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

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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

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 1 (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, some Disturbing Images and 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, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Donald Sutherland, Natalie Dormer, Sam Claflin, Robert Knepper, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci & Jeffrey Wright

HUNGER GAMES has been filling the void of good young adult book adaptations left behind by the (mostly) phenomenal HARRY POTTER saga. It’s staggering how popular this series is and I’ve been excited for MOCKINGJAY Part 1 to a certain degree. I actually didn’t care for 2012’s THE HUNGER GAMES (it was a silly teeny-bopper version of BATTLE ROYALE) and found last year’s CATCHING FIRE to be a remarkable step up in quality on pretty much every level. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 falls somewhere in between those two films. It’s not great entertainment, but never sinks to the silliness of the first film. The biggest problem that knocks this film down in quality is obvious in the title, but more on that in a moment.

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When we last left two-time Hunger Games survivor Katniss Everdeen, she had been used as part of a rebel plot against the Capitol and was being taken to the supposedly destroyed District 13. That’s where we pick up in this movie. Katniss witnesses the cruelty that the evil President Snow has brought onto her District and others (including executing those associating with the Mockingjay symbol and oppressing everyone even further). She becomes the face of a rising revolution and the tables begin to turn on the Capitol, but this is violent revolution and lives will be lost on both sides. That’s the general plot of this film and it leaves us with a huge “see you next November” final scene (more so than CATCHING FIRE did).

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Production values on MOCKINGJAY are fantastic. Seeing this world come to life was actually my favorite part of this third entry. With the plots of the previous two films revolving around battles-to-the-death in complex arenas that provided many dangers (besides the group of teenage killers running around), it didn’t seem like enough time was spent on developing this futuristic society enough for the viewer to care about the overall struggles of the huge class system. Jennifer Lawrence slips right back into Katniss mode with little effort and has made the character her own at this point. The same can be said for every returning cast member. The new additions (mainly Julianne Moore and Natalie Dormer) are good in what they’re given to do (which doesn’t amount to much other than a few conversations). The overall plot is compelling, but there’s a problem that sticks out like a sore thumb…

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The main issue that many (including myself) will likely have with MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is that “Part 1” at the end of the title. Greed might have ruined what could have been a stand-out conclusion to an entertaining trilogy. The whole movie (as compelling as it is) feels like a first act stretched to feature-length. If you’re still waiting for things to get fully going by the time the end credits roll, then I feel you because that was my exact reaction. The main character of Katniss is given remarkably very little to do in this film other than utter some lines and encourage others to fight back against a corrupt government. Nearly every piece of action you’ve seen in the marketing is taken from one scene that happens early on. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is far more focused on this revolution beginning than actually showing the revolution taking place. It’s all set-up and filler. While I enjoyed details about it, there will be viewers who wholly dislike this film for that reason and it’s a valid point.

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Despite feeling like a stretched first act to a really solid movie, the film does have a handful of intense scenes. The political subtext isn’t as subtle as many might prefer it to be, but the messages in MOCKINGJAY Part 1 are far more mature than most of the young adult adaptation counter-parts this year. Most of the character bonding moments are filler. We know who these people are and we don’t need to see them bond anymore as we want to see the action (which has been building for two movies) come to fruition. These were merely included to pad out the running time even further and they feel useless.

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In a world where studios are milking every closing chapter of young adult franchises for all that they’re worth, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 isn’t a bad set-up film for a good finale. However, it still remains a set-up film for the finale. One giant MOCKINGJAY movie would have done the job just fine and it seems like studio greed might be slightly spoiling this final book adaptation. As far as books being split into multiple movies go, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS and THE HOBBIT are both getting the concept right. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 feels like BREAKING DAWN Part 1 in the sense that this all could have been wrapped up in the opening hour of a 2-3 hour long final film. At any rate, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is disappointing, but still worth a watch. You just might want to skip it in theaters and watch it at home before going to see MOCKINGJAY Part 2 next year.

Grade: B-

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