THE THING (1982)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Directed by: John Carpenter

Written by: Bill Lancaster

(based on the novella WHO GOES THERE? by John W. Campbell Jr.)

Starring: Kurt Russell, A. Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, Joel Polis & Thomas Waites

Widely considered to be one of John Carpenter’s very best films and one of the best horror films of all-time, THE THING initially flopped at the 1982 box office as audiences clamored to watch a more family friendly extraterrestrial in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. Reviews weren’t exactly positive for THE THING in its original theatrical run as many critics wrote off this film as exploitative, cheesy, and overly gory as opposed to scary. Decades later, it’s baffling to look back on the mistreatment of THE THING and easy to see why this film has left a lasting legacy.

In a remote Antarctic research station, a group of rugged American scientists spot a Norwegian helicopter shooting at a dog. Being nice guys, the Americans welcome to the dog into their station with open arms and shoot the hostile Norwegian pilot. Something horrific happened at the neighboring Norwegian camp and a shape-shifting alien parasite has now infiltrated the American base. This evil extraterrestrial seems to ensure its survival by digesting animals and then imitating them with 100% accuracy. The Americans shouldn’t be worried about what this “thing” is. Instead, they become more concerned about who this “thing” has become.

Though its premise sounds like a simple creature feature on paper, THE THING is so much more than that. As the alien presence makes itself known, the film focuses on not just being a fantastic monster movie, but also weaving a paranoid mystery together. We know that at least two people have likely been infected by this mutating organism, but we don’t know their identities. The audience is aware that it’s only a matter of time before more people become infected as this monster seems hellbent on devouring/becoming anybody that comes near it. The film’s ever-growing suspense and extreme paranoia erupt from trying to figure out who is real and who is one of the “things.”

THE THING might seem like a vague movie title, but you’d be hard pressed to describe the monstrous forms that this “thing” takes on throughout this terrifying film. The tentacled, razor-toothed, and freakish shapes are brought to life through stellar practical effects that still hold up perfectly to this day. The frightening nature of these horrific “things” is amplified by tense build-ups to every reveal and the sense that one of these monsters might appear at any given moment. THE THING is riddled with classic scenes that have been lovingly referenced in plenty of other movies and TV shows. The blood test is easily one of the scariest moments, while rising paranoia between the researchers is just as dangerous as the monster itself.

The cast is made up of a few memorable faces and a lot of gruff beards. With so many grizzled guys in the same place, it might initially seem a little difficult to keep track of who is who. However, the film sets up certain characters early on and gives us a sense of who these people are. Kurt Russell is a big show-stealer as man’s man R.J. MacReady, while Keith David is intimidating as hot-tempered alpha-male Childs. The rest of the cast members stick out with individual characteristics, so we get an idea of when someone may have been changed into a “thing” and who seems totally normal. This character-building tactic puts the viewer in the same paranoid mental state as the film’s characters.

Though it runs at just under two hours long, John Carpenter makes each scene completely compelling, even during the slow-burn first third of the film in which we receive a few clues about the creature’s origin. Scientific explanations behind this monster don’t serve as mere exposition dumps either, because these informative moments amplify the viewer’s growing terror as we realize the magnitude of this hopeless situation. The film’s ambiguous ending leaves much to the viewer’s interpretation and concludes in an appropriately chilling fashion (pun fully intended).

THE THING is one of the greatest horror films of all-time! Its scares are very real. Its practical effects are nightmarish and hold up better than most modern effects. The monster designs look like something out of H.P. Lovecraft’s head, and Carpenter admitted that he was inspired by Lovecraft’s work. The acting is flawless, and thick suspense hovers over every single scene. THE THING is easily the best thing that John Carpenter ever directed. This movie isn’t just a masterpiece of horror, but it’s also a timeless classic that will keep scaring the hell out of people for decades to come.

Grade: A+

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action and Violence, Language, and brief Suggestive Content

Directed by: James Gunn

Written by: James Gunn

(based on the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY comics by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning)

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone & Kurt Russell

Nearly three years after GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY became a surprise hit and smashed box office records, we finally have a sequel. Since director/writer James Gunn helmed Marvel’s first awesome space opera, he returned for this sequel and is already in talks for a third film. Like most sequels, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 is a step down from its predecessor. That’s not to say that this film is one of the worst Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, because AGE OF ULTRON, IRON MAN 2, and THE INCREDIBLE HULK still remain below it. GUARDIANS VOL. 2 is a lot like THOR: THE DARK WORLD in that it’s fun, has great moments and positive qualities, but is not nearly as awesome as it should be.

After slaying a giant power-sucking parasite, the Guardians of the Galaxy (Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Baby Groot) botch a mission by rudely insulting a proud race of gold-skinned aliens. As a result, the Guardians find themselves with a bounty on their head and that attracts the attention of space-pirates. Things are further complicated when Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the gang run across mysterious stranger Ego (Kurt Russell), who claims to be Peter’s long-lost father. This leads to lots of wacky intergalactic action, humorous antics, secrets being revealed, and (as you might have assumed from the title) another rockin’ soundtrack.

As the titular Guardians (of the Galaxy), Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, and Dave Batista blend seamlessly back into their characters, while Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel provide voices. This second installment builds upon the already established chemistry of these characters and lets them do what they do best. Drax still gets major laughs, while Rocket is still the fan favorite rodent asshole. Meanwhile, Baby Groot is both hilarious and adorable at the same time. However, the developing relationship between Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord and Zoe Saldana’s Gamora feels a bit half-assed this time around. Michael Rooker’s space-pirate Yondu and Karen Gillan’s revenge-driven Nebula get more time to shine here and their solid subplots genuinely surprised me.

The film’s new additions, mainly Kurt Russell’s Ego and his insect-like companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff) are both interesting enough. Russell’s natural charisma aids his mysterious character and Klementieff’s Mantis is like a cute little kid in a bug alien’s body. I don’t want to say much about this film’s main antagonist, for fear of spoilers. I will say that I absolutely loved the idea behind this baddie and was willing to forgive a clichéd motivation because of that. It’s also worth noting that the gold-skinned Sovereign aliens and their High Priestess provide great comic relief. Also, a bored-looking Sylvester Stallone appears in a glorified cameo that was shamelessly included as set-up for future Marvel films (something that is a constant detriment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe).

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2’s main problems stem from tedious pacing and sloppy writing. There are arguably too many storylines at play here and, as a result, the movie noticeably feels unfocused. The first third of the film has pacing issues in that I was wondering where things were heading and wasn’t necessarily having fun. There’s a long-winded exposition sequence that’s only tolerable because of Kurt Russell’s charm and nothing else. The film noticeably picks up during its second act and has a very fun final third. Still, it takes a while to recover from the glacial movement and many pointless moments of the first act.

The unfocused approach and all-over-the-place pacing further dilute some would-be emotional scenes during the final act. Certain revelations and plot developments would have made more of a lasting impact, if it hadn’t been for the messy nature of this sequel’s storytelling. That being said, there are still plenty of laughs, action, and great scenes to be had. The opening credit sequence is simultaneously funny, creative and cool. Most of the humor works and the running jokes are sure to get audiences cracking up, especially a couple that are set up far in advance. The film’s set pieces are memorable, with major highlight being a scene from the original film upped to a crazy degree (you’ll know it, when you see it).

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 is a good Marvel movie that could have been a great Marvel movie, if the pacing weren’t slow in the beginning and (too many) storylines weren’t all over the place. I had fun while watching this movie and it had many positive qualities. Certain scenes are great. I like that the film attempted some surprisingly emotional moments, even if they weren’t nearly as powerful as they probably should have been. I also love the villain because the concept is so damn creative and cool. Yet, the more I think about this sequel, the less I like it. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 doesn’t come close to hitting the highs of its predecessor, but remains fun (enough) sci-fi entertainment nonetheless.

Grade: B

DEEPWATER HORIZON (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Prolonged Intense Disaster Sequences and related Disturbing Images, and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Peter Berg

Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan & Matthew Sand

(based on the article DEEPWATER HORIZON’S FINAL HOURS by David Barstow, David Rohde & Stephanie Saul)

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O’Brien, Kate Hudson & Ethan Suplee

Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg seem to have a knack for turning tragic true stories into emotional big screen experiences (see 2013’s LONE SURVIVOR and the upcoming PATRIOTS DAY). On April 20, 2010, massive oil rig Deepwater Horizon had a disastrous blowout, which claimed 11 lives and became the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Where there’s an incredible and terrifying real-life event, there will often be a movie adaptation following in the aftermath. Victim’s families and survivors were hesitant about this film, feeling that it might come with a political agenda or change too many details, but Berg’s based-on-a-true-story disaster flick has been lauded for mostly sticking to the facts.

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Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) works onboard the Deepwater Horizon. This massive floating oil rig houses 126 people and is under contract by BP Oil. Though rampant technology malfunctions and broken parts litter the ship, BP Oil sees no reason for putting money towards fixing safety hazards. Despite the warnings of Mike Williams and supervisor Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), BP Oil big man Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) insists that the Deepwater Horizon begin drilling for oil. What results is a deadly inferno filled with flying shrapnel, explosions, toxic gas, and hellish stream of flaming oil. Mike Williams, Jimmy Harrell, and the rest of the crew are forced to muster up unthinkable courage and attempt to escape from the fiery, sinking oil rig.

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DEEPWATER HORIZON’s first half is dedicated to building up to the eventual blow-out with mixed bag character development thrown in for good measure. There’s a sense of foreboding and warning signs that tease what is to come, as if you weren’t already expecting it from the actual news reports and the film’s plot. Putting this disaster in context (especially as far as BP Oil’s role in the proceedings) makes everything seem more harrowing and heartbreaking. The film makes sure to let the viewers, many of whom may have no idea about the intricacies of oil rigs (myself included), get a basic idea of how they function and the moving parts of the job. It also showcases how idiotic bureaucracy puts lives in danger by trying to be cheap.

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When the disaster sequences hit, this movie delivers some of the most impressive CGI in years. Shots of the burning oil rig, exploding machinery, and a seemingly endless fiery stream are all believable and terrifying. This is one of the scariest disaster films I’ve seen and it’s made more intense by the characters being essentially stuck on a death trap. A storytelling technique that might have been cheesy in other hands, but works phenomenally well, are shots of the camera entering pipelines to show us what’s occurring within the rig’s malfunctioning machinery. These bits generate suspense towards further chaos and help the viewer understand how/why all of this destruction is occurring. Though the disaster scenes are stellar and made even more realistic with stomach-churning injuries, some messy editing results in moments that seem confusing…though one could argue that crew members likely felt confused during the actual incident.

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With 126 people on board the Deepwater Horizon, the script was only able to select a handful to focus on. The performances of the main characters range in quality, though none of them are bad. Mark Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, whose life-saving actions are slightly exaggerated in this movie, as a charismatic action hero and not much else…though this character is based on a real person. Kurt Russell continues his recent string of great performances as likable rig supervisor Mr. Jimmy. Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O’Brien, and Ethan Suplee are solid as other rig workers. Meanwhile, John Malkovich is so convincing as a scummy BP Oil boss that he made me want to punch him in the face for the entire running time. He’s that great in the role! Finally, Kate Hudson delivers the film’s more heartbreaking moments as she tearfully watches his husband’s workplace burn from news cameras and prays for him to survive.

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Though DEEPWATER HORIZON doesn’t exactly have great character development and suffers from messy editing during a few scenes, this disaster flick is absolutely respectful towards the real-life tragedy victims and survivors. I got so wrapped up in the sheer intensity and action of the blow-out that I wasn’t emotionally prepared for the film’s powerful epilogue that had me on the brink of tears. Small details (like a father freaking out when he can’t find his son or a tearful breakdown) showcase a sad aftermath to a story that’s already upsetting beyond belief. DEEPWATER HORIZON will keep you on the edge of your seat during the disaster, will make you furious at BP Oil’s incompetence (something this movie didn’t embellish), and will leave you an emotional wreck. This is one of the best disaster films in years!

Grade: B+

DARK BLUE (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language and brief Sexuality

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Directed by: Ron Shelton

Written by: David Ayer & James Ellroy

Starring: Kurt Russell, Scott Speedman, Michael Michele, Brendan Gleeson, Ving Rhames, Master P, Kurupt, Dash Mihok & Jonathan Banks

David Ayer is no stranger to gritty crime thrillers. After making a huge splash with 2001’s acclaimed TRAINING DAY, Ayer was hired on to retool a script titled THE PLAGUE SEASON. Though the new title DARK BLUE is somewhat generic, this film about corrupt cops, murderous crooks, and escalating racial tension does enough to stick out from other movies of its ilk. Though the plot moves at a slow pace for the first hour and one actor seems woefully miscast, DARK BLUE winds up being a suspenseful thriller that packs in twists, turns and a fascinating character study of a complex protagonist.

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Los Angeles, April 1992: The public nervously awaits the verdict for four police officers who viciously beat Rodney King. The city is suffocating with racial tensions at an all-time high, but this doesn’t stop corrupt police officer Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell) from doing his job with extreme prejudice. Perry’s precinct is as dirty as they come, with corruption leading straight to the top. When Perry’s rookie partner Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman) is exonerated from a suspicious shooting, Assistant Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames) and Lieutenant Beth Williamson (Michael Michele) become determined to clean up the precinct…starting with Perry, Keough, and their powerful boss Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson). Meanwhile, Perry and Keough are assigned to investigate a convenience store murder-robbery that isn’t as simple as it seems.

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One big quality that immediately sticks out of DARK BLUE is Kurt Russell’s performance as Eldon Perry, a character who’s as far from likable as any protagonist can be. Perry’s cocky attitude, brash way of saying horrible things that he legitimately believes, and blatantly wicked actions make him into a fascinating lead, regardless of his mountain of shortcomings and twisted moral compass. Ultimately, Perry’s story arc becomes the most fascinating part of DARK BLUE’s plot. I won’t dare spoil what occurs, but I was more than captivated by what took place during the film’s second half. Kurt Russell plays Perry as a loud-mouthed gunfighter, which seems perfectly suited for this colorful character.

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In the opposite end of the film’s performances, we have Scott Speedman as Bobby Keough. This character isn’t exactly fleshed out to a believable degree and becomes more of a walking plot point as the film moves forward, but Speedman’s wooden line delivery certainly doesn’t salvage any humanity from this cardboard cut-out with a badge. Far more interesting is Ving Rhames as Arthur Holland who serves as a main player for the first half until he’s unceremoniously regulated to the background and his sidekick takes over. Also worth mentioning is Brendan Gleeson as the scummy Jack Van Meter. Though Gleeson occasionally lets his Irish accent slip through, he manages to keep it hidden for 90% of his performance and comes off as an intimidating figure. Kurupt and Dash Mihok shine as two dim-witted thugs with more to them than meets the eye.

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DARK BLUE’s first half works as a slow-burn of escalating conflicts and plot developments. No scene feels wasted as each moment keeps a pressure cooker going to a point where action, bloodshed and bullets will erupt. That action mainly takes place during the Rodney King riots, which are set as a threatening backdrop to the main story and further capitalize upon the issues of the time (aiding major plot points as well). The riot sequences are chaotic in a good way, with small details being replicated from actual footage of the terrifying real-life events. Though the film’s noticeably uneven pacing may turn certain viewers off, those who aren’t bothered by deliberately slow scenes will be greatly rewarded during the second half and powerful final minutes.

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DARK BLUE uses a couple of familiar cop-movie clichés and sports one very weak main character (Scott Speedman’s useless rookie), but the film delivers in being a tense thriller that mixes slow suspense with gritty realistic action. Kurt Russell’s amazing performance warrants a watch by itself, though Ving Rhames and Brendan Gleeson also deliver memorable moments. The script goes into uncomfortable places and will leave the viewer with more to mentally chew on than an average cops-and-robbers thriller. Don’t expect this film to be as amazing as TRAINING DAY, but do expect to have an interesting experience and feel complicated emotional responses whilst watching DARK BLUE!

Grade: B

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!

THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence, a scene of Violent Sexual Content, Language and some Graphic Nudity

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Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, James Parks, Channing Tatum & Zoe Bell

Love him or hate him, it cannot be argued whether or not Quentin Tarantino is a unique filmmaker. You can always tell when you’re watching a Tarantino film. To me, he hasn’t yet made a bad movie and his winning streak continues with the heavily anticipated HATEFUL EIGHT. Tarantino’s eighth movie is a gory western crossed with an Agatha Christie mystery. Though HATEFUL EIGHT definitely isn’t made for everyone, I had a blast watching Tarantino’s suspenseful, stylish western-mystery unfold.

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In the aftermath of the Civil War, black bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren has found himself stranded in the middle of a wintry wilderness. His chance at survival comes in a lone stagecoach carrying John Ruth “The Hangman” (a bounty hunter who keeps his prisoners alive to see the hangman’s noose) and prisoner Daisy Domergue (a murderess with ten thousand dollars on her head). Warren, The Hangman, Daisy, and another passenger are overtaken by a vicious blizzard and find shelter in an isolated lodge. Inside this comfy establishment are a handful of questionable folks. Things slowly turn violent as one of lodge guests appears to be have deadly intentions of setting Daisy free.

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Two versions of THE HATEFUL EIGHT are currently playing in theaters: the general release (the version that I saw) and an extended director’s cut (running 20 minutes longer in road show format). The film is a little long in the tooth (mainly due to establishing shots and scene transitions), but definitely packs the bloody punch. Though it’s a far more contained movie than INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (my favorite of Tarantino’s filmography) or DJANGO UNCHAINED, HATEFUL EIGHT finds Quentin returning to his roots as the film somewhat resembles his debut RESERVOIR DOGS. A majority of the story takes place within a single location (in this case, the lodge) and most of the tension arises from an antagonist hiding in plain sight.

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My comparison of Tarantino’s latest film to his directorial debut is not meant as a negative one, because HATEFUL EIGHT thrives on slow-building suspense and mystery that is unlike anything this filmmaker has attempted before. While the rest of his filmography ranges from bloody journeys of vengeance to non-linear crime tales, this is ostensibly a murder mystery set in post-Civil War Wyoming. The first half builds on uneasy tension and colorful character introductions/interactions. The second half becomes a carnage-laden bloodbath and dangerous discoveries lie around every corner.

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The HATEFUL characters themselves are played by a solid cast of talented performers. Samuel L. Jackson takes center stage as Warren and its one of the best roles of his entire career. Tarantino has managed to combine everything that’s badass about Jackson’s usual action heroes into one character with a complicated sympathetic side. Kurt Russell seems to be channeling John Wayne in “The Hangman.” Jennifer Jason Leigh is a fiercely unhinged screen presence as the psychotic, dangerous (and frequently abused) Daisy Domergue. Walton Goggins (previously seen in this year’s underrated AMERICAN ULTRA) receives the biggest role of his career thus far, while Tim Roth plays a slimy character with unclear intentions. Meanwhile, Bruce Dern shows up as a racist old-timer, Michael Madsen plays a foreboding cowboy, and Channing Tatum also has a brief (but very memorable) role. The best thing about all of these characters is that we don’t know who to root for and clues revealed during the second half of the film unveil who’s bad and who’s worse.

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To cap all of these positive qualities off, HATEFUL EIGHT’s cinematography is gorgeous and the dread-soaked soundtrack lends a perfect sense of unease to the already well-crafted story. Seeing as this is a Tarantino film, you should brace yourself for plenty of witty dialogue, over-the-top bloodshed, and a darker than dark sense of humor. The last of these qualities seems to have made a splash with people as one of the running gags could be seen as controversial. However, it seemed to get a big positive reaction from the audience in my theater and I was laughing the whole way through. Tarantino has managed to balance unexpected suspense with his special brand of expected blood-soaked mayhem. Though THE HATEFUL EIGHT might run a tad long, it’s a near-perfect film from one of my all-time favorite directors. Face it. You already kind of know whether this movie is for you or not.

Grade: A

BONE TOMAHAWK (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: S. Craig Zahler

Written by: S. Craig Zahler

Starring: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, David Arquette, Sid Haig & Geno Segers

Two genres that don’t often go together are Horror and Westerns. Combinations of the two very different genres have only been attempted a handful of times to my knowledge (THE BURROWERS, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, and TREMORS). BONE TOMAHAWK just happens to be the latest effort that tries to blend these two distinct genres into one creative story. While it definitely leans more onto the Western side before diving straight into Horror country for the final third, I can easily fathom that this film will please fans of both cinematic genres. Blending a slow brooding pace of a John Wayne flick with some graphic cannibal horror, BONE TOMAHAWK is an unexpectedly great film that came out of nowhere and knocked me on my ass.

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Bright Hope is a peaceful, out-of-the-way town that never encounters any serious problems. Tonight is different as a strange drifter has just rolled into town and caught the eye of Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell sporting a magnificent bit of facial hair). One brief confrontation later and the drifter is behind bars at the local jail with only a law man and a nurse to keep him company. This drifter’s arrival was the mere beginning of something far more sinister and the jail turns up empty in the morning. Hunt suspects that Indians might have something to do with the three disappearances and soon learns that there’s something in the wilderness that even Indians are afraid of. Taking their lives into their own hands, Sheriff Hunt brings along Arthur O’Dwyer (the missing nurse’s husband), Chicory (an old-fashioned deputy), and John Brooder (a trigger-happy bigot) on a rescue mission into some very dangerous territory.

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For a movie that’s essentially been sold as Kurt Russell fighting cannibals in the Old West, BONE TOMAHAWK is far better than I think anyone could have anticipated. I mean, sure that one sentence pitch sounds fun in and of itself, but this movie treats itself as a dark and brooding ride. Everyone is playing this ridiculous-sounding material with a believable straight face. This approach works far better than it probably should have. First-time director S. Craig Zahler (who also penned the decent ASYLUM BLACKOUT) uses a confident hand behind the camera to bring his vision to life. This feels like a slow-burn Western that just happens to have a long showdown with vicious man-eating cannibals in the final act.

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This self-serious approach can also be seen in the performances of a remarkable cast of big-name actors. Kurt Russell (who’s also starring in certain other Western that arrives later this year) is very much in his element. He’s having a blast as Sheriff Hunt and gives the performance his all, which brings to life a likable bad-ass with a heart of gold. Patrick Wilson is especially good and plays the wounded husband (he has a broken leg all throughout the film) as a determined man on a mission. Richard Jenkins brings a strong screen presence as the kindly old deputy. Meanwhile, Matthew Fox really shines as the despicable Brooder (who has an interesting motivation of his own). David Arquette and Sid Haig also make brief, memorable appearances.

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When it does get into the horror section of its story, BONE TOMAHAWK also gets extremely graphic in the violence department. Seeing as the plot involves cannibals, I was expecting gore. I just wasn’t expecting this film to have a scene that rivaled the best moment of THE GREEN INFERNO in its sheer viciousness. Even when we get severed body parts and guts spilling out onto the screen, the movie never goes into cheesy or over-the-top territory. Instead, the brutality only adds to the dark atmosphere that the movie was playing with from the very beginning.

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Though the running time might be a little too long and there’s a noticeable leap of logic made in the final moments, BONE TOMAHAWK is far better than I think anyone could have anticipated it being. The premise may sound ludicrous on paper, but the way it’s executed with an exciting new director/writer behind the camera, a rock solid cast acting their hearts out, and exciting bursts of violence transform the silly material into a seriously great time. It’s a shame that BONE TOMAHAWK didn’t hit theaters, because there are scenes that would get great audience reactions (I found myself cheering while watching it at home). If you’re craving something out-of-the-ordinary for this final week of this Halloween season (or any time really) and don’t want to make a trip to the multiplex, BONE TOMAHAWK should satisfy your craving. This is one of the best horror movies of 2015!

Grade: A-

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