SUBURBICON (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language and some Sexuality

Directed by: George Clooney

Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney & Grant Heslov

Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe, Glenn Fleshler, Megan Ferguson, Jack Conley, Gary Basaraba & Michael D. Cohen

SUBURBICON is a film that sounds great on paper. You have a talented cast starring in a darkly comedic period piece that was scripted by the Coen brothers (two master writers/directors who excel at pretty much everything they touch). Unfortunately though, this script has been floating around since the 80s and director/writer George Clooney took a stab at reconstructing the crime-comedy to include some rather forced social commentary. The resulting cinematic mess tries too hard to be quirky and attempts to do to many things at once, resulting in a movie that won’t completely satisfy anybody.

In 1959, the small town of Suburbicon seems picture perfect. However, things are not as nice as they appear on the surface. Clean-cut family man Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) finds his life upended when two robbers break into his house and kill his wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Julianne Moore). Trying to move on with their lives, Gardner invites Rose’s twin sister Margaret (also Julianne Moore) to move in and curious son Nicky (Noah Jupe) begins to suspect that all is not right with his father. Meanwhile, an African-American family has moved into this all-white neighborhood and supposedly caring neighbors begin to show their racist true colors.

SUBURBICON’s biggest problem is a direct result from its troubled production. Apparently, this final product was the melding of two unrelated scripts. One of which is the aforementioned crime draft from the Coen brothers and the other was a drama based on the real-life experiences of the Myers family (a black family who moved into an all-white neighborhood in the 50s and faced endless harassment from their neighbors). The result mixes together about as well as milk and vinegar, which is to say not at all. There are two very tonally different movies in the space of SUBURBICON’s 105-minute running time and neither of them are particularly satisfying.

This film is at its best when it’s in full quirky murder-mystery mode. There are a few scenes that could only come from the twisted imaginations of Coens. My favorite moments easily belong to an over-the-top Oscar Isaac as a suspicious insurance investigator. However, he only pops in for two scenes that equal a grand total of 10 minutes. Matt Damon’s final bits of screen time are also great in a twisted way. There is occasionally good stuff within SUBURBICON. It just gets drowned out by the film’s overly familiar messy tonal shifts and a predictable narrative that seems like a lesser version of FARGO…but in the 1950s. The murder-mystery storyline also drags to the point where most of the interesting developments occur during the final third…as opposed to being a slow-burn tale that increasingly builds suspense.

SUBURBICON’s more dramatic side could have potentially served as its own serious film. However, it feels like a complete afterthought that just happens to take up a lot of screen time in this would-be dark comedy. Many of the Mayer family’s (not so subtly named after the real-life Myers family) scenes are appropriately upsetting. You’ll likely get angry at the racism on display, but it just seems so out-of-place in this film. These scenes belong in a different movie of an entirely different genre. A mixture of racially charged drama and murder-filled satirical comedy just wasn’t meant to be.

One positive highlight of the less-than-positive mess that is SUBURBICON comes in high production values that showcase a stylized view of the 1950s. Even if the more macabre moments rub you the wrong way (to me, they were the most redeemable bits of the film), you can’t deny that SUBURBICON looks good. It also makes this film’s poor performance at the box office stick out even more. If SUBURBICON were executed correctly, this might have wound up as one of the best films of last year and a potential Oscar contender. Instead, this is a mish-mash of uneven tones that don’t go together and will leave a lot of people disappointed. Good acting (the performers weren’t the problem in this film) and a handful of memorable moments aside, SUBURBICON is a huge misfire for Clooney and the Coen brothers (who clearly allowed their script to fall into the wrong hands).

Grade: C-

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences of Strong Violence, Drug Content, Language throughout and some Sexual Material

Directed by: Matthew Vaughn

Written by: Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn

(based on the KINGSMAN comics by Mark Millar & Dave Gibbons)

Starring: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Halle Berry, Elton John, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Pedro Pascal, Edward Holcroft, Hanna Alstrom, Poppy Delevingne, Bruce Greenwood & Emily Watson

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE was one of the biggest cinematic surprises of 2014 and became a huge hit for its over-the-top R-rated action, goofy comedy, colorful characters, and self-aware spy plot. It was essentially the KICK-ASS of spy films. Last year, we finally got a follow-up to KINGSMAN and saw the next chapter in the super-spy adventures of Eggsy and his secret agent cohorts. Like almost every sequel in existence, KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE is a step beneath the original film’s quality. However, there is still a lot to love about this ultra-violent, bombastic sequel.

A year after the events of the first KINGSMAN, hoodlum-turned-Kingsman-agent Eggsy (Taron Egerton) has been pulling off successful spy missions and wooing his Swedish princess girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alstrom). Eggsy’s world gets a severe shake-up when robot-armed Kingsman reject Charlie (Edward Holcroft) leaks information that destroys the Kingsman headquarters. With their former secret service in shambles, survivors Eggsy and tech-wizard Merlin (Mark Strong) make their way to the USA’s Statesman organization. Their main objective is to take down the head honcho responsible for all of the death and destruction: Poppy (Julianne Moore) who just happens to run the world’s largest drug cartel and is currently holding millions of lives in her hands. As you might imagine, zany spy shenanigans and gory ultra-violence ensues.

For a sequel that took three years to hit theaters, THE GOLDEN CIRCLE actually does a damn fine job of continuing its cinematic world. The tone, characters, and wild action sequences all jive completely well with the first film. I watched GOLDEN CIRCLE right after a rewatch of SECRET SERVICE and (though it falters in other areas) this sequel is completely connected to the first film in cool ways. Taron Edgerton plays the year-older version of Eggsy as more confident, but still a young man who has self-doubts and problems to overcome (besides saving the world again). Mark Strong receives considerably more screen time as Merlin this time around. Seeing as all of the marketing has already spoiled it, Colin Firth also returns as the presumed-dead Galahad and is just as fun to watch in his second go-round.

Besides having lots of returning faces (including a stand-out Edward Holcroft as a metal-armed henchman), GOLDEN CIRCLE throws a lot of new characters into the KINGSMAN mix…with uneven results. The best new additions comes in Jeff Bridges as the Statesman leader and Halle Berry as the Statesman’s tech-master. Channing Tatum seemed like he would have a big role to play in the proceedings, but sadly gets sidelined for most of the film’s long running time. Julianne Moore steals the spotlight in her scenes as the overly cheerful (yet extremely sadistic) drug cartel lord. However, Moore’s villainess needed more screen time to shine because she doesn’t receive nearly the amount of fun interactions that Samuel L. Jackson’s speech-impedimented villain had in SECRET SERVICE. Pedro Pascal is a ton of fun as lasso-wielding Agent Whiskey though.

GOLDEN CIRCLE truly begins to show its sequel wear-and-tear when it comes to the film’s frantic juggling of subplots. There are a lot of things crammed into the 141-minute running time and it feels like it’s just too much at points. We see Colin Firth’s subplot and Merlin receives his own story arc. Eggsy is facing pressures with his princess girlfriend, facing ethical dilemmas on the field, and engaging in cat-and-mouse games against Charlie. There’s also something involving President of the United States (played wonderfully by Bruce Greenwood). Of course, the Kingsman have been destroyed and there are repercussions from that. Also, there’s a plot for world domination from Julianne Moore’s drug cartel lord and an out-of-nowhere kidnapping plotline. Did that sound like a lot of stuff? It is…arguably too much and more interesting moments suffer as a result from the script’s overcrowding.

On a positive note, KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE remains entertaining the whole way through. It’s just a very messy film…and I’m not solely referring to the film’s gratuitous violence (which remains ridiculously awesome) when I say that. GOLDEN CIRCLE’s many storylines occasionally stifle each other, even if they are each cool in their own ways. There are nifty twists that heighten tension and provide excuses for awesome action scenes (never a bad thing in this series). The laughs are just as plentiful as ever too, because KINGSMAN still doesn’t take itself seriously in any way, shape, or form. If you liked or loved the first KINGSMAN, you’ll probably enjoy this one a lot too. Just don’t expect this sequel to live up to the heights of the original and you’re bound to have fun!

Grade: B+

My Bottom 10 Films of 2015

List by Derrick Carter

During the past two years that I’ve run this website, I have created a “Best of” list at the end of each December. I neglected to make a “Worst of” list because of my misguided belief that I shouldn’t further shame the films that I’ve already ridiculed with negative reviews. In 2015, things have changed and I’ve decided (at least for this year) to make a Bottom Films list to go along with my Top Films list. 2015 was a great year for films overall, but also had more than its fair share of flops. The following movies made me want to pull my hair out in frustration and weep quietly in the theater for having wasted money. Before I post my Top Films of 2015, I decided it would only be appropriate to get my picks for Bottom Films of 2015 out of the way first.

There were ten movies this year that wasted precious hours of my life that I’ll never be able to get back. Before getting into those, I’ll begin with a few dishonorable mentions. 2015 brought me two very shitty found footage horror flicks in AREA 51 and THE GALLOWS. Though it was marginally better than its predecessor, INSURGENT was still a hot mess of every recent young adult novel combined. THE TRANSPORTER: REFUELED came off like just another bland, generic action flick, making the Statham predecessors look like DIE HARD in comparison. HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2 was a piss-poor follow-up to one of my favorite comedies of this past decade. Finally, PAN was a letdown on pretty much every level. I mean, Blackbeard sings Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Captain Hook fights a kung-fu warrior. Enough said. None of those aforementioned films are on my bottom ten though. So, without further ado, let’s move onto my picks for ten worst films of 2015:

10. Blackhat

10. BLACKHAT: Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Once upon a time, Michael Mann made masterful films like MANHUNTER (the first adaptation of RED DRAGON), HEAT (the awesome pairing of De Niro and Pacino), and COLLATERAL (one of my all-time favorite thrillers). Mann’s latest thriller, about an international hunt for a dangerous hacker, seemed like it could be a relevant and exciting fun time at the movies. However, I was fighting to stay awake when I sat through this endurance test in an auditorium populated by a total of six other attendees. BLACKHAT is boring and when it’s not boring, it’s stupid beyond belief. One of the dumbest scenes of the year occurs in the final third of this film in which Hemsworth duct tapes magazines around his chest to create a make-shift bullet-proof vest. I think that scene speaks volumes for the film by itself.

9. Hellions

9. HELLIONS: I managed to catch three movies at this year’s Sundance film festival. Two of those were quality horror films and nestled in-between them was this abomination. The initial set-up sounds like a feature-length version of the final segment from TRICK ‘R TREAT. A girl is terrorized by demonic trick-or-treaters on Halloween night. I was hoping for something weird and spooky, seeing as the director behind this film created the unconventional zombie flick PONTYPOOL. HELLIONS is definitely weird, but not in a good way. A misguided attempt to shoot in infrared makes everything appear pink. The acting is wooden. The story goes nowhere and becomes incomprehensible after the first 20 minutes. At the very least, the film is so bad that it’s funny, but not enough to recommend this low-budget disappointment.

8. Lazarus Effect

8. THE LAZARUS EFFECT: For some reason, half of the movies on this list are horror films. That wasn’t intentional, especially since it’s been a pretty good year for the genre. However, THE LAZARUS EFFECT is about as generic and confused as a genre film can get. The premise is cool and sounds like a modern-day take on FLATLINERS. However, the screenplay just cannot decide which direction it wants to take with the material. Is this movie about hell and demons? Is it supposed to be a Frankenstein-like science gone wrong tale? Is the main villainess supposed to be the horror equivalent of Lucy from LUCY? Apparently, it’s all of these things…plus a string of cheap jump scares and a group of insufferably annoying characters.

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7. THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2: ANGEL OF DEATH: The first of four sequels on this list, WOMAN IN BLACK 2 was the first official wide release of 2015…and what a crappy release it was. I actually dug 2012’s WOMAN IN BLACK  as a spooky little ghost movie and hoped that this sequel would be more of the same. The ghost who kills children is practically handed a plate of potential victims and then does nothing remotely interesting with them. The visuals give a look of an atmospheric ghost story, but cheap jump scares and a bland script make this the epitome of everything wrong with modern big-budget horror movies.

6. Joe Dirt 2

6. JOE DIRT 2: BEAUTIFUL LOSER: Confession time. I like the first JOE DIRT. I really do. It’s a stupid, crude and moronic flick, but I enjoy it as a fun guilty pleasure. For whatever reason, I was sort of looking forward to this straight-to-Crackle sequel. Aside from three decent chuckles, the film is a long laughless slog of a sequel. It seems content to merely reference the original film, instead of tell its own white-trash story. The film moves from bad set-piece to bad set-piece for nearly two hours(!) before ending in the biggest cop-out conclusion imaginable. Not even an endless supply of buffalo wings and beer could make this film enjoyable.

5. Contracted 2

5. CONTRACTED: PHASE 2: A follow-up to 2013’s better-than-expected body-horror flick, this sequel was clearly made as a cheap cash-in for the small audience that enjoyed the original. CONTRACTED 2 is shoddily written and badly directed by people who clearly had no interest in the original film and it shows. Despite running at only 78 minutes, the experience feels agonizingly long. The first CONTRACTED was an interesting body-horror take on an overpopulated subgenre, while this sequel is just another terrible low-budget zombie flick. CONTRACTED 2 also has the balls to put in two end credits scenes that are clearly setting up for PHASE 3. Count me out!

4. Seventh Son

4. SEVENTH SON: Studio delays and February release date aside, I was hoping that SEVENTH SON would be entertaining. I wasn’t expecting high art, but I was expecting something watchable. My hopes and middling expectations were bashed to pieces by a lame fantasy that was dull as dirt. This flick stands alongside CIRQUE DU FREAK, ERAGON, and THE SEEKER as one of the worst young-adult adaptations to ever hit the big screen. Jeff Bridges is damn near incomprehensible as the drunk monster-killer, while Oscar winner Julianne Moore should be embarrassed for playing the cheapo looking evil witch. The effects try to be ambitious and cool, but come off as boring and unconvincing. This movie proves that a guy killing monsters can somehow be made boring. Yet another potentially cool young-adult film series bites the dust.

3. Mortdecai

3. MORTDECAI: Johnny Depp has a moustache and goofy teeth. Isn’t that funny?!? No? Well, that’s too bad, because the makers of this film seem to think it’s a riot. Based on a series of British comedic novels, MORTDECAI very well might be the worst film that Johnny Depp has ever starred in…which is quite a feat in and of itself. This bland caper comedy unsuccessfully tries to mimic a PINK PANTHER sense of humor, but doesn’t get any of it right. The laughs are dusty. The performers look like they want their scenes to be over as fast as humanly possible. If the movie had been about Paul Bettany’s bodyguard character, it would have been far funnier and more original. 2015 was a year that featured one of Johnny Depp’s best performances (BLACK MASS) as well this being his worst.

2. Human Centipede 3

2. THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 3: FINAL SEQUENCE: I didn’t walk into HUMAN CENTIPEDE 3 with high expectations. I liked FIRST SEQUENCE and disliked FULL SEQUENCE. The FINAL SEQUENCE of the ass-to-mouth trilogy was set in a prison, starred the main villains from the first two films, and aimed for a comedic meta-approach to the material. It would be nice if we actually got a human centipede before the final 20 minutes of the running time. Up until that point, the viewer is subjected to a various list of on-screen atrocities which include a jar of clitorises being devoured, someone raping a kidney, a graphic castration and the list goes on. I can appreciate shocksploitation (I really enjoyed Eli Roth’s GREEN INFERNO), but HUMAN CENTIPEDE 3 executes all of its gory gusto with the production values and “talent” of a basement porno. What could possibly be worse than this film?…

1. Fantastic Four

1. FANTASTIC FOUR: FANTASTIC FOUR is the worst superhero movie that I’ve ever seen. This dark, gritty reboot of the goofy comic series makes the 2005 and 2007 films look like classics in comparison. To be honest, this movie doesn’t feel like a movie at all, but rather a 125 million dollar excuse for Fox to keep the franchise rights away from Marvel Studios…which is appropriate because that’s why this movie was made in the first place. I enjoyed the director’s previous effort (CHRONICLE) and like a number of the performers here (Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Toby Kebbell), but there’s no excuse for the unbelievably terrible quality of this film. FANTASTIC FOUR is a complete and total failure. I’d rather sit through BATMAN & ROBIN, ELEKTRA, and CATWOMAN in a marathon from hell than ever endure a repeat viewing of this movie ever again.

Here’s hoping for less bad movies in 2016…

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 2 (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes

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

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Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Written by: Danny Strong & Peter Craig

(based on the novel MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Natalie Dormer, Willow Shields, Jeffrey Wright & Stanley Tucci

This year marks the conclusion of THE HUNGER GAMES. Fitting snugly into the young adult fiction void left by HARRY POTTER and TWILIGHT, Suzzanne Collins’ teeny-bopperized version of BATTLE ROYALE made huge waves on the big screen. While I didn’t care for the first film at all, I found CATCHING FIRE to be surprisingly well-executed. Like seemingly all modern book adaptations, the final novel of the series was split into two separate films. As a result, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 felt like a feature-length first act. Picking up from the exact final seconds of Part 1, MOCKINGJAY Part 2 returns to the level of quality that CATCHING FIRE brought to the franchise. This is a very dark, intense, and satisfying final chapter to the HUNGER GAMES saga.

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Katniss’s propaganda campaign worked wonders for the rebels of Panem and the nation is in the midst of a full-blown revolutionary war. While the united Districts may have a massive army of soldiers, the sinister President Snow still has a few dirty tricks up his sleeve. He’s employed brainwashing techniques to turn Peeta against Katniss and has rigged the Capitol with hundreds of deadly booby traps. As this war progresses towards its darkest final hours, Katniss (aided by a handful of former Hunger Game survivors and freedom fighters) sets out across the deadly city landscape to assassinate President Snow. However, she discovers that there are few people that she can trust in this war.

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MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is dark, really dark. This fourth and final HUNGER GAMES installment is more horrific and intense than any of the previous chapters. Though it still contains a slight level of silliness, I found myself sucked into this story more than I was during the entirety of Part 1. Instead of merely using the repeated formula of a group of individuals trying to kill each other in a booby-trapped stadium, MOCKINGJAY Part 2 instead makes the viewer realize how big and bad the war raging in the Capitol is. As a result, the script is far more mature than I expected it to be. There’s a very strong anti-war message that’s undeniable as lives are lost on both sides and certain individuals twist the chaotic violence for their own personal gain.

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As far as the cast goes, Jennifer Lawrence has never been better as Katniss. The character has a quiet intensity for most of the film that feels convincing (especially given everything that’s happened to her throughout the past three movies). Lawrence’s strongest scene comes from her character having a pure emotional meltdown during a moment in the final third that was completely believable. I imagine that particular scene is bound to get a few fans crying in the theater. Though MOCKINGJAY Part 2 still has an annoying love-triangle aspect (which did remind me of the horrible TWILIGHT movies), I felt that both Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth brought their A-game as Peeta and Gale. They are more than just eye candy for teenage girls and actually serve a purpose in the plot.

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Julianne Moore returns for a much bigger role than she had in Part 1 as President Coin. Next to her side is the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final on-screen performance. Though he only receives about 5 minutes of total screen time, Hoffman is just as talented as he ever was. Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson reprise their roles, but don’t necessarily have a ton to do in this final chapter. The colorful-haired Stanley Tucci also pops in for a one scene appearance, while Jena Malone (who plays one of my favorite characters in the whole series) is mostly regulated to the sidelines for about three good scenes. Natalie Dormer, who was an important player in Part 1, only receives about a handful of lines and mainly stands in the background as an extra gun. Donald Sutherland owns the role of President Snow as a menacing politician who’s always the smartest, and most dangerous, person in the room. Most of the supporting cast members aren’t necessarily given a ton to do, because this is Katniss’s story.

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MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is beautifully shot and has many stand-out sequences. Creative booby traps provide some of the more exciting moments (an oil pit being a definitely highlight). There’s a nice atmosphere of tension and hopelessness (despite us knowing full well how this story is probably going to play out). Though most of the CGI works well, there’s one scene in a sewer that looks as if it took a page out of RESIDENT EVIL or (more recently) THE SCORCH TRIALS with some silly-looking creatures. There’s also a minor plot hole that annoyed me for a few minutes when it popped up. The running time runs a tad too long thanks to this film having the same amount of endings as RETURN OF THE KING. There were about three shots where the movie could have ended perfectly and it kept going as if to show us every minor detail to the point of annoyance.

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Truthfully told, there’s no reason why MOCKINGJAY couldn’t have just been a three-hour long final movie. The decision to split the story in two films was purely financial and contributes to pacing problems. Part 1 feels like the first act of a movie and Part 2 feels like the last two acts of that same movie. With some complaints aside (silly monsters, an ending that overstays its welcome, and a few wasted performances), MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is on the same level as CATCHING FIRE for me. It was nice to watch a young-adult movie series that started off on a shaky note and became something far better than it probably should have been by its finale. THE HUNGER GAMES franchise has left a mark in cinema as a new blockbuster sci-fi saga that will be remembered for years to come. MOCKINGJAY Part 2 serves as a more than satisfying final note to go out on.

Grade: B

EVOLUTION (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Crude and Sexual Humor, and for Sci-Fi Action

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Directed by: Ivan Reitman

Written by: David Diamond, David Weissman & Don Jakoby

Starring: David Duchovny, Julianne Moore, Orlando Jones, Seann William Scott, Ted Levine, Ethan Suplee, Ty Burrell & Dan Aykroyd

EVOLUTION is a movie that can be summed up in three words: GHOSTBUSTERS with aliens. Don’t believe me? This movie is even directed by the same guy who brought both GHOSTBUSTER films to the screen. He’s treading familiar cinematic waters with a fresh cast and a different monster. I don’t distinctly remember the level of excitement that this film had upon release (I was 10 years old at the time), but I do remember it being a regular sleepover movie (at least, for me). So it had some sort of impact on kids and adults at the time, going as far as to receive a short-lived animated series as well.

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When a meteor crashes into Earth and winds up at the bottom of an 80-foot crater, it appears to be the discovery that Ira Kane and Harry Block, two college professors and friends, have been waiting for. They cut off a sample of the space rock and find that there’s extraterrestrial life contained in some goo from the meteor. What’s even more peculiar is that this goo seems to be evolving at a rapid rate with single-celled organisms becoming worms in the space of three days. Soon enough, the U.S. military arrives to steal Ira and Harry’s discovery. This annoyance becomes the least of their problems, because hostile alien creatures begin to invade nearby areas and attack civilians. It’s up to Harry, Ira, Wayne (an idiot fireman-in-training) and Allison (a clumsy scientist) to take down the alien menace before we go extinct…

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EVOLUTION has a number of famous faces in the cast, but these were the early days for a few of them. David Duchovny was coming fresh off of X-FILES and that seems to be the sole reason for his presence. As the main lead, he’s bland and delivers his lines in a wooden unenthused sort of way. Starring alongside him is MADTV regular Orlando Jones, who easily stands out as the best part of this movie. Jones nails nearly every one-liner he receives and has a hilarious highlight as scientists try to capture an alien bug inside of his colon (without the aid of lubricant). Jones never went on to have the career that he really deserved, but he’s easily the best part of this whole film. Ted Levine and a (far younger) Ty Burrell serve as inept military officers. They aren’t played for laughs, but do play off each other well as dickhead human antagonists. Seann William Scott (coming off AMERICAN PIE) is hit-or-miss as the would-be fireman. Dan Aykroyd is sadly underutilized as the city’s Mayor, while Julianne Moore is wasted on a one-joke character. The joke is that she’s clumsy and the movie gets all the mileage it can out of her tripping, dropping stuff, and running into things.

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The story itself is predictable. You won’t have a hard time at all guessing how everything will play out, but that’s doesn’t necessarily make the whole film bad as the encounters with the aliens themselves are fun. Some of the effects haven’t aged well over time, while others look impressive. One monster coming out of a lake is Syfy level quality of CGI these days, but looked pretty cool at the time this film was made. The alien designs are also creative with a green-skinned dog-like creature, winged dinosaurs, and blue-skinned apes being highlights. The movie too often relies on cheap, obvious humor, but even these moments can get still get a few laughs out of me.

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EVOLUTION is pretty much a shameless remake of GHOSTBUSTERS under a different name, complete with a climax involving characters wearing matching jump-suits to take down a giant otherworldly menace. The cast is a mixed bag with certain actors being highlights and others being wasted on bland characters. The aliens themselves are cool to look at and the scenes of our heroes fighting them are enjoyable. I won’t deny that my vision of this film might be slightly clouded by a nostalgic haze (I watched this a lot when I was a kid), but EVOLUTION stands as an entertaining guilty pleasure.

Grade: B-

MAPS TO THE STARS (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 51 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Disturbing Violence and Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Language and some Drug Material

MapsStars poster

Directed by: David Cronenberg

Written by: Bruce Wagner

Starring: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon & Evan Bird

David Cronenberg doesn’t make easy movies. That’s just a given. After humble beginnings with body horror (SHIVERS, THE BROOD, VIDEODROME), Cronenberg went through a cinematic transformation during the late 80’s. This filmmaker, who had mastered the art of making audiences uncomfortable, decided to focus on the more cerebral side of terror with the likes of DEAD RINGERS, CRASH, and SPIDER. When the new millennium hit, Cronenberg decided to further evolve with two crime dramas (A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, EASTERN PROMISES). Though I can’t attest to loving every one of his films (I find SCANNERS to be vastly overrated), I dig most of Cronenberg’s work to some degree. Since his last film (COSMOPOLIS) was absolutely abysmal, I worried that his filmography might be going off the rails with MAPS TO THE STARS. My fears have been put to rest….kind of. This film is very hit-or-miss with slightly more hits than misses.

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Agatha is a scarred woman visiting Los Angeles. In the city of dreams and celebrities, she hits it off with a limousine driver/budding actor and is hired as the personal assistant to actress Havana. Havana is a spoiled, washed-up brat who constantly does her best Joan Crawford impression by screaming at the top of her lungs and acting crazy. Her therapist is Dr. Stafford Weiss and happens to be father to spoiled child actor Benjie. Benjie is making waves as he loathes his younger co-star on the set of a new film, commits criminal acts, and pretty much acts like a slightly toned-down version of Justin Bieber. Did I mention that Havana and Benjie also see ghosts? Because that happens too. The plot is as coherent as the general set-up that I’ve just described. There’s not so much of a story here as there is a group of insane people in Hollywood.

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The acting is bland as cast members put no discernible emotion into their dialogue. A few of these characters are pretty interesting in spite of the lifeless performances. It should be said up front that not a single person is likable, but I was intrigued to see what would happen to each and every one of these characters. Julianne Moore screams and goes really over-the-top, but that works for the spoiled brat she’s playing. John Cusack and Olivia Williams are woefully underdeveloped as Benjie’s parents, but the character of Benjie is fascinating. Mia Wasikowska is wooden, as is Robert Pattinson (who isn’t given a lot of screen time). These cast members certainly aren’t helped by messy dialogue that gets downright silly in spots.

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If nothing else, MAPS TO THE STARS tackles interesting points about the darker side of Hollywood. While not-so-subtle ghosts of the past are used in a tacky way (literal ghosts), the culture of spoiled child actors is tackled with gusto. I sort of wish that Cronenberg had dedicated a whole feature to that section of this movie as it’s more than timely and relevant given the asinine stunts that Bieber, Cyrus, and Lohan have pulled in the past decade. Cronenberg seems to be taking on too much in the space of a single movie though, which is aided by a handful of pointless moments. There was really no reason to have Robert Pattinson in this movie aside from one scene near the end. An entire subplot of Julianne Moore’s character trying to get a role doesn’t have much to do with the grand scheme of the film either.

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MAPS TO THE STARS moves at a very deliberate pace. There are good scenes, most of which feature the Bieber doppelgänger. However, I couldn’t help but feel that parts of this film were half-assed. This is mainly seen in a shrug-worthy finale that showcases truly terrible CGI (I’ve seen better effects on the Syfy Channel) and a closing scene that seems included only for the sake of shock value. The biggest issue with the slow pacing is that it feels like MAPS is building up to a big pay-off and that never happens. It’s the equivalent of hearing a long joke that sounds really funny and is concluded with a lame humor-killing punchline.

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While I’ve probably made MAPS TO THE STARS sounds like a boring movie in most respects, there’s something interesting about the whole film that kept me hooked into it. I never once rolled my eyes at the bad acting or slow pace, but I found myself oddly compelled through just how strange this movie was. There are a lot of flaws, but MAPS certainly isn’t all out terrible or even bad. There are a lot of topics to be dissected within this film, but they aren’t necessarily executed as well as they should have been. This is not Cronenberg’s worst (that dishonor still firmly belongs to COSMOPOLIS), but it remains far from his best. MAPS TO THE STARS is an okay oddity that really didn’t disturb me, shock me or make me laugh (parts are clearly satirical), but remains gripping in its own weirdly indescribable way.

Grade: C+

THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sci-Fi Terror and Violence

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: David Koepp

(based on the novel THE LOST WORLD by Michael Crichton)

Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, Vince Vaughn, Pete Postlethwaite, Arliss Howard & Peter Stormare

Following the massive success of JURASSIC PARK, there were immediate talks of sequels. So Michael Crichton wrote a sequel novel (a first in his career) and faster than you could say cash-in, there was a script ready (by David Koepp, co-writer of the first film) and Spielberg was helming the entire project. In 1997, after four years of anticipation, audiences were treated to a middle-of-the-road sequel. What exactly makes this second installment so mediocre? Perhaps, it’s that there are many repetitive scenes that were done far better in the first film. One might argue that it could be the silly excuse for a story and hollow characters. Maybe, just maybe, it was the need to be overly excessive and unnecessarily dark in tone. At the end of the day, a combination of iffy factors make for an iffy movie and that’s definitely the case with THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK.

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Years have passed since the disaster of John Hammond’s prehistoric theme park. Chaos theorist Ian Malcolm is still recovering from the traumatic experience of being chased by man-eating dinosaurs. Imagine his surprise when he’s unwillingly recruited by the now disgraced Hammond to investigate a second island filled with dinosaurs. This mysterious second island was meant to be a natural preserve for the dino-clones. Ian and a ragtag group of researchers find their already dangerous expedition to the second island becoming even more dangerous thanks to a group of hunters led by Hammond’s evil nephew, Peter. Soon tensions between the groups rise and their expedition becomes a struggle to survive from more vicious dinosaurs.

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A comparison between LOST WORLD and JURASSIC PARK is inevitable, seeing as the second novel wouldn’t even exist without the success of the first movie. This sequel feels like a cash-in. The story is a piss-poor flimsy excuse for more people to get eaten by dinosaurs. Hollow characters don’t help either. Jeff Goldblum was an annoying asshole in the first movie, but that’s who his character was. Here, he feels like he’s forcing comic relief lines and seems distracted by the big paycheck on his mind. Julianne Moore and Vince Vaughn are equally as wooden. There’s also the godawful inclusion of an annoying kid character. While the first film had children in peril, those young actors were convincing in their roles and smartly written. The annoying addition of Ian’s smart-aleck, easily frightened child adds nothing but frustration to this film. A scene where she eliminates a Velicoraptor through gymnastics is beyond stupid.

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As the movie moves from set-piece to set-piece, there are a few neat moments to be had. The tone is far darker than in the original, which lends to more grisly deaths. My favorite of which being Peter Stormare’s ill-fated scumbag coming face to face with a pack of pissed off Compys (small carnivorous scavengers). These little beasties are arguably the best part of the entire film, but only pop up for a handful of scenes. The special effects bringing the dinosaurs to life somehow look less impressive than the first film, but do the job just fine. There’s still some entertainment value to be found in dinosaurs eating people, but the overlong running time (slightly longer than the first movie) drags to a crawl in the final third.

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Spielberg regarded the T-Rex as the show-stealer of the original, so it seems like he was having a blast in this sequel. More time is devoted to the T-Rex than any other dinosaur. Velociraptors are noticeably absent aside from a brief 10 minute patch of film. While the Compys are a cool new dinosaur, other fresh-faced prehistoric reptiles (including a Stegosaurus) pretty much exist for a brief minute or two and then vanish entirely. The main problem with THE LOST WORLD comes in it feeling so derivative and repetitive with an unnecessary amount of excess. In the original, a scumbag with disregard for the monster in from of him was killed by a scary-as-hell Dilophosaurus. In this sequel, that moment happens twice with Compys and a baby T-Rex. In the first, there was an exciting car chase between three people and a T-Rex. In the sequel, there’s a similar chase on foot where the amount of people running is upped purely for a higher body count. The list of scenes goes on and on. It’s almost as if Spielberg, Koepp, and Crichton tried to clone the original film with more violent sensibilities. The end result is a lackluster, overly familiar disappointment.

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More dinosaurs, bloodier deaths, and a T-Rex running through the streets of San Diego does not a good sequel make. There is some dumb fun to be found in THE LOST WORLD purely for seeing deserving dumbasses meet their doom at the jaws of dinosaurs, but a boring story and wooden protagonists make this a drag for the most part. When you’re simply counting the seconds until the movie to ends during a would-be exciting climax, there’s a serious problem with your so-called adventure. THE LOST WORLD is a middle-of-the-road monster movie when taken on its own. That doesn’t stop this sequel from being a massive disappointment when viewed after its incredible predecessor.

Grade: C

SEVENTH SON (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Fantasy Violence and Action throughout, Frightening Images and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Sergei Bodrov

Written by: Charles Leavitt & Steven Knight

(based on the novel THE SPOOK’S APPRENTICE by Joseph Delaney)

Starring: Ben Barnes, Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Olivia Williams, Antje Traue & Djimon Hounsou

SEVENTH SON is yet another film in a long line of would-be franchise starters adapted from various young adult novels. What separates this YA adaptation from those of recent years is that the source material is actually an eerie medieval fantasy that favors mood, good character development, and disturbing villains over bombastic ADD-pacing and cheap cartoony battles. This cinematic adaptation of SEVENTH SON ignores every possible opportunity for a serious and well-written fantasy flick, while opting for D-level script that feels as if a whole book series was thrown into the space of single film (ala CIRQUE DU FREAK). It should really come as no surprise that SEVENTH SON is such a bad flick as the studio kept this abomination shelved for two years, but I was hoping for a bit of big dumb fun. Unfortunately, this forced fantasy epic is too dull to be fun.

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Tom Ward is of a rare group of men. He’s the seventh son of a seventh son and therefore gifted with the ability to fight the supernatural. Raised as a pig farmer, Tom finds his life upended when Master Gregory, the last remaining Spook (keeper of the supernatural), comes calling for his services as an apprentice. A blood moon is fast approaching and the evil Mother Malkin, a powerful witch, is planning to unleash hell on earth. Tom must learn to battle the supernatural, while distinguishing friend from foe. It’s up to this oddly coupled master and apprentice to stop an evil witch and her band of minions.

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As soon as SEVENTH SON begins, it seems in a rush to get itself over with. There is little in the way of introduction to each of the characters. We spend a grand total of less than 5 minutes getting to know Tom before his world changes. That’s not exactly a huge complaint as there’s nothing original to be offered here. The screenplay reminded me of other terrible studio bombs that seem similar formulaic set-ups, namely R.I.P.D. and JONAH HEX. An underdeveloped hero, aided by an unlikely sidekick, must take down some crazy person’s plan for world domination. In this case, the characters of Tom, Gregory, and Malkin fill in those blanks. To make things even worse, there’s nothing in the way of spectacle to be offered either. These effects look like they belong on the Syfy Channel and not in multiplexes nationwide.

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Seeing as there’s little effort put into turning any of these characters into someone worth caring about, there’s not much of an emotional reaction when something bad happens to them. One scene is absolutely laughable in execution as the person who we’re supposed to feel sorry for has received less than 3 minutes of total screen time and about 6 lines of dialogue. Ben Barnes is hollow as blank-slate hero Tom, but Jeff Bridges is downright embarrassing as Master Gregory. Bridges has been typecast as a drunken mentor with a silly voice in recent years (R.I.P.D., THE GIVER) and seems to be half-heartedly phoning it in. Julianne Moore is laughably over-the-top in as the scenery chewing Mother Malkin.

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The biggest issue with SEVENTH SON is the muddled, dreary script. There seems to be far too much material squeezed into 102 minutes with little in the way of developing certain plot points that definitely needed more time spent on them. A great example in showing just how crammed SEVENTH SON is comes in the villains. There are multiple big threats including a shape shifter, a ruthless assassin, a four-armed swordsman, Mother Malkin, and another underdeveloped witch named Bony Lizzie. While two (or even three) of these villains might have been cool, the screenplay packs all of them (including some faceless assassins) into the film for a climactic fight that becomes repetitive. The end result is a chaotically edited mess in which I didn’t care about who was killing who. There’s also a half-assed attempt at a romance between Ben Barnes and a young witch, but that story arc is just as clichéd and wooden as everything else in this film.

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There should have been something decent to say about SEVENTH SON. I initially imagined that watching a guy kill monsters could be entertaining, even if the movie was poorly made. However, SEVENTH SON doesn’t have a single redeeming quality that I can identify. It’s a hollow mess of a movie that was delayed for over a year with good reason. That time period only allowed even more promotional material to hit and this disaster to feel even more painful for audiences. At the very least, SEVENTH SON should have been slightly fun, but there’s not a single drop of fun to be had here.

Grade: F

CARRIE (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Bloody Violence, Disturbing Images, Language and some Sexual Content

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Directed by: Kimberly Peirce

Written by: Lawrence D. Cohen & Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

(based on the novel CARRIE by Stephen King)

Starring: Chloe Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Gabriella Wilde, Ansel Elgort, Alex Russell, Porita Doubleday & Judy Greer

A remake of CARRIE isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Especially, because bullying and school violence are both tragically more relevant in this day and age. While Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s first novel is regarded as one of the better King films out there, it did play fast and loose with the source material. The most likely reason for that was because of effects limitations. With acclaimed director Kimberly Peirce at the helm and a budget of 30 million, you might hope that this 2013 version of CARRIE be a scarier and more faithful version of King’s terrifying book. Your hope, as mine was, would be vain. 2013’s CARRIE isn’t a travesty like 2002’s TV remake (which was meant as the origin tale for a series), but it’s still pretty bad. This is almost a shot-for-shot, line-for-line remake of De Palma’s film with a glossier look and worse effects.

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Carrie is a shy, sheltered, and introverted teenager. After a particularly bad day in gym class, Carrie has her first period in the locker room. Under the impression that she’s bleeding to death, Carrie is left emotionally scarred by the mocking of her classmates. Carrie’s religious zealot mother, Magaret, doesn’t necessarily aid Carrie’s self-esteem by locking her in a closet and telling her to pray “the curse of blood” away. Don’t feel too bad for Carrie though, as she’s discovered she possesses telekinetic powers and is further developing them. Meanwhile, the gym teacher and one classmate feel horrible for the traumatic experience Carrie went through and try to boost her confidence. However, other classmates are less sympathetic and plan on upping the bullying. Pushing around a fragile telekinetic teenage girl isn’t exactly the wisest move and there will be a reckoning.

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One of the first mistakes that this new version of CARRIE makes right off the bat is in the casting. While I don’t have a problem with most of the performers (although they’re mainly just young, pretty people who might belong in a fashion magazine), Chloe Grace Moretz is completely wrong for the part of Carrie. I could possibly buy Moretz in the role of a key bully, but she’s totally miscast as fragile, tender Carrie White. It’s also almost as if Moretz has to go out of her way to look like a shy introvert and seems very over-the-top. She keeps her mouth agape (Kristen Stewart style) in early scenes and walks like she’s a hunchback through most of the film. I don’t have a problem with Moretz slouching to give off the impression of a bullied introvert, but when she’s adding a limp into the mix, it just seems silly. The only person who puts in a halfway decent performance is Julianne Moore who’s well cast as Carrie’s mentally unstable mother.

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Despite the half-assed excuse being thrown around of “2013’s CARRIE isn’t a remake because it’s another adaptation of King’s novel,” the movie plays out pretty much exactly as De Palma’s version did. There’s the addition of digital video in a couple of scenes with that cleverly coming into play as a plot device in one of the few good, original moments. The effects have been upgraded to bad CGI. Somehow, this remake also winds up less gory and violent than the ’76 film. If you have an R-rated CARRIE in 2013, you better damn well use that R rating when the violence comes into play. Instead, this could have been PG-13 if there were a couple less F-bombs. Throw in the nauseating use of a modern pop soundtrack to attract gullible teenagers who think a loud noise is the scariest thing in the world and you’ve got yourself a guaranteed hit. It’s also worth noting that so much of the original film’s dialogue has been kept in the script that the ’76 screenwriter received a writing credit on this 2013 version, which is completely inexcusable any way you slice it.

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2013’s CARRIE is the absolute epitome of why people hate most current remakes. Kimberly Peirce has directed amazing work in the past (BOYS DON’T CRY), but seems to be a gun for hire here. Save for a couple of fleeting moments and the casting of Julianne Moore, this remake misses the mark all around. The prime example of this would be in a comparing and contrasting of the final scenes from both films. De Palma’s version built up an atmospheric suspense around the final scene and gave everyone one last nightmare-inducing jolt that led into the haunting theme playing over the credits. This 2013 take opts for a fake piece of CGI on a setting that’s not remotely creepy and ends on a rock tune. That alone should say it all right there. If you’ve seen the original film, then just avoid this remake. If you’re interested in watching this remake and haven’t seen the 1976 version, do yourself a favor and go watch the De Palma’s film instead.

Grade: D

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