THE GAME (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, and for some Violence and Sexuality

Directed by: David Fincher

Written by: John Brancato & Michael Ferris

Starring: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, James Rebhorn, Deborah Kara Unger, Peter Donat, Carroll Baker, Armin Mueller-Stahl & Anna Katarina

Despite getting off to a rocky start with ALIEN 3, director David Fincher demonstrated his masterful cinematic storytelling in 1995’s crime-thriller SE7EN. Audiences seemed primed and ready for a follow-up thriller from Fincher, but 1997’s THE GAME grossed below studio expectations and typically isn’t one of the first titles that gets brought up in conversations about Fincher. While it certainly isn’t on the same high quality as Fincher’s perfect thrillers, THE GAME is a tense ride that keeps your eyeballs glued to the screen. In some ways, THE GAME feels like the feature-length version of a good TWILIGHT ZONE episode, which means that it comes with many positive qualities and a few noticeable problems.

Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is a super wealthy banker who (despite living in a huge mansion and having a lavish lifestyle) just can’t seem to relax and enjoy life. When Nick’s younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn) comes to town, it appears that Nick’s life just might change in exciting and potentially dangerous ways. Conrad gives Nick the unique birthday present of an interactive game that’s specifically tailored for each player. The strange gaming company CRS soon infiltrates Nick’s life seemingly everywhere he turns. Soon enough, Nick is being thrust into deadly scenarios and begins to doubt that he’ll survive this sinister “game.”

I’ve only seen a handful of Michael Douglas performances (I still need to watch WALL STREET), but THE GAME’s protagonist seems perfectly made for this actor’s style. Douglas comes off as a convincing tightwad, rich guy asshole and I was wondering if I’d be able to feel anything for this prick of a protagonist during the film’s first fifteen minutes. However, Douglas’s character does reveal a more human, emotional side as this “game” pushes him to his breaking point (both mentally and physically). Douglas gets to show a range of acting as his character goes through periods of depression, desperation, fear, anger, and determination. Michael Douglas acts his ass off and it’s a joy to watch.

The supporting cast doesn’t exactly have a big range of names as a lot of CRS employees and business colleagues only show up for a single scene or a couple of brief moments. Sean Penn makes the most of his small role as Nick’s desperate brother and gets to deliver a bombshell scene midway through that makes the already intense thriller even more intense. Deborah Kara Unger plays Christine, a waitress caught up in the middle of the game and also a potential love interest for Douglas. James Rebhorn is appropriately creepy as a CRS spokesman who introduces Douglas’s character to the potentially fatal “game.”

Because THE GAME is a David Fincher film, you can bet your bottom dollar that the cinematography looks slick and atmospheric. Fincher’s distinct visual style (that often has a unique feeling of bleakness to it) adds a layer of seriousness to material that (to be honest) dangerously comes close to being goofy and over-the-top. The viewer really needs to suspend their disbelief at certain points in the script to make this story work, but that doesn’t lessen the constant suspense. Much like Nick, we never quite know what is real and what is part of the “game.” We only have an idea that this won’t end well for the formerly Scrooge-like protagonist who’s finding his humanity as he’s trying to save his own skin.

THE GAME’s problems stem from plot holes that rear their ugly heads during the final minutes. The script went to the trouble of including lines of dialogue that fill in certain gaps and let the viewer know that there were other possibilities during certain scenes. However, a couple of big moments seem to rely on certain characters being omnipotent. One major scene has similar flaw that was pointed out and made fun of in DUMB AND DUMBER (of all things, and that film came out three years earlier than THE GAME’s release). I couldn’t help but think back to one line of dialogue and laugh my ass off, because that scene in THE GAME really falls apart when you think about it.

THE GAME is another solid thriller in David Fincher’s stellar filmography, even though it’s not quite on the same level of his other thrillers (e.g. SE7EN, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, GONE GIRL, etc.). There’s lots of suspense and entertainment to be found in this film, but you do have to buy into some pretty far-fetched ideas and silly coincidences (particularly in the action-driven finale). Michael Douglas’s performance is so good that it’s worth watching the entire film just to see it. However, constant twists (as silly as they get) and the thick atmosphere are likely to keep you hooked. As silly and ridiculous as THE GAME can be, it still remains a damn good thriller that’s worth watching. If you can overlook certain plot points, you might love it more than I did.

Grade: B+

BASIC INSTINCT (1992)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 8 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Sensuality, and for Drug Use and Language

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Directed by: Paul Verhoeven

Written by: Joe Eszterhas

Starring: Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, George Dzundza, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Denis Arndt & Leilani Sarelle

Paul Verhoeven has made a name for himself by directing three well-known sci-fi blockbusters (ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL, STARSHIP TROOPERS), but he also has a penchant for thrillers. The most famous of these is BASIC INSTINCT, an erotic mystery that has generated controversy over the years and earned a notorious reputation for its graphic sex and violence. Two decades have done little to damper this film from being a bloody, sexy thriller that’s well worth the time of anyone who enjoys a dark neo-noir.

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A famous rock star has been murdered in the middle of a sexual encounter. Nick, a detective with a troubling cocaine habit and a loose trigger finger, has been assigned to the investigation. The hardened cop suspects that the victim’s girlfriend, author Catherine Tramell, might be the murderess. His suspicions are only heightened when he finds that Catherine’s friends have a nasty habit of dying, which she promptly uses for material in her best-selling novels. To try to catch her in the act and gain potential evidence, Nick begins an affair with Catherine. However, he’s wading into very dangerous waters as he’s become the main character in Catherine’s latest book.

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Though Verhoeven has a few thrillers in his filmography, BASIC INSTINCT seems like an erotic throwback to the films of Hitchcock and early De Palma (who was echoing Hitchcock). Unlike those early classics and 70’s thrillers, Verhoeven is able to get away with an insane amount of sensuous sex and graphic violence. The opening scene immediately sets the tone as we see the rock star in a rousing moment that ends with a shocking stabbing. I’m sure this scene got a lot of gasps and shocked reactions upon its initial release and it’s just as effective today. The murderess is kept in a dim-light so we don’t fully know if Catherine is the killer. In this way, Verhoeven doesn’t reveal his cards all at once and leaves a numerous twists for the viewer. This isn’t a simple cut-and-dried mystery that you can completely predict as other suspects and clues do pop up throughout. One revelation midway through surprised the hell out of me.

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As far as characters go, Michael Douglas could have been a completely unlikable prick in the wrong hands. Through some filmmaking magic, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven make Nick into a sympathetic detective with huge problems. Douglas plays Nick as a damaged protagonist who is trying to do the right thing. In this case, that involves solving a grisly mystery and getting romantically involved with the main suspect. As the potential murderess in question, Sharon Stone shines as Catherine. She perfectly blends sexy and danger into a single character. This is probably one of my favorite femme fatales to ever grace the big screen. You never really know about her, but you have sneaking suspicions of what she might be capable of. The only way to find out if she’s a manipulative psycho is to watch the film until the very last shot.

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To finally address the elephant in the room, BASIC INSTINCT has some of the best sex scenes to ever see the light of day in any mainstream movie. What’s great about these moments is that they’re not meant to be purely sensuous. They don’t only exist for eye candy, but have a lurking suspense hovering over them. The opening scene graphically showed us what this movie is capable of in the heat of the moment. As a result, I was half expecting a gruesome murder to take place in any number of these sex scenes (one of which had me on the edge of my seat multiple times). The body count in this movie is not limited to one person either and the bloody violence is executed in a way that’s reminiscent of Del Palma. Verhoeven knows when to show murder and when to merely hint at it for a better shock.

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The plot of BASIC INSTINCT is not perfect as one scene near the climax relies on the viewer suspending their disbelief for a few minutes. The conclusion that follows this minor plot hole made me ignore it as a minor complaint. Containing two great characters and a memorable story that keeps you on the edge of your seat, this is one of the best thrillers to come out of the 90’s. BASIC INSTINCT is as erotic as a passionate kiss and as sharp as the tip of an ice pick.

Grade: A

BEYOND THE REACH (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Violence

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Directed by: Jean-Baptiste Leonetti

Written by: Stephen Susco

(based on the novel DEATHWATCH by Robb White)

Starring: Michael Douglas, Jeremy Irvine, Ronny Cox & Hanna Mangan-Lawrence

BEYOND THE REACH is the second human-hunting thriller to come out this year (the first being PRESERVATION). Adapted from the young-adult novel DEATHWATCH, this film premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival to some positive buzz. The movie stars Michael Douglas in a villainous role, so it also had that going for it. Sadly, neither of these things prevent BEYOND THE REACH from overstaying its welcome by 30 minutes and going into stale, clichéd, overly familiar territory.

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Ben is a hunting guide who lives near the Mojave Desert. His latest client is the wealthy, powerful John Madec. Madec is a cocky businessman who reveals that his penchant for hunting is strictly for the trophies and he doesn’t think too highly of Ben (due to his low-class position and young age). The distrust between these two men gets even deeper when John wildly fires his rifle at what he believes to be a big-horn sheep, only to discover that it was an old prospector. Seeing as John doesn’t want Ben soiling his career with this crime, he makes Ben strip down to his undies and forces him to walk out into the desert. While Ben desperately wanders around looking for possible means of survival, John drinks martinis and watches from the scope of his rifle. A game of cat-and-mouse ensues in the deadly landscape as Ben tries to turn the tables on John.

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What separates this “humans hunting humans” tale from the rest of its competition is that John is a shady businessman who decides not to necessarily hunt Ben, but rather let nature do the job for him. The desert environment keeps things interesting as there is plenty of barren landscape where John can clearly keep an eye on Ben and a lack of water that makes both Ben (and the viewer) thirsty. You can practically feel the heat from some of the cinematography and scenery. Michael Douglas also fares well playing a sociopathic hunter turned rifle-wielding baddie. However, his performance does get over-the-top during the final third. While Douglas begins with little verbal jabs aimed at Ben during the first third of the film, he’s yelling nonsense like “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, I kill you!” in the final 30 minutes. As you might imagine, those lines are every bit as eye-rolling and face-palm worthy as they sound.

BEYOND THE REACH, Jeremy Irvine, 2014. © Roadside Attractions

Douglas is the only performer/character worth mentioning in a positive light though, because Ben is one bland protagonist. We don’t know much about him other than the typical clichés you usually see in this type of character. He’s running a family business and experiencing relationship problems. As if the movie couldn’t get any cheesier, Ben has hallucinations of his even blander girlfriend urging him to carry on. The story is littered with clichés and gets really stupid during its finale. By which I mean, the last 10-minute epilogue felt like it was tagged on for no good reason. Seeing as the movie is essentially one man stalking the other through a desert, you’d think the filmmaker would try his best to keep things interesting. At over 90 minutes, the running time feels severely stretched.

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There are qualities to like about this film and an equal amount of qualities to dislike. Michael Douglas puts in a good performance, before becoming a cartoon character during the last third. The desert landscape is certainly a threatening one and seems like a somewhat fresh setting to throw this kind of MOST DANGEROUS GAME scenario into. The main problems come from the movie wearing out its welcome and the protagonist being about as bland as bland can be. BEYOND THE REACH is the kind of movie that might serve as an okay time-waster if you’re suffering from a case of insomnia and run across it on Netflix or late-night cable. Otherwise, I recommend skipping this film in favor of better MOST DANGEROUS GAME-inspired entertainment.

Grade: C

ANT-MAN (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence

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Directed by: Peyton Reed

Written by: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay & Paul Rudd

(based on the ANT-MAN comics by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Pena, Judy Greer & Michael Douglas

I’m not going to lie. I really though ANT-MAN was going to suck. I wasn’t rooting for the film to be bad, but it looked like this could have been the first big misfire in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After all, there were production difficulties (Edgar Wright was replaced as the director) and this was yet another superhero origin story (something should have been over after the first AVENGERS made a splash). Plus, there’s the irrefutable evidence that Ant-Man isn’t exactly the coolest superhero around. So this latest Marvel movie is on a significantly smaller scale (no pun intended) with only a few locations and a handful of characters, but it comes off as less of a superhero movie and more of Marvel’s version of a heist thriller. What results is a surprisingly solid entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Color me surprised. ANT-MAN is really, really good!

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Scott Lang is an ex-con trying to get his life back on track. When no jobs pan out and prospects for seeing his daughter look grim, he immediately returns to a life of burglary…only to wind up in something far greater than he ever imagined. Scott has been recruited by scientific genius Hank Pym to become Ant-Man (a tiny hero with super strength) in order to retrieve a deadly weapon from the evil Darren Cross (Pym’s former protégé). With the clock ticking before the weapon’s completion, Scott (aided by Pym and Hope, Pym’s daughter) must prepare for a high-stakes heist unlike anything ever attempted before…

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ANT-MAN feels like OCEAN’S ELEVEN by way of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. It’s far sillier and more comedic than any of Marvel’s past efforts (yes, more than GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY). Even though the story takes place on a much smaller scale than pretty much every other film in Marvel’s cannon, it also feels refreshing because we’ve never seen the studio attempt this sort of film before. So far they’ve only had superhero movies and a space opera and that’s about it. Now, we can add sci-fi heist thriller to their filmography. Though it does have a couple of clichés in that this is technically an origin story for a future Avenger, ANT-MAN doesn’t feel like a superhero movie and tonally separates itself from the pack of other AVENGERS movies as a result. That doesn’t mean there aren’t tie-ins to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, because one well-placed cameo as well as one piece of dialogue that directly references AGE OF ULTRON got huge laughs from the audience I saw this with…and I was chuckling right along with them. I hope that Phase III of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has more of these unconventional superhero movies (with BLACK PANTHER and INHUMANS down the road).

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Paul Rudd is well-cast as Ant-Man. I was hesitant when I saw him in the role, because I mainly know him from comedies. However, he slips so well into Scott’s friendly ex-con trying to do the right thing demeanor that you can’t help but love the character. Michael Douglas shows up as the quirky genius scientist and though he’s enjoyable to watch, the character feels like so many others in past superhero movies (including some in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). Evangeline Lilly is enjoyable as Pym’s daughter, but her character also feels too familiar. Michael Pena is fantastic as the comic relief and somehow manages to steal the movie right out from under Rudd’s feet. Meanwhile, Corey Stoll (an actor that I’ve recently taken a liking to) is enjoyable as Darren (a.k.a. Yellowjacket). His character is cut and dried evil, but Stoll is smarmy enough in the role to make us both laugh at the villain and be intimidated by him.

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Color me shocked. Back in January, I never thought it would be possible for ANT-MAN to walk away with a better grade than AGE OF ULTRON…yet here it is doing exactly that. ANT-MAN is a movie that never should have worked and the promotional material suggested that this was going to be a major step backwards for Marvel. However, the movie has wound up as one of the biggest surprises of 2015 thus far. It’s far from perfect (suffering from a few origin story clichés and familiar character types), but the film is all around entertaining and fun! This is Marvel’s take on a heist movie and winds up on the higher end of their Cinematic Universe. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but ANT-MAN comes highly recommended!

Grade: B+

THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Violence and Gore involving Animal Attacks

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Directed by: Stephen Hopkins

Written by: William Goldman

(based on the book THE MAN-EATERS OF TSAVO by John Henry Patterson)

Starring: Val Kilmer, Michael Douglas, John Kani, Bernard Hill, Tom Wilkinson, Brian McCardie, Emily Mortimer & Om Puri

Aside from Gustav the crocodile, the Tsavo man-eaters are probably the most well-known instance of a bloodthirsty animal taking a serial killer approach and offing as many people as it possibly could. The story behind the Tsavo man-eaters is a fascinating one and filmmakers have attempted to cash in on it with a variety of films (one of which was considered to be the first 3D movie ever made). Without a doubt, the most well-known take on the material is 1996’s THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS which is pretty much a glossed over monster movie that delivers great entertainment, even if it has a few clichés.

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John Patterson is an engineer hired to complete a British railway in Africa. The project looks to be a difficult one, but John has always wished to visit the continent so he accepts the assignment. While heat, tensions between workers and tough terrain bring delays. John wins the workers over by killing a man-eating lion that attacked a man shortly after his arrival. Sadly, this is not the last man-eater that John will encounter as a pair of vicious four-legged killers take to devouring construction workers at night (going as far as to enter the tents and pull a person out into the tall grass for an easy meal). With John being wildly out of his element, famed hunter Charles Remington comes to save the day. Surprisingly, this pair of lions are far more cunning and dangerous than any that Remington has previously killed. It’s up to John, Charles and native African Samuel to take down the pair of lions before they claim more victims.

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THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS was mainly shot on a game reservation in Africa and it doesn’t feel as if anything were tame about this production. You can feel the sweat, heat and danger around every corner while watching it. The cinematography is gorgeous and the whole film takes place on a grand scale. Jerry Goldsmith (who also composed the brilliant theme from BOYS FROM BRAZIL) delivers a powerful score that enhances every shot, but never takes over the film. It should be noted that Hollywood definitely prettied up the actual story to deliver more excitement and tense scenes than what actually occurred in the real hunt for the Tsavo lions. The real take down of these man-eaters required a total of 13 bullets, but that’s not what happens in the film. It’s kind of obvious why, because if you were to watch seven shots fired into one big killer cat over the course of a long day…it could get more than a little repetitive and possibly comical. This is one of those rare cases where changing the details a bit makes for a possibly better story on film.

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Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas, both of whom were huge in 1996, headline this adventure as John Patterson and Charles Remington respectively. The two play well off each other with convincing chemistry in a mentor/protégé friendship. Taken in their own scenes, both performers pull their weight. Michael Douglas is essentially playing Quint from JAWS but in the jungle. Val Kilmer is a likable protagonist, but he uses a would-be Irish accent that comes and goes depending on the scene. John Kani is also quite good as the native Samuel who was probably my second-favorite character in this film after jungle Quint…er, I mean Remington. Tom Wilkinson shows up for a total of two scenes as a pompous asshole who cares far more for finishing his railroad than for the measly lives of 30 African construction workers who have been devoured by vicious jungle beasts. Meanwhile, Emily Mortimer is bland as Patterson’s wife…but isn’t necessarily an essential part of this film.

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The attack sequences and stalking scenes of the Tsavo lions are appropriately frightening. Usually, the more you reveal the monster, the less scary it becomes. There’s a lot of truth to that approach and it worked perfectly for JAWS. Though GHOST AND THE DARKNESS seems to be going for that in the opening, we do see a lot of the lions. It doesn’t hurt the tension whatsoever as these man-eaters were brought to life with five trained lions and seamless shots of lion puppets. It should be stated that the lions in this movie have manes and the real ones didn’t, but you’d probably be hard pressed to find tamed Tsavo lions who would work on film. The film delivers a number of tense sequences throughout and maintains a level of constant suspense. This is pretty much JAWS…with lions. Though it’s not as good as Spielberg’s classic (which is the unshakable masterpiece of killer animal movies), I had a blast watching this and felt my hairs standing on end during certain scenes. A stalking sequence in the fog-laden night is downright terrifying, especially when you know that the killer animal can clearly see you and you can’t see it. That suspense also translates well into daylight scenes, which is rare for any horror film.

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Stripped down to its bare essentials, THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS is basically JAWS in the jungle. That’s not a knock on the film in any sense. Though it suffers from Kilmer’s bad Irish accent and a couple of annoying clichés, the biggest of which are a cop-out dream sequence and a jump scare that replaces the cat with a zebra. GHOST AND THE DARKNESS can be enjoyed as both a Hollywood adventure and a straight-up monster movie that happens to be inspired by a real-life incident. Either way you take it, it remains a total blast to watch!

Grade: B+

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