HARD RAIN (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence

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Directed by: Mikael Salomon

Written by: Graham Yost

Starring: Morgan Freeman, Christian Slater, Randy Quaid, Minnie Driver, Edward Asner & Michael Goorjian

In all likelihood, you probably haven’t heard of HARD RAIN. This disaster/action flick came and went so fast in the January of 1998 that it didn’t leave much of an impression on anyone, though it has gone down as a huge financial flop (earning back less than a third of its 70 million budget). While there are plenty of notorious box office bombs that are well deserving of their losses, HARD RAIN is actually entertaining. It’s a shame that not many people have heard of or remember this movie, because RAIN is a pretty enjoyable combination of natural disaster adventure and action thriller.

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A small Indiana town has been hit with the worst rain storm in U.S. history. The water level is steadily rising and homes have been evacuated. All this being said, it only makes sense that unlucky Tom has been saddled with transporting 3 million dollars in an armored truck. After experiencing car problems due to waist-deep levels of water, Tom finds himself on the run from a group of armed criminals who want the money. In order to stay alive, Tom hides the millions in cash and navigates his way through the flooded streets. His luck only gets worse as the rain keeps pouring, the violent criminals desperately pursue him, and a couple of mentally unhinged cops get wind of his newly hidden treasure. The rain was only the beginning. The gunfire and chases through the drenched landscape could be Tom’s end.

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Brought to the screen by the same folks who made SPEED, HARD RAIN manages to combine two well-worn genres into something that feels enjoyable and arguably a little fresh. This is a traditional action flick with a disaster movie twist. There’s not a glimpse of sunshine in the entire film as rain keeps pouring and the flood is everywhere. Production was a believably miserable experience with the cast and crew being soaked through most of the movie. It pays off for those wanting simple popcorn entertainment as HARD RAIN is predictable for the most part, but also quite fun. The film is well-paced, though forced comedy relief moments put a damper on some of the momentum. RAIN also boasts really cool action scenes, including a rip-roaring chase through the flooded hallways of a school as well as a finale that delivers everything you’d want and expect from a movie of this type. Again, the story isn’t necessarily anything new, borrowing clichés liberally from standard action fare and predictable disaster movies, but still winds up being entertaining.

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The biggest problem in HARD RAIN are the characters. These people are bland. Christian Slater plays a cookie-cutter good guy. He isn’t given much of a personality and merely serves as a protagonist to escape various crazy scenarios. Morgan Freeman plays the cookie-cutter bad guy. His interest is purely in the money and he yells at people while occasionally firing guns. Meanwhile, Minnie Driver is…you guessed it…the cookie-cutter good-looking gal. She serves as Slater’s unlikely love interest and sidekick through the latter half of this adventure. Like everyone else, she isn’t given a real personality. You might be asking: Is anybody in this film given a personality? Well, yes! Randy Quaid (of all people) is really awesome as the redneck, socially disgraced Sheriff who becomes blinded by the prospect of 3 million dollars hidden in his town. Quaid comes off as a likable guy in the beginning but one of the main threats by the end. He’s wholly enjoyable in this role and allowed room to make it his own.

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HARD RAIN is one of the biggest box office flops from 1998 and that’s a shame. The movie isn’t great or even particularly special, but it’s a pretty fun flick that never takes itself too seriously. The comic relief can be annoying and a majority of the characters merely serve as means to an end, but the action scenes are well-executed and the natural disaster element adds a constant danger to already dangerous proceedings. This is an underrated gem from the 90’s that has sadly gone unnoticed. If you’re in the mood for a fun time-killer, check out HARD RAIN.

Grade: B-

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!

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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!

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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!

LAST VEGAS (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sexual Content and Language

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Directed by: Jon Turteltaub

Written by: Dan Fogelman

Starring: Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline & Mary Steenburgen

It’s not often that you see very many films celebrating getting older and wiser to the extent that LAST VEGAS does. These messages mainly pop up in coming-of-age stories with relatively young protagonists. There have been exceptions in recent years starring well-worn cinematic veterans in dramedy roles. THE BUCKET LIST is an obvious example of this, but 2013 had two of these films in nationwide release. One of which made a giant splash at the box office and another of which was sort of a flop. The bomb was GRUDGE MATCH and the splash was this film: LAST VEGAS. I was tempted to cover LAST VEGAS upon its original release, but never got around to it. So almost a year later, I’m watching and critiquing this story of four old folks trying to live it up in Last Vegas…only to find that it’s a so-so film.

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Billy, Paddy, Archie and Sam have been friends since their childhood together in Brooklyn. 58 years have passed since those happy times and these men are quickly reaching their final years of life. After Billy gets engaged to a young thirty-something woman, the trio of old fogies throw him a bachelor party in the best place for such occasions: Las Vegas! They’re old guys trying to live it up in a strange new world where many things have changed. As you might imagine, hijinks ensue and the old guys come to terms with their age in different ways.

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LAST VEGAS is fun in moments, but also tries to have a sentimental edge (especially in the all too predictable conclusion) that doesn’t work very well. If this movie didn’t star these four legendary actors, than it would probably be a downright terrible movie. It’s a film that does get tired and repetitive, developing a flimsy story on the one-note joke that these four old guys are trying to live it up in Las Vegas (which is crowded by plenty of young people, drinking, partying, and sex). The fun of the story hinges completely on the cast, all of whom are fun to watch. Plenty of comparisons have been drawn to this being an old folks’ version of THE HANGOVER and that’s a pretty accurate dead-on description. The humor (though definitely with some PG-13 content) keeps things very safe, which makes sense given that a majority of the target-audience for this movie would be disgusted by the heavy R-rated HANGOVER jokes.

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What little plot makes up LAST VEGAS is very predictable. Each character has their own story-arch and these are interesting to various degrees. Robert De Niro’s thread is actually the least enjoyable, but he’s the best actor here. Everyone can predict where things are eventually heading in regards to Morgan Freeman’s relationship with his worrisome son, the possibility that Michael Douglas is forcing his marriage to a far younger woman, and Kevin Kline’s quest to have superb sex with someone other than his wife. Notice I didn’t use any of the character’s names in that last paragraph. This is because nearly everyone will just see these actors as not so much playing characters but really hamming it up for the cameras. The plot is less of an actual interesting story and more of an excuse for these guys to hang out. It’s almost the Adam Sandler effect with his godawful GROWN UPS movies, but this one keeps more dignity intact.

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At the end of the day, LAST VEGAS is harmless and may delight the older crowd who can relate better to these characters than I can at the moment. I’m far from the point in my life of being as old as these folks, so I can’t honestly say that this movie was aimed towards me to begin with. There are a couple of funny moments and everything is kept light-hearted. It’s a fluffy experience that really has no lasting impact, but doesn’t necessarily do anything all-out bad either. The best part of this movie was seeing De Niro, Douglas, Freeman, and Kline together, even if it’s in a middle-of-the-road effort.

Grade: C

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Sexuality and Language

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Directed by: Paul McGuigan

Written by: Jason Smilovic

Starring: Josh Hartnett, Bruce Willis, Lucy Liu, Morgan Freeman, Ben Kingsley & Stanley Tucci

In the opening minutes of LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN (after a grisly montage of different people being taken out in violent ways), Bruce Willis explains what a Kansas City Shuffle is. He describes it as when everybody goes right and you go left. The entire plot of SLEVIN could be summed up that description. This ingenious and underrated crime thriller leads goes left where every other crime thriller goes right. It’s a constantly surprising and very well-written flick that needs a bigger following behind it. If there was any best Tarantino movie that Tarantino didn’t direct in the new millennium, this is it!

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Slevin Kelevra (Josh Hartnett) is an unlucky young man who has found himself in quite the predicament. After losing his job, apartment and girlfriend, Slevin goes to visit his friend Nick Fisher in New York. Once there, his luck gets even worse as he’s mugged (wallet with ID and all is taken) and Nick is nowhere to be found. After making friends with a nosy neighbor (Lucy Liu), Slevin winds up in a classic case of mistaken identity. Nick owes money to two different mob bosses, The Boss (Morgan Freeman) and The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley), who live across a busy street from each other. Slevin is caught in between these crime lords and a brutish cop (Stanley Tucci) on his case. All the while a shady hitman named Goodkat (Bruce Willis) waits in the background to make his move. It’s a confusing plot to get down properly and things get even more complicated as the movie goes along, but the second half is where everything pays off in spades! This is an understated near masterpiece.

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LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN is comparable to a Tarantino crime flick in any number of ways. Namely the dialogue which is sharp, fast, and full of wit. The colorful characters all have their special personalities. Even someone as basic as two thugs who are seen in three scenes, make their presence known with different quirks. Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley are fantastic as two rival crime bosses who have their own different sense of humor. Both are intimidating, especially Morgan Freeman, but their smartass attitudes make them a joy to watch. Bruce Willis also shines Goodkat, rarely glimpsed in the first half but making his presence well-known in the second.

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The one thing that I would fault is the connection between Josh Hartnett and Lucy Liu. A romance is kindled between the two and they aren’t exactly compelling as a couple. I’ll go as far as saying that Lucy Liu is the weakest part of this flick. Josh Hartnett is a smartass that kind get a little grating at points, but I completely dug his character by the end. Also, Stanley Tucci is underused as the main police officer on Slevin’s tail. Some viewers might find it a little hard to get through the seemingly convoluted nature of the first half, but things go from confusing to downright excellent and rewarding in the second half. This is a movie that turns into something you don’t expect it to. Keeping it vague, you won’t know what hit you.

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LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN is a Kansas City Shuffle (you’ll know the origin of this term in the final seconds of the film). It’s one of the most underrated films that you’re bound to find. One of the best crime stories you’ve never heard of and if you have heard of this film, then you know exactly why its awesome and how it tricks the viewer in so many ways. There are tons of twists in LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN and I’ve kept things vague enough so you won’t guess exactly what’s coming. The second hour is one of the finest reveals that keeps pulling even more reveals as it goes along. Though the forced romance might keep things from being perfect, it’s damn near a masterpiece regardless. A bloody brilliant film that is the definition of a hidden gem. If you’re even remotely into gangster movies, then you must see this!

Grade: A

LUCY (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Disturbing Images, and Sexuality

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Directed by: Luc Besson

Written by: Luc Besson

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Choi Min-Sik, Amr Waked

Luc Besson doesn’t make normal movies. That’s a cinematic fact. His projects range in quality due to his quirky sensibilities. Though I’m convinced the man will never top LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL, Besson has some form of creativity injected into every piece of his work. With his written-but-not-directed 3 DAYS TO KILL surprising me earlier this year, I was hoping that LUCY might be something more than a so-so piece of sci-fi action that looked iffy at best. Judging from the sold out theater, LUCY is bound to be a summer hit, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The movie takes a neat idea and rolls with it in entertaining fashion, but jumps the shark in an overblown ending that will leave a lot of people (myself included) unsatisfied.

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Lucy is a young woman forced into a dangerous situation. Thanks to her asshole boyfriend’s blunder, she’s caught up in a drug smuggling scheme. The cargo is a concentrated powder that has unforeseen side effects and has been sewn into her stomach. After being kicked in her newly stitched up area, the bag of drugs leaks inside her and Lucy’s brain activity is suddenly skyrocketing. The average 10% that humans use is a thing of the past for Lucy. As intelligence and superhuman abilities increase, her life expectancy drops. Lucy must make the most of the time she has left with the help of a police officer (Amr Waked) and a renowned scientist (Morgan Freeman). Meanwhile, the gangsters who surgically implanted that stuff inside Lucy’s tummy are hunting for her.

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The first thing that really struck me about LUCY was the oddball style in how it was told. The first 20 minutes or so cut between Lucy’s ordeal and Morgan Freeman delivering a lecture. Lots of montages featuring stock footage were also inserted throughout. One example is Lucy walking into the den of gangsters and a deer being hunting by a pack of cheetahs. It is a strange thing, but it also provides some laughs during the Morgan Freeman’s lecture. A solid sense of humor is present too that is delivered through Lucy doing something unexpected to someone in her way, whether they’re a good person or one of the many Korean gangsters. The film also cuts to percentage cards (28%, 40%, 50%, etc.) as Lucy’s powers increase. I felt that this was a neat way of letting the audience know just how powerful she was becoming at the moment and how much time was left until the conclusion. Something that might throw audiences for the loop is how LUCY is not what it’s being advertised as. It never fully launches into insane violence and embraces its R-rating (e.g. the final shootout in LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL). The end result does wind up being fun and trippy, but there are plenty problems that weight it down.

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As far as the acting is concerned, Scarlett Johansson continues to impress with her abilities and range of characters she can bring life to. This is a woman who in less than the past year has played a comic book heroine, a romantic lead, an alien, the voice of a robot, and doesn’t do anything too similar to these roles as Lucy. The title character herself points out that as she becomes stronger the things that make her human are beginning to fade. Johansson goes from scared victim to near emotionless badass in the space of this film and does it well. A face that might be familiar to fans of OLDBOY and I SAW THE DEVIL would be Choi Min-Sik popping up as the big bad. His character does nothing more but pose a threat for Lucy. There’s still plenty of entertainment to be had from his presence as a mob boss. Amr Waked appears as a near useless sidekick character in the police officer. He even states that Lucy doesn’t need him anymore about halfway through the film and his point is legit. He serves almost no purpose. Morgan Freeman also plays Morgan Freeman, though they don’t come out and call him that.

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Throughout the running time, LUCY dives into utter lunacy. It’s all in the vein of being fun and while it succeeds at that, the film does drag in places. It really jumps the shark in the finale. The movie went from being wild and crazy to art house territory and this felt completely inappropriate to the movie that the audience had been sitting through for just over an hour (the running time is a scant 90 minutes). In some places, the film takes on content that TRANSCENDENCE tried to do and completely failed at. LUCY doesn’t fare much better, but there’s a whole lot of silly B-flick material that was enjoyable to sit through. The movie is a mixed bag as a whole and it’s not what most people are expecting it to be in the slightest.

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Taken on a purely superficial level, LUCY is cool in the sense that I had fun watching it and there are lots of good comic relief. However, it’s not nearly as action-packed as one might think (with about 4 or 5 notable set-pieces) and dabbles in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY material in the final 10 minutes. It’s a silly flick that suffered from an identity crisis. Also for being only 90 minutes, the movie drags in spots. This is far from Luc Besson’s finest hour, but I’d say LUCY is worth a look on cable, Netflix, or Redbox. There’s not enough positive qualities to recommend laying down hard-earned cash for a theater ticket for this one.

Grade: C+

TRANSCENDENCE (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action and Violence, some Bloody Images, brief Strong Language and Sensuality

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Directed by: Wally Pfister

Written by: Jack Paglen

Starring: Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, Paul Bettany & Clifton Collins Jr.

In the grand cinematic scheme, science fiction has been used to tell intelligent, creative stories with relevant social commentary at the center. TRANSCENDENCE frequently tries to get across how much society depends on technology (after all, you are reading this review on an electronic device of some kind). This point has been made in plenty of other films and is kind of overplayed. With an interesting story, the message could possibly be made worthwhile again. TRANSCENDENCE is not an interesting movie. This thriller of science gone very wrong is muddled, ridiculous, and doesn’t do a thing worth engaging the viewer’s interest. It’s a boring, stupid film that wastes a good cast. The real mystery is how first-time director Wally Pfister (who has only worked as a cinematographer) and first-time screenwriter Jack Paglen got this stinker funded on a huge budget. Judging from the near-empty theater I saw this in (a Friday evening), TRANSCENDENCE has a good chance of deservedly flopping.

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Will Caster, Evelyn Caster (his wife), and Max Waters are part of a research team designing the ultimate Artificial Intelligence. This self-aware system has the potential of being more powerful than the combined intellect of everyone in the entire world. The idea is a little creepy and one could see things easily going wrong with this creation. An anti-tech terrorist group (known as Rift) foresees the potential disaster and kills the staff of nearly every A.I. lab in the country. An assassination attempt is made on Will’s life and it leaves him poisoned with a month left to live. Desperate to keep her husband around, Evelyn uploads his consciousness to the A.I. they were constructing. After exhibiting some disturbing behavior, a few people decide there’s a definite possibility that this new sentient system isn’t actually Will.

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TRANSCENDENCE is a film that tries too hard to have focus on deeper issues (including an ending that’s contradictory to everything that has come up to that point). The introduction to the story reveals where things wind up by the end of the story. Thus first-time director and first-time screenwriter pair both ruin the biggest possible surprise that might have come in the finale by showing it in the first five minutes. This is the first sign that Pfister might not be at the same level of skill directing-wise that he clearly demonstrates in cinematography.

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The screenplay handles the supposed deeper message of the movie in a heavy-handed fashion. It’s all about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the groin. The twists the film takes along its way become more convoluted as the story trudges along. The movie runs for two hours and feels so much longer than that. There’s a good space in the middle where nothing much happens and it’s just exposition for the climax. Speaking of which, the ending almost feels like there was this ideology surrounding it that this conclusion would be profound and deeply emotional. I’ve seen people defending it online and one woman was actually crying in my theater during it. She may have been sobbing just because she realized she would never receive those two hours of endurance back into her life. TRANSCENDENCE is a poorly made failure of a film.

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Despite the large budget that graces it, the production values feel very cheap. Most of the CGI is unconvincing. The cast of familiar A-listers are all phoning it in. With this dud, Johnny Depp seems to be in a bit of a cinematic rut. Here’s hoping that his next project boosts him out from this series of bad movies. Rebecca Hall doesn’t garner much sympathy as Evelyn Caster. Paul Bettany is no stranger to big-budgeted wasted opportunities (PRIEST, LEGION) and he isn’t given much to do in TRANSCENDENCE. His role isn’t of much importance, seeing as he disappears for a solid stretch of time. Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy both are wasted too. If anyone shines out, it’s Depp (regulated to a computer monitor for most of the movie) and he’s playing an A.I. so not a whole lot of emotion was required, therefore not a whole lot was given.

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If there’s any consolation to be given, it’s that TRANSCENDENCE might not have had the potential to be a winner from day one. It’s essentially a big-budget remake of THE LAWNMOWER MAN with a couple of preachy messages thrown in. It’s a silly, poorly acted, and boring mess. Thus far, it’s the worst film I’ve seen in 2014! TRANSCENDENCE doesn’t wind up transcending any of its problems and falls victim to being a shitty movie. It’s not worth your money, let alone your time! This is one project that needed to be shut down from day one!

Grade: F

THE LEGO MOVIE (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for mild Action and Rude Humor

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Directed by: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

Written by: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

Voices of: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill & Will Forte

I thought THE LEGO MOVIE looked awful from the trailer that premiered last July. Movies based around toys, whether they be action figures (TRANSFORMERS franchise) or board games (BATTLESHIP), almost never work on any level. THE LEGO MOVIE looked like it would be one big long commercial for those beloved sets of bricks that we all grew up with. Enter Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (whose previous work includes the delightful CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS). This comedic duo has crafted a spectacular script to what sounded like a terrible project. The crew behind this film also includes a diverse cast of characters and a lively animation team. Before getting into the details of just why THE LEGO MOVIE soars to the highest pillar of family entertainment,  I’ll present the basic set-up…

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Living in a world built of Legos and populated by Lego figures, Emmet is just a generic construction worker who goes with the flow. He doesn’t have any real friends to speak of and revels in whatever’s popular (be it a TV sitcom titled Where’s My Pants?, drinking overpriced coffee, or listening to the hit-rock song “Everything Is Awesome” for five-hours straight at his workplace). After running into a rare artifact, Emmet finds himself on an unexpected adventure with such unlikely companions as Wildstyle (an action heroine), Vitruvius (a blind wizard), and other oddball companions. This also includes Batman. Emmet may be in over his head, but only they can stop the evil Lord Business from destroying the world as they know it with an ultimate weapon known as the “Kragle.”

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The computer animation looks so convincingly like stop-motion executed with Legos, that I really wouldn’t be shocked if most of the movie was done with real stop-motion. Every frame of the film is lively and visually entrancing! There’s so much going on the background of some scenes that THE LEGO MOVIE will probably get even more enjoyable on repeat viewings. The cast of characters is vast and the voices bringing these Lego figures to life ranges from action stars (Liam Neeson as Good Cop/Bad Cop) to comedians (Charlie Day is hysterical as a spaceman, Will Arnett knocks it out of the park with his portrayal of Batman, and Will Ferrell is delightful as Lord Business) and even some fun cameos (Channing Tatum as Superman and Jonah Hill as Green Lantern, among others).

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The voice cast is impressive, but the script elevates the material from great to absolutely A-grade material! Yes, there are pop-culture references (we see plenty of notable characters from movies, sports, and comic books). I usually despise these in comedy with a passion, but oddly enough the references in THE LEGO MOVIE will age very well. It’s not just incorporating what’s hip and new at the present. Everybody loves DC Comics, basketball legends, and some movie series that are referenced. There won’t be a time when these references get old, because the things being references aren’t just fads or nods to things that have been released in the past year (unlike all those lame spoof movies that seem to get pumped out every few months). This decision was nothing short of brilliant and the film doesn’t exclusively rely on these fun pokes for the viewer to enjoy it!

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While the plot itself is a mere outline for lots of creativity and fun. It succeeds in this case, because that’s exactly what everyone brought to the table. There’s a quality in THE LEGO MOVIE that’s rarely found in family entertainment (of any era). It seems as if the entertainment factor was a high priority from everybody involved, but the last third is where things get taken from a great movie to a surprisingly heartfelt piece of cinema (I’m seriously referring to THE LEGO MOVIE as that). I won’t spoil what happens, but it touches the emotions of children and will bring some brimming tears to the eyes of many an adult. This is where I knew outright that this is a top-level piece of family friendly entertainment for me.

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Parents sitting behind me were skeptical when the film began. As it ended, they were cheering “That was great!” Various members of the audience were also giving it a strong round of applause as well. I always say (and will continue to do so) that great children’s entertainment isn’t just meant for children. Really phenomenal family films can be enjoyed by the whole family for a wide variety of reasons. THE LEGO MOVIE is the kind of family film I just described. It’s too early to tell for sure, but I wouldn’t be shocked if THE LEGO MOVIE winds up being one of the best 2014 has to offer. Take your children to see it! Take your girlfriend or wife to see it! Take yourself to see it! THE LEGO MOVIE is (to bring back a word used frequently throughout the film) awesome!

Grade: A+

NOW YOU SEE ME (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Language, some Action and Sexual Content

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Directed by: Louis Leterrier

Written by: Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin & Edward Ricourt

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Melanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman & Michael Caine

A good magic trick keeps you guessing as to how the magician created the illusion, while also keeping you intrigued and believing (even a tiny bit) in the unknown. A good movie aims for the same goals. While NOW YOU SEE ME does have a very cool twist ending that I didn’t see coming, it also neglects to make the whole film worthwhile by increasingly becoming even more farfetched as it goes along. Stretching belief is one thing, but treating your audience to one revelation after another in hopes that they won’t realize they are being misled into a rather mediocre movie isn’t really a magic trick that I’m altogether interested in.

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Four magicians all receive invitations to meet at one specific location from an unknown person. Together they become one of the biggest magic shows in the nation. With their new popularity also comes a plan that will begin in Las Vegas and end in New York with a series of intricately executed “magic tricks.” These tricks are the disguise of heists that steal from the wealthy and give to the poor. A male FBI agent and a female Interpol agent are paired together in order to stop the four thieves from executing their crimes, all while an ex-magician tries to uncover the group’s secrets to sell them for big bank. That’s pretty much the design of NOW YOU SEE ME, which is more like a giant trick wrapped up in the guise of a summer blockbuster.

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I’ve seen a couple of reviews stating that NOW YOU SEE ME is way better than OCEAN’S 11, 12, or 13. While I agree that pretty much anything is better than OCEAN’S 12. OCEAN’S 11 and 13 had something that NOW YOU SEE ME sorely lacks. They had characters you could root for and get behind. They were thieving criminals, but they were likable thieving criminals. We are given no character development whatsoever in this film. I couldn’t care less if they lived, died, got away, or rotted in jail. NOW YOU SEE ME gets so wound up in pure spectacle and a convoluted plot that it forgets to engage the viewer emotionally.

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Effects wise, the movie looks stunning and polished, but visuals only get you so much credit. Besides the characters not having any real development or arch, the cast never really delivers any performances that stand out. Woody Harrelson is unusually bland, while Jesse Eisenberg (who’s proved himself to be a phenomenal actor in the past) seems to be wrapped up in a smart-ass bad boy routine. Isla Fisher is nothing more than mere eye candy here and Mark Ruffalo seems to only play a frustrated and/or continually perplexed cop. Morgan Freeman’s character doesn’t add much, though they treat him like some sort of villain. Michael Caine is hilariously forgotten about halfway through the film too.

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NOW YOU SEE ME has one spectacular thing going for it. The twist ending is quite clever, but all of the other convoluted nonsense leading up to it doesn’t really make it fun for the audience to get there. A perfect movie, much like a good magic trick, must amaze and astound. It must leave the viewer wanting to watch it all over again. THE PRESTIGE is a fantastic example of this as a magic trick brought to the cinematic screen, but NOW YOU SEE ME feels like it’s tricked the viewer out of their valuable time, rather than leaving them with anything particularly great.

Grade: C

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