STANDOFF (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language throughout

Directed by: Adam Alleca

Written by: Adam Alleca

Starring: Thomas Jane, Laurence Fishburne, Ella Ballentine, Jim Watson & Joanna Douglas

I would have probably skipped out on seeing STANDOFF, if it hadn’t been for a fellow movie reviewer friend (Matt Reifschneider at Blood Brothers Reviews) recommending it. With a good deal of skepticism, I decided to sit down to what I fully expected to be a silly B-movie. Color me surprised, because STANDOFF is a damn good thriller. The premise is simple, but engaging. The dialogue is occasionally cliched, but the over-the-top acting keeps the viewer entertained. Even though this film isn’t brimming with action, the plot’s tension is constant. All of these positive qualities (and flaws) combined make for a surprisingly solid indie flick.

Bird (Ella Ballentine), a 12-year-old girl, is visiting a graveyard with her aunt. In order to kill some time, Bird is taking random pictures and she unwittingly snaps some shots of sadistic hitman Sade (Laurence Fishburne) executing a job. Sade sees that the little lady has witnessed his latest hit and gives chase, with the intention of offing the kid. Luckily, Bird comes across the country home of depressed war veteran Carter (Thomas Jane). Carter and Sade both fire off a bullet into each other and retreat to different floors of the house. Carter is protecting Bird upstairs and Sade is trying to find a way to kill them from downstairs…and, now, we have a movie.

STANDOFF’s title is not misleading in any way, shape, or form, because 95% of this movie is a tense standoff between Jane and Fishburne. This simple premise seems like it could have easily given way to boredom or become ridiculously unbelievable after a certain space of time, but STANDOFF keeps its tension rolling with new revelations and clever character development. Most of this movie is made up of a verbal battle of wits between a grizzled antihero and desperate (and deadly) hired killer. It’s almost like a mini-Western that’s set within the space of a single house. If that idea interests you, then you’ll likely enjoy this film.

STANDOFF was clearly made with budgetary constraints. I’d wager that a good portion of this film’s price-tag was spent on securing Jane and Fishburne for their roles, and then locating a house that would serve as a good location. First-time director Adam Alleca (who originally wrote this screenplay while he was in college) wisely uses the production’s limitations to strengthen STANDOFF’s small-scale storytelling. Details about Carter’s past are verbally pieced together by Sade and the viewer discovers more about both characters from these interactions. We see what a complete murderous scumbag Sade is (after all, he’s trying to kill a little girl) and we discover that Carter is already a damaged person.

STANDOFF’s atmosphere has an almost stage play vibe (in a similar vein to Quentin Tarantino’s HATEFUL EIGHT), because it’s set in a single location with a small cast of characters. I could easily envision this as a play before it was a movie, but that’s a positive quality as this would have been a great play to sit through. The constant interactions between Jane and Fishburne are a blast as both actors straddle the line between being entertainingly over-the-top and dramatically sound. At the end of the day, I bought both of these characters as realistic and also enjoyed that there was an exaggerated edge to both of them. Two smaller supporting characters also happen across the house, but their roles make up about ten minutes of screen time. This is mostly a cat-and-mouse game between Jane and Fishburne.

STANDOFF’s weaknesses arrive in a handful of lines that sound cliched. Though Ella Ballentine seems like a convincing child actress for the most part (she was great in THE MONSTER), she’s handed some hokey dialogue. Also, there are a couple of dumb character decisions made on the part of Sade. One specific scene asks the viewer to make a big logical leap that this desperate hitman is also pretty stupid and doesn’t recognize an open opportunity when it’s standing right in front of his face. These flaws keep STANDOFF from being a great movie, but it still remains as a damn fine thriller…especially from a first-time filmmaker.

If you’re looking for a hidden gem (of which there are too many to count in the modern overcrowded film market) and enjoy single-location thrillers, then STANDOFF will satisfy your cinematic cravings. Laurence Fishburne’s crazed villain and Thomas Jane’s gruff antihero are both a blast to watch. The single location serves as a tense setting for a bloody battle of wits. Though this film isn’t top-tier indie fare or near perfect filmmaking, STANDOFF is very entertaining stuff. This one comes surprisingly recommended!

Grade: B

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence throughout, some Language and brief Nudity

Directed by: Chad Stahelski

Written by: Derek Kolstad

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane & Lance Reddick

Loads of people seem to gush over 2014’s JOHN WICK. As for me, I think it’s a fun little action movie that’s equal parts silly and cool. Any sequel to any action flick promises to up the stakes and be bigger, bolder, cooler, and more adrenaline-pumping. JOHN WICK: CHAPER 2 has crazy action scenes and further develops its elaborate underworld of guns, hotels, and hired killers. However, the film also encounters pacing issues and goofiness that hinder it as a whole. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is an entertaining romp. Nothing more, nothing less.

The plot picks up four days after the events of the previous film. Former assassin turned bloody avenger John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has just recovered his stolen car from a Russian-run chop shop and intends on living out the rest of his days in peace. John’s renewed retirement comes to an abrupt end when he’s visited by mob boss Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) who wants John to make good on a past deal. With the prospect of one last job until he’s out for good, John Wick returns to kill a target and soon finds himself hunted by pretty much everyone. Lots of bullets, hand-to-hand combat, and craziness follows.

First things first, JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 succeeds at what it set out to do. There’s plenty of kick-ass action and the stakes are ridiculously high. At one point, John Wick has pretty much an entire nation of assassins chasing him and decides to become a one man army. It’s friggin’ nuts to watch. The cinematography is slick and the execution of the action is stylish. I cannot express how nice it is to actually see what the hell is happening in an action movie, as opposed to constant shaky-cam that moviegoers are usually bombarded with in lesser modern action efforts. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is just as enjoyable as the first film, meaning that it still suffers from some problems.

CHAPTER 2’s second half is where things really pick up, but its first hour is frequently dull. It’s as if the movie suddenly shifted tones after the previous film’s conclusion to briefly become a brooding hour-long thriller about a reluctant assassin. Great films have been made about similar subject matter, but CHAPTER 2 has long stretches that feature nothing more than John Wick repeating himself to different characters and suiting up for his would-be final hit. Like I said though, the second half is infinitely more enjoyable as the body count reaches crazy levels and bullets begin to fly every which way.

CHAPTER 2’s cast has a few returning faces from the previous film, while also throwing new characters into the mix. Keanu Reeves is just as wooden as he was last time, becoming comically hollow when he tries to express the tragic emotional state of his character (having still lost his wife and her puppy). Still, Keanu knows how to kick ass, execute well-choreographed confrontations (ranging from hand-to-hand, vehicular mayhem, and gun-fu), and perform really cool stunts. Ian McShane is still enjoyable as a hotel owner who abides by a strict set of rules for the killers who inhabit his grounds.

Unfortunately, CHAPTER 2’s interesting new characters are underused or totally wasted throughout the proceedings. This time around, John faces off against a smarmy mob boss and Riccardo Scamarcio’s antagonist pretty much has underlings attack John and taunts him, making for a bit of an underwhelming main baddie. However, the final scene between himself and John further ups the stakes for a potential CHAPTER 3 (ending on a fun cliffhanger). Common plays a vengeance-seeking bodyguard who is sadly regulated to about three scenes, while Laurence Fishburne is having a blast in the cameo-like role of a hobo crime king. Also, Ruby Rose is bad-ass as a mute assassin who has a history with John, though she only appears for three scenes too.

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 encounters flaws in wasted potential and uneven pacing. I wish some of the more creative baddies had a bigger presence and the film’s first half is distractingly slow to sit through. However, the action remains fun, while the style reeks of being cool for the sake of being cool. I didn’t go into JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 expecting an action masterpiece and this sequel is on the exact same level of the original, meaning that it’s a fun time for those who want a kick-ass action flick and not much logic. If you liked the first film, you’ll probably like this one too!

Grade: B

PASSENGERS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sexuality, Nudity and Action/Peril

passengers-poster

Directed by: Morten Tyldum

Written by: Jon Spaihts

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne & Andy Garcia

Maybe it was because of low expectations set by poor word of mouth and a so-so marketing campaign, but I didn’t have high hopes for PASSENGERS. Everything leading up to this film’s release made it seem like a generic execution of a cool premise. However, this sci-fi/romance/adventure is one of the most pleasant cinematic surprises I’ve had all year. Tackling an unconventional love story alongside a very tense “what would you do?” scenario, this film mixes fantastic spectacle (the production values are amazing) with tough moral dilemmas that might have different viewers seeing the film in entirely different ways. The way I see it, that’s not a bad thing at all.

passengers-1

The Avalon is transporting 5,000 passengers and over 200 crew members to colonization planet Homestead II. The intergalactic journey takes 120 years, so those aboard the spaceship are put into over a century of hibernation and woken up in the voyage’s final four months. When a gigantic asteroid causes an unexpected power surge, two passengers wake up 90 years too early and find themselves unable to go back into hibernation. Faced with spending the rest of their lives aboard the Avalon, mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) and writer Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) begin to fall head over heels for each other and try to make the most of their depressing situation. However, circumstances become dire when malfunctions begin to occur all over the Avalon and the fate of thousands of lives soon rests on their shoulders.

passengers-2

PASSENGERS will likely divide viewers based purely on a character’s decision that doubles as a grim moral dilemma. This has already been spoiled in certain reviews as it happens within the first 20 minutes of the story and massively contributes to the main set-up. This presents one of the protagonists as a deeply flawed human being and ponders some tough questions about human nature. However, the film doesn’t ignore this problematic plot development and frequently wrestles with the questionable ethics behind it. In all honesty, PASSENGERS might have been a deeper, more complex film if it had gone further with this moral dilemma…but it instead opts for a mostly straightforward space adventure/love story. Depending on how you feel about this plot detail (which I will not spoil) and the movie’s treatment of it will ultimately contribute to how much you enjoy or strongly dislike this film as a whole.

passengers-3

Though the story only calls for a handful of performances, the big name actors carry this film entirely on their more-than-capable shoulders. Chris Pratt plays a complex protagonist and drives the story forward, capturing the tragic distress that one would rightfully feel at the universe’s cruel sense of humor in his misfortune. Jennifer Lawrence slightly phones it in during certain scenes, but once again proves why she’s one of Hollywood’s biggest actresses for a majority of the running time. On the sidelines, Michael Sheen delivers amusing comic relief as an overly polite android bartender and provides a shoulder for both characters to cry on. I won’t say much about Laurence Fishburne and Andy Garcia for fear of spoilers, but the former definitely leaves his mark on the plot.

passengers-4

PASSENGERS excels in terms of effects and spectacle. Rest assured, this movie isn’t only about the special effects and thrives on a compelling story and quality performances. However, the many special effects and lavish sets all contribute to the proceedings. Some moments are comical, e.g. the ship’s technology not recognizing the sleep pod screw-up and treating the two passengers like they’re average customers. Other moments are beautiful, a floating romantic walk through the starry recesses of outer space is stunning. For a majority of the second half of the film, the effects make up the effectively exciting and peril-filled stakes. One of the most intense bits involves Jennifer Lawrence getting trapped in an anti-gravity swimming pool and facing the possibility of drowning in a way that’s never really been seen before on film.

passengers-5

As entertaining, fun and thought-provoking as it is, PASSENGERS does encounter a few filmmaking malfunctions of its own. The romance angle is mostly well done and developed in a convincing way, but there are over-the-top sappy moments (e.g. the characters trying to kiss through their spacesuits and going through romantic-comedy tropes in space). A couple of plot holes also keep nagging at the back of my mind, one of which bothers me almost as much as the floating door at the end of TITANIC. The more I think about this single scene, the less sense it makes. This sloppy story development (late in the film) probably should have been excised altogether or rewritten in a different manner. Nevertheless, these problems don’t come close to overshadowing the film’s many positives.

passengers-6

PASSENGERS is far from perfect and definitely could have been better with a few rewrites to cover up some plot holes. However, it treats a major moral dilemma in a serious fashion and delivers a complicated love story as a result. Ultimately, how you feel about the characters and the treatment of a certain plot detail will likely determine how you feel about this film as a whole. I wasn’t expecting to like this movie as much as I did, but it’s a mature (flawed) science fiction romantic-adventure that also functions as a story about what it means to be human (complete with our imperfections). PASSENGERS may go down as one of the most underrated films to come out of 2016. I wouldn’t be surprised if a stronger appreciation for this film grows over time.

Grade: B+

BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action throughout, and some Sensuality

BatvSup poster

Directed by: Zack Snyder

Written by: Chris Terrio & David S. Goyer

(based on the DC Comics)

Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter & Gal Gadot

The cinematic Cold War between DC and Marvel has officially begun! As a result, many films will be arriving in the next four years from both companies, much to the delight of superhero fans everywhere. After delivering a brand new Superman with 2013’s MAN OF STEEL (which was a polarizing film, but I fell on the side that liked it as big dumb fun), DC is back with a clash of superhero titans that also serves as a backdoor for the Justice League to be formed. However, DC might have been better if they had slowly built up their Extended Universe before getting into crossover plotlines, because BATMAN v SUPERMAN is a movie that is brimming with potential and almost none of it comes to the screen. I really wanted to love this film or even just enjoy it as another big budget superhero blockbuster, but I walked away very disappointed.

BatvSup

The story kicks off with MAN OF STEEL’s final fight from a different perspective: Bruce Wayne/Batman’s (Ben Affleck) who frantically rushes to save civilians from falling rubble. Traumatized by Clark Kent/Superman’s destructive powers, Wayne becomes obsessed with the Man of Steel being able to wipe out humanity. This eats away at his personal life as Batman’s crime-fighting tactics become more vicious. Meanwhile, Clark Kent becomes obsessed over the violent vigilante in the neighboring Gotham City. Once Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne cross paths at a party held by the villainous Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), a conflict arises between both heroes that can only resolve in a brutal fight…with possible world-ending stakes also at hand.

BatvSup 2

I’ll list the positives about this film first. Despite many overreactions to his casting announcement, Ben Affleck is pretty damn good as Bruce Wayne/Batman. He brings a level of intensity and grittiness to the character that we’ve come to expect and goes slightly darker (akin to Frank Miller’s more violent take on the hero). Jeremy Irons is perfectly cast as Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler/Batman’s loyal servant. Though he isn’t given much to do…other than delivering a handful of snappy one-liners and quick-witted remarks, Irons is a lot of fun in the role. Finally, the expected fight scene between Batman and Superman is well-done. There are creative set pieces utilized (leveling the playing field between the two) as well as the sequence just being plain cool to watch as two iconic superheroes duke it out!

BatvSup 3

Now that those positives have been stated, allow me to mention the many downsides to this film. Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill don’t have a hell of a lot of screen time together. In fact, Batman and Superman aren’t given much to do before the big fight scene (that arrives in the second half of the film). We see Batman hide in a corner and chase a truck, but that’s about all we get. As far as Kal-El is concerned, we get a montage of Superman rescuing people from disasters and occasionally saving Louis Lane (as per usual)…but not much actual crime fighting. Instead of any superhero action or excitement, we’re treated to Bruce Wayne having horribly cheesy nightmare sequences (one of which actually used the dream-within-a-dream cliché) and Superman being demonized by a Senator.

Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice

If only the villains were entertaining to watch while Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent go about their daily lives. Instead, Luthor and Doomsday are two underwhelming antagonists. Lex Luthor is being played by a woefully miscast Jesse Eisenberg. Though its clear that they were trying something new with the famous comic book villain (who was previously portrayed by Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey), this young and hip approach didn’t work as Luthor comes off as a whiny spoiled rich kid as opposed to being a legitimately intimidating, despicable baddie. I didn’t hate this villain like I should have, but was rather annoyed every time he was on the screen. It’s like they told Jesse Eisenberg to do a slightly quirky, hyperactive version of Mark Zuckerberg from THE SOCIAL NETWORK and then played classical music over it. Eisenberg’s Luthor is laughably bad to behold.

BatvSup 5

As for Doomsday (playing a major role in the second half of the film), his inclusion feels arbitrary, half-assed and useless. Poorly rendered CGI cause this alien foe to resemble a radioactive version of the cave troll from LORD OF THE RINGS. This monster looks like it belongs in a Syfy Channel movie as opposed to a 250-million-dollar blockbuster. The only positive thing to come out of his appearance is a glorified cameo from Wonder Woman. However, watching the trio of DC heroes fight off this damn near unstoppable villain becomes repetitive and dull after five minutes.

BatvSup 6

There are a number of reasons why BATMAN v SUPERMAN is a disappointment. One might be from the DC Extended Universe shooting themselves in the foot by shoving this tent pole title out too soon. Imagine if Marvel had put out THE AVENGERS before developing any other characters besides Iron Man? Another big reason why this clash of superheroes underwhelms is due to its messy, unfocused script. There’s not nearly the level of action, excitement and humor that there should be in a film where Batman is fighting friggin’ Superman! The animated series had a better well-rounded conflict between these characters. Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne barely encounter each other before the admittedly well-done fight scene. The main problem though is that BATMAN v SUPERMAN is a film packed with too much filler and obvious bridge-building for future installments (something that Marvel’s AGE OF ULTRON also suffered from), and not nearly enough of the titular promised hero vs. hero conflict.

Grade: C-

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Frenetic Violence and Menace, Disturbing Images and some Sensuality

MI3 poster

Directed by: J.J. Abrams

Written by: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci & J.J. Abrams

Starring: Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ving Rhames, Billy Crudup, Michelle Monaghan, Keri Russell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q, Simon Pegg, Eddie Marsan & Laurence Fishburne

Despite having never been that interested in the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise before this year, the only tidbit of knowledge that I knew about any of the films was that Philip Seymour Hoffman played the villain in the third movie. That alone was enough to make me excited for this to cleanse the palette after the disaster that was MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2. This third installment in the blockbuster franchise is the best that I’ve seen in the series (I will be watching GHOST PROTOCOL soon) thus far. Intense, exciting and smart, this MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE does something that neither of the previous entries did for me. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III actually made me feel like our main character was in constant peril and that the danger might overcome him at any point. I felt the dread, suspense and excitement rush through every single intense sequence, plot twist and action scene. It’s almost unheard of to see a third installment in any series one-up its predecessors, but that’s exactly what MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III does in every way.

MCDMIIM EC001

Since the events of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2, Ethan Hunt has retired from IMF missions and found love in his fiancé. He’s drawn back into one last assignment when a former protégé is captured. The rescue mission goes sour and Ethan finds himself hunting for a powerful black-market figure. The villain is Owen Davian, a notorious arms dealer who has pretty much become an invisible man. When Ethan is tipped off about Davian’s latest whereabouts, he sets in motion a complicated plan to kidnap Davian. Unfortunately, not everything in this plan is solid and sound. Things quickly spiral out of control. Soon, Ethan finds himself being specifically targeted by Davian and his fiancé being held hostage in the crosshairs.

MCDMIIM EC034

While MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was a big popcorn-muncher of a movie and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 tried too hard to be stylish and cool, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III easily sports the best script of the first three films. It ups the ante from the very beginning by showing a scene that we can anticipate later on in the movie. While I usually complain about stories starting off in non-linear fashion as a cheap gimmicky approach, this works far better in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III as the scene is an undeniably tense one. It gives us a vulnerable side of Ethan that we’ve never seen before in either of the previous entries, while also showing just how scary Hoffman is as the villain. The former is definitely a big part of what works so well for me about MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III. Adventures can only be so exciting when anyone can correctly predict where everything is heading and there’s no sense that the hero might fail. M:I 3’s script delivers a solid atmosphere of danger that hovers over every moment in which Ethan finds himself outgunned. It’s a nice change of pace for a series that seemed so content to play it safe and by-the-numbers.

MCDMIIM EC040

Since the screenplay is rock solid and the high stakes feel like high stakes this time around, the action scenes are extremely exciting. That’s also not to mention that the comic relief actually works, because it’s not overly excessive. Little moments of laughter do ease the tension a bit, but never dominate the scenes. One sequence of Ethan breaking into a heavily guarded building has the best punchline of any of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movies delivered by Ving Rhames. Aside from stellar script, a nice change of pace, and exciting action, Philip Seymour Hoffman dominates as Davian. He’s a calm, cold, son of a bitch in the role. Exuding a bit of smugness, but more sociopathic tendencies than expected, Hoffman is one villain that you love to hate. He’s scary in how he delivers chilling dialogue in such a matter-of-fact, routine fashion as if the evil deeds he’s committing are really nothing to him…because they aren’t a big deal in his eyes at all. I doubt that we’ll receive another top-notch villain to the same high-caliber degree as Davian in the entire series. He’s that good!

MCDMIIM EC028

It’s not often that you can say a third entry in a blockbuster series manages to outdo the first and second installments, but that’s exactly the case with MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III. You can sense that somebody genuinely cared about crafting a solid film as opposed to just throwing out yet another generic sequel. The acting and characters are solid across the board, with Hoffman being the biggest scene-stealer of the bunch. The action is adrenaline-pumping and has actual emotion put behind it. The story is engaging and takes the series in an entirely different direction than simply an unstoppable guy saving the world again. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III improves on its predecessors tenfold and manages to become a great adventure in the process.

Grade: A

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑