PATRIOTS DAY (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

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

Directed by: Peter Berg

Written by: Peter Berg, Matt Cook & Joshua Zeturner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

SMOKIN’ ACES (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence, Pervasive Language, some Nudity and Drug Use

Directed by: Joe Carnahan

Written by: Joe Carnahan

Starring: Jeremy Piven, Ryan Reynolds, Martin Henderson, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, Tommy Flanagan, Alicia Keys, Common, Taraji P. Henson, Nestor Carbonell, Chris Pine, Kevin Durand, Maury Sterling, Jason Bateman, Ben Affleck, Vladimir Kulich, Peter Berg, Joel Edgerton & Matthew Fox

Playing out like a Tarantino imitation that’s just snorted a heavy dose of cocaine, SMOKIN’ ACES is not a traditionally good movie. It’s ludicrous, over-the-top, and pushes excess for the sake of excess. However, it’s a whole lot of fun. This is a big guilty pleasure of mine that doesn’t deserve the bad rep that it usually receives. I’d go as far as calling this high-octane action-comedy-thriller an underrated gem. Its flaws actually make for part of its charm. This was one of my favorite films in high school (so there’s definitely nostalgia here), but having recently rewatched it for the first time in years, I have to say that SMOKIN’ ACES is a gory good time that consists of bullets, blood and rock-and-roll.

FBI Agents Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Carruthers (Ray Liotta) have been placed on a special extraction mission. Their team is close to cracking open one of the biggest mob busts in history and their entire case hinges on the testimony of Las Vegas performer-turned-snitch Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven). Not wanting to be exposed, the mafia has put out a 1-million-dollar price for Israel’s heart. This ginormous paycheck attracts various undesirables, including: three psychopath neo-Nazi brothers, two lesbian sharpshooters, three smart-aleck bounty hunters, and a couple of very scary killers. The casino hotel that Israel is holed up in soon becomes a bloody battleground between FBI agents and security guards against a slew of psychos who want Israel’s heart (literally).

SMOKIN’ ACES immediately lets us know that it values style over substance with a 1970s-esque credits sequence and title cards to introduce every character. These many introductions take up the first ten minutes of screen time, but are executed in a way that makes every scene naturally flow together. Much like CLOUD ATLAS cut between storylines in a flawless manner, SMOKIN’ ACES carefully balances the many plot threads that it’s juggling throughout (for a majority of the running time). This film employs flashbacks, quick cuts and different scenes of dialogue that deliberately bleed into each other (like one steady conversation between different characters in different locations). Even when the exposition-heavy introductions occasionally seem like a bit much, Joe Carnahan knows how to hold the viewer’s interest.

ACES’s characters include a colorful band of criminals, psychopaths, and scumbags (with a couple of heroic FBI agents thrown in for good measure). Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta do well in their roles as the film’s only two good guys, but the only development they’re given comes from a debriefing and a so-so bit of comic relief near the opening. Andy Garcia seems to be forcing a mind-bogglingly bad Southern accent and winds up with the film’s worst performance as a result. However, the totally irredeemable characters are where this movie shines strongest. Jeremy Piven is in rare form as cokehead, small-time crook Aces and even has a bit of an emotional story arc when he realizes how far he’s fallen. This might not be as effective as it should have been, but it’s a refreshing bit of levity to the bloody chaos ensuing in the hotel’s hallways and elevators.

Speaking of which, SMOKIN’ ACES is super violent! Machetes, chainsaws, grenade launches, creative means of dispatching someone, gruesome torture, and boxes of bullets (for many different types of guns) make their way into the proceedings. This film is ferocious in its action scenes and unabashedly depraved in its wicked sense of humor, but this makes it a blast for viewers that enjoy films like CRANK, SHOOT ‘EM UP or Quentin Tarantino’s entire career. These weapons are wielded by merry miscreants, my favorite of whom are the Tremor brothers (one of which is played by a young Chris Pine). This trio of redneck neo-Nazis aren’t subtle in any way, shape or form. They go into a place blasting and have the film’s most memorable action scene, while also delivering the most darkly hilarious moments in the entire movie.

The relationship between hired killers Sharice (Taraji P. Henson) and Georgia (Alicia Keys) is surprisingly strong, though this occasionally feels like it exists purely for the exploitation factor of having sexy gun-toting lesbians. Common has a brief role that makes for an unexpectedly tense moment, while Joel Edgerton has a silent (but memorable) part in the proceedings. Ben Affleck, Peter Berg, and Jason Bateman are sadly underused as two of the bounty hunters and a deeply depressed lawyer. The film’s biggest problems come from the storyline of Martin Henderson’s reluctant sidekick to Affleck’s bondsman. It’s not that Henderson’s acting is terrible, but most of his scenes feel drastically out-of-place. The worst of these include unfunny bits with a karate-loving preteen wangster. That all being said, this subplot’s grisly punchline is satisfying beyond belief.

SMOKIN’ ACES crams a ton of storylines into one movie and balances them surprisingly well for almost 90 minutes, but a few of these don’t receive satisfying pay-offs in the long run. The biggest examples being an intense killer known as The Plague’s anti-climactic final moment and a face-swapping baddie not receiving a great send-off. The final 20 minutes are meant to arrive as a giant shock to the viewer with two inspired plot twists. One of these is clever and the other is…well…kinda stupid. The film lays down heavy foreshadowing early on as to what the stupid twist might be and I correctly guessed it upon my first viewing. This dumb plot twist and mixed bag conclusion feel like a weak sigh to an otherwise hilarious, raunchy, and chaotic ride.

As a whole, SMOKIN’ ACES is a very entertaining action flick with spurts of insanity, plenty of humor, a cast of colorful characters, and constant fun for viewers who enjoy this sort of thing. The film isn’t perfect in that its final minutes are easily the weakest part of the entire story, there’s a noticeably terrible performance from Andy Garcia, and one subplot feels a little too “out there.” However, I truly enjoy SMOKIN’ ACES for the unabashedly silly action flick that it is. If this sounds like your kind of movie, then it probably is!

Grade: B+

DEEPWATER HORIZON (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Prolonged Intense Disaster Sequences and related Disturbing Images, and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Peter Berg

Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan & Matthew Sand

(based on the article DEEPWATER HORIZON’S FINAL HOURS by David Barstow, David Rohde & Stephanie Saul)

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O’Brien, Kate Hudson & Ethan Suplee

Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg seem to have a knack for turning tragic true stories into emotional big screen experiences (see 2013’s LONE SURVIVOR and the upcoming PATRIOTS DAY). On April 20, 2010, massive oil rig Deepwater Horizon had a disastrous blowout, which claimed 11 lives and became the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Where there’s an incredible and terrifying real-life event, there will often be a movie adaptation following in the aftermath. Victim’s families and survivors were hesitant about this film, feeling that it might come with a political agenda or change too many details, but Berg’s based-on-a-true-story disaster flick has been lauded for mostly sticking to the facts.

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Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) works onboard the Deepwater Horizon. This massive floating oil rig houses 126 people and is under contract by BP Oil. Though rampant technology malfunctions and broken parts litter the ship, BP Oil sees no reason for putting money towards fixing safety hazards. Despite the warnings of Mike Williams and supervisor Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), BP Oil big man Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) insists that the Deepwater Horizon begin drilling for oil. What results is a deadly inferno filled with flying shrapnel, explosions, toxic gas, and hellish stream of flaming oil. Mike Williams, Jimmy Harrell, and the rest of the crew are forced to muster up unthinkable courage and attempt to escape from the fiery, sinking oil rig.

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DEEPWATER HORIZON’s first half is dedicated to building up to the eventual blow-out with mixed bag character development thrown in for good measure. There’s a sense of foreboding and warning signs that tease what is to come, as if you weren’t already expecting it from the actual news reports and the film’s plot. Putting this disaster in context (especially as far as BP Oil’s role in the proceedings) makes everything seem more harrowing and heartbreaking. The film makes sure to let the viewers, many of whom may have no idea about the intricacies of oil rigs (myself included), get a basic idea of how they function and the moving parts of the job. It also showcases how idiotic bureaucracy puts lives in danger by trying to be cheap.

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When the disaster sequences hit, this movie delivers some of the most impressive CGI in years. Shots of the burning oil rig, exploding machinery, and a seemingly endless fiery stream are all believable and terrifying. This is one of the scariest disaster films I’ve seen and it’s made more intense by the characters being essentially stuck on a death trap. A storytelling technique that might have been cheesy in other hands, but works phenomenally well, are shots of the camera entering pipelines to show us what’s occurring within the rig’s malfunctioning machinery. These bits generate suspense towards further chaos and help the viewer understand how/why all of this destruction is occurring. Though the disaster scenes are stellar and made even more realistic with stomach-churning injuries, some messy editing results in moments that seem confusing…though one could argue that crew members likely felt confused during the actual incident.

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With 126 people on board the Deepwater Horizon, the script was only able to select a handful to focus on. The performances of the main characters range in quality, though none of them are bad. Mark Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, whose life-saving actions are slightly exaggerated in this movie, as a charismatic action hero and not much else…though this character is based on a real person. Kurt Russell continues his recent string of great performances as likable rig supervisor Mr. Jimmy. Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O’Brien, and Ethan Suplee are solid as other rig workers. Meanwhile, John Malkovich is so convincing as a scummy BP Oil boss that he made me want to punch him in the face for the entire running time. He’s that great in the role! Finally, Kate Hudson delivers the film’s more heartbreaking moments as she tearfully watches his husband’s workplace burn from news cameras and prays for him to survive.

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Though DEEPWATER HORIZON doesn’t exactly have great character development and suffers from messy editing during a few scenes, this disaster flick is absolutely respectful towards the real-life tragedy victims and survivors. I got so wrapped up in the sheer intensity and action of the blow-out that I wasn’t emotionally prepared for the film’s powerful epilogue that had me on the brink of tears. Small details (like a father freaking out when he can’t find his son or a tearful breakdown) showcase a sad aftermath to a story that’s already upsetting beyond belief. DEEPWATER HORIZON will keep you on the edge of your seat during the disaster, will make you furious at BP Oil’s incompetence (something this movie didn’t embellish), and will leave you an emotional wreck. This is one of the best disaster films in years!

Grade: B+

LONE SURVIVOR (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody War Violence and Pervasive Language

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Directed by: Peter Berg

Written by: Peter Berg

(based on the book LONE SURVIVOR by Marcus Luttrell & Patrick Robinson)

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster & Eric Bana

Based on the failed Operation Red Wings mission, LONE SURVIVOR joins a select group of movies that also includes THE HURT LOCKER and ZERO DARK THIRTY. It’s a war movie, but one set around the more recent military activity in the Middle East. The film is an all-around uplifting story about courage in the face of near-certain death and the will to survive.

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Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Hirsch), and Matthew Axelson (Foster) make up the four Navy SEALs assigned the task of killing terrorist Ahmad Shah. Shah is a known Taliban leader responsible for the deaths of 20 Americans in the space of the previous week. At first, the mission appears to be going well. There are some glitches with the communications equipment, but everything else is going smoothly. The objective is close to completion and things suddenly spiral out of control. A couple of innocent civilians (two children and an elderly man) stumble across the four soldiers. The tough moral decision of either killing the bystanders or letting them go, ends with the soldiers releasing them unharmed. This compromises their location to the Taliban and the band of brothers do everything they can to survive until rescue comes (which may take a long time due to malfunctioning communications).

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The opening of the film showcases cast and crew credits being run over a montage of real footage of Navy SEALs boot camp training. This can be seen as a little cheesy by some, but it immediately displayed the rigorous training these men go through. There is a significant portion of the story that is dedicated to character development and it vastly works in the film’s favor. Everybody is relatable in some way. Even when the tough debate about the important decision that could wind up killing all four men is being shown, I understood where both sides were coming from and cared about these people (even more so, because apparently the film is very accurate to the real story).

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As far as the film’s portrayal of Muslims goes, things are very well-balanced. Not all Muslims are terrorists and there is a conscious effort to show that the villagers are equally victims of the Taliban. Another wise decision on the filmmaker’s part was not adding subtitles to everything said by the villagers or the terrorists. This leaves the viewer just as confused as the soldiers stuck in this unfamiliar territory. The scenes of combat ratcheted up the tension and kept me off guard to where the next attack would come from. This is a brutal movie and the violence is hard to watch. As it should, the gritty realistic style distinctly demonstrated the horrors of war. Annoying shaky camera work was employed occasionally and nearly caused some almost headache inducing moments. These don’t make up a majority of the film though and didn’t detract too much from the experience overall.

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One of the storytelling techniques was the overused cliché of starting the film with a crucial scene that takes place in the near the final moments. Then a title card pops up (in this case: Three Days Earlier) and the 95% of the film is told previous to what we’ve just seen. This means that the viewer knows well in advance who the title lone survivor is. It doesn’t spoil things to a high degree and I am aware that this film is based on a true story. The tension would have been raised to the max if the film had a straight-forward narrative and the film would have been even more affective by the powerful monologue in the conclusion.

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LONE SURVIVOR is a realistic film about the bravery and sacrifice of men who fought for their country. The performances are rock solid. The scales are balanced on how people in the Middle East are portrayed and never dips into negative stereotypes. This is an intense and powerful experience that’s well worth your time!

Grade: A

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