DONNIE BRASCO (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Strong Graphic Violence, Pervasive Strong Language, brief Nudity and Sexuality

Directed by: Mike Newell

Written by: Paul Attanasio

(based on the book DONNIE BRASCO: MY UNDERCOVER LIFE IN THE MAFIA by Joseph D. Pistone)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Al Pacino, Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, Anne Heche, James Russo, Zeljko Ivanek, Gerry Becker, Andrew Parks, Robert Miano, Brian Tarantina, Rocco Sisto, Tim Blake Nelsen & Paul Giamatti

Based on an incredible true story, DONNIE BRASCO is a mafia movie that contains A-list talent, loads of suspense, and pretty much everything that fans of gangster cinema could ask for. This film was acclaimed during its 1997 theatrical run by both critics and audiences (making four times its budget back), and was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards. Though it doesn’t quite stack up to the pillar of Scorsese’s 90s gangster films (GOODFELLAS, CASINO), DONNIE BRASCO is a must-see for mob movie fans.

In a top-secret operation, FBI agent Joseph Pistone (Johnny Depp) has gone undercover as jewel thief “Donnie Brasco.” When “Donnie” attracts the attention of low-life enforcer Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino), Joseph gains a position to take down one of the biggest crime families in the nation. This operation puts Joseph in a very dangerous spot as he’s forced to get down and dirty with these wiseguys, while constantly taking measures to maintain his cover. Soon enough, Joseph seems enraptured with his newfound criminal lifestyle…to a point where the FBI is concerned about his well-being and his wife (Anne Heche) realizes that he’s turning into “one of them.” Lots of suspense, mafia-related hijinks, and questionable morals follow as “Donnie” tries to complete his operation and escape with his life.

DONNIE BRASCO is different from other notable 90s gangster films because so much of it hinges on the Joseph’s undercover operation. There’s constant tension as the viewer wonders whether some blunder from a passing FBI agent or an unplanned event will unmask “Donnie’s” true identity. Even though we know that Pistone lived to write the memoir that inspired this film, DONNIE BRASCO keeps us on the edge of our seats. There’s something to be said about that quality alone. One intense moment comes early on as “Donnie” refuses to take his shoes off in a Japanese restaurant (because he has a wire hidden in his shoe)…only to result in a restaurant employee being beaten to a pulp. Another tense bit comes in “Donnie” being spotted by an air-headed coworker, while he’s standing right next to made-man “Sonny Black” (Michael Madsen). Small moments like these add even more danger to the proceedings.

As for the mafia material, DONNIE BRASCO carefully sets up details about the inner workings of the crime family. We learn what certain terms mean (“a friend of mine” or “a friend of ours”) and the signs that someone is about to get whacked (when you get “sent for”). These details are explained to the audience (as Pacino’s “Lefty” reveals them to Depp’s “Donnie”) and then pop up in the proceedings throughout. There are tense rivalries that make their way into the plot, while a few factual details have been switched up to provide a more tragic conclusion (though the real-life ending to this tale was bittersweet). Don’t expect loads of gun fights and blood, but DONNIE has its violent spots. One notable set piece comes in a shocking, though oddly satisfying execution sequence.

Despite the mafia driving this story forward, DONNIE BRASCO is at its most powerful when it examines the relationship between “Donnie” and “Lefty.” This plot element is beautifully executed as Johnny Depp and Al Pacino show wonderful chemistry on the screen. Depp’s “Donnie” is a convincing gangster and the way he snaps at the FBI (who almost get him killed on numerous occasions) causes the viewer to sympathize with him. Though he’s more famous for playing two iconic gangsters (Michael Corleone in THE GODFATHER and Tony Montana in SCARFACE), Al Pacino disappears into his role as “Lefty.” Pacino turns this cold-blooded contract killer into a somewhat tragic figure, who shows a nice side to “Donnie” and becomes his best friend.

Though DONNIE BRASCO nails most of its material and builds a strong relationship between Pacino and Depp’s characters, the film slightly drops the ball in two areas. The first of these is the passage of time in the story. The real life “Donnie Brasco” operation took place over the course of six years and the film neglects to fill us in on these dates. It’s not necessarily crucial to the story, but it felt like this film’s plot took place over the course of a year (tops)…which was probably not the case at all.

The second area where DONNIE BRASCO has problems is the turbulent relationship between Joseph and his worried wife. I felt like this entire subplot was a little too scattered. During one scene, Joseph’s wife is telling him how much she hates him and goes as far as to change their home number so he can’t call his kids. Then a few scenes later, she’s sympathetic towards his plight and madly in love with him for no apparent reason. It felt like a few scenes were deleted between this character’s shift into concern. This messy subplot neuters the would-be emotional impact of Joseph’s final family scenes.

Despite a couple of nagging narrative flaws, DONNIE BRASCO is a fantastic film that’s sure to sink its hooks into fans of gangster stories. The performances from Al Pacino and Johnny Depp warrant a watch by themselves, besides the stellar turn from Michael Madsen as an underdog mob boss. This film is unlike many of the mafia movies I’ve sat through, due to its strong focus on a heartfelt relationship between two very unlikely friends and a constant air of suspense from the undercover operation. If this sounds up your alley, then I highly recommend checking out DONNIE BRASCO!

Grade: A-

SPECIES II (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexuality, Sci-Fi Violence/Gore and Language

Directed by: Peter Medak

Written by: Chris Brancato

Starring: Natasha Henstridge, Michael Madsen, Marg Helgenberger, James Cromwell, Mykelti Williamson, Richard Belzer & Justin Lazard

Even though it was a rather mediocre mess of a film, 1995’s SPECIES made enough cash to warrant a sequel. Three years after that original film became an unexpected hit, SPECIES II was pumped out. Screenwriter Chris Brancato attempted to take the series down a new-ish path and director Peter Medak had already made one of the most underrated 90s thrillers (ROMEO IS BLEEDING), but neither of them succeeded much in this crappy second installment of a franchise that didn’t need to exist. Despite good-looking gore and a few neat ideas, SPECIES II is a bad and boring sequel.

Set three years after the events of SPECIES, this sequel opens with a manned mission to Mars and black goo leaking out onto the spaceship. When the astronauts return home, one of them is contaminated with alien DNA. When astronaut-turned-mutant Patrick Ross (Justin Lazard) begins sleeping with women and those women begin to explode with rapidly-growing offspring, it becomes clear that his mating is a threat to the human race. In order to stop him, Press Lennox (Michael Madsen) and Laura Baker (Marg Helgenberger) are forced to team up to take him down. Their secret weapon is Eve (Natasha Henstridge), a cloned “nice” version of Sil from the first film…but her loyalty begins to waver when she goes into heat over Ross.

Only three performances stuck out in the first SPECIES: Michael Madsen, Marg Helgenberger, and Natasha Henstridge. Only one of those performers is remotely entertaining this time around: Madsen! Though Madsen mostly seems bored and has gone on to refer to this film as “a crock of shit,” he gets a couple of humorously cheesy bits that are unintentionally funny. The best moment has him tripping over and then threatening a grocery store clerk (at gunpoint) over the location of a cereal aisle. I can’t help but think this was improvised because Madsen actually stumbled and just didn’t want to do another take.

As the head scientist and caretaker of Eve, Marg Helgenberger is dull this time around and almost seems to be playing an entirely different character. As the much nicer half-human/half-alien clone Eve, Natasha Henstridge is rather boring in her role. She mainly sits in a glass cage, occasionally has psychic visions and really doesn’t get much to do until the final 20 minutes. Peter Boyle (Frank from EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND) is also in this trash, for some reason, as a crazy former scientist who hams it up in two scenes. James Cromwell also seems to be delivering the only competent performance as a stern Senator. It’s almost like Cromwell thought he was in another movie. Justin Lazard is okay enough as the sex-starved villain, while Mykelti Williamson is annoying as a token black guy sidekick to Madsen.

As far as effects go, SPECIES II has marginally better CGI than the first film. There are cheesy bits, but the story tried to utilize these effects in ways that looked neat. One gore gag that has an exploded head rebuilding itself looks dated, but remains cool as spectacle. Eve’s Giger-inspired alien design is lacking to say the least, though I appreciate that they mostly used practical effects for her. She’s looks like a more generic version of Sil, but the alien version of Patrick Ross is pretty damned awesome. Seriously, this tentacled Lovecraftian beastie looks like it belongs in a far better film and was instead wasted on this junk.

SPECIES II’s biggest problem is that it’s boring to sit through and there isn’t much fun to be had. I appreciate that this sequel attempted to put a gender-reversal on the first film and has a few neat ideas (borrowing from Roger Corman’s HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP in the process). However, it just seems like this movie was doomed to play on the early morning hours of the Syfy Channel from its creation. On the redeeming side of things, the gore effects are cool and a couple of performances are watchable. Suffering from the problem that plagues many sequels though, SPECIES II is a significant step down from its predecessor. In this case, that predecessor wasn’t very good from the start…so this second go-round is crap!

Grade: D

SPECIES (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sci-Fi Violence, Strong Sexuality and some Language

Directed by: Roger Donaldson

Written by: Dennis Feldman

Starring: Natasha Henstridge, Ben Kingsley, Michael Madsen, Alfred Molina, Forest Whitaker & Marg Helgenberger

H.R. Giger has become known for his trippy illustrations and creatively horrific designs. He’s most famous for creating the Xenomorph in ALIEN, but he’s also made other contributions to cinema…like the antagonist in SPECIES. This science-fiction/horror blend is about as generic as generic can be. SPECIES is what happens when a subpar creature feature is mixed with a softcore porno, and there’s barely an original bone in its Giger-designed body.

After scientists send out signals to outer space and receive a reply, they decide it might be a good idea to cook up a science experiment with DNA codes that “friendly” aliens have given them. The result of this experiment is Sil, a human/alien hybrid that rapidly matures over the course of mere months. When something deadly appears to be manifesting itself inside of Sil, head scientist Xavier Fitch (Ben Kingsley) decides that its time to terminate their pet. Unfortunately for them, Sil escapes and evolves into a sexy adult version of herself (Natasha Henstridge) who’s ready to mate. If they wish to save the world, Xavier and a special team of hunters must exterminate Sil before she gets her rocks off and gets pregnant.

Many cast members seem embarrassed to be starring in this film and that comes across in their performances. Ben Kingsley (who was in SCHINDLER’S LIST two years prior to this mediocre mess) seems in a rush to say his lines and leave the set. There’s not one ounce of believable emotion injected into his performance, even when he’s trying to look sad or scared. Alfred Molina plays a nerd stereotype (with a godawful haircut) and comes off as borderline creepy. Meanwhile, Forest Whittaker is a useless psychic who can feel other people’s emotions (kind of like Mantis in the recent GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2). This leads to a few laughs, but not many profound insights. In the end, he’s a totally useless character.

Only three people seem to be having fun with the cheesy material: Michael Madsen, Marg Helgenberger, and Natasha Henstridge. Madsen is typecast as a tough guy (what a shock) and manages to inject his rough-around-the-edges charm into this clichéd one-note “hunter.” Helgenberger is solid as a scientist who contributes exposition about Sil’s biology and serves a love-interest for Madsen. Dare I say, the two of them have believable enough chemistry to seem charming together. They also serve as the only two potential victims who are worth giving a shit about.

The real show-stopper is the sexy model-turned-actress Natasha Henstridge. I wasn’t expecting much from her performance, but she did a damn good job with the cheesy material. Henstridge’s acting abilities and unexpectedly clever writing make Sil into a bit of a sympathetic antagonist. It’s a little sad to watch her naively make her way through the outside world, but it’s fun when she snaps into full-blown predator mode and begins taking people out. One scumbag’s death scene is pretty damn cool, even if it seems like the sexier version of an ALIEN kill.

Speaking of which, the creature design for SPECIES is not one of Giger’s shining moments. I appreciate that there are freaky things about this monster, like spikes that come out of her back (when she’s aroused), a cocoon (that eats an unfortunate passerby), and her reptilian-succubus appearance. However, the CGI used to bring this character to life is scattershot to say the least. The film takes a less-is-more approach for its first half, resulting in the practical version of the creature looking neat and the computer-generated version looking like total garbage. Also, it certainly doesn’t help that the monstrous version of Sil sounds like Stripe from GREMLINS.

SPECIES loves to shoe-horn in pointless nudity and erotic sex scenes. Yes, the film revolves around a group of people trying to take down a monster before she’s able to mate…but that doesn’t mean that we need to see Natasha Henstridge’s boobs every five minutes. There are scenes that seem like they exist only to cram more sex and skin into the film. Movie sex for the sake of sex isn’t sexy if there’s no emotional appeal to both characters. Sil is on a quest for a baby, but the men she’s making out with are merely lambs to the slaughter. I wouldn’t be surprised if SPECIES started off as a Skinemax script and then someone tweaked it into a sci-fi/horror film for the big screen.

SPECIES is one of those films that banked in the 90s, but seems laughably silly and mediocre now. It’s a hodge-podge of science-gone-wrong plot points and creature feature clichés. There are redeemable qualities in three performances and attempts to make the alien seductress into a sympathetic character. However, the film mainly languishes away in territory that ranges from mediocre to full-blown bad. SPECIES is a mess.

Grade: C-

THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence, a scene of Violent Sexual Content, Language and some Graphic Nudity

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Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, James Parks, Channing Tatum & Zoe Bell

Love him or hate him, it cannot be argued whether or not Quentin Tarantino is a unique filmmaker. You can always tell when you’re watching a Tarantino film. To me, he hasn’t yet made a bad movie and his winning streak continues with the heavily anticipated HATEFUL EIGHT. Tarantino’s eighth movie is a gory western crossed with an Agatha Christie mystery. Though HATEFUL EIGHT definitely isn’t made for everyone, I had a blast watching Tarantino’s suspenseful, stylish western-mystery unfold.

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In the aftermath of the Civil War, black bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren has found himself stranded in the middle of a wintry wilderness. His chance at survival comes in a lone stagecoach carrying John Ruth “The Hangman” (a bounty hunter who keeps his prisoners alive to see the hangman’s noose) and prisoner Daisy Domergue (a murderess with ten thousand dollars on her head). Warren, The Hangman, Daisy, and another passenger are overtaken by a vicious blizzard and find shelter in an isolated lodge. Inside this comfy establishment are a handful of questionable folks. Things slowly turn violent as one of lodge guests appears to be have deadly intentions of setting Daisy free.

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Two versions of THE HATEFUL EIGHT are currently playing in theaters: the general release (the version that I saw) and an extended director’s cut (running 20 minutes longer in road show format). The film is a little long in the tooth (mainly due to establishing shots and scene transitions), but definitely packs the bloody punch. Though it’s a far more contained movie than INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (my favorite of Tarantino’s filmography) or DJANGO UNCHAINED, HATEFUL EIGHT finds Quentin returning to his roots as the film somewhat resembles his debut RESERVOIR DOGS. A majority of the story takes place within a single location (in this case, the lodge) and most of the tension arises from an antagonist hiding in plain sight.

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My comparison of Tarantino’s latest film to his directorial debut is not meant as a negative one, because HATEFUL EIGHT thrives on slow-building suspense and mystery that is unlike anything this filmmaker has attempted before. While the rest of his filmography ranges from bloody journeys of vengeance to non-linear crime tales, this is ostensibly a murder mystery set in post-Civil War Wyoming. The first half builds on uneasy tension and colorful character introductions/interactions. The second half becomes a carnage-laden bloodbath and dangerous discoveries lie around every corner.

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The HATEFUL characters themselves are played by a solid cast of talented performers. Samuel L. Jackson takes center stage as Warren and its one of the best roles of his entire career. Tarantino has managed to combine everything that’s badass about Jackson’s usual action heroes into one character with a complicated sympathetic side. Kurt Russell seems to be channeling John Wayne in “The Hangman.” Jennifer Jason Leigh is a fiercely unhinged screen presence as the psychotic, dangerous (and frequently abused) Daisy Domergue. Walton Goggins (previously seen in this year’s underrated AMERICAN ULTRA) receives the biggest role of his career thus far, while Tim Roth plays a slimy character with unclear intentions. Meanwhile, Bruce Dern shows up as a racist old-timer, Michael Madsen plays a foreboding cowboy, and Channing Tatum also has a brief (but very memorable) role. The best thing about all of these characters is that we don’t know who to root for and clues revealed during the second half of the film unveil who’s bad and who’s worse.

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To cap all of these positive qualities off, HATEFUL EIGHT’s cinematography is gorgeous and the dread-soaked soundtrack lends a perfect sense of unease to the already well-crafted story. Seeing as this is a Tarantino film, you should brace yourself for plenty of witty dialogue, over-the-top bloodshed, and a darker than dark sense of humor. The last of these qualities seems to have made a splash with people as one of the running gags could be seen as controversial. However, it seemed to get a big positive reaction from the audience in my theater and I was laughing the whole way through. Tarantino has managed to balance unexpected suspense with his special brand of expected blood-soaked mayhem. Though THE HATEFUL EIGHT might run a tad long, it’s a near-perfect film from one of my all-time favorite directors. Face it. You already kind of know whether this movie is for you or not.

Grade: A

DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Action Violence and Sexuality

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Directed by: Lee Tamahori

Written by: Neal Purvis & Robert Wade

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry, Toby Stephens, Rosamund Pike, Rick Yune, Judi Dench, Will Yun Lee, Kenneth Tsang & John Cleese

The twentieth movie in the Bond franchise and eleventh in my 007 retrospective, DIE ANOTHER DAY marked the end of the Pierce Brosnan’s stint as the iconic secret agent. In the grander scheme of thing, it also technically serves as the conclusion of the original series and caused its studio to reboot the franchise. In other words, DIE ANOTHER DAY has a pretty bad reputation for wrecking James Bond to the point where the series needed to be remade. So, is this a colossal failure? Is DIE ANOTHER DAY the BATMAN & ROBIN of Bond? I wouldn’t go that far, because there are a couple of things I like about this “final” Bond movie. That being said, this is still pretty bad.

DIE ANOTHER DAY, Pierce Brosnan, 2002, (c) MGM/courtesy Everett Collection

James Bond’s latest mission has taken into dangerous North Korean territory. When his cover is blown, Bond is taken captive and suspended as an MI6 agent. Through a few cunning decisions and sheer dumb luck, Bond escapes and tries to track down a crazed terrorist from his past. This will require Bond partnering up with catsuit-wearing NSA agent Jinx. The two spies are forced to face off against a terrorist with diamond-acne and a super-weapon-wielding entrepreneur.

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Let me address the good stuff first. I really enjoyed the prologue in North Korea. The action may be bombastic, but there’s a sense of excitement that reminded me of GOLDENEYE‘s opening. It also set up this story with a ton of potential…and then everything goes down hill as soon as the opening titles roll. The problems begin in the titular song of the credits, which doesn’t sound like it even belongs in a Bond film. This just sounded like a random pop song that was thrown in at the last-minute. As the minutes tick forward from that point on, DIE ANOTHER DAY wastes away its potential on pointless scenes, a bored Brosnan, and a screenplay that’s riddled with plot holes. The story feels too clichéd and over-the-top, even for a Bond film (which can typically be far-fetched, but fun). Besides the opening sequence, the only other moment that sticks out for good reason is a fencing scene between Bond and the main villain. As cool as that sequence is, it only raises further plot holes once a few convenient (and stupid) revelations occur during the final third.

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Brosnan seems past his point of caring to be Bond. His performance in this film is even more apathetic than his purely-for-the-paycheck effort in WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. As far as villains go, only one performance stands out and I won’t give that cast member’s identity away for fear of spoilers. However, I appreciated this person’s contribution to the film and wish that their character served as the main villain instead of a mere plot device. Halle Berry headlines the film with Brosnan and doesn’t really feel like a Bond girl at all. Instead, it almost feels like CATWOMAN got crossed with a crappy Bond flick. Speaking of which, DIE ANOTHER DAY is on the same level as CATWOMAN’s special effects. We get some shockingly crappy visuals. These include cartoony electricity (courtesy of the main villain’s super suit), Flash Animation quality lasers (that don’t blend well with a fight scene), a Syfy-level melting ice palace, and a rubbery surfing Bond aided by a fake-as-hell parachute.

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DIE ANOTHER DAY came out on the 20th anniversary of DR. NO. Throughout this twentieth Bond flick, there are little nods to the other movies (e.g. the shoe-knife in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, the rocket-pack from THUNDERBALL, etc.). All these little cameos only served to remind me how badly this final Brosnan entry screwed the pooch. The original Bond series survived decades of directors, actors, and varying levels of effects. However, none of that could endure after DIE ANOTHER DAY sent everything plummeting into such a rut that a reboot not only became preferable, but transformed into a damn necessity. The original Bond series ended with a whimper as opposed going out with a glorious bang…

Grade: D

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