PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Zombie Violence and Action, and brief Suggestive Material

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Directed by: Burr Steers

Written by: Burr Steers

(based on the novel PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES by Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith)

Starring: Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Charles Dance & Lena Headey

Jane Austen’s acclaimed classic gets an undead, ass-kicking twist in this straight-faced spoof. Based on a parody novel in which Seth Grahame-Smith inserted zombies and martial arts into a beloved romance, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES might be the perfect date movie of 2016. There are zombies and combat scenes for the guys, and a comedy of manners and old-fashioned romance for the gals. This is all executed in a stylish way that kept my eyes glued to the screen from start to finish. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES is the kind of film that you simply have to see in order to believe that it actually exists.

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A zombie apocalypse has broken loose in pre-Victorian England. Families now live in fortified homes and train their children in the ways of the orient (Chinese and Japanese fighting styles). Little matters like hordes of flesh-eating monsters and daily bloodshed won’t keep wealthy families from trying to marry off their children though. Elizabeth Bennet is a cynical young woman who doesn’t believe in love until she meets the inscrutable Colonel Darcy. While her four other sisters find love in various places, the sword-wielding Elizabeth is given a variety of suitors and begins to develop a complicated relationship with the zombie-slaying Darcy. All of this is set to the backdrop of a humans vs. zombies war raging in London.

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PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES gets credit where credit is due in being (mostly) faithful to the original Austen novel…just with added explosions, fights, and brain-eating ghouls thrown into the mix. One can’t help but admire how seriously this film takes itself as even the silliest moments are played out with a straight face. Director/writer Burr Steers manages to execute his zombie-filled version of Austen’s classic in a stylish manner that makes the film entertaining to watch the whole way through, even in the zombie-free scenes. A prologue near the beginning is pulled off in a ridiculous, yet very cool, way that made me realize that I was in for quite a ride.

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The self-serious (and equally hilarious) tone of ZOMBIES is aided by the performances of a talented cast. Lily James takes a break from her family-friendly and typically British fare to kick ass and fall in love as Elizabeth. This zombie-slaying version of the literary character rightfully seems up to snuff in her distinctly Austen sophisticated manner, but also joins the ever-growing list of strong female heroines in recent years. Sam Riley is equally entertaining as the sullen, but likable Darcy. Darcy’s introduction is a stand-out moment and he remains a compelling character as both a romantic interest and professional zombie killer. Elizabeth’s sisters receive substantially less screen time (after all, this movie could only be so long), but Bella Heathcote is great in her own romantic subplot as Jane.

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Two GAME OF THRONES alumni pop up in brief side roles. Charles Dance is occasionally glimpsed as the Bennet sisters’ good-humored father, while Lena Headey is appropriately intimidating as the one-eyed Lady Catherine. Jack Huston is great as the mysterious Mr. Wickham, Elizabeth’s rival love interest with unique theories about how to end the zombie apocalypse. Meanwhile, Matt Smith’s Mr. Collins is easily the funniest part of the entire film. His comedic timing and quirky line delivery are pitch perfect.

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Though it’s only rated PG-13, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES gets away with a lot. All of the fight and combat scenes are impressively choreographed. The deceptive teenage-oriented rating still allows room for exploding zombie heads, severed limbs, and other bits of gore. The make-up work on these zombies ranges from creepy to over-the-top (in a good way). Aside from the onslaught of sword-fighting, martial arts, and undead corpses, Austen fans will be glad to hear that the film remains a romance through and through. Lines of dialogue have been tailored to include words like: zombies, undead, arts of the orient, and combat. However, they don’t feel as out-of-place as you might think they would be.

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My only complaint (and it’s a noticeable one) with PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES is that the screenplay includes vague bits of a subplot involving the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse that seems entirely useless to the film as a whole. The only reason that I can think of for its inclusion was to set up for possible sequels (which is also evidenced by a mid-credits scene). This is my sole gripe with an otherwise surprisingly solid film. This zombified take on PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is entertaining as hell and all the better for it. Austen’s beloved romance remains fully intact and we still get to see zombies being slain by classic literary characters. What more could you want from a movie like this?

Grade: B+

DREDD (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence, Language, Drug Use and some Sexual Content

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Directed by: Pete Travis

Written by: Alex Garland

(based on the JUDGE DREDD comics)

Starring: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Wood Harris & Domhnall Gleeson

After Sylvester Stallone tarnished the franchise in 1995, it seemed like the character of Judge Dredd would never see the big screen again. Obviously, the tides changed as we have this 2012 reboot. However, some studio exec is probably feeling bad about their decision to green light this project because it bombed at the box office, but that’s not due to lack of quality. DREDD is one of the best action films of the new millennium. Graphically violent, beautiful to look at, and well executed all around, DREDD is a comic book film that actually makes me want to read the comic series that it’s based on. There’s no other way of putting it. This film is a perfectly realized, non-stop adrenaline rush from beginning to end.

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In the far distant future, the United States is a radiated wasteland. The dwindling population live in massive 200-floor apartment blocks and judges, the highest form of law enforcement, patrol the streets. These helmet-wearing judges also serve as jury and on-the-spot executioners. Judge Dredd serves in Mega-City One, a place where 17,000 crimes are reported daily. Dredd’s latest assignment is unlike his others in that he’s evaluating Anderson, a telepathic rookie who wants to make a difference. Dredd and Anderson take a triple-homicide call at a rundown tower block. The murders are the result of vicious drug lord Ma-Ma who locks down the block and orders the execution of these two judges upon their arrival. Violence, action, and chaos ensue as Dredd and Anderson are forced to fight for their lives through the vast tower block.

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I must confess that I didn’t see DREDD in theaters because the plot sounded like a knockoff of THE RAID (in which a group of cops are forced to fight their way out of 40 floors of chaos in an apartment building). While the basic set-up might be similar between the two films, DREDD’s execution could not be more different. This sci-fi actioner is heavily stylized, uses its futuristic environment to showcase a ton of wild set pieces, and relies on the dynamic between its two judges to further the story along. Though only made on a budget of 45 million (which is far smaller than the production values of the film suggest), the world looks very well-developed (down to the tiniest details) and every penny was clearly stretched to make this into the best possible film that it could be. The results are staggering and I loved every second of it.

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As Judge Dredd, Karl Urban never once removes the helmet and shows his face. This was in keeping with the comic books and makes the character a bit harder to read (seeing as his eyes are obscured). Typical character traits of the judges are them being relatively detached and keeping their emotions in apathetic check, so this served the character of Dredd all the better. Meanwhile, Judge Anderson could not be further from Urban’s lead. Played by Olivia Thirlby, Anderson is a much more vulnerable and sympathetic heroine. She’s not above executing a sniveling thug in broad daylight, but she definitely has a soft spot that lends to her being the more human of the two characters. She has empathy for those around her, a quality that makes for an entertaining and interesting contrast between herself and Dredd. Meanwhile, Lena Headey is perfectly cast as Ma-Ma. The scarred villainess with bad teeth is downright despicable and receives one of the most satisfying moments in the entire film.

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The violence in DREDD is pretty insane when you consider that this film received an R rating. I’m surprised (in a good way) that it wasn’t cut down a little more because this definitely skirts the line of NC-17 level gore during many scenes. Severed limbs are tossed around. Heads are blown into unrecognizable chunks. Gore is strewn everywhere. Dredd has a gun that rotates through different ammunition (depending on his situation), thus allowing more diverse shoot-outs to occur. Some of the action is made beautiful with Slo-Mo, Ma-Ma’s new drug, serving as a plot device. This narcotic allows time to slow down for its users and we see a few action scenes from these slowed down points-of-view. This beautifully rendered slow-motion makes for some of the most creative sci-fi action sequences since THE MATRIX trilogy.

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DREDD may have a simple plot, but that’s far from a bad thing. This film serves as a day in the life of Judge Dredd and has transformed me into a fan of the helmeted hero. Though it didn’t do well at the box office, DREDD has gone on to rightfully become a cult classic with a significant fan base behind it (sort of like this generation’s BLADE RUNNER). While hopes of a follow-up seem pretty dim, I would frigging love to see at least two more sequels to this film. The use of colors, creative ideas, compelling characters, and visceral (imaginative) violence make this one of the best action movies of the new millennium. I judge DREDD and find it guilty…of being fucking awesome!

Grade: A+

THE CAVE (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Creature Violence

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Directed by: Bruce Hunt

Written by: Michael Steinberg & Tegan West

Starring: Cole Hauser, Eddie Cibrian, Marcel Iures, Lena Headey, Daniel Day Kim, Piper Perabo, Rick Ravanello, Morris Chestnut & Kieran Darcy-Smith

I remember seeing trailers and TV spots for THE CAVE. I was about 15 years old and wasn’t allowed to see R-rated movies. As you might imagine, this rule severely screwed with what kind of horror movies I could watch. By the mere fact that it was one of the few horror films that I could go watch in theaters at the time, I wanted to see THE CAVE. In the years following 2005, this creature feature has faded into well-deserved obscurity. Released coincidentally around the same time that THE DESCENT was hitting theaters in the UK, this cheap horror flick plays out like a Syfy Channel script was somehow funded with a budget of 30 million. None of those dollars necessarily appear on the screen in form of acting talent or special effects. This is every bit as clichéd of a monster movie as you’d guess it probably would be from the bland title.

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A team of archeologists have discovered what could very well be the world’s largest cave system. In order to investigate it further, they’ve hired a team of skilled cave divers to explore it. Turns out that might not have been the wisest move. Due to a cave in, the group of divers and scientists soon find themselves trapped a mile beneath the earth’s surface with no exit in sight. As if things couldn’t get any worse, it turns out that this cave system is so large and evolved that it has its own ecosystem and mutated creatures. These inhabitants include a blind mole, a scary eel and a group of giant bat-like beasties with an appetite for scientists and cave divers. With the batteries on their flashlights running low and their new position on the food chain, the group of hapless victims try to make it to the surface in one piece.

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Credit where credit is due, THE CAVE actually takes its time before revealing the monstrous antagonists. However, this isn’t necessarily a good thing when characters constantly need to remind us of who they are and what role they have. There is zero development put into these people. I know that they’re essentially being set up as monster food, but it’s nice to have at least a couple of folks worth rooting for in a creature feature. That’s definitely not the case here. The only character I remotely liked was Lena Headey’s scientist and that’s because she was being played by Lena Headey. While you wouldn’t necessarily expect any sort of logic to be thrown into a premise that’s this far-fetched, the cave system itself is so mind-numbingly silly that it frequently took me out of the film. It doesn’t simply stay in caves or a river running through said underground system, but these characters also travel through ice tunnels that seemingly come out of nowhere and what appeared to be a leftover set from THE MUMMY RETURNS. Aside from the silly cave system, this film is about as bland as monster flicks can be.

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Though I don’t know the complete production story, but I would imagine that THE CAVE was originally rated R and then severely cut back to a PG-13. I say this because there are behind the scenes stills of creature puppets that never made it into the final cut. Nearly every scene with monsters uses silly CGI glimpses, fast cuts and lame POV shots. The monster attacks are edited to the point of sheer incoherency. I literally can’t tell you how some of these people died due to a series of quick shots and close-ups that were clearly added in post-production. I think one character was impaled as the camera seemed unnaturally focused solely on his face, while a far away shot looked a little more graphic. This is also not to mention the clearly redubbed swearing in which one person yells “They freaking fly!” or another begins saying “Come on, motherf…” and then the scene cuts completely off him. Ironically, the only reason I was excited to see this movie as a teenager was because I could get into the theater for it thanks to the PG-13 and that has turned out to be the biggest problem that I have with the film a decade later.

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Every bit as generic as its title, THE CAVE plays out like a Syfy Channel movie of the week. The characters are bland. The creatures look lame when we actually are given a brief shot of them. The script is ludicrous and takes itself way too seriously. There’s a possibility of enjoyment if you watch this film with a group of friends in a so-bad-it’s-good way, but that’s highly unlikely seeing as it’s just so dull in the end. Avoid this film and just watch THE DESCENT instead.

Grade: D

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sustained Sequences of Stylized Bloody Violence Throughout, a Sex Scene, Nudity and some Language

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Directed by: Noam Murro

Written by: Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad

(based on the graphic novel XERXES by Frank Miller)

Starring: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Rodrigo Santoro, Jack O’Connell, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey & David Wenham

There’s no beating around the bush. 300 was a revolutionary film in sheer visual style. It was an admittedly historically inaccurate war film that focused on grandiose visuals and insane amounts of gratuitous violence. 300 was a blast and has garnered a rather large fan base. It’s odd that seven years later near the anniversary of the first 300, a sequel with the subtitle RISE OF AN EMPIRE is hitting multiplexes and sure to be a huge hit. This second installment manages to recapture the style of the first and stumbles in other areas.

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RISE OF AN EMPIRE is set before, during, and after the Battle of Thermopylae (the main event in the previous entry). It begins with the Battle of Marathon, where the story introduces our main protagonist: Themistocles. The film then goes on to show Xerxes rising into power, but there is also another antagonist introduced. This is the vicious female commander named Artemisia. Xerxes declares war on Greece and Artemisia commands his naval fleets. Themistocles isn’t going to idly stand by and tries to unite with Sparta (who have already headed to their three-day battle witnessed in the first film). Now with a massive enemy on the Aegean Sea, the Athenians must use ingenuity to keep their freedom and defeat the Persians. Lots of violence, bloodshed, and destruction ensues.

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Just like the first 300, the visuals are nothing short of stunning in RISE OF AN EMPIRE. There’s plenty of slow-motion to go around and the battle sequences are impressive to say the least. If I didn’t know any better I would have said that Zack Snyder had returned to direct this sequel. That’s a huge compliment towards Noam Murro, whose only other directorial endeavor thus far is the dramedy SMART PEOPLE. It’s odd that a huge studio like Warner Brothers would entrust the second installment in a possible franchise to a relative newcomer, but stranger things have happened. Though most of the visual aspects are downright jaw-dropping, there were moments (especially near the end) that felt like I was watching a video game. Good use of CGI should never take the viewer out of the action in a movie like this, but that’s exactly what these brief scenes did. The blood also had a distinctly different look this time around that took a little getting used to.

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One thing I really dug about RISE OF AN EMPIRE was how nicely the story tied in the first film with the events happening here. History already links them, but it was nice to see familiar faces reappear and scenes that directly connected the two. As big as some of the problems are, RISE OF AN EMPIRE makes for a nice double-feature of mayhem with the first 300. As the main villainess, Eva Green delivers a show-stopping performance. She rises to the occasion of being the scariest female character I think I’ve ever seen in a big budget blockbuster. Green is insane and definitely stands tall as the best thing about this sequel.

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Sadly this isn’t the case with the actor playing Themistocles. Sullivan Stapleton (GANGSTER SQUAD) lacks the charisma that Gerard Butler did so well as King Leonidas. There are some overly familiar plot threads too. In the first 300, there was a father-son relationship between two of the Spartan soldiers done pretty well. In RISE OF AN EMPIRE, another father-son relationship plays out with opposite results. It felt clichéd in that we had seen pretty much the exact same thing play out in the previous film. Also those supposedly invincible assassins known as the Immortals (that posed such a huge threat in the first film and provided one of the best scenes in that entire film) were regulated to CGI constructed inconveniences towards the climax.

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These deadly warriors also served as the punch line to a weird comic relief joke that seemed inappropriate given the tone of the rest of the film. Speaking of which, words like “shit” and “fuck” didn’t even exist back in ancient Greece. Every time a swear word was uttered, it was a bit distracting. I am well aware this is a piece of historical fiction, but the use of modern language in a period piece seems silly. Imagine if one if the Spartans gave high-fives or fist-pumps him after a kill. It would be just plain annoying. That’s exactly how these curse words sounded in this context.

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300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE ups the ante in the violence, sex, and gore department, but doesn’t have a strong enough story to live up to the original. It’s cliché for a film critic to compare a sequel to the original. Seeing RISE OF AN EMPIRE is a direct follow-up to 300, this is completely warranted. Eva Green steals the show as Artemisia, but Sullivan Stapleton doesn’t come off as a particularly interesting hero. The effects range from awesome to passable and the blood is so frequently thrown around that it constantly seems to get on the camera. This is not Sparta! It’s just Athens. 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE is a decent enough sequel, but nowhere near as fun or awesome as its predecessor!

Grade: B-

300 (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Graphic Battle Sequences Throughout, Some Sexuality and Nudity

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Directed by: Zack Snyder

Written by: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael Gordon

(based on the graphic novel 300 by Frank Miller & Lynn Varley)

Starring: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, David Wenham, Vincent Regan, Michael Fassbender, Tom Wisdom, Andrew Pleavin, Andrew Tiernan, Rodrigo Santoro, Stephen McHattie

Sparta was a city-state in ancient Greece and had an unrelenting way of life. Men were bred to fight from birth. The way of thinking was “Come back with your shield or come back on it.” There was no retreat, no surrender, and to die in the battlefield was the greatest glory a Spartan soldier could achieve. In 480 BC, King Leonidas of Sparta marched 300 of his finest soldiers out to a narrow passageway known as the Hot Gates. This battle waged for three days and became known as the Battle of Thermopylae. This history makes great material for a cinematic treatment. Sure enough, 300 is a hyper-violent, ultra-stylized, historical-accuracy-be-damned experience based on a popular graphic novel. Like SIN CITY (also penned by Frank Miller), 300 manages to literally capture the spirit of the source material frame-by-frame and it looks absolutely stunning. This was a revolutionary cinematic achievement and many films that have come since owe a lot to the way in which it was shot. 300 is pure spectacle and taken as such, it’s absolutely awesome!

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Trained from a young age to fight and kill if necessary, Leonidas is the great king of Sparta. When a Persian messenger arrives at the city gates demanding that the Spartans bow before Xerxes, a Persian king fancying himself a God, it spurns Leonidas to seek the advice of the Oracle. His request to go to war is denied, but in spite of this, Leonidas takes his 300 finest soldiers out to the Hot Gates. This is a place where numbers count for nothing. Leonidas and his brave 300 hold off the massive Persian army for as long as they can. A three-day long battle ensues, whilst Queen Gorgo tries to rally her countrymen for her husband’s cause!

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300 is absolutely one of the best action movies of the new millennium. It mixes the formula of a war epic with outrageous style. The entire film is executed with a stunning visuals that keep the color schemes beautiful, the blood plentiful, and makes every scene downright cool! It’s not so much a film for those wanting a historically accurate depiction of the battle. Quite a few fantasy elements are thrown in. It is a movie for those wanting to kick back and watch a kick-ass ride with amazing visuals. That’s who this film is made for and it delivers!

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Seeing as the story mostly follows men bred for war from day one, the film does a great job of getting you to care for those of the 300 we do see. This includes Leonidas himself, his best friends, a captain and his son, along with some others. A couple of familiar faces who have since gone on to bigger things appear too. Michael Fassbender plays Stelios (though names of the soldiers really aren’t too important in this film) and has some of the best lines in the film. Gerard Butler displays the best performance as Leonidas and wins over the viewer with his view of combat. Xerxes says “I would kill any one of my men without a second’s notice” and Leonidas replies “And I would gladly die for any one of mine.” That’s all we needed to get us to care about this man and his army. Performances are solid from everybody, but the dialogue is great as well. Some lines are nothing short of brilliant. One of my favorite scenes is a meeting between Leonidas and Xerxes which takes plenty of jabs taken at this supposed God-king’s expense.

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As far as complaints go, the battle sequences and scenes with the Spartan warriors talking amongst themselves are way more interesting than any of the politics Gorgo goes through in the city. Luckily, Zack Snyder knew this and let’s the battle take up the majority of screen time, instead of Gorgo’s rallying of her countrymen. Otherwise, I don’t have a bad thing to say about 300. It’s definitely made for a certain audience and is a visual feast, not a war movie that provides thought-provoking looks at the horrific violence brought on by it.

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300 is pure spectacle. That’s what it is and it was never meant to be anything more. Taken as such, this film is absolutely amazing! The visual style has gone on to be replicated in other films (most noticeably, IMMORTALS, a take on Greek mythology from the same producers). It’s packed full of crazy action scenes and filled to the brim with stylized violence. This is pure bloody entertainment and should entrance generations for years to come!

Grade: A

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