s latest thriller has slowly unfolded in a handful of theaters across the nation over these past two weeks. It’s now finally receiving a nationwide roll-out and I can say that this one was more than worth the wait. Violent, grim, and bleak as hell, SICARIO is one of the most original thrillers to hit in the past few years. It’s up there with NIGHTCRAWLER and PRISONERS. I can safely say that this has a spot reserved on my Best of 2015 list!

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SWAT agent Kate Macer is on what appears to be a routine kidnapping raid when she discovers a house of horrors. This crime scene includes corpses in the walls and a bomb in the backyard. It turns out this suburban home from hell is owned by someone with ties to the Mexican cartel. Desperate to bring the monsters behind this grisly site to justice, Kate is recruited onto a special tactical team that aims to bring down a notorious cartel lord and his cronies through any means necessary. However, by-the-books Kate is not fully prepared for the possibly illegal and morally questionable areas that her mission will take her to.

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If there’s anything to be said for Denis Villeneuve’s thrillers, it’s that they all maintain the same sense of suffocating unease. SICARIO opens with a disturbing bang and never lets up on its constant tension for the rest of the running time. This movie doesn’t give you room to breathe as it feels like potential chaos and violence could be waiting around every corner…and in this film, they usually are. Much like 2013’s stellar PRISONERS was a morality play crossed with a tense kidnapping thriller, SICARIO stirs up troubling ethical and moral questions with what, in any other hands, could have been a just another bombastic over-the-top action flick. Villeneuve’s brooding approach to every scene had me clenching my arm rests for the entire film. He also does something with a side plot involving a minor character that I truly loved, but I refuse to spoil anything by going into specific details.

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As far as the cast goes, everyone is perfect. Adopting a convincing American accent, Emily Blunt portrays the story’s only voice of reason as Kate. As she encounters more and more horrific scenes in the escalating hunt for the cartel, you can see the damage that it’s inflicting on both Kate’s psyche and health. A similar transformation seems to occur in Blunt’s face as she appears traumatized, broken, and physically ill by the time the film hits its third act. Josh Brolin dominates every scene he’s in as the secret team’s questionable leader. You can sense of the scummy nature of this character from the minute you first see him and a smirking Brolin uses that to his full advantage. Benicio Del Toro plays Alejandro, the team’s mysterious second-in-command, and he’s never been better. Combining the characteristics of a rough anti-hero with the mannerisms of a certain Cormac McCarthy villain, Del Toro becomes a wholly compelling, sympathetic character with an absolutely terrifying side to him.

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SICARIO might turn a few people off in its sheer darkness. This film is bleak! Seeing as it’s about a team hunting a cartel, you would expect some gruesome imagery. However, the attitude of which this movie treats those moments makes it so much more disturbing and brilliant. This is a film where a van full of characters drive by hanging mutilated bodies and it only results in a few passing comments, because it’s not out of the ordinary in hunting cartels. Villeneuve knows precisely what to leave off the screen as well, resulting in the implication of certain scenes being far worse than anything we could have possibly seen. The story goes into extremely grim places and that’s especially true of a final act that left me in a stunned silence.

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SICARIO is an uncompromising masterpiece of a thriller. Fueled by stellar performances, a suffocating sense of impending dread, and a script that will have you thinking about it long after it’s over, SICARIO simply needs to be seen to be believed. Between this film, ENEMY, and PRISONERS, director Denis Villeneuve has become one of my favorite modern filmmakers. SICARIO is not only one of the best films of the year, it’s also one of the most thought-provoking and intense thrillers that I’ve ever laid eyes upon.

Grade: A+

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-

INHERENT VICE (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Drug Use throughout, Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Language and some Violence

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Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

(based on the novel INHERENT VICE by Thomas Pynchon)

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom, Maya Rudolph & Martin Short

Paul Thomas Anderson is known for making unique films, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted him tackling a stoner noir comedy. Yet, INHERENT VICE (nominated for one Golden Globe and two Academy Awards) is currently in theaters. This movie plays out like CHINATOWN by way of BIG LEBOWSKI. Unfortunately, a damn near incoherent script and lengthy running time kill some of the momentum that this hippie mystery had going for it. I can see it gaining a possible cult following, but INHERENT VICE’s big problems weigh it down. At least, the film is a somewhat entertaining mess.

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The 60’s have come to a close and the 70’s are killing the hippie movement. Doc Sportello is a pothead private investigator who receives a mysterious visit from his ex-girlfriend, Shasta. Doc’s ex, now lover to a powerful businessman, informs the hippie detective that there’s a complicated plan at work and she might be in danger. Before you know it, Shasta has disappeared and Doc is on the case. His search begins with three seemingly unrelated disappearances that lead to a huge conspiracy and much craziness. I must attest to not completely understanding everything in the plot at the end of the day, but dare anyone to explain the whole movie to me in a way that makes any plausible sense without having to pull out a notepad and pen in order to map the whole story out. At one point in the film, Doc does exactly that on his wall and I couldn’t help but feel totally lost with him (in a bad way).

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How does INHERENT VICE function as a comedy? It definitely has its fair share of very funny scenes. The best of which have not been given away in the trailer. However, there is also a semi-serious attempt to lace all of these laughs into a mystery that becomes far more irritating than entertaining. For the first hour, I had a pretty good grasp of the plot as the web of lies, murder, and drugs spun faster and faster. However, with a certain plot twist, the movie completely lost me and never regained my interest in the actual story at hand. Part of this might be entirely blamed upon the source material itself as the 2009 has been said to be polarizing. Some call it a hugely entertaining hippie noir, while others see the whole affair as an aimless bore. I’m somewhere in the middle in my opinion of this film. The biggest detriment to the movie is the overlong running time that drags in quite a few places and ends with a shrug.

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Doc is a totally wooden protagonist. Joaquin Phoenix blends right into the role of a hippie who happens to be a private investigator on the side, but there’s nothing much to this character other than him wandering through a variety of random situations (some of which work, while others fall flat). The other characters wind up serving little to no point, including Reese Witherspoon and Benicio Del Toro popping up for about 5 minutes of screen time. Not to mention that Martin Short’s entertaining role is underused. There is one exception to these shallow cartoon characters played by A-listers. That’s in the performance of Josh Brolin. Brolin plays a cop bearing the nickname of Bigfoot. This character is fuelled by an extreme prejudice against hippies, but also remains a friend (of sorts) to Doc. Brolin steals every scene he’s in and received the biggest laughs out of my theater audience (myself included).

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Even though it bores in places and is ultimately underwhelming, INHERENT VICE does have an air of solid filmmaking around it. It’s very well-shot, has great moments and sports a fantastic soundtrack. There’s a sense that what you’re watching might just be a drug-addled hallucination projected onto the theater screen (in a similar way to FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS). There are definitely positive qualities to be said for that effect. I’d almost recommend seeing the film just for the weird, funny atmosphere it brings (as well as Brolin’s scenes).

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INHERENT VICE is a one-of-a-kind movie in its concept and execution, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. There are laughs to be had, but also a running time that limps along. The A-list cast is mostly wasted and Josh Brolin walks away as the best part of the entire movie. I imagine that INHERENT VICE would play a lot better if you were high (not that I’m advocating that at all). As someone who saw the film without drugs, I think it’s just an okay flick.

Grade: C+

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal Stylized Violence throughout, Sexual Content, Nudity, and brief Drug Use

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Directed by: Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller

Written by: Frank Miller

(based on the SIN CITY graphic novels by Frank Miller)

Starring: Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Eva Green, Powers Boothe, Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Lloyd, Jamie King, Juno Temple, Marton Csokas, Jamie Chun & Julia Garner

The original SIN CITY was one of my favorite movies during high school and hopes were high that Frank Miller’s amazing crime anthology would play out with the two sequels as a trilogy. Announcements for big name talent (including the original cast and the likes of Johnny Depp) were made and then the much-anticipated sequel was placed in development hell. Almost a full decade later, the second installment has finally been released and it was not worth the ridiculously long wait. Ironically, another Frank Miller sequel released this year bears some strong resemblance to SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR. That film would be 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE. Both sequels are forcibly trying way too hard to duplicate what the filmmakers think fans liked about the originals and neither of them succeed well at it. DAME TO KILL FOR is a mixed bag in every way.

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A DAME TO KILL FOR follows the same format as the original SIN CITY. It’s a crime anthology with four noir tales that have recurring characters and an interlocking timeline. While the first film felt open and vibrant with every single detail being paid close attention to, this sequel feels confined and cheaper in many ways. The production values range from sometimes gorgeous to mostly corny. I don’t mean corny in the sense that things feel too far over-the-top (some intentional cheese works well), but corny in the sense that the world around our actors is fake looking. The visuals of 2005’s SIN CITY hold up well to this day and made me feel like I had entered a dangerous city filled with criminals. DAME TO KILL FOR feels like I’m watching a bunch of actors pretend in front of a green screen with silly looking CGI backgrounds around them. It feels like less attention was being placed on detail and more on pumping this thing out fast, but that’s not the real case because this had a nine-year-long production. The stories are as follows…

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JUST ANOTHER SATURDAY NIGHT: Marv (from HARD GOODBYE in the original) wakes from a drunken stupor surrounded by crashed cars, corpses, and blood. He tries to piece together what happened to put him in this situation from hazy memories. This opener lasts less than 10 minutes and introduces the vibe that things are more forced this time around. Some dark comedy is present and I had fun watching the style in which this tale played out, but the writing was okay at best. Marv’s make-up looks ridiculous on Mickey Rourke this time around and it hurts that he appears during every single story in some way or another. It should have been an early sign for disappointment that the memorable character with the most disturbing tale in the first film was in a campy opener this time around. B-

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THE LONG BAD NIGHT: This first full-blown tale is the best segment in the film and up to the caliber of the original flick. I wouldn’t call it only good, but pretty awesome as a whole. Johnny is a gambler with a superb winning streak who visits Basin City (a.k.a. Sin City, duh) to play the most powerful poker game in town. He finds himself in over his head when he goes up against the corrupt Senator Roark (family member to a twisted priest, a cannibal serial killer, and a yellow-skinned pedophile in the first flick). Roark doesn’t take kindly to losing and Johnny finds himself against odds that he didn’t foresee when he leaves for a night on the town.

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a welcome newcomer to the cast as Johnny and Powers Boothe (briefly glimpsed in SIN CITY) takes center stage as the slimy Roark. It’s easy to hate the gambling villain and the story was fairly predictable, but a few twists did take me by surprise. I liked a reveal midway through that wasn’t so much of a shock but a nice direction to take the story. The ending of this tale is fantastic. It’s a poetic conclusion to the best story of the sequel. Also production values felt far better in this single story than they were in the rest of the entire film. A

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A DAME TO KILL FOR: The story is where the ride begins to get really bumpy. Dwight (from BIG FAT KILL in the first film) is a private investigator specializing in incriminating photos. When a femme fatale from his past contacts him about her abusive husband, Dwight becomes infatuated with the sexy Ava Lord and comes to find too late that the situation isn’t as simple as he expected. This tale was as by-the-numbers as one can get. There aren’t any unexpected twists and some lengthy side plot threads go nowhere.

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This also happens to be a tale where two recurring characters from the 2005 film are recast. The hulking bodyguard, Manute, was originally played by Michael Clarke Duncan (who passed away), but Dennis Haysbert doesn’t necessarily do a bad job of filling the part. He’s a hulking baddie who serves his purpose. However, Josh Brolin is terribly cast as Dwight, a role that Clive Owen owned. Brolin has none of the charisma or charm that made the character so damn enjoyable to begin with. Eva Green (who served as the best performer in 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE) bares it all here (literally), but isn’t much of a character. She merely plays out as means to an end. The worst part about this second-to-last tale is that it takes up a majority of the running time, so much so that this sequel is titled after it. C

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NANCY’S LAST DANCE: Picking up shortly after YELLOW BASTARD from the original film, Nancy Callahan is looking to avenge her dead lover/protector John Hartigan. To do this, she hardens herself and aims to kill Senator Roark. Her plan encounters some difficulties along the way. DAME TO KILL FOR commits the worst sin any anthology can by ending on its weakest note. This tale with direct ties to one of the best stories from the first film is dull, sloppy and anti-climactic. It was so bad that I was hoping the movie would just get to the final scene that everyone knew was coming. Nothing more can really be said about this story other than it’s poorly acted, written and played out. D

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To say SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR is underwhelming would be an understatement. The main returning cast members from the original come in Bruce Willis (showing up for an extended cameo), a few side characters (including a gloriously wasted Rosario Dawson as murderous hooker Gale), Mickey Rourke as a silly looking Marv, and Jessica Alba shakily trying to take on a lead role in a dark segment. It speaks volumes that the most interesting character (Dwight) only appears for one segment, while the wooden Nancy is throughout every single one of them. Marv, one of the most colorful characters from the original, is turned into a dull brute and that’s all the personality he’s given. After a nine-year wait, I sat in a theater with about six other people on opening night. When the movie ended, a person behind me exclaimed “That’s it?!?” Those two words are likely to summarize most fans’ responses to SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR, including mine.

Grade: C+

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