ASSASSIN’S CREED (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, Thematic Elements and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Justin Kurzel

Written by: Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper & Bill Collage

(based on the video game ASSASSIN’S CREED by Ubisoft)

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams, Ariane Labed & Matias Varela

Before diving into the nitty gritty of this review, it should be noted that I haven’t played a minute of the ASSASSIN’S CREED video games and am judging this purely as a film. To be perfectly honest, I walked into this movie blind and didn’t know what to expect from the plot at all. I simply went into theater wanting a cool action flick with some neat ideas. Though there are definitely a few neat ideas at work and three stellar action sequences, ASSASSIN’S CREED suffers from never reaching its full potential and wasting great talent (both on the screen and behind the scenes).

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Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is a murderer facing his execution by lethal injection…only to awake in the mysterious Abstergo facility after he’s “died.” This strange corporation is heavily guarded, shrouded in secrecy and has a bunch of violence-prone individuals being subjected as human guinea pigs to a genetic scientific experiment. Scientist Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard) wishes to use Callum to discover the key to world peace. She hopes to accomplish this by unethically forcing Callum to relive memories of a long-dead assassin ancestor in 1492 Spain and then using that knowledge to recover an ancient artifact known as “The Apple of Eden.” However, Sophia’s father Alan (Jeremy Irons) may have nefarious motives for possessing this powerful device. As Callum lives out centuries-old genetic memories, he finds himself becoming slowly gifted with extraordinary abilities and realizing that a creed of ancient assassins is still very much alive.

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From what I can gather, this film follows a similar structure to the ASSASSIN’S CREED video games. However, this cinematic version of the story has a difficult time balancing the present and the centuries-old past storylines. This is especially a bummer, because both narratives have potential in different ways. The present-day scenes disappointingly come off as exposition-crammed filler between the past’s action that showcases a major conflict between the assassins and the Spanish Inquisition. If this movie had taken place entirely in the past, it might have been a hundred times better in quality. The three flashbacks/genetic memories are easily the film’s highlights, with the middle portion being a stellar chase sequence and sticking out as the best scene in the movie.

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To further add insult to injury, CREED wastes a significant amount of time in repeating information that has already been shown to us. Even though it repeats certain plot points to the peak of annoyance, the script somehow manages to remain frustratingly vague in other key details of the storyline. We are told about the Apple of Eden in an opening text crawl, then it is reiterated in a prologue (rendering the opening text as totally useless), and then this information is repeated about three more times in the Abstergo building. Once or twice would have been enough to inform the viewer of this literal plot device, but this repetitive approach managed to make me feel like I was being treated like an idiot. The same can be said of Callum’s character, whose entire development hinges on a single incident from his past and a throwaway line of dialogue detailing the reason for his execution. The former is harped upon for about 15-20 minutes of screen time. A single memory doesn’t make for a well-developed protagonist, especially when his past ancestor is far more interesting.

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The annoying repetition of information also occurs during the film’s (mostly) stellar action sequences, which feel the need to frequently cut back to Callum in the Animus (the genetic memory machine). Though this may have worked in the games(?), it feels like we’re just watching Callum play an extreme virtual reality game…as opposed to reliving memories of his long-dead assassin ancestor Aguilar de Nerha (also played by Fassbender). This effect slightly diminishes the enjoyment of the action scenes at hand, constantly reminding the viewer of their purpose as opposed to simply letting us enjoy the lethal mayhem.

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The script’s frustrating vagueness mainly involves a shadowy group of villains, known as the Templars (based on actual history), and these antagonists are barely mentioned with any sort of context. The biggest issue with this lack of detail is that the Templars play a huge role in the story and newcomers know next to nothing about them. There’s also an eye-rolling leap into supernatural territory towards the last third that may outright lose viewers who were enjoying the film up to that point, mainly because there was no hint or explanation of why the plot would suddenly move into that genre. On a similar and yet slightly unrelated note, ASSASSIN’S CREED really drops the ball in its finale that seems to feature a ton of build-up to a very weak pay-off that ultimately ended with an obvious cliffhanger for a sequel.

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Most of this review has been spent with me writing about the action-packed pros of the past plot and the many cons of the present plot with no mention of acting, cinematography, soundtrack, and other details. Well, that’s because all of those things are well above average for your typical video game movie. Fassbender, Cotillard and Irons add a classy sense that ASSASSIN’S CREED is trying to set itself apart from past game-to-movie misfires. The film’s visuals, set design, action choreography, effects and rousing score kept me interested in the proceedings. However, these good qualities only further show how 99% of the film’s impossible-to-ignore problems stem from the sloppy script.

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At the beginning of 2016, many moviegoers were hoping that this year would change the bad reputation of video game movies. WARCRAFT was being touted as a summer tentpole and ASSASSIN’S CREED was something to look forward to in the holiday season. In true 2016 fashion, both of these films let folks down. Neither of these movies are truly terrible in my opinion, though I definitely enjoyed WARCRAFT more than ASSASSIN’S CREED, but they only serve as okay entertainment at best. With better writing, ASSASSIN’S CREED really could have been something special. Instead, this movie is just another messy attempt to bring the excitement of a video game to the big screen and not quite pulling it off.

Grade: C+

GHOSTBUSTERS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Supernatural Action and some Crude Humor

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Directed by: Paul Feig

Written by: Katie Dippold & Paul Feig

Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth, Cecily Strong, Andy Garcia, Neil Casey & Charles Dance

I wasn’t looking forward to 2016’s GHOSTBUSTERS. It’s not that the 1984 classic was a huge part of my childhood (it wasn’t) or that I’m a sexist chauvinistic jerk who bashes anything with female leads (I’m not). It’s just that the film’s marketing was piss-poor. This is especially true of the painfully bad trailers, with every joke falling flat and the overall film looking terrible. Sony’s response to claim that every outspoken critic was an automatic “sexist” or “immature man-child” was also infuriating and ridiculous. I was not up for seeing or reviewing this film, until I received impromptu free movie tickets. Suddenly, my curiosity was ignited enough to give this GHOSTBUSTERS remake/reboot (whatever the hell you want to call it) a shot. Having finally seen one of the most talked about movies of 2016, I feel this new GHOSTBUSTERS is not good or bad…or worthy of its already established controversy. This horror-comedy is a middle-of-the-road experience with positive qualities and an equal amount of negative qualities.

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Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is a college professor on the verge of getting tenure, but the resurgence of a paranormal book she co-authored with her ex-best-friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) threatens her livelihood. Through a strange set of circumstances, Erin and Abby become besties again…along with quirky inventor Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). The trio discover an actual ghost and decide to become professional paranormal researchers. However, their newly chosen career is met with understandable skepticism. The ghost-busting business starts booming when strange supernatural entities pop up around New York City. Evil genius Rowan (Neil Casey) is trying to unleash a ghostly apocalypse. With the help of streetwise Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), the four women unite to become the Ghostbusters and try to stop Rowan’s evil plans of paranormal pandemonium.

Gertrude the Ghost in Columbia Pictures' GHOSTBUSTERS.

The GHOSTBUSTERS reboot/remake is a mixed bag through and through. This is especially evident in the main performances. Kristen Wiig has been funny in the past and so has Melissa McCarthy (SPY was one of the best comedies I saw last year), but both play serious straight-women to the wacky Kate McKinnon and loud-mouthed Leslie Jones. As a result, Wiig and McCarthy didn’t really deliver any jokes that worked. All the laughs I got out of the main cast actually came Kate McKinnon’s Holtzmann and Leslie Jones’ Patty, two characters that looked annoying in the previews. Though McKinnon and Jones have their share of wooden moments, they mostly succeed as their colorful characters.

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The new GHOSTBUSTERS really drops the ball in its side characters. Besides a few show-stopping cameos from original cast members (one of which was hilarious and contributed to the main plot), the only notable supporting roles are Chris Hemsworth as a dim-witted receptionist (receiving big laughs) and forgettable bad guy Rowan. Neil Casey’s villain is a bland antagonist, who’s only motivation is that he was bullied in school. I know this because he wouldn’t stop monologuing about it. Rowan is boring and his final showdown is eye-rollingly obnoxious (repeating a tired trope that was seen in the other two GHOSTBUSTERS films). Though they only make up a combined screen time of five minutes, Charles Dance got some chuckles as an uptight college professor and Andy Garcia is slightly wacky as the nervous mayor.

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For a movie that clocks in at just under two hours, 2016’s GHOSTBUSTERS feels like it’s constantly going to get fun and exciting, but never kicks off into fully being either of those things. Aside from one sequence at a concert and another moment in which the crew test out newly invented equipment, the ghostbusting is sparse in this reboot. The effects-heavy climax is a bit of a mess with a repetitive blaster battle between the Ghostbusters and a never-ending horde of apparitions. While one moment was distinctly cut due to studio meddling and can be seen as a deleted scene in the credits, turning a goofy plot point into a gaping plot hole.

Slimer in Columbia Pictures' GHOSTBUSTERS.

Concerning the ghosts themselves, the film’s effects resemble the campy, cartoony animation from last year’s highly enjoyable GOOSEBUMPS. There are a couple of creature cameos from 1984’s GHOSTBUSTERS, with Slimer being a huge plus, but the apparitions mostly consist of generic pilgrims, pirates, and a giant monster that was eye-rollingly stupid. There’s also a dragon in this movie. Though it’s in one of the film’s best moments, I was really curious as to why this monster was considered to be a ghost…because it’s a friggin’ dragon. Maybe, I’m just nitpicking, but this supernatural creature really bothered me as its presence is never commented on for, you know, being a mythical creature and not strictly a ghost.

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2016’s GHOSTBUSTERS is watchable and has a few legitimately good moments worth mentioning. Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones and Chris Hemsworth are standouts, while one particular cameo is great. Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy and the lame villain are dull and the movie never fully kicks off into the fun ghost-hunting adventure that it should be. Half of the jokes hit (one running gag kept me laughing) and the other half miss (did we really need a queef comment or a “kick him in the balls” scene?). In the end, 2016’s GHOSTBUSTERS is a thoroughly middle-of-the-road experience.

Grade: C

THE GAMBLER (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 51 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout, and for some Sexuality/Nudity

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Directed by: Rupert Wyatt

Written by: William Monahan

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Michael K. Williams & Jessica Lange

I skipped THE GAMBLER when it hit screens last December for a number of reasons, but mainly because of the poor reception and lame marketing. This movie looked as generic as its title, not to mention that it’s also a remake of an acclaimed 70’s film. On a passing whim, I decided to shell out a dollar to rent THE GAMBLER from a Redbox and I’m pretty surprised by how much I actually liked this film. It doesn’t deserve to win awards and it definitely isn’t for everybody, but 2014’s THE GAMBLER is a decent crime-drama that left me satisfied.

THE GAMBLER, Mark Wahlberg, 2014. ph: Claire Folger/©Paramount Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Jim Bennett is a college literature professor by day and a compulsive gambling addict by night. His inability to control his addiction leads to him owing a lot of money to three very dangerous people. Jim tries to find solace in a burgeoning relationship with one of his students, but finds that his gambling habits may result in him meeting an untimely death and those around him possibly meeting similar fates. Jim tries to concoct a plan to pay off these three loan sharks, but will he be able to pull it off or walk away clean?…

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THE GAMBLER takes a little while to get going. There’s an assured style to the whole film, even if it might seem misguided in a couple of areas during the first act. The visuals are slick. The costumes look nice. There are also a number of really cool song choices on the soundtrack. This movie definitely looks good on the technical side of things, but struggles with messy pacing that sputters to a start and only really takes off in the second half of the movie. The plot as a whole is predictable, but fun to watch nonetheless. There are a couple of points that get unceremoniously abandoned throughout the film, including Jessica Lange being totally underused as Jim’s mother. The script also cheats in a few ways offering easy outs, but I was entertained in spite of these silly coincidences.

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The real reason you should watch THE GAMBLER is because of the performances. Mark Wahlberg does a solid job of establishing Jim as a really hateable character at the start and then turning him into someone you can root for by the end. At the beginning of the film, I really didn’t like this self-destructive protagonist at all and was worried that I would hate the film as a result, but Wahlberg injects pain and honesty into this man suffering from harmful habits that are hard to break. As mentioned before, Jessica Lange is underused, but shines in what brief screen time she does receive (including an honest and heartbreaking moment). Brie Larson is okay as Jim’s love interest, but there’s not a whole lot to her character. Finally, John Goodman and Michael K. Williams shine as two of the villains. This is especially true of Goodman who delivers the single best monologue in the entire film (going on about having a “Fuck you” position in life and using it). Williams is good as a loan shark. Even if his character falls prey to a pit of clichés, he still comes off as threatening despite his familiar character type.

THE GAMBLER, Mark Wahlberg, 2014. ph: Claire Folger/©Paramount Pictures

Overall, I have to give THE GAMBLER credit. This movie was a lot better than I was expecting it to be. On the negative side of things, it’s predictable, has a fair share of clichés and easy-outs, and moves at an uneven pace. On the positive, the performances are pretty great from nearly everyone involved and it winds up being an entertaining crime-drama as a whole. This might not reinvent the wheel of this genre (it’s a remake after all), but THE GAMBLER serves as a decent flick that you can kick back and kill some time with. Not perfect or necessarily great, but still a pleasant surprise.

Grade: B-

INHERENT VICE (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Drug Use throughout, Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Language and some Violence

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Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

(based on the novel INHERENT VICE by Thomas Pynchon)

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom, Maya Rudolph & Martin Short

Paul Thomas Anderson is known for making unique films, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted him tackling a stoner noir comedy. Yet, INHERENT VICE (nominated for one Golden Globe and two Academy Awards) is currently in theaters. This movie plays out like CHINATOWN by way of BIG LEBOWSKI. Unfortunately, a damn near incoherent script and lengthy running time kill some of the momentum that this hippie mystery had going for it. I can see it gaining a possible cult following, but INHERENT VICE’s big problems weigh it down. At least, the film is a somewhat entertaining mess.

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The 60’s have come to a close and the 70’s are killing the hippie movement. Doc Sportello is a pothead private investigator who receives a mysterious visit from his ex-girlfriend, Shasta. Doc’s ex, now lover to a powerful businessman, informs the hippie detective that there’s a complicated plan at work and she might be in danger. Before you know it, Shasta has disappeared and Doc is on the case. His search begins with three seemingly unrelated disappearances that lead to a huge conspiracy and much craziness. I must attest to not completely understanding everything in the plot at the end of the day, but dare anyone to explain the whole movie to me in a way that makes any plausible sense without having to pull out a notepad and pen in order to map the whole story out. At one point in the film, Doc does exactly that on his wall and I couldn’t help but feel totally lost with him (in a bad way).

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How does INHERENT VICE function as a comedy? It definitely has its fair share of very funny scenes. The best of which have not been given away in the trailer. However, there is also a semi-serious attempt to lace all of these laughs into a mystery that becomes far more irritating than entertaining. For the first hour, I had a pretty good grasp of the plot as the web of lies, murder, and drugs spun faster and faster. However, with a certain plot twist, the movie completely lost me and never regained my interest in the actual story at hand. Part of this might be entirely blamed upon the source material itself as the 2009 has been said to be polarizing. Some call it a hugely entertaining hippie noir, while others see the whole affair as an aimless bore. I’m somewhere in the middle in my opinion of this film. The biggest detriment to the movie is the overlong running time that drags in quite a few places and ends with a shrug.

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Doc is a totally wooden protagonist. Joaquin Phoenix blends right into the role of a hippie who happens to be a private investigator on the side, but there’s nothing much to this character other than him wandering through a variety of random situations (some of which work, while others fall flat). The other characters wind up serving little to no point, including Reese Witherspoon and Benicio Del Toro popping up for about 5 minutes of screen time. Not to mention that Martin Short’s entertaining role is underused. There is one exception to these shallow cartoon characters played by A-listers. That’s in the performance of Josh Brolin. Brolin plays a cop bearing the nickname of Bigfoot. This character is fuelled by an extreme prejudice against hippies, but also remains a friend (of sorts) to Doc. Brolin steals every scene he’s in and received the biggest laughs out of my theater audience (myself included).

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Even though it bores in places and is ultimately underwhelming, INHERENT VICE does have an air of solid filmmaking around it. It’s very well-shot, has great moments and sports a fantastic soundtrack. There’s a sense that what you’re watching might just be a drug-addled hallucination projected onto the theater screen (in a similar way to FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS). There are definitely positive qualities to be said for that effect. I’d almost recommend seeing the film just for the weird, funny atmosphere it brings (as well as Brolin’s scenes).

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INHERENT VICE is a one-of-a-kind movie in its concept and execution, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. There are laughs to be had, but also a running time that limps along. The A-list cast is mostly wasted and Josh Brolin walks away as the best part of the entire movie. I imagine that INHERENT VICE would play a lot better if you were high (not that I’m advocating that at all). As someone who saw the film without drugs, I think it’s just an okay flick.

Grade: C+

KILL THE MESSENGER (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and Drug Content

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Directed by: Michael Cuesta

Written by: Peter Landesman

(based on the book KILL THE MESSENGER by Gary Webb & Nick Schou)

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Barry Pepper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ray Liotta, Paz Vega, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Richard Schiff, Andy Garcia, Robert Patrick & Michael K. Williams

There are plenty of reasons why KILL THE MESSENGER is a “good” movie. It addresses huge important issues and features a standout performance that ranks among Jeremy Renner’s best roles. Other talented faces pop in and out of the story as well. There are plenty of great moments as well. It’s a shame that bad pacing fumbles up the overall experience. For those interested in corruption, ignored history, and one of the earliest whistleblowers before Snowden, then MESSENGER is a worthwhile watch.

KILL THE MESSENGER, Jeremy Renner, 2014. ph: Chuck Zlotnick/©Focus Features/courtesy Everett Collect

In the mid-90’s, Gary Webb got an interesting tip that led him to publish a series of three articles known as “Dark Alliance.” Webb interviewed many drug dealers and criminals in order to unveil a conspiracy that led to a discovery of CIA officials who knew full well about cocaine being used to fund Nicaraguan rebels in the 1980’s. It was a crooked way of fueling a conflict that wasn’t getting full support from Congress. Obviously, Webb shedding light on a top-secret story wasn’t exactly what the CIA wanted. A massive smear campaign was launched against the man to discredit him rather than focus on genuine points in his articles. KILL THE MESSENGER is based on Webb’s entire ordeal with a conspiracy thriller vibe thrown into it for good measure.

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The two biggest reasons to see KILL THE MESSENGER are the true story behind the film and a knockout performance. If there’s anything this film gets completely right, it’s that I wanted to read up on the actual story about Gary Webb’s articles and get multiple points of view. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of this plot though. Sometimes, it feels as if certain angles were prettied up in order to automatically see Gary Webb as a perfect hero figure (despite his past sins). It’s a tad manipulative and offering a more complex/flawed view would have made for a more challenging/realistic movie. Jeremy Renner knocks it out of the park as Webb! The actor pours so much emotion into his role that it’s great to watch him pretty much carry a decent movie. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Webb’s editor), Oliver Platt (Webb’s boss), Robert Patrick and Andy Garcia (drug dealers), Michael Sheen and Ray Liotta (government agents) all deliver in their scenes, even if they only appear for a mere five minutes of screen time.

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The biggest killer of momentum in the film is the pacing. There are interesting scenes that totally work within the context of the movie, but also a couple of godawful stretches that border on tedious. There’s not a solid reason why this movie should run at nearly two hours. 20 minutes could have easily been snipped out for a tighter flick. Some of these include family dynamic clichés that failed to flesh out the story further or give any emotional weight to this movie version of Webb. Also, the insertion of clips (interviews with government officials or stock footage) as montages feels like a cheap technique of transitioning from scene to scene. It’s almost like a documentary approach was inserted into an otherwise traditional narrative and it’s as jarring a decision as it sounds.

KILL THE MESSENGER, Jeremy Renner, 2014. ph: Chuck Zlotnick/©Focus Features/courtesy Everett Collect

KILL THE MESSENGER did a good job of pissing me off and rightly so about at the upsetting true story at the core of the film. Jeremy Renner almost single-handedly makes the movie work with a great performance, while other capable actors make their presence known. Bad pacing really kills the building momentum. There are definitely standout plot points that needed to be kept, but a few unneeded clichés felt cheap. I am glad I watched KILL THE MESSENGER if only because it shed some light on a troubling story and got me interested enough to read up more on the facts behind the film. I can’t imagine ever watching it again, but it’s a decent flick.

Grade: B-

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