BLEED FOR THIS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

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

Directed by: Ben Younger

Written by: Ben Younger

Starring: Miles Teller, Katey Sagal, Aaron Eckhart, Ciaran Hinds, Sully Erna, Ted Levine, Peter Quillin & Edwin Rodriguez

I’m not a big fan of sports movie for the main reason that it seems like the same story being told over and over again. In the past two years, we’ve received four boxing movies in theaters. These being: CREED, SOUTHPAW, HANDS OF STONE and BLEED FOR THIS. This last title caught my interest purely for it being noted as one of the most incredible comebacks in sports history. Having read about Vinny Pazienza’s recovery, I was very excited to see it on the big screen. My excitement was further heightened by the casting of Miles Teller, who’s been carving out quite an acting career, in the role of Paz. I’m not a fan of sports movies, but BLEED FOR THIS is easily one of the best sports films that I’ve seen!

The year is 1988. Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller) is a boxer who’s been on a downward spiral of three losses. In an effort to wash his hands of Vinny, his manager throws the cocky fighter into the hands of washed-up coach Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart). The two form a fast friendship and Vinny quickly rises through two weight classes. Shortly after celebrating a triumphant victory, Vinny ends up in a terrible car accident that leaves him with a broken neck. What follows is a lot of heartbreak as Vinny spends six months in a halo brace and is told by pretty much everyone that he’ll never be able to fight again. This is a comeback story though, so you can probably imagine what happens next. However, it’s a very inspirational and emotional story nonetheless.

The first thing that needs to be praised about BLEED FOR THIS is Miles Teller’s performance. Though he has put crappy acting into the DIVERGENT series, Teller shines when he’s given the right material. He wowed me in WHIPLASH and played a solid scumbag in WAR DOGS. In BLEED FOR THIS, he becomes Vinny Paz! He nails this guy’s distinct tough voice, his intimidating body language and the impressively ripped look of this champion boxer. It’s a fantastic performance that’s only further heightened by actual archive footage in the credits. This post-credits footage manages to further showcase how much Teller managed to capture Paz in his acting.

The supporting cast is stellar as well. Aaron Eckhart does a damn fine job as trainer Kevin Rooney. This is a deeply flawed character who tries his best to help Vinny, even when he doesn’t necessarily believe in what he’s doing. The chemistry between Eckhart and Teller brings a lot of genuine laughs and makes their emotional conversations appear completely believable. Another highlight is Ciaran Hinds as Vinny’s father, who experiences a whirlwind of emotions before and after his son’s life-threatening accident. Also, Ted Levine is perfectly scummy as Vinny’s selfish manager.

BLEED FOR THIS’s overall look and feel echoes the time period in which it’s set. There’s retro technology, stylish outfits and a great soundtrack. None of it seems remotely overbearing though, because the story stays focused on Vinny. The script wisely spends a solid chunk of time building up Vinny’s slow rise to a different kind of fame in the first 40 minutes and is so engaging that the viewer almost forgets what’s coming. As soon as Vinny steps into the car, my heart sank though and realized how much of an effect this movie was having on my emotional state. It had me by the feels and wasn’t letting me go anytime soon.

BLEED FOR THIS is all-out inspirational and not above a few cheesy clichés in telling the deeply motivational story about how someone accomplished the seemingly impossible. The final minutes leave a resonating message to take away. As I mentioned before, sports movies seem utterly repetitive to me and this is especially true of boxing movies. Yet, BLEED FOR THIS moved and captivated me from start to finish. The performances are top-notch from everyone. The visual style is great. The plot will hit you hard and take you for an emotional journey. It’s a fantastically uplifting sports film and an overall fantastic movie. If you’re at all interested in Vinny Pazienza’s story, then you’ll likely love BLEED FOR THIS!

Grade: A-

WAR DOGS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout, Drug Use and some Sexual References

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Directed by: Todd Phillips

Written by: Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips & Jason Smilovic

(based on the book ARMS AND THE DUDES by Guy Lawson)

Starring: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, J.B. Blanc, Kevin Pollak, Bradley Cooper & Barry Livingston

After directing eight sex comedies and a few documentaries, director Todd Phillips takes a hard left turn into true-crime/political territory with WAR DOGS. This film is based on the true story of Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, though details have been changed and exaggerated to make a more interesting movie. The film’s strongest elements are its story, the chemistry between Jonah Hill and Miles Teller, and a manic energy that keeps things interesting. However, this movie occasionally suffers from trying too hard to replicate the style of a Martin Scorsese crime flick and never fully becoming as great as it could have been.

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David Packouz (Miles Teller) is going nowhere in life. His job as a massage therapist barely pays the bills and attempts to start up his own business have drastically failed. Low on cash and with a child on the way, David reunites with former friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who makes bank as an international arms dealer. David is intoxicated by Efraim’s lavish lifestyle and soon becomes his business partner. However, things get complicated when the two young dudes find themselves in over their heads with dangerous people and the U.S. government. What follows is lots of cash, cocaine, bullets, and illegal activities that forced the U.S. Army to reexamine its contracting procedures.

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The premise of WAR DOGS sounds like a lot to take in. After all, what if you know next to nothing about defense contracts? Well, have no fear because the script (written by three people, including Phillips) gently takes the viewer by the hand and lays out details in an easy-to-understand manner. We are also shown how illegal dealings and shady business practices can easily be made behind the curtains. WAR DOGS doesn’t tackle all of this as light-hearted comedic fodder (as the trailers suggest), because the film may cause audience members to think long and hard about what they’ve seen afterwards.

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As you might imagine, David and Efraim aren’t good people. The film knows this and makes that clear. We’re watching scumbags get away with doing scumbag things, until it all comes crashing down on their heads. Miles Teller is somewhat sympathetic as David, because he has a family to provide for and seems like the more level-headed nice guy of the two. Jonah Hill is an out-and-out asshole as Efraim. This coke-snorting, back-stabbing, morally bankrupt stain of a human being represents everything that’s wrong with this world….and he also has an obnoxious laugh. Efraim is someone who will take advantage of anything and anyone to make a few extra bucks and Hill plays him to perfection.

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As for the supporting cast, there are only three big recurring faces. Ana de Armas (one of the most beautiful women alive) puts in a solid performance as David’s innocent wife. Her relationship is deeply affected by her husband’s newfound career, though she doesn’t exactly get a ton of screen time to show that. The focus is more on the international arms dealing and crimes, whereas David’s personal life is just a subplot. Bradley Cooper plays a threatening guy who works from shadowy places. Cooper is fantastic in the part, but doesn’t receive more than five brief scenes. For those five moments, he completely steals the show. Kevin Pollak is a welcome presence as a local businessman with ties to Efraim and David.

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WAR DOGS has a very interesting story and Todd Phillips attempts to execute it with grandiose style, though this doesn’t come off entirely successful. Phillips tries too hard to replicate a Scorsese-crime flick. For example, the movie uses voiceover narration from Miles Teller which isn’t exactly uncommon…but also accompanies this with frequent freeze frames to character’s faces. It’s obvious that Phillips was trying to do GOODFELLAS and CASINO, but with international arms dealing. It sounds great in theory, but the style is unnecessarily forced. The film also has title cards with quotes of dialogue that seem more distracting and pretentious as opposed to cool and artsy.

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WAR DOGS is hindered by its wannabe Scorsese style and never becomes as great as it should be. The performances are solid across the board. Some scenes are humorous, while other plot developments are shocking (especially if you don’t know the true story). The pacing moves quickly and never gives the viewer time to get bored. I was interested and entertained throughout. Even if the film never reaches its full potential, one fantastic scene perfectly sums up this entire movie. As the greedy millionaire arms dealers frantically drive away from gunfire, a brave band of underpaid soldiers rush into eliminate the threat. As David and Efraim gleefully dance in the truck, a passing soldier angrily glares and flips them off. That about says it all, right there.

Grade: B

My Bottom 10 Films of 2015

List by Derrick Carter

During the past two years that I’ve run this website, I have created a “Best of” list at the end of each December. I neglected to make a “Worst of” list because of my misguided belief that I shouldn’t further shame the films that I’ve already ridiculed with negative reviews. In 2015, things have changed and I’ve decided (at least for this year) to make a Bottom Films list to go along with my Top Films list. 2015 was a great year for films overall, but also had more than its fair share of flops. The following movies made me want to pull my hair out in frustration and weep quietly in the theater for having wasted money. Before I post my Top Films of 2015, I decided it would only be appropriate to get my picks for Bottom Films of 2015 out of the way first.

There were ten movies this year that wasted precious hours of my life that I’ll never be able to get back. Before getting into those, I’ll begin with a few dishonorable mentions. 2015 brought me two very shitty found footage horror flicks in AREA 51 and THE GALLOWS. Though it was marginally better than its predecessor, INSURGENT was still a hot mess of every recent young adult novel combined. THE TRANSPORTER: REFUELED came off like just another bland, generic action flick, making the Statham predecessors look like DIE HARD in comparison. HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2 was a piss-poor follow-up to one of my favorite comedies of this past decade. Finally, PAN was a letdown on pretty much every level. I mean, Blackbeard sings Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Captain Hook fights a kung-fu warrior. Enough said. None of those aforementioned films are on my bottom ten though. So, without further ado, let’s move onto my picks for ten worst films of 2015:

10. Blackhat

10. BLACKHAT: Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Once upon a time, Michael Mann made masterful films like MANHUNTER (the first adaptation of RED DRAGON), HEAT (the awesome pairing of De Niro and Pacino), and COLLATERAL (one of my all-time favorite thrillers). Mann’s latest thriller, about an international hunt for a dangerous hacker, seemed like it could be a relevant and exciting fun time at the movies. However, I was fighting to stay awake when I sat through this endurance test in an auditorium populated by a total of six other attendees. BLACKHAT is boring and when it’s not boring, it’s stupid beyond belief. One of the dumbest scenes of the year occurs in the final third of this film in which Hemsworth duct tapes magazines around his chest to create a make-shift bullet-proof vest. I think that scene speaks volumes for the film by itself.

9. Hellions

9. HELLIONS: I managed to catch three movies at this year’s Sundance film festival. Two of those were quality horror films and nestled in-between them was this abomination. The initial set-up sounds like a feature-length version of the final segment from TRICK ‘R TREAT. A girl is terrorized by demonic trick-or-treaters on Halloween night. I was hoping for something weird and spooky, seeing as the director behind this film created the unconventional zombie flick PONTYPOOL. HELLIONS is definitely weird, but not in a good way. A misguided attempt to shoot in infrared makes everything appear pink. The acting is wooden. The story goes nowhere and becomes incomprehensible after the first 20 minutes. At the very least, the film is so bad that it’s funny, but not enough to recommend this low-budget disappointment.

8. Lazarus Effect

8. THE LAZARUS EFFECT: For some reason, half of the movies on this list are horror films. That wasn’t intentional, especially since it’s been a pretty good year for the genre. However, THE LAZARUS EFFECT is about as generic and confused as a genre film can get. The premise is cool and sounds like a modern-day take on FLATLINERS. However, the screenplay just cannot decide which direction it wants to take with the material. Is this movie about hell and demons? Is it supposed to be a Frankenstein-like science gone wrong tale? Is the main villainess supposed to be the horror equivalent of Lucy from LUCY? Apparently, it’s all of these things…plus a string of cheap jump scares and a group of insufferably annoying characters.

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7. THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2: ANGEL OF DEATH: The first of four sequels on this list, WOMAN IN BLACK 2 was the first official wide release of 2015…and what a crappy release it was. I actually dug 2012’s WOMAN IN BLACK  as a spooky little ghost movie and hoped that this sequel would be more of the same. The ghost who kills children is practically handed a plate of potential victims and then does nothing remotely interesting with them. The visuals give a look of an atmospheric ghost story, but cheap jump scares and a bland script make this the epitome of everything wrong with modern big-budget horror movies.

6. Joe Dirt 2

6. JOE DIRT 2: BEAUTIFUL LOSER: Confession time. I like the first JOE DIRT. I really do. It’s a stupid, crude and moronic flick, but I enjoy it as a fun guilty pleasure. For whatever reason, I was sort of looking forward to this straight-to-Crackle sequel. Aside from three decent chuckles, the film is a long laughless slog of a sequel. It seems content to merely reference the original film, instead of tell its own white-trash story. The film moves from bad set-piece to bad set-piece for nearly two hours(!) before ending in the biggest cop-out conclusion imaginable. Not even an endless supply of buffalo wings and beer could make this film enjoyable.

5. Contracted 2

5. CONTRACTED: PHASE 2: A follow-up to 2013’s better-than-expected body-horror flick, this sequel was clearly made as a cheap cash-in for the small audience that enjoyed the original. CONTRACTED 2 is shoddily written and badly directed by people who clearly had no interest in the original film and it shows. Despite running at only 78 minutes, the experience feels agonizingly long. The first CONTRACTED was an interesting body-horror take on an overpopulated subgenre, while this sequel is just another terrible low-budget zombie flick. CONTRACTED 2 also has the balls to put in two end credits scenes that are clearly setting up for PHASE 3. Count me out!

4. Seventh Son

4. SEVENTH SON: Studio delays and February release date aside, I was hoping that SEVENTH SON would be entertaining. I wasn’t expecting high art, but I was expecting something watchable. My hopes and middling expectations were bashed to pieces by a lame fantasy that was dull as dirt. This flick stands alongside CIRQUE DU FREAK, ERAGON, and THE SEEKER as one of the worst young-adult adaptations to ever hit the big screen. Jeff Bridges is damn near incomprehensible as the drunk monster-killer, while Oscar winner Julianne Moore should be embarrassed for playing the cheapo looking evil witch. The effects try to be ambitious and cool, but come off as boring and unconvincing. This movie proves that a guy killing monsters can somehow be made boring. Yet another potentially cool young-adult film series bites the dust.

3. Mortdecai

3. MORTDECAI: Johnny Depp has a moustache and goofy teeth. Isn’t that funny?!? No? Well, that’s too bad, because the makers of this film seem to think it’s a riot. Based on a series of British comedic novels, MORTDECAI very well might be the worst film that Johnny Depp has ever starred in…which is quite a feat in and of itself. This bland caper comedy unsuccessfully tries to mimic a PINK PANTHER sense of humor, but doesn’t get any of it right. The laughs are dusty. The performers look like they want their scenes to be over as fast as humanly possible. If the movie had been about Paul Bettany’s bodyguard character, it would have been far funnier and more original. 2015 was a year that featured one of Johnny Depp’s best performances (BLACK MASS) as well this being his worst.

2. Human Centipede 3

2. THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 3: FINAL SEQUENCE: I didn’t walk into HUMAN CENTIPEDE 3 with high expectations. I liked FIRST SEQUENCE and disliked FULL SEQUENCE. The FINAL SEQUENCE of the ass-to-mouth trilogy was set in a prison, starred the main villains from the first two films, and aimed for a comedic meta-approach to the material. It would be nice if we actually got a human centipede before the final 20 minutes of the running time. Up until that point, the viewer is subjected to a various list of on-screen atrocities which include a jar of clitorises being devoured, someone raping a kidney, a graphic castration and the list goes on. I can appreciate shocksploitation (I really enjoyed Eli Roth’s GREEN INFERNO), but HUMAN CENTIPEDE 3 executes all of its gory gusto with the production values and “talent” of a basement porno. What could possibly be worse than this film?…

1. Fantastic Four

1. FANTASTIC FOUR: FANTASTIC FOUR is the worst superhero movie that I’ve ever seen. This dark, gritty reboot of the goofy comic series makes the 2005 and 2007 films look like classics in comparison. To be honest, this movie doesn’t feel like a movie at all, but rather a 125 million dollar excuse for Fox to keep the franchise rights away from Marvel Studios…which is appropriate because that’s why this movie was made in the first place. I enjoyed the director’s previous effort (CHRONICLE) and like a number of the performers here (Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Toby Kebbell), but there’s no excuse for the unbelievably terrible quality of this film. FANTASTIC FOUR is a complete and total failure. I’d rather sit through BATMAN & ROBIN, ELEKTRA, and CATWOMAN in a marathon from hell than ever endure a repeat viewing of this movie ever again.

Here’s hoping for less bad movies in 2016…

FANTASTIC FOUR (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence, and Language

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Directed by: Josh Trank

Written by: Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater & Josh Trank

(based on the FANTASTIC FOUR comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey & Tim Blake Nelson

Can I just say it? FANTASTIC FOUR seems to be one of Stan Lee’s lesser creations. At least, it really seems to be this way on film. If you don’t believe me, let’s tally up the previous cinematic adaptations. There was a TV movie in the early 90’s that was apparently so embarrassing that it has remained unreleased to this day. Clips of this film online reveal that, yes, it is as bad as they say it is. In 2005, we were treated to a mediocre adaptation that didn’t really do much of anything plot-wise. Somehow, that film was granted a better-but-still-bland sequel in 2007 that also featured the Silver Surfer and a CGI cloud they claimed was Galactus. Now we have a 2015 reboot that has a talented director (his previous film was 2012’s CHRONICLE) and a solid cast. You might think that the end result would be, at the very least, watchable. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the most boring, pointless, and stupid comic book movie that we’ve seen in over a decade.

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Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm, and Victor Von Doom have been recruited by a scientist to work on the world’s first teleportation device. This machine doesn’t teleport things across our world. Instead, it’s actually a gateway into another dimension. When the project is completed and human trials are ready to begin, the government tries to take the invention (and credit) away from the team of geniuses. In a drunken stupor and aided by Ben Grimm (Reed’s childhood friend), the team take a quick impromptu voyage to the other dimension with disastrous results. The side effects are super powers. Reed can stretch his body in an elastic-like way. Sue can turn invisible. Johnny can set himself aflame and fly. Meanwhile, Ben has been transformed into an orange rock-monster. Together these friends must come to grips with their newfound abilities and stop the evil Dr. Doom from destroying our world.

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My brief synopsis just gave more credit to this film than any of the performances. Not one of the cast members look like they care about the film they are making. The character development is damn near non-existent as well. Miles Teller has been great in the past (e.g. WHIPLASH), but is utterly bland as Richard. Kate Mara has been great in the past as well (e.g. HOUSE OF CARDS), but seems bored out of her mind as Sue. Noticing a pattern here? Michael B. Jordan plays the Human Torch as a pouty child and makes me yearn for the days when pre-CAPTAIN AMERICA Chris Evans played Johnny. Meanwhile, The Thing doesn’t even seem to fit in with the rest of these characters. Tim Blake Nelson also pops in for a quick paycheck as a typical government agent. The only over-acting in this dreary affair comes from Reg E. Cathey as Franklin Storm (Sue and Johnny’s father). His acting was so over-the-top and clichéd that I had to restrain myself from cracking up during serious scenes that featured him.

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The special effects in FANTASTIC FOUR are nowhere near as prestigious as a budget of 120 million would suggest. In fact, the CGI quality here looks like it’s from the horrible days of SPAWN and GODZILLA (the 1998 bomb with Broderick). The other dimension doesn’t look convincing in the slightest. When Mr. Fantastic stretches his body out, it appears like a scary abomination from some Asian ghost movie. The problem here is that we’re supposed to like him and think he’s cool. Meanwhile, The Thing appears to be one of last year’s Shrek-like Ninja Turtles covered in orange rocks. He’s still better than the Human Torch, who appears to have been brought to life with unconvincing half-rendered CGI. Honestly, the best special effects involve the Invisible Woman…because she’s invisible (ba dum ching).

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You might notice that I’ve yet to describe Doctor Doom (the main villain). That’s because this movie doesn’t utilize him until the final 20 minutes of running time. Toby Kebbel plays Doom and his motivations are seemingly nothing more than being a pompous jerk. I mean, why would you actually want a villain with a clear-cut motivation or personality? Doom’s powers include crappy CGI, blowing up people’s heads SCANNERS style (with less gore, because it’s PG-13), and inconsistently electrocuting one character so they can deliver clichéd motivational last words. The plot seems to be made entirely of set-up and then throws Doom in for the final scenes…because we need a villain. The biggest problem with this film aside from everything else is that this FANTASTIC FOUR sucks the fun and color out of what should have been a goofy, entertaining movie. Nobody is going into FANTASTIC FOUR looking for a serious, intense sci-fi film. The story doesn’t allow for that and a darker tone only makes the whole film depressing and dull.

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FANTASTIC FOUR is less than fantastic. From the lack of fun to lazy performances, everything about this movie just feels wrong. It’s a boring, awful failure of a film. This type of epic cinematic disaster seems to exist for internet critics to rip apart scene-by-scene and analyze everything that’s wrong with it. Honestly, I prefer the 2005 and 2007 films over this boring mess. 2015’s FANTASTIC FOUR feels like it’s relying on clichés, bad writing, and cheap special effects from late 90’s superhero bombs. It’s a distinct step backwards for superhero cinema. This FANTASTIC FOUR is easily the worst superhero movie we’ve received since 1997’s BATMAN & ROBIN. Heed my warning.

Grade: F

INSURGENT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Violence and Action throughout, some Sensuality, Thematic Elements and brief Language

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Directed by: Robert Schwentke

Written by: Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman & Mark Bomback

(based on the novel INSURGENT by Veronica Roth)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Octavia Spencer, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet, Mekhi Phifer & Ashley Judd

I was not a fan of DIVERGENT. That movie felt like an overly derivative mess that didn’t have a satisfying story, was filled with bland characters, and lowered even further by a cliché-ridden script. I really, truly hated DIVERGENT. So why am I reviewing INSURGENT? Apparently, I’m a glutton for punishment and asked people on Facebook if they wanted me to keep covering the series until its conclusion. They said yes, so here I am. INSURGENT is slightly better than DIVERGENT. It’s shorter, doesn’t waste time with unnecessary set-up, and manages to smuggle in a couple of cool action scenes. However, new problems arise in really stupid plot developments and eye-rolling moments that give Edward and Bella some competition for most unconvincing couple of the new millennium.

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When last we left the land of DIVERGENT, Tris’s parents had been killed, the fabric of an unstable class system was in question, and our group of fugitive heroes had escaped from the clutches of the evil Jeanine. Tris, Four (Tris’s lover), Peter (Tris’s nemesis) and Caleb (Tris’s brother) are hiding out in peaceful territory, but soon find themselves being ruthlessly chased by Jeanine and the Dauntless. It turns out that Jeanine (or as someone has referred to her, Female President Snow) has recovered an important artifact that can only be opened by a powerful Divergent. As Tris’s few surviving loved ones are threatened, this teenage heroine discovers that she’s the only hope of opening this artifact. That’s pretty much the plot right there. There are action scenes and encounters with other Factions, but INSURGENT has about as much going on as DIVERGENT did plot-wise. It’s familiar and basic stuff that’s made to look overly complicated and unnecessarily convoluted.

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INSURGENT thankfully doesn’t bother giving us a flashback set-up sequence, but still packs in plenty of young-adult clichés all over the place. The characters remain hollow and the cast appears to know that they’ve moved on to bigger things since DIVERGENT. Shailene Woodley (FAULT IN OUR STARS) is a one-note action heroine as Tris and still manages to garner plenty unintentional laughter on occasion, but also looks bored with the material she’s been given. Ansel Elgort is a woeful coward stereotype and doesn’t get a significant amount of screen time. Naomi Watts and Kate Winslet both seem present only to pick up an easy paycheck, though Blanchett gives the best performance of the whole film. The biggest blow comes in Miles Teller as the lame comic relief character who mainly serves as a convenient trigger for two plot points. Teller has recently come off of the amazing WHIPLASH and I couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy for starring in this sequel.

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INSURGENT’s visuals look good and more focus is placed on the post-apocalyptic world this time around. The ideas are still dumb and overused, but watching a crumbling futuristic society was slightly more interesting than watching a teenage girl try to become a member of a club…I mean, Faction. Though there isn’t an abundance of them, INSURGENT has good action scenes. I was enjoying myself during a shoot-out, a well-done chase scene and simulations that are the best scenes in the film. This being said, there are still lots of unintentional laugh-out-loud bits. My favorite of which involved Four yelling at someone “My name is Four!” and walking away from a dinner table like a pouty brat who constantly whines about nobody understanding them. In all honesty, that might be a portion of the film’s target audience though.

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The bad doesn’t stop there as the script feels downright lazy. This was based on a novel and I understand that part of these story problems birth from unoriginal source material, but there’s no excuse for how poorly written some of this stuff is. For example, there’s a huge plot point hinging on what’s inside this artifact and this is frequently brought up throughout two hours. When it’s ultimately revealed, it’s very underwhelming (not that I was expecting much to begin with) and insulting to the viewer. The discovery also more than reminded me a little of a certain other young-adult adaptation that came out last September, where that reveal also felt like a cop-out. I rolled my eyes so much during INSURGENT that I bordered on a possible hazard of vision problems.

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Going off the last note of INSURGENT, I’m really not sure what else of this story needs to or can be told. This opinion stems partially from just how bad these first two movies have been, but also because I really don’t think there’s much more of a story left to tell (let alone for TWO more films!). Seeing as HUNGER GAMES is ending this year, the young-adult void has been momentarily filled by the DIVERGENT series and THE MAZE RUNNER, though I’m really looking forward to the upcoming I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER. INSURGENT manages to be a miniscule hair above DIVERGENT in running time, but it’s just as convoluted and poorly executed as the first film. Now I’ll just go back to pretending that this series doesn’t exist until ALLEGIANT: Part 1 (of course!) hits next March.

Grade: D

My Top 10 Films of 2014

List by Derrick Carter

2014 has been a solid year for cinema. As with every film critic (freelance or professional), there comes a time of decision-making as to what the best movies of the year were. This list is all opinion based (like my reviews) and I can understand why people might not (and probably won’t) completely agree with every choice. In deciding how to rank my top 10 of the year, I noticed there was an equal amount of independent/foreign fare and big studio hits. This was unintentional, but is a nice detail that highlights how balanced this year really was for cinema all around.

Before I get into my actual list, it bears mentioning that I have not seen/reviewed every single film from this year (I plan on covering FOXCATCHER, INHERENT VICE, and AMERICAN SNIPER eventually). I’m only one man after all, so my selections come from the films that I’ve watched and reviewed this year. That all being said and without further ado, here are my 10 favorite films from 2014!

Honorable Mentions: BOUND BY FLESH, UNDER THE SKIN, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, FURY, THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2, and A MOST WANTED MAN

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10. BIG BAD WOLVES: I wasn’t terribly impressed with Aharon Keshales’s and Navot Papushado’s directorial debut, RABIES. BIG BAD WOLVES serves as a drastic improvement. At first, the story seems relatively simple. However, the diabolical screenplay toys with the viewer in injecting a pitch-black sense of humor that works wonderfully and a dark tone that isn’t the slightest bit funny. Things aren’t as simple as they originally appear and a haunting conclusion ensures that this film will stick with you. I originally saw/reviewed it in January and it has held up on multiple viewings throughout the year. If you’re up for a disturbing tour-de-force of horror that defies expectations, BIG BAD WOLVES should be on your radar!

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9. THE LEGO MOVIE: On New Year’s Day, I was chatting with a friend about how much I thought THE LEGO MOVIE was going to suck. This concept seemed doomed from the beginning and I was reluctantly dragged to the theater at the urging of my younger siblings. In all of 2014, I have never been so happy that I was so wrong about a film! Blending meta-elements, rapid fire jokes, and a hilarious storyline, THE LEGO MOVIE is 2014’s biggest surprise! The animation (which appears to combine stop-motion and computer graphics) is stellar. Tons of jokes are present so that it takes multiple viewings to catch every little piece (pun intended) that the movie has to offer. LEGO MOVIE is not only the best family film of 2014, everything about it is awesome!

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8. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST: The X-MEN movies have a good vs. bad ratio of 5 to 2. Those are fantastic odds for any blockbuster series. DAYS OF FUTURE PAST delivered the best entry in the mutant saga to date. This much-anticipated comic book storyline was fantastically brought to life by returning director Bryan Singer. In lesser hands, FUTURE PAST could have become a standard blockbuster with the gimmick of time travel used to combine both casts of the franchise. Instead, this film was a delight to sit through for myself and many film goers this past summer. Easily the best comic book film since Christopher Nolan graced the silver screen with his take on Batman. Definitely count me in for APOCALYPSE in 2016!

NIGHTCRAWLER, Jake Gyllenhaal, 2014. ph: Chuck Zlotnick/©Open Road Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

7. NIGHTCRAWLER: Scarier than any true horror film that I saw in all of 2014, NIGHTCRAWLER is a truly disturbing movie. Disappearing completely into the main character of Lou, Jake Gyllenhaal delivers an award-worthy performance that creeped me out to the point where I was wriggling in my seat as he manipulated everyone around him. In a sense, Lou is a vampire sucking the moral decency out of everyone he comes across. As a dark, disturbing, and unflinching masterwork, NIGHTCRAWLER serves as cinematic nightmare that I can’t wait to revisit in the near future.

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6. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: This was the summer blockbuster that delivered on every possible level. It had grand action and amazing effects (those monkeys look so real), but also incorporated them into a smart story and complicated characters. While RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was a huge surprise for everyone, DAWN has cemented itself as my personal favorite APE movie. DAWN blended spectacle and a fantastic plot so perfectly that it makes me shake with anticipation for the newest upcoming APES film (Summer 2016). Having seen RISE and DAWN, I’m more than prepared to bow down to our future primate overlords. This movie rocked!

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5. THE RAID 2: I watched the original RAID at its Sundance premiere and thought it was an impressive action flick, but a tad overrated in the end. This exhilarating sequel pulls out all the stops to one up the original in every possible way. While APES blended spectacle with an intelligent story, RAID 2 blends an intense gangster thriller with mind-blowing action scenes. I was exhausted by the end of this film and that’s the biggest compliment I can give any action movie. Each fight scene has its own unique spin so none of them blended into one another. A few that stick out in my mind are a prison yard fight, one of the most intense/realistic car chases that I’ve ever seen, and a stunning confrontation between two highly skilled, deadly men. Those are just a few of the phenomenal sequences that this epic-length modern action classic has to offer. It plays like THE DEPARTED had a baby with a Bruce Lee movie. It’s friggin’ nuts and I loved every second of it!

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4. WHIPLASH: How do you turn a protégé story about a young man trying to be a successful drummer into a nail-bitingly thriller? Apparently, you get Damien Chazelle to write and direct it. Though he is a young newcomer, Chazelle struck gold in this fantastic and deep drama. I didn’t like Miles Teller before watching this movie and now appreciate that he has some serious acting chops on him. J.K. Simmons, usually a side character or background actor, is given room to be the most intimidating antagonist that I saw in a film all year. He plays a conductor, but Simmons is downright scary as hell and entertaining to watch at the same time. Well shot, well written, well acted, and all around well constructed, WHIPLASH is a masterpiece!

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3. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: The evening that I spent watching this magical film was an enchanting experience. Evoking a sense of classic comedies and a fairy tale color palette, Wes Anderson’s GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL sucked me into its oddball world from the first frame. Ralph Fiennes’s Gustave H. and Adrien Brody’s villain had me breaking into hysterical laughter throughout this whole film. Besides the humor, there’s a unique sweetness to BUDAPEST as well as a compelling storyline (background happenings reward repeat viewings). GRAND BUDAPEST is sincere in its story, humor, honest emotions, and ridiculous nature. Cinematic heaven!

GONE GIRL, from left: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, 2014. ph: Merrick Morton/TM & copyright ©20th

2. GONE GIRL: Going into 2014, there was one film that I was highly anticipating. That was David Fincher’s adaptation of the best-selling mystery, GONE GIRL. The novel is acclaimed, for good reason, of having a nasty sleight of hand that trips up the reader’s preconceived notions. Fincher masterfully transfers that level of Hitchcockian suspense onto the screen in this deeply disturbing and haunting thriller. I didn’t spoil anything in my review and I won’t spoil anything here either. If anyone does try to give away the plot, slap them in the face before they can give away any detail. Though it’s really your fault for having not seen this film yet. Go see it! Seriously! It’s the smartest, entirely compelling and most intense thriller that I’ve seen all year. Once you’ve seen GONE GIRL, you’ll know why everyone is raving about it so much.

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1. BIRDMAN or (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE): What do I even say about this film? When I saw the trailer for BIRDMAN, I felt iffy on it. This looked to be a quirky comedy that could potentially be good, but might rely far too much on the gimmick of having a washed-up former superhero actor playing a washed-up former superhero actor. Nevertheless, I walked into the movie theater hoping for a good flick. In less than 10 minutes, I was under the film’s spell. This wasn’t just good or funny, this was fantastic and amazing. Telling the story in a stylistic choice that appears to be caught in one take (through various hidden cuts) and containing some of the best performances that this entire year had to offer, BIRDMAN is an extraordinary piece of cinema. I’ve bad-mouthed Michael Keaton for a couple of crappy movies he did earlier this year, but his performance really is something to behold in this film! There’s never been anything quite like BIRDMAN before and there’s never going to be anything quite like it again. BIRDMAN is perfection!

2014 was a solid year and produced a lot of phenomenal films. I hope 2015 is even better!

WHIPLASH (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Language including some Sexual References

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Directed by: Damien Chazelle

Written by: Damien Chazelle

Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Jayson Blair & Kavita Patil

No matter where I’ve turned on the internet or what TV channel I’ve been watching, it seems like there was no avoiding the marketing campaign for Sundance winner and potential Oscar nominee WHIPLASH. Everywhere I looked, I saw some form of praise for this dark drama about obsession, abuse, and an unrelenting drive to be great. With all this build-up, there was the ever-growing possibility of the film being too hyped up for its own good. Let me put those fears to rest right now by saying WHIPLASH lives up to everything that’s being said about it and more. This is one of the very best films that 2014 has to offer!

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Andrew Neiman has recently been accepted into Shaffer Conservatory (the finest music school in the country) and is working his ass off to be the very best drummer that he can. Taking interest in the young man is fearsome conductor Terence Fletcher. Fletcher has a reputation for being a tough and demanding instructor, but Andrew is up to the task of working under him. As Andrew is accepted into the school’s Jazz band, it becomes quickly apparent that Fletcher isn’t just tough and demanding…he’s also a master manipulator and an all-around abusive dickhead. Instead of giving up on his dreams, Andrew decides to keep working under the harsh conditions of Fletcher…which leads into an intense emotionally charged battle between the two.

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A movie centering around a struggling drummer might not sound like the most riveting piece of cinema on paper and there are plenty of clichés associated with mentor-protégé stories, but WHIPLASH proves both of these assumptions wrong. One key asset to the film that director/writer Damien Chazelle puts you into the mindset of Andrew (brought to life in a stirring Miles Teller). This protagonist is sympathetic and we understand his aspirations for a future career as a musician becoming an obsession. Drumming is the most important thing to him and vicariously it becomes a similarly important goal to the viewer for the entire running time. This story could easily be seen as the downward spiral of a young man as his work begins to destroy his life, but WHIPLASH is so much more than something that simple or easy to describe.

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A strong element that takes WHIPLASH into intense unexpected directions is J.K. Simmons’s antagonist. As the foul-mouthed Fletcher, Simmons delivers the performance of his career thus far. The film doesn’t take any sort of easy route in offering up answers to what kind of person that Fletcher really is. He’s a phenomenally written character with highly questionable methods, but a drive that’s more complicated than one may initially expect. As the film goes on, new developments are revealed about Fletcher and it really makes the viewer question if they should outright hate the guy by the conclusion. I’m not all in for the trials of abuse equaling greatness, but Fletcher comes across as almost making a solid case for it in the context of the story (especially in one conversation).

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WHIPLASH stays constantly intense. The viewer may find themselves getting frustrated with the film in the sense that it is pummeling core emotions. The story is all around excellent and I can safely say it has one of the very best conclusions that I’ve seen to a film in a long time. I had no clue what I was in store for and found myself questioning what the outcome of the final minutes would be, but was extremely pleased with how the film wound up. Just like the rest of the movie, the ending of WHIPLASH offers no easy answers and leaves you pondering long after the credits have begun to roll.

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It’s true! Believe the hype! WHIPLASH is a thrilling, original, and excellent film any way you look at it. Miles Teller (who I ragged on earlier this year for starring in the crappy DIVERGENT) pulls a 180 turn in his stellar performance as a struggling young man whose ambition might be the end of him. J.K. Simmons (usually given small side characters) is allowed free rein to play a borderline psychotic antagonist in the best performance of his career thus far. This film is a powerful beast (much like the title music number that’s repeated various times throughout). I adored WHIPLASH and plan on watching it many times in the coming years!

Grade: A+

DIVERGENT (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 19 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Violence and Action, Thematic Elements and some Sensuality

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Directed by: Neil Burger

Written by: Evan Daugherty & Vanessa Taylor

(based on the novel DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ansel Elgort, Ray Stevenson, Kate Winslet, Zoe Kravitz, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn & Ashley Judd

The vast well of material found in young adult fiction has been used a lot in the past few years. Since TWILIGHT was coming to a close and HARRY POTTER ended a decade-long reign at the box office, studios have been searching for the next big franchise to target the teenage demographic. THE HUNGER GAMES has become the new champion, but that isn’t stopping big budget attempts to start new film series out of any middle-school-oriented novel that comes out. Take for example the latest in this trend, DIVERGENT. Despite some shaky looking promotional material for this film, I was optimistic that it might be a good flick. After all, the book was so immensely popular that people had to be seeing something in the material. This all being said, DIVERGENT is a jumbled mess of scrambled parts from other (mostly more successful) plots that we’ve seen in the last few years.

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In a dystopian future, Chicago is the city left standing. The general population is separated into five separate groups (ala THE HUNGER GAMES) to keep the peace. Each citizen goes through a test that shows them which group best suits their personality. Tris is the teenage daughter in a family that belong to the vegan/hippie faction of society. Upon taking the test, it turns out that she’s a Divergent. This label is placed on individuals seen as a threats because they test positive for all five factions. Tris keeps this to herself and decides to join the law enforcement faction. This tests both her physical endurance and her mental strength. Bullied by some and facing the possibility of winding up factionless (e.g. homeless), Tris goes through rigorous training to find a place in her new faction. She also falls in love with Four (one of her trainers). The two do their best to avoid suspicion of Tris’s Divergent nature as an escalating war is on the horizon between factions.

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The ideas behind the plot of DIVERGENT aren’t bad ones. We’ve seen many of these clichéd scenarios in recent years (e.g. THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS, THE HOST, ENDER’S GAME, BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, I AM NUMBER FOUR, etc.). It’s the construction of the whole affair that’s a convoluted mess. In THE HUNGER GAMES series, ENDER’S GAME, and (hell, even) THE HOST, the dystopian future was explored just enough to satisfy the curiosity of the viewer. In DIVERGENT, the script seems focused on the wrong elements of the story. This is a dystopian society, but there are still tattoo parlors in underground dwellings (I almost laughed out loud when I saw this). A lot of things don’t make any sense in this world recovering from a supposed apocalyptic war. To add insult to injury, a whole lot of sappy pop songs make up the soundtrack. What else can you expect from a film whose target demographic is teenage girls?

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I would equate a majority of DIVERGENT to the recent adaptation of ENDER’S GAME. Imagine if that film had been based purely on Ender’s training for the war and hadn’t had a satisfying payoff. That’s exactly what DIVERGENT does and why it fails at being compelling. You could have summed up half of the film in 10 or 20 minutes. Even a montage would have been more satisfying. The movie adaptation feels that every single stage of Tris’s training is essential to watch. This makes for an over-two-hour running time that feels far longer than it should in every possible way. This might make for a compelling read, but as a film there’s plenty of editing that was needed. It’s not interesting to watch a teenage girl train for most of a movie where far more exciting events felt glossed over in the final third.

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The less said about performances and character, the better. Some tired clichés are used in the fast-paced ridiculous climax of the film. In fact, one of them is used twice (with unintentionally hilarious results). There are also discussions of politics and a deeper meaning that isn’t nearly as deep as some people claim it is. The message of how dangerous conformity can be was hammered in frequently. There were about three speeches (two of which were delivered from a scenery chewing Kate Winslet) preaching about the evils of free will and human nature. Had it not been for the giggling overly excited teenage girls in the packed auditorium, I was tempted to yell at the screen “We get it! Be more subtle!” That is the kind of film DIVERGENT is though. It’s the kind of movie that has its target audience cheering during so-called fight scenes, clapping as the end credits roll, and one girl notably yelled “Yes!” when a predictable kiss came. It’s successful in that sense, but that doesn’t make it a good movie!

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Perhaps, I might be optimistic in INSURGENT (coming out next year, because Lionsgate is pumping this franchise without even knowing how successful it will wind up being). After all, I liked CATCHING FIRE a whole lot more than the first HUNGER GAMES. In the first 30 minutes, I thought that DIVERGENT was a decent enough flick rounding about a C+. By about an hour in, that grade had been lowered to a C-. By the time the melodramatic, downright terrible film concluded it was at a…

Grade: D

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