DEATH BECOMES HER (1992)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Nudity and Off-Color Humor

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Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Written by: Martin Donovan & David Koepp

Starring: Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, Goldie Hawn, Isabella Rossellini, Ian Ogilvy, Adam Storke & Nancy Fish

Between creating the BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy and winning two Academy Awards for FORREST GUMP, director Robert Zemeckis helmed a darkly funny horror-comedy. Though it was a huge box office smash at the time of its release and won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, DEATH BECOMES HER has become a bit of an underrated gem these days. This dark comedy relies on smart writing, different styles of humor and a thoroughly macabre sense of whimsy. It also features Bruce Willis as you’ve never seen him before and Meryl Streep in one of her more cartoonish roles (which is really saying something). DEATH BECOMES HER is sure to delight those who have a penchant for morbid humor and want something a little out of the ordinary.

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Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) is a Broadway babe who cherishes her youthful looks and enjoys stealing boyfriends away from her longtime rival Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn). When her latest beau Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis) falls victim to Madeline’s charm, Helen grows fat and envious. Years pass by and an aging Madeline becomes desperate to preserve her fading beauty. Madeline’s money-sucking plastic surgery addiction puts her in the sights of the mysterious Lisle von Rhoman (Isabella Rossellini) who has connections to the fountain of youth. Just as Madeline seems to have found the secret to eternal beauty, the revenge-driven Helen re-enters the picture and hatches a murderous plot with wimpy, drunken Ernest. Gruesome gags, sinister silliness and lots of laughs ensue.

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I had a difficult time summarizing this film’s synopsis in a non-spoilery way, because there’s just so much that happens in the plot. The film jumps through fourteen years within the first ten minutes, but does so in a way that feels effortless and essential to the story. In many ways, the script is sort of brilliant as many solid jokes come in the form of character development before any youth potions and supernatural hijinks ever appear on the screen. Meryl Streep is fantastic as the viciously vain Madeline, while Goldie Hawn is hilarious in the role of beautiful psychopath Helen. Isabella Rossellini makes the most of her three scenes as the sexy, mysterious Lisle. The real scene-stealer is Bruce Willis though, who diverts from his expected tough guy persona to play a drunken wimp and frequently gets the biggest laughs in the film.

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Some of DEATH BECOMES HER’s technical aspects have noticeably aged and appear somewhat cheesy, but the early 90’s CGI remains pretty impressive for its time and occasionally blends in with macabre practical effects work. The film’s violence is cartoony to the point where this received a PG-13, even though bones are graphically broken and people receive other rather gruesome injuries. None of the film’s darker sensibilities ever overshadow the creative fun, mostly because they directly feed into the giddily ghoulish entertainment. After all, this is a comedy about an intense rivalry that boils over into supernatural territory and one poor schmuck caught in the middle of two bickering homicidal women.

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I’ve already mentioned that the screenplay’s character development is clever, but DEATH BECOMES HER has a way of going into places that you don’t expect. Certain plot twists are ballsy, while other expected developments (especially a big turn midway through) play out in satisfying ways. The film never takes itself too seriously and plays 99% of its scenes up for laughs, most of which work wonderfully. The script falters slightly when a few nagging plot holes emerge later on, a couple of which simply could have to be written off as wild coincidences. However, a surprisingly deep moral message (think something along the lines of DORIAN GRAY) packs in an extra layer of cleverness that you might not expect.

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DEATH BECOMES HER is one of the more underrated films of the 90’s. It’s not great in every department, due to some effects that don’t hold up and a few annoying plot holes. However, this horror-comedy delivers laughs and a macabre charm that’s pretty much irresistible. The humor includes awkward character interactions, memorable dialogue, over-the-top cartoony moments, and visual jokes that you may not expect (especially during the final act). If you want to see Bruce Willis like you’ve never seen him before and also watch Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn violently duking it out with murderous methods, DEATH BECOMES HER is certainly up your alley.

Grade: B+

THE HOMESMAN (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Sexual Content, some Disturbing Behavior and Nudity

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Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones

Written by: Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald & Wesley Oliver

(based on the novel THE HOMESMAN by Glendon Swarthout)

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, James Spader, Hailee Steinfield, Tim Blake Nelson & William Fichtner

On paper, THE HOMESMAN sounds like a cinematic recipe for success. This is a dark Western with a cast full of A-list talent and an interesting premise behind it. I was quite excited to watching this promising film and that makes the lackluster end result so much more underwhelming. There are good qualities in HOMESMAN, but the film betrays its characters and wastes a solid period setting. By the time the credits roll, the whole experience feels pointless and dreary.

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In pioneer populated Nebraska, three women have gone insane. Mary Bee Cuddy is a spinster (woman past the typical age of marriage) with an independent attitude. She bravely volunteers to take the three crazy women to Iowa, in spite of scorn from those around her. Before Mary can begin her journey, she comes across George Briggs, a claim jumper about to be hanged. Mary frees George in exchange for his services in aiding her journey. The territory is filled with bandits, harsh elements, and Indians. George and Mary must face overwhelming odds to get these three mentally damaged women to safety…as well as themselves.

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Tommy Lee Jones directs, co-writes, and acts in this Western. He pulls off the role of George with a passable performance. Jones doesn’t necessarily make this character his own though. This “bad man with a good heart” type of character is a familiar stereotype. Hilary Swank is another story. She seems to be trying way too hard as Mary. When she says certain comic relief lines, they feel stiff and lifeless. However, when she tries to be deadly serious (including an over-the-top bit of sobbing), she becomes unintentionally laughable and not convincing in the slightest. James Spader is a welcomed presence, but barely has any screen time. Tim Blake Nelson also seems suited to his one-scene scumbag, but comes off as wildly cartoonish…again, eliciting unintentional laughs from a scene that should be intense. Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, and William Fichtner are forgettable as brief side characters. Meanwhile, the crazy women themselves aren’t given enough personality to resemble actual people as opposed to human cargo.

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In spite of all the flaws, THE HOMESMAN gets a couple of things right. The music is good, as in it feels like it belongs to a far better film. There is also attention to details of the time period that can be cool, though the overall production values resemble a made-for-TV movie. Aside from mixed acting and so-so technical work, THE HOMESMAN really drops the ball in the screenplay department. The script is based on a 1988 novel that I haven’t read, but this plot feels very disjointed and muddled. There is a character decision about halfway through that betrayed everything that was shown up until that point. There’s also a nasty streak of the story being dark merely for the sake of being dark. We already understand that the Old West was a dangerous and rough time, but this film feels the need to do things just for unnecessary shock value. This is especially notable in James Spader’s sleazy character. He’s one of the best things about this movie, but his scenes feel like they were only added for edginess and pointless violence.

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Westerns are a tough sell, especially in this day and age. I appreciate certain aspects about THE HOMESMAN, including a few well-executed scenes, a solid soundtrack, and two good performances. However, I can’t help but be let down by the forced bleakness (which didn’t add much to the story), an overall unfocused narrative, and poor performances that seemed as if everyone is trying too hard to sell themselves in a role as opposed to bringing an actual character to life. THE HOMESMAN is disappointing to say the least.

Grade: C-

INTO THE WOODS (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 4 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Thematic Elements, Fantasy Action and Peril, and some Suggestive Material

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Directed by: Rob Marshall

Written by: James Lapine

(based on the musical INTO THE WOODS by Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine)

Starring: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp, Lilla Crawford, Mackenzie Mauzy & Daniel Huttlestone

A film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s acclaimed Broadway play, INTO THE WOODS, has been in the works since the 90’s. After many production ups, downs, and studio changes, the long-awaited movie has finally been released. I must confess to having not seen the play and knowing next to nothing about the story. This all being said, I had a good time watching INTO THE WOODS and it’s one of the darkest films under the Disney banner to come out in a long time. The massive amount of talent behind the scenes shines through in a memorable, though slightly flawed, fantasy musical.

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A Baker and his Wife have unknowingly been cursed by their neighbor and are unable to conceive a child. One morning, the witch comes by with an offer that if they retrieve four specific items that she needs for a spell, she will reverse the curse and bless them with a child. The desperate couple decide to go on the complicated scavenger hunt and wind up encountering various fairy tales in progress. These include Jack and the Bean Stalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Red Riding Hood. All four well-known tales are interconnected and continue after the initial “Happily Ever After” point into something darker than initially expected.

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INTO THE WOODS is clever in the way that it connects multiple stories into one entity. The pacing is quick, but also slows down in places as two storylines are more interesting than the others. I was fully engaged in Red Riding Hood and Cinderella. However, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel merely seem set up so they can deliver a couple of developments in the last 40 minutes. The scavenger hunt wraparound is entertaining, but mainly serves as a driving force to bring these four fairy tales together.

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Obviously, the most important part of a musical lies in the quality of the actual music. INTO THE WOODS is filled with songs that range from catchy and funny to emotional and memorable. There are also a couple of musical numbers that easily could have been cut. The running time is already a bit long as it is and when a few songs queued up my thought process was “Alright, I guess we have three more minutes of this scene to get through.” However, these are just three tunes from an otherwise memorable soundtrack. My personal favorites are “Agony” (in which two princes lament over seeking their loves) and “Hello, Little Girl” (in which the Wolf contemplates his future meal). This movie is comprised of about 80% songs and hardly any spoken conversations. If you hate musicals, this might not be for you. It also bears mentioning that certain bits of the score reminded me of SWEENEY TODD (which makes sense seeing that Stephen Sondheim composed both of them).

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The cast is made up of big names and unknowns. Whether they are famous or not, every performer can sing well and knows how over-the-top or subtle to make their characters in specific scenes. Meryl Streep is front and center on most of the marketing for this film, but serves as means to an end in her character. The same can be said for the James Corden as the Baker and Emily Blunt as his Wife. Anna Kendrick (who has proven herself to be a remarkable actress) is absolutely fantastic as Cinderella and steals just about every scene that she’s in. Johnny Depp briefly hams it up as the Wolf, but nowhere near the annoying degree that some may expect of him in yet another quirky role. My favorite character and bit of casting was Chris Pine as Prince Charming. He’s hilarious and a lot of fun to watch, particularly in two musical numbers (the aforementioned “Agony” being one of them).

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In terms of production values, INTO THE WOODS is excellent. Every detail is brought to life through various effects. The film (and its source material) stick closely the original Grimm’s fairy tales, which means that the Cinderella storyline does get quite gruesome (though brought with a wink and nudge of dark humor). I’m not exactly a fan of the make-up on Meryl Streep as the Witch, but Johnny Depp’s appearance as the Wolf was refreshingly subtle (not much face paint or over-the-top costume design). WOODS captures an atmosphere that shifts from whimsical to eerie in the blink of an eye.

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The biggest surprise that I got out of INTO THE WOODS was the story becoming its own fairy tale with specific (and complicated) moral messages. These don’t quite reveal themselves until the last act, which started off shakily and gradually grew on me. The movie is far from perfect (a couple of unneeded musical numbers and a stretched running time), but it’s a lot of fun. This is more of a mature fantasy than I was originally expecting. INTO THE WOODS is a good musical that will entertain fans of fairy tales, adults and children alike.

Grade: B

THE GIVER (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for a Mature Thematic Image and some Sci-Fi Action/Violence

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Directed by: Phillip Noyce

Written by: Michael Mitnick & Robert B. Weide

(based on the novel THE GIVER by Lois Lowry)

Starring: Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Odeya Rush, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift & Cameron Monaghan

I never read Lois Lowry’s THE GIVER and can’t give a detailed description on if the book holds up to the source material. With the recent trend of young adult fiction turned into films that usually involve supernatural romance or a futuristic dystopian society, I can say that THE GIVER stands strong against the competition. It’s like a somewhat easier version of Orwell’s 1984. The film fumbles here and there, but ultimately winds up being a good flick that has befallen a similar fate to last year’s superior ENDER’S GAME. This movie isn’t doing well at the box office, nor is it receiving many good reviews. All this being set aside for the moment, I enjoyed THE GIVER a lot.

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In a community that is literally black and white, society has become less about people functioning and more about functioning itself. This community is absent of color, emotions and anything resembling a natural human instinct. It’s as boring a place as you can imagine where sameness is supreme and everybody is an emotionless tool living a pointless existence. Jonas is a boy living in this would-be utopia and has been assigned a unique job. He has become the new receiver of memories. This bland society has no idea about the history that led up to this point, the ultimate consequences of actions, or any feelings whatsoever with the exception of one person: the receiver of memory. Jonas is trained by the old receiver and learns about the past behind his world, joy and pain, along with the ultimate uselessness of a society populated with blank slates. As Jonas yearns to show others what they are missing out on, he becomes a danger to those in charge and discovers the darker side to this supposed perfect world.

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THE GIVER had me interested for the entire time it was playing out. Though it’s not the best young adult adaptation around (the underappreciated ENDER’S GAME still beats this by miles), it’s refreshing to see a film like this tackle a meaningful message in an effective way. There are shocking moments, including one revelation that takes things into very dark territory. Though some naïve tweens have taken to message boards ranting about how THE GIVER is ripping off DIVERGENT and HUNGER GAMES, it’s actually the other way around. GIVER was written in the early 90’s and echoes of Orwell’s 1984 nicely. The adaptation of THE GIVER never fully goes on into the utter tear-wrenching hopelessness that Orwell’s novel captured, but it’s still mighty bleak.

THE GIVER, from left: Jeff Bridges, Brenton Thwaites, 2014. ©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Coll

One thing I noticed right away about THE GIVER is how believable this world was. Everything is fleshed out. The sets are incredible, along with some other nice additions to these (the design of something as simple as a bike shows the community for how truly bland it is). The color scheme also varies depending on whose point of view a scene is in. With emotionless dregs, everything is a stark black and white. As Jonas gets more training, the world lights up around him with various colors. Though only for a few scenes, the inside of buildings are great as well. I believed that I was looking into another world and that’s half the battle of getting a viewer engaged into this film.

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The rest of the battle is won with good writing and mostly solid acting. Brenton Thwaites has been criticized for being too old for the role of Jonas, but this element has definitely been changed from the book to film (kind of like ENDER’S GAME). Thwaites has thus far been in three different movies I’ve seen this year with three varying results: good in MALEFICENT, decent in OCULUS, and bad in THE SIGNAL. As Jonas, Thwaites proves himself to be a more than capable actor who can be a compelling character when given the right role. Jeff Bridges is getting older and it helps his character of The Giver (the old receiver of memories training Jonas), but Bridges also brings everything he has to the table for this sympathetic tragic figure. Alexander Skarsgard shines in the side-role of Jonas’s father. The other two young cast members are rather forgettable, though that might be attributed to their blank slate characters. As far as sinister forces go, I found Katie Holmes (Jonas’s mother) to be far more intimidating than Meryl Streep as the community leader. Holmes brought serious A-game to this role and got me to hate her by acting like a cold emotionless bitch (who her literally character was).

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THE GIVER is not without some issues. Some of the flashbacks/memories being seen on-screen can be a little cheesy. Parts of the movie (especially near the ending) feel rushed. The third act pushes plausibility to everything the viewer has been shown up to this point and doesn’t take its time to play things out into smooth transitions. Taylor Swift appears in a couple of scenes and doesn’t fare well as an actress. The ending is too tidy as well, complete with unneeded narration that also appeared throughout certain parts of the film from Jonas. The novel might have been written in this format of Jonas telling us the story, but the film would have benefitted from the viewer being shown this without knowing hints of the conclusion in advance.

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It’s ironic that an interesting and intelligent science-fiction flick adapted from a young adult novel is receiving so much flack from the same crowd that digs on stuff like DIVERGENT. THE GIVER is not without its share of problems (see the above paragraph), but it’s a well-constructed flick. I dug the world being shown, the acting was solid from nearly everyone, and cool ideas were presented in risky ways. One scene won’t be forgotten any time soon. I hope that THE GIVER and ENDER’S GAME both get the recognition they deserve in the future. Like ENDER, THE GIVER is an already underrated gem of science fiction tackling mature issues in a teen-friendly way. Check this one out.

Grade: B

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