SLEEPLESS (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language throughout

Directed by: Baran bo Odar

Written by: Andrea Berloff

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Clifford Joseph Harris Jr., Michelle Monaghan, Dermot Mulroney, David Harbour, Gabrielle Union & Scoot McNairy

SLEEPLESS had every indication of sucking. It was a remake of an acclaimed French action flick SLEEPLESS NIGHT (which I haven’t seen), it had a foreboding January release date (a dumping ground for studios), and I’d heard nothing but negative things about it since its release. Still, something kept me interested in watching this flick and I’m glad that I did. Don’t get me wrong, SLEEPLESS isn’t necessarily special or outstanding. This is a simple, fun action flick with slick visuals and some smart storytelling; along with a healthy dose of silly clichés and dumb decisions.

Vincent Downs (Jamie Foxx) is a corrupt Las Vegas policeman who indulges in robberies from time to time. His latest stick-up happened to be 25 kilos of cocaine that belongs to casino owner Stanley Rubino (Dermot Mulroney). Things seem to be going fine for Downs until Rubino’s men kidnap his disgruntled teenage son (Markell Watson) and demand their illegal white powder back. A simple exchange of drugs for a hostage becomes far more complicated and dangerous, because two internal affairs officers (Michelle Monaghan and David Harbour) show up looking for Downs and a psycho gangster (Scoot McNairy) comes into play.

For a majority of its running time, SLEEPLESS takes place in Rubino’s large casino. Certain characters interact with each other on one floor, while other characters attempt to avoid detection or kick ass in a different area. There’s a constant threat of enemies coming from all sides and different subplots weave in and out of each other. The two cops are on his tail, his son is being held hostage, and there’s the psycho drug dealer’s contentious relationship with the casino owner. As you might imagine, a few twists make their way into the mix. Some of these developments are unexpectedly clever, while others are silly and a little too convenient.

SLEEPLESS’s biggest problem is its reliance on some really stupid character decisions to further its plot along. These aren’t egregiously annoying as the film tries to write their dumb mistakes off in “smart” ways. However, a few plot developments are somewhat unbelievable. It does help that the performances are solid across the board though. Jamie Foxx makes for an interesting protagonist, who initially tests the viewer’s empathy by being corrupt and kind of a jerk towards everyone around him. Michelle Monaghan is great as a do-gooder antagonist in this plot. Her decisions will likely make the viewer throw their hands up in frustration, but in any other movie, we’d probably be rooting for her. David Harbour brings his usual level of quality as Monaghan’s partner and is easily become one of my favorite modern character actors.

As the casino owner, Dermot Mulroney comes off as a bland baddie. He’s not the main antagonist though, because Scoot McNairy’s psycho gangster easily steals the show. McNairy is so good at playing scumbags and delivers one of his most unhinged characters to date. From his torture-happy introduction to his bullet-filled final scene, McNairy is downright scary. Meanwhile, Markell Watson is okay enough as the kidnapped kid and Gabrielle Union seems to be phoning it in as the concerned mother (who conveniently keeps a gun in her glove box, of course).

SLEEPLESS’s has a variety of action-filled moments and no two scenes seem alike. There’s are a few hand-to-hand confrontations that involve a glass table (which, of course, has somebody being thrown through it) and kitchen utensils (which, of course, results in a surprisingly anticlimactic knife fight). There are gun fights and a broken champagne bottle becomes a deadly weapon in one of the film’s best kills (wasted on a poor random henchman). Also, a showdown in a parking garage gets increasingly ridiculous, but remains entertaining the whole way through. Of course, the gangster would have a gas mask and smoke grenades in his car…because what psycho gangster wouldn’t have those readily on hand?

SLEEPLESS has more than its fair share of clichés and increasingly convenient plot developments that arise as the fast-paced running time chugs along. For all of its faults though, I had fun watching this movie. The acting is solid from damn near every cast member, with a few delivering outright terrific performances. The action is mostly well-executed (with minimal shaky cam) and the cinematography is visually pleasing. The premise of setting the film almost entirely within a casino is cool and the storytelling does a lot with this colorful environment. If you want a dumb little actioner and don’t mind noticeable silliness, then give SLEEPLESS a look.

Grade: B-

PATRIOTS DAY (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Realistically Graphic Injury Images, Language throughout and some Drug Use

Directed by: Peter Berg

Written by: Peter Berg, Matt Cook & Joshua Zeturner

(based on the book BOSTON STRONG by Casey Sherman & Dave Wedge)

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, J.K. Simmons, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, Michelle Monaghan, Vincent Curatola, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, James Colby, Jimmy O. Yang & Melissa Benoist

On April 15, 2013, the United States was shaken by the biggest domestic terrorism attack since 9/11. Three people were killed, fourteen lost limbs, and over 200 more were injured. The city of Boston was shaken as an annual running marathon became a horrifying site of carnage and destruction. The aftermath that immediately followed was an intense investigation/manhunt that lasted for four days. When there’s a tragic event, there will almost always be a movie dramatizing that event. Peter Berg, who already filmed a Navy SEALs mission gone horribly wrong in LONE SURVIVOR and an explosive oil disaster in DEEPWATER HORIZON, takes the reigns of this big screen version of the Boston Marathon Bombing and it’s powerful stuff.

This film takes place on April 15, 2013 through April 19, 2013. Instead of simply showing the bombing and then the investigation/manhunt, the screenplay (written by three people, including Berg) has different plotlines interconnecting throughout the story. We see the police departments’ perspectives as well as the FBI investigation and the bombing’s life-changing affect on survivors. There are also disturbing windows into the two monsters who committed this atrocity. It would be very easy to exploit this tragedy for the sake of entertainment, but Berg seems remarkably respectful in his fact-based approach to this film. PATRIOTS DAY is the equivalent of UNITED 93 for the Boston Marathon Bombing, meaning that it approaches the touchy subject matter with careful sensitivity and a great deal of emotional weight.

The performances are stellar across the board and the cast mostly look like their real-life counterparts. John Goodman is well-cast and bears a striking resemblance to Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis. The same can also be said for J.K. Simmons as Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese and Kevin Bacon as FBI officer Richard DesLauriers. Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze play the two piece-of-shit terrorist brothers. Also, Melissa Benoist will make you want to punch her (in a good way) as the head bomber brother’s complacent wife, though one character points out that we’ll never be able to prove how much she actually knew about the planned attack.

The one face that doesn’t match his real-world counterpart is Mark Wahlberg as Sergeant Tommy Saunders, because Saunders doesn’t exist. He’s a fake person that was a composite of a lot of different police officers who were vital to the investigation/manhunt. I know that combining these real-life inspirations into a single character was probably a handy storytelling tool, but it almost seems like a slap in the face of the many officers who had a hand in making this manhunt successful. With so much attention being given to the real-life people in this tale, Saunders’s creation seems disingenuous. This doesn’t affect Wahlberg’s performance though, because he’s just as great as he was in Berg’s previous two dramas.

PATRIOTS DAY manages to do justice to a number of things. The bombing sequence is appropriately chaotic and feels like a dark mess, kind of like how the actual event itself probably felt to the people who were there. This sequence instantly transforms a sunny street into an ash-laden warzone. The effect is chilling and the long aftermath painted by the rest of the film is equal parts harrowing and moving. The former comes in the initial investigation as cops and FBI agents slowly put the pieces together and hesitate to release information for the sake of possibly igniting unwanted hatred towards two possibly innocent people. This painstaking process is likely to make viewers want to throw their TV out of the window from sheer frustration.

Besides capturing the painstakingly detailed investigation of the bombers and the aggravating manhunt for them, PATRIOTS DAY also captures the sense of community that is usually felt after a terrorist attack. The sense of people working together and citizens doing their damndest to aid in the capture of these two monsters is uplifting. During the final moments, the viewer will likely want to cheer right alongside the clapping lines of people in the streets. This film also tastefully includes some pre-credits brief interviews with the real-life heroes of this story and is all the better for it.

PATRIOTS DAY is a tough viewing experience because it reignites feelings of panic and fear that erupted with the Boston Marathon Bombing. Some may argue it was a tad too soon for this film to get made, but this movie also showcases the sense of community and everyday bravery that ironically erupts in the aftermath of terrorism. This is a stark contrast to the intentions of radicalized monsters. Much like UNITED 93, PATRIOTS DAY is a therapeutic viewing experience. Expect to feel a whirlwind of emotions. You’ll be horrified that such evil exists in the world, but also impressed that these evil deeds are combated by an overwhelming sense of good and normal folks transformed into courageous heroes.

Grade: A

PIXELS (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Language and Suggestive Comments

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Directed by: Chris Columbus

Written by: Tim Herlihy & Timothy Dowling

Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Josh Gad, Peter Dinklage, Michelle Monaghan, Matt Lintz, Brian Cox & Ashley Benson

PIXELS is based on a 2010 French short film. That goofy little short was entertaining and cool, even if little time was put into an actual story. It was a quick excuse to watch pixelated video game characters wreak havoc on the real world. A full-length feature with this premise might be fun in the right hands, but that potential drops a bit when Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison (a company that doesn’t exactly have a reputation for making good movies) produces said film. PIXELS is a movie fighting with itself over becoming one of two things. One of these possibilities is a goofy nostalgia-filled adventure and the other is your typical low-bar Adam Sandler comedy. Guess which one wins.

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In 1982, NASA launched a time capsule (with footage of TV shows, commercials, presidential speeches, and video games) in hope of making contact with extraterrestrial life. Aliens misinterpreted our message as a declaration of war and have sent real-life versions of video games to our planet for a dangerous “competition.” The loser of the competition gets their planet annihilated. Our only hope lies in Sam Brenner (a washed-up loser and 2nd place video game pro), Will Cooper (Brenner’s best friend and President of the United States), Ludlow (another video game champ and conspiracy theorist), and Eddie Plant (an ex-con and Brenner’s former video game rival). This small band of heroes must work together through real life “games” if they hope to save our planet from certain doom.

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Now, that premise actually sounds like it could be fun. In fact, the script practically writes itself. I was one of the people who saw the trailer for PIXELS and got genuinely excited. For the record, the film is not a total failure (despite the verbal thrashing it’s receiving from most critics). There are a couple of enjoyable scenes. Not surprisingly, these come in parts of the movie with video game characters. A real life game of Centipede is enjoyable for what it is and a Pac-Man chase through the streets of New York stands out as the film’s biggest highlight. I’d be lying if I said that the effects in this movie didn’t look good either. There was clearly a big budget and it was used. However, everything between the video game scenes and a lackluster finale cause this film to fall flat on its face.

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This is because PIXELS winds up being a Sandler comedy through and through. It might not be scraping the bottom of the barrel like JACK AND JILL or THAT’S MY BOY, but the film is significantly weighed down by unlikable characters and (very) cheap jokes. Aside from a few chuckles, I can’t recall any big laughs in this whole movie. Sandler doesn’t even seem to be trying in his washed-up loser role (that feels so much like his other washed-up loser roles) and Josh Gad mistakes shouting for being funny. Though that’s not entirely on his shoulders as the script doesn’t provide him with much material to begin with. Kevin James seems to be playing himself and just so happens to be the President of the United States. That could have made for some laughs, but feels like a missed opportunity. Sean Bean and Brian Cox show up for a quick paycheck, while Peter Dinklage delivers the only semi-decent performance of the cast as an overly obnoxious jerk.

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At one point in the film, Sandler’s character is watching a preteen boy play a FALLOUT-style video game and points out that the game doesn’t have a pattern and simply chugs along with “no rhyme or reason.” That one comment can sum up the entire screenplay. There doesn’t really seem to be a reason for why things happen during parts of this story and the movie doesn’t seem to care. That wouldn’t necessarily be all bad if we were given cool-looking scenes to satiate our appetite for video game characters terrorizing the real world, but instead we’re handed a half-assed romantic subplot (because I guess this movie needed one of those) and a huge plot hole that’s simply taken as part of the story. The huge gap in movie logic is simply accepted as an excuse for a finale that feels too forced and jumbled.

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There’s probably a good movie lying somewhere inside of PIXELS. However, the cool premise loses out to becoming just another lame Adam Sandler comedy. You can feel potential radiating off the screen and not much of it was used. Why is Q*Bert a prominent side character featured for a few quick and easy jokes, but Mario is only seen once hopping around in the background? What about other gems like Dig Dug or Asteroids (which we see a character playing, but never comes to fruition)? The biggest question of all comes in why was so much time and money poured into what essentially amounts to yet another bad Adam Sandler comedy that has more spectacle than the rest of his filmography? If you want a great throwback to old-school video games, stick to WRECK-IT RALPH. If you want a good Sandler movie, stick to HAPPY GILMORE, ANGER MANAGEMENT or BIG DADDY. I simply can’t see PIXELS satisfying anyone. What a waste.

Grade: D+

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL (2011)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Intense Action and Violence

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Directed by: Brad Bird

Written by: Josh Appelbaum & Andre Nemec

Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Michael Nyqvist, Vladimir Mashkov & Samuli Edelmann

Of all the series I’ve covered for 2015’s summer movie releases, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was the one that I was least enthused about. I had never seen any of the Tom Cruise blockbusters until about a week ago and (aside from the second film) I’m very glad that I finally took the plunge into the franchise spawned by a 1960’s TV series. The 1996 original is the epitome of big, dumb popcorn entertainment. 2000’s sequel was too concerned over style and weighed down by a bad screenplay to be any fun. 2006’s third installment easily surpassed both films to become an outright great movie. So five years after that second sequel, director Brad Bird delivered MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL. Where does this fourth film sit? It’s somewhere snuggly between the first and the third.

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Ethan Hunt is doing time in a Russian prison, but IMF extracts him for another seemingly impossible task. This time around, Ethan and his team are being sent into the Kremlin to retrieve files on a terrorist known as “Cobalt.” Unfortunately for them, the mission doesn’t run as smoothly as planned (do they ever?) and the Kremlin is bombed by the very terrorist they were looking for. Ethan and his team members make it out alive, but tensions between the USA and Russia have risen to a level where IMF is disbanded. It’s up to Ethan and his small band of former IMF agents to take down Cobalt, prove their innocence, and retrieve nuclear codes before the unthinkable occurs.

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You might notice that plot sounds a bit generic this time around, almost as generic as your typical spy thriller a.k.a. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2. However, it’s all in the execution. Director Brad Bird (who is most famous for his animated work) knows exactly how to pull off a “been there, done that” script in a way that feels fresh. He throws a number of suspenseful scenarios and the most grandiose action to grace a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie thus far. Though number three is still my favorite for a variety of reasons, the action is definitely most exciting and ridiculously awesome in GHOST PROTOCOL. We get intense chase scenes, fights while the stakes are at the their highest, and Tom Cruise scaling the world’s tallest building with a pair of faulty gloves. That last scene ramps up unbelievable levels of tension and is bound to make those afraid of heights wet their pants. Though the formula of making the action even more over-the-top with each entry can easily backfire, it works well for the fourth MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.

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As far as the performances go, Tom Cruise is back in true action hero form as Ethan Hunt. Whatever you may think of his personal life, Cruise shines as this memorable agent always facing off against impossible odds. Though previous characters pop up for cameos, Simon Pegg is the only other big name to return from any of the previous films. He serves as the obvious comic relief, but does a damn fine job of it. Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner are new additions to the M:I team, but pull their weight. Renner is especially enjoyable in his role as an analyst turned amateur agent. While the good guys are worth rooting for, the villain is super bland this time around. It seems like the filmmakers knew that they would never be able to top Hoffman’s arms dealer, so they went in an entirely new direction. While I liked the concept of this nuclear extremist (played by Michael Nyqvist of the original GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO), he simply doesn’t have much dialogue or enough screen time. I knew he was a baddie and that’s about all there was to his character. He just seems a little anti-climactic when compared to his competition in the series, even the moronic villain in M:I 2 is slightly more fleshed out in comparison.

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GHOST PROTOCOL stands as the second-best MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie thus far. Though it suffers from clichés and a boring villain, the fourth film in the franchise manages to up the excitement and entertainment through crazy action and solid suspense. If you’re a fan of the first three films (or even just one and three, like myself), then GHOST PROTOCOL should be right up your alley. This leaves me excited for the fifth (and supposedly final) film in the franchise coming on July 31. So far, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is three for four and those aren’t bad odds.

Grade: B+

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Frenetic Violence and Menace, Disturbing Images and some Sensuality

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Directed by: J.J. Abrams

Written by: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci & J.J. Abrams

Starring: Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ving Rhames, Billy Crudup, Michelle Monaghan, Keri Russell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q, Simon Pegg, Eddie Marsan & Laurence Fishburne

Despite having never been that interested in the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise before this year, the only tidbit of knowledge that I knew about any of the films was that Philip Seymour Hoffman played the villain in the third movie. That alone was enough to make me excited for this to cleanse the palette after the disaster that was MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2. This third installment in the blockbuster franchise is the best that I’ve seen in the series (I will be watching GHOST PROTOCOL soon) thus far. Intense, exciting and smart, this MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE does something that neither of the previous entries did for me. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III actually made me feel like our main character was in constant peril and that the danger might overcome him at any point. I felt the dread, suspense and excitement rush through every single intense sequence, plot twist and action scene. It’s almost unheard of to see a third installment in any series one-up its predecessors, but that’s exactly what MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III does in every way.

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Since the events of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2, Ethan Hunt has retired from IMF missions and found love in his fiancé. He’s drawn back into one last assignment when a former protégé is captured. The rescue mission goes sour and Ethan finds himself hunting for a powerful black-market figure. The villain is Owen Davian, a notorious arms dealer who has pretty much become an invisible man. When Ethan is tipped off about Davian’s latest whereabouts, he sets in motion a complicated plan to kidnap Davian. Unfortunately, not everything in this plan is solid and sound. Things quickly spiral out of control. Soon, Ethan finds himself being specifically targeted by Davian and his fiancé being held hostage in the crosshairs.

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While MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was a big popcorn-muncher of a movie and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 tried too hard to be stylish and cool, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III easily sports the best script of the first three films. It ups the ante from the very beginning by showing a scene that we can anticipate later on in the movie. While I usually complain about stories starting off in non-linear fashion as a cheap gimmicky approach, this works far better in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III as the scene is an undeniably tense one. It gives us a vulnerable side of Ethan that we’ve never seen before in either of the previous entries, while also showing just how scary Hoffman is as the villain. The former is definitely a big part of what works so well for me about MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III. Adventures can only be so exciting when anyone can correctly predict where everything is heading and there’s no sense that the hero might fail. M:I 3’s script delivers a solid atmosphere of danger that hovers over every moment in which Ethan finds himself outgunned. It’s a nice change of pace for a series that seemed so content to play it safe and by-the-numbers.

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Since the screenplay is rock solid and the high stakes feel like high stakes this time around, the action scenes are extremely exciting. That’s also not to mention that the comic relief actually works, because it’s not overly excessive. Little moments of laughter do ease the tension a bit, but never dominate the scenes. One sequence of Ethan breaking into a heavily guarded building has the best punchline of any of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movies delivered by Ving Rhames. Aside from stellar script, a nice change of pace, and exciting action, Philip Seymour Hoffman dominates as Davian. He’s a calm, cold, son of a bitch in the role. Exuding a bit of smugness, but more sociopathic tendencies than expected, Hoffman is one villain that you love to hate. He’s scary in how he delivers chilling dialogue in such a matter-of-fact, routine fashion as if the evil deeds he’s committing are really nothing to him…because they aren’t a big deal in his eyes at all. I doubt that we’ll receive another top-notch villain to the same high-caliber degree as Davian in the entire series. He’s that good!

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It’s not often that you can say a third entry in a blockbuster series manages to outdo the first and second installments, but that’s exactly the case with MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III. You can sense that somebody genuinely cared about crafting a solid film as opposed to just throwing out yet another generic sequel. The acting and characters are solid across the board, with Hoffman being the biggest scene-stealer of the bunch. The action is adrenaline-pumping and has actual emotion put behind it. The story is engaging and takes the series in an entirely different direction than simply an unstoppable guy saving the world again. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III improves on its predecessors tenfold and manages to become a great adventure in the process.

Grade: A

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