GAME NIGHT (2018)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, Sexual References and some Violence

Directed by: John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein

Written by: Mark Perez

Starring: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Michael C. Hall, Jeffrey Wright & Danny Huston

There were reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic towards GAME NIGHT. The reasons to be optimistic came from the clever premise, hilarious promotional material, and talented leads. The main reason to be pessimistic came from the fact that this was a big studio comedy being released during February, which is typically considered only slightly less worse than January for studios dumping films they don’t believe in. However, GAME NIGHT turns out to be a wildly entertaining ride that you should see in a packed theater filled with other people who are also laughing their asses off. I had a great time watching this very funny film!

Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are two competitive gamers…who also happen to be husband and wife. During one night every week, Max holds a game night for their adult friends and they all have a great time hanging out together. When Max’s more successful show-off brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) comes to town, the game night changes in a strange new direction because Brooks has hired an interactive murder-mystery company to liven things up. However, the game becomes all too real when two actual gangsters break into Brooks’ home and abduct him. Thinking it’s all part of the game, Max, Annie, and their friends find themselves in over the heads…and things get crazier from there.

GAME NIGHT makes no qualms about what it is. This is an adult-oriented comedy that has a fantastic premise. Nothing more, nothing less. While the film does indulge in crass language and occasional crude humor, a lot of laughs result from jokes that aren’t crude for the sake of being crude. Instead, GAME NIGHT actually puts thought into its script and this results in a constant sense of fun. The running gags are great too as certain jokes find themselves not only recurring, but evolving between different characters. My favorite of which easily involves a suspicious police officer neighbor (Jesse Plemons) who has a rather distinct way of wording things. Seriously though, Jesse Plemons steals every scene he’s in and arguably walks away with the entire movie in his pocket.

The rest of the cast contains no slouches either. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams have fantastic on-screen chemistry together. Aside from Plemons, they receive arguably the funniest scenes in the film. My favorite sequence has them playing with a loaded gun (which they think is a toy) and I was giggling the whole way through it. Billy Magnussen is fun as a dim-witted friend Ryan, while Sharon Horgan is well-cast as his date Sarah (using her brains to make up for Ryan’s stupidity). Plenty of laughs also result from a running joke between Lamorne Morris’s Kevin and Kylie Bunbury’s Michelle, a married couple having a rough night in their relationship.

Aside from good jokes, GAME NIGHT contains some (dare I say it) actual suspense in its execution. There are lots of twists and turns woven throughout the plot. Some of these revelations you can see coming from a mile away. Others arrive as legitimate shocks that result in both laughs and gasps. Even though one subplot is pretty damn predictable (anybody with half a brain can figure out how the sibling rivalry angle will wrap up), other surprises result in a couple of unexpected cameos that further liven up the already fun film.

It also helps that GAME NIGHT looks fantastic. The visuals are slick and the film stylizes its establishing shots with miniatures. This causes cars and houses to look like pieces on a board game. This effect isn’t employed to a distracting degree either, but serves as a cool way to transition from certain scenes. There were even audience members that pointed out “that was a cool shot” or commented that they “loved the use of miniatures” by the time the film had concluded. The camera also occasionally pulls neat tricks during the more action-oriented sequences that make these moments stick out from the regular dark comedy moments.

Overall, GAME NIGHT is a very entertaining, clever, and hilarious time at the movies. The actors all bring their A-game. Although the film has one very predictable subplot, there are plenty of unexpected twists to accompany the many laughs. It’s also worth noting that the film contains some of the best running jokes that I’ve seen in years, which evolve over the course of the film along with the characters. If you want to have some good laughs (and who doesn’t, these days), give GAME NIGHT a watch. This is one of the better R-rated comedies to come out in a long time and comes highly recommended.

Grade: B+

DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Violence and Action throughout, and an Intense Crash Sequence

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Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Written by: Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill

(based on the DOCTOR STRANGE comics by Steve Ditko)

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen & Tilda Swinton

Fourteen films and eight years later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still going strong. DOCTOR STRANGE is a rather unique addition to this long-running cinematic franchise though, because it injects mystical powers and wizards into the MCU. I thought that GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and ANT-MAN were tough films to sell, but DOCTOR STRANGE seems downright challenging. Fortunately, director/writer Scott Derrickson is more than up to the task. Aided by fantastic performances, astounding special effects, and a smart script, DOCTOR STRANGE is easily the best Marvel Cinematic Universe movie thus far!

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Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant surgeon with a huge ego. After saving lives and carving out an acclaimed career, Strange suffers severe nerve damage in his hands from a horrible car accident. When Western medicine fails him, the down-on-his-luck doctor turns to Eastern mythology. His skepticism turns to amazement upon meeting centuries-old sorceress The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Strange soon finds himself immersed in a world of infinite possibilities, many universes, magical talents, mythical weapons, and dark threats. When evil zealot sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) attempts to bring use The Ancient One’s magic books for evil, it’s up to emerging hero Doctor Strange to save the world.

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Benedict Cumberbatch is a welcome addition to the bevy of A-listers who populate the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As Steven Strange, he starts off as completely unlikable and slowly begins to humble himself through magical teachings. Strange’s arrogance rivals Tony Stark’s cocky attitude, which makes me excited for the possibilities that might erupt when the two eventually meet face-to-face. After being an utter ass for the first third of the film, Strange’s changing attitude and emerging heroism ultimately wins the viewer onto his side. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Karl Mordo, a good-natured wizard who finds himself constantly at odds with Strange’s view of the world.

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Though a lot of hubbub erupted for her part in this film, Tilda Swinton vanishes into the charming role of The Ancient One. Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams plays Strange’s former lover and best friend…providing great comic relief and believable emotion. Finally, Mads Mikkelsen plays Kaecilius, Marvel’s equivalent of Saruman and introduction for bigger threats in the future, as an intimidating presence with insane powers that make for great fight scenes…particularly when one of Strange’s plans backfires spectacularly.

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One has to admire how brilliantly written DOCTOR STRANGE’s script is. Yes, it’s a superhero origin story…but it’s the most compelling origin story to come out of the Marvel Universe thus far. This film stands entirely on its own and doesn’t fully seem connected to the MCU (a good quality), save for a few brief Avengers references and a mid-credits scene that promises more of Strange in future Marvel projects. Strange’s training takes time and introduces lots of complicated concepts that come into play throughout the story (astral projection, relics, other dimensions, spells, etc.). The ways in which we are given this complex information feel entirely natural and provide laughs…as well as sheer awe-inspiring moments.

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In terms of special effects and action scenes, this movie is awesome! I know that word has become commonplace, but it definitely applies to DOCTOR STRANGE’s jaw-dropping sequences of psychedelic head-trips, vibrant colors that look like a rave went to outer space, and an amazing INCEPTION/MATRIX-like battle through New York City that currently stands as one of my favorite action scenes of the decade. This movie is phenomenally trippy and cool the whole way through. Even visuals that might seem cheesy when taken out of context (a giant floating head, spirits leaving their bodies, etc.) all work perfectly within the film’s storyline and with the added weight of the characters inhabiting them. The film’s climax has also reinvigorated my love for superhero movies as a whole. I was slightly fatigued by the massive number of comic book movies hitting the multiplex in the past few years, but DOCTOR STRANGE has ignited the childlike spark inside of me and makes me crave the upcoming Marvel films now more than ever!

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DOCTOR STRANGE is easily my favorite movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It incorporates tons of complicated elements through a smartly written script and mind-blowing spectacle. The characters are all great, even if not all of them receive a ton of screen time. The humor works fantastically and never overshadows the film’s more serious moments. The action is exciting and adrenaline-pumping. The magical aspect delivers some of the most creative, head-trippy imagery to hit theaters in all of 2016! This is big entertainment done right in every conceivable way!

Grade: A+

My Top 15 Films of 2015

List by Derrick Carter

2015 was a great year for cinema. So much so, that I’ve decided not to make a “Top 10 Films” of the year, but a “Top 15” instead. It should be noted that I haven’t seen every single movie that came out during the past twelve months. I’m one man after all and only pay money for and spend time on stuff that interests me. That being said, I reviewed 132 new releases during 2015. There are a few movies that I plan on covering and could have potentially made this list if I had seen them in 2015. These are: THE REVENANT, CAROL, ANOMALISA, and SON OF SAUL. The fifteen titles that did make the cut are flicks that I absolutely loved, plan on adding to my collection, and rewatching many times for years to come. I don’t expect everybody to agree with all of them, but hopefully I’ve recommended a couple of films that peak your interest.

Before getting into list itself, I feel a few honorable mentions are in order. BRIDGE OF SPIES showed that Steven Spielberg has not lost a shred of talent over the years. THE JINX proved to be a groundbreaking true-crime documentary that literally made history. Coming off a string of misfires, Melissa McCarthy delivered her funniest comedy yet in SPY. Finally, on the scary side of things, KRAMPUS is a great holiday horror-comedy that I plan on making an annual Christmas tradition and GOODNIGHT MOMMY is a freaky shudder-inducing little nightmare. Without further ado, I’ll move onto my favorite films of 2015…

15. Black Mass

15. BLACK MASS: Throughout the years, Johnny Depp has become a ghost of his former talented self, but delivered one of his best performances ever this year. He disappeared into the role Whitey Bulger and became a terrifying on-screen monster. The story is a complex one that couldn’t easily be told in the space of a two-hour film. Though I feel it would have been a modern crime masterpiece if 30 more minutes had been tacked onto the final third, director Scott Cooper did a phenomenal job portraying one of the most notorious gangster stories in American history. Depp isn’t necessarily the star of this movie as the rest of the cast is especially strong. Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, and many more round out a great ensemble picture. It might not be a modern GOODFELLAS, but I’d rank it as a modern CASINO. BLACK MASS is easily one of the best real-life gangster films to come out of the new millennium.

14. It Follows

14. IT FOLLOWS: In the vein of the original HALLOWEEN and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, IT FOLLOWS is one of the single scariest viewing experiences that I’ve had all year. I attended a midnight screening at Sundance and everyone was losing their minds in the theater over this film. While it only has a few big jolts, IT FOLLOWS manages to get under your skin and stay there. I found myself getting progressively more creeped out when I arrived home and couldn’t stop thinking about the film. What’s even better about this movie is how it took the more difficult and complicated route instead of merely becoming a supernatural slasher. Instead, the film lets a dread-soaked atmosphere float around the viewer…and like “it” does to the characters themselves, that feeling follows you around long after the end credits have rolled.

13. Going Clear

13. GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF: The best documentary that I watched all year, GOING CLEAR is a fascinating and disturbing look into the inner workings of Scientology. Covering the formation of this so-called “religion” (you won’t blame me for calling it a cult after you watch this doc) to the huge amount of controversy surrounding it to the systematic abuse of its followers and opponents, GOING CLEAR is a harrowing watch. The testimonies from former members of the church are both chilling and heartbreaking. Some masterful editing also allows for brief moments of humor, such as a cheesy Scientology music video and an improvised awards ceremony invented specifically for Tom Cruise. As I stated in my review back in March, GOING CLEAR would almost be ridiculous and amusing, if it weren’t so devastating and terrifying.

12. Hateful Eight

12. THE HATEFUL EIGHT: It might not be Tarantino’s best film, but I loved the hell out of the HATEFUL EIGHT! A far more contained story than Tarantino’s recent Oscar nominees, this is pretty much RESERVOIR DOGS set in the Old West with more suspense. Besides that familiar set up, Tarantino manages to milk a massive amount of tension from each scene leading up to many unexpected revelations, over-the-top gore, and sick humor. I was on the edge of my seat throughout, almost fell out of my chair laughing at one point, and left totally satisfied.

11. Kingsman

11. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE: Nobody expected this movie to be nearly as good as it was. The two best descriptions I can give KINGSMAN are that it’s either the KICK-ASS of spy movies or a very R-rated take on SPY KIDS. The film is wild, crazy, fast-paced and never takes itself seriously. In a year that’s been populated by plenty of superheroes, KINGSMAN is my favorite comic book adaptation of 2015. The church scene alone was one of the most jaw-dropping sequences I’ve sat through all year. The rest of the film is hugely entertaining and has the balls to take risks. KINGSMAN was definitely one of the biggest cinematic surprises I had all year, but it was upended by…

10. Gift

10. THE GIFT: This is the biggest surprise that I had in 2015. The trailer made it look like a generic thriller that had already been done a million times before. However, this can all be chalked up to bad marketing because Joel Edgerton pulled triple duty and put his heart into this well-crafted shocker. The film intentionally misleads the audience through various points before unleashing big bombshells upon them. The ending also left me speechless and contemplating it for days afterwards. This is one of those films that is pretty much guaranteed to generate a discussion with other film-loving friends. THE GIFT is not a predictable black-and-white thriller, but something much deeper and far scarier.

9. MI5

9. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -ROGUE NATION: The MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series has had its ups and downs. The first was good. The second was crap. The third was great. The fourth was fun. However, I don’t think anybody could have predicted that the fifth installment of this high-octane spy series would be the best of the bunch thus far. That was definitely the case as ROGUE NATION unleashed compelling high stakes, brought back old characters as if no time had passed at all, introduced a cool new ones, and had some fantastic set-pieces. In many ways (Bond girl, villain, secret evil organization), MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -ROGUE NATION was a far better Bond movie than the actual Bond movie we received this year.

8. Crimson Peak

8. CRIMSON PEAK: This gorgeously realized film feels like Edgar Allan Poe and Jane Austen penned a novel together and then Guillermo Del Toro adapted it to the screen. Those who go in expecting endless jump scares and a typical ghost story will find themselves either let down or elated by the film being a gothic romance that happens to contain some very frightening ghosts and thick horror elements in its story. Every frame of the film is beautiful to look at and atmospheric beyond belief. There are shots of this movie that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since I originally saw it and I believe it’s among the very best of Guillermo Del Toro’s filmography. Jessica Chastain is also a fearsome force to behold!

7. Spotlight

7. SPOTLIGHT: A tastefully made movie about one of the most disturbing cover-ups in recent history. SPOTLIGHT could have easily gone for shock value and went all out to demonize religion as a whole. Actually, that’s sort of what I was expecting it to do when I walked into the theater. Imagine my surprise at how restrained and respectful this film is. Aided by one of the most realistic looks at journalism that you’re bound to see on film, the movie packs in so much emotion without ever crossing the line into anything that possibly resemble shock value or cheap shots. Instead, the film asks tough questions, brings powerful performances to the screen, and leaves the viewer with a lot to chew on. This is one of the most important movies of 2015.

6. Macbeth

6. MACBETH: Shakespeare has been brought to the big screen in many ways by many different filmmakers. This beautiful, bleak take on the Scottish Play might just be my favorite Shakespeare movie thus far. With dialogue being delivered in a naturalistic manner and some creative licensing thrown into the centuries-old material, this version of MACBETH somehow improves upon the already perfect tragedy by adding unexpected context into the mix. Michael Fassbender is stunning as the title character, but it’s Marion Cotillard who steals the show. Lady Macbeth is actually made into a sympathetic character which is something that I felt could never, ever be accomplished in any take on the play. It’s also worth noting that this is definitely not a Shakespeare adaptation that will be shown in many high school classrooms, which is a very good thing indeed!

5. Sicario

5. SICARIO: In 2013, Denis Villeneuve wowed me with PRISONERS. In 2015, he returned with the complex cartel thriller SICARIO. A movie that never allows you to get comfortable in your seat or breathe normally throughout its entire running time, SICARIO is a grim, bleak, and depressing movie…and all the better for it. This thriller had a number of stand-out sequences, an intense beyond words finale being one of them. Villeneuve knew precisely when to merely imply the dark deeds occurring just beyond a locked door and when to casually showcase disturbing sights in broad daylight. Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin are all fantastic in their parts. It’s likely that SICARIO will keep you thinking about it long after you’ve finished watching it, but just be prepared for that as there’s no glimmer of happiness or hope to be found within a single frame of this film.

4. Ex Machina

4. EX MACHINA: One of the best pieces of thought-provoking science-fiction to come out in a long, long time, EX MACHINA is a brilliantly crafted beast of a film. I loved everything about it when I first watched it back in April. The performances from the leads (likable Domnhall Gleeson, robotic Alicia Vikander, and scary Oscar Isaac) make for a film that’s pretty much a three character play. The uniquely designed house/research facility is almost a character as well, because the sense of claustrophobia and steadily rising tension become damn near nightmarish by the final third. The effects are excellently rendered and the film gets even better upon repeat viewings (little details stuck out more during the second and third times that I watched it). The hauntingly beautiful soundtrack is just the icing on the cake for my fourth best film of 2015.

3. Room

3. ROOM: Difficult and immensely rewarding, ROOM is a drama like no other. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name (which in turn was inspired by a real-life kidnapping case), this film is tense and remarkably uplifting. Throughout the whole running time, the story walks a tightrope between being heartwarming and heartbreaking. It ultimately winds up with the best of both worlds as various audience members (including myself) were crying at various points throughout the film. As sad as it can be, I left feeling immensely uplifted by this beautiful movie about love and courage. Brie Larson (the frontrunner for Best Actress of 2015) and 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay (giving one of the best child performances that I’ve ever seen in my entire life) are both wholly convincing and believable. I cannot praise this movie enough. It’s amazing!

2. Inside Out

2. INSIDE OUT: A family film that’s made more for adults than it is for children, INSIDE OUT wound up being one of the most emotional theater experiences of 2015 for me (pun fully intended). Though it may look sweet, innocent and cute on the outside, the movie packs a lot of emotional truths that will hit older viewers far more than kids who just want to watch a cartoon. It’s also the biggest tearjerker that I saw all year (right next to ROOM). The film is just beautiful and encapsulates everything that life itself in brilliantly creative ways. It also has one of the most mature messages that I’ve ever seen in a children’s film. It’s not only my second favorite movie of 2015, but my favorite Pixar movie thus far!

1. Mad Max Fury Road

1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD: Director/writer George Miller had over two decades to craft his fourth MAD MAX movie to perfection and that’s exactly what he did! MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was easily one of the most adrenaline-pumping, kick-ass movies that I’ve ever experienced in a theater. I loved it so much that I saw it twice within four days on the big screen and it has enjoyed many repeat viewings since its home video release. Though some fans have joked that it’s simply a two-hour chase scene, the story manages to encapsulate far more than that. There are issues of gender, slavery, religion, etc. that all come up in subtle (sometimes, obvious), smart ways throughout the film. The movie never stops to deliver heavy-handed exposition to the viewer and gives enough details so we can simply figure it all out for ourselves. The visuals look incredible as this apocalyptic wasteland was wholly convincing, in no small part due to practical effects, dangerous stunt work, and subtle green screen effects. FURY ROAD has joined the rare breed of perfect summer blockbusters that includes the likes of ALIENS and TERMINATOR 2. Bravo!

2015 was a year that was packed full of releases. Some were amazing, some were good, and others fell lower on the cinematic totem pole. It’s definitely been one of the most interesting years for cinema and I look forward to seeing what 2016 has in store for filmgoers!

SPOTLIGHT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 8 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Language including Sexual References

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Directed by: Tom McCarthy

Written by: Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer

Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Jamey Sheridan, Billy Crudup, Richard Jenkins & Len Cariou

SPOTLIGHT has been one of my most anticipated movies of 2015. Part of this is because of the impressive ensemble cast, but most of it stems from the hugely important true story that it portrays. This film was probably a risky project from the beginning as the script presents infuriating material and any filmmaker would have to be extremely careful in bringing this sort of story to the big screen. That’s exactly why SPOTLIGHT works as perfectly as it does. Tackling a touchy subject in the most tasteful manner possible and unfolding the story with expert pacing, director/screenwriter Tom McCarthy has brought to the screen one of the most important films in recent years. Though it’s probably too depressing and disturbing for some viewers, SPOTLIGHT is absolutely fantastic.

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In 2001, the Boston Globe was a struggling newspaper with a strong investigative team called Spotlight. Struggling for their next lead and under the advice of a new editor, Walter Robinson and his fellow reporters are placed onto a potential powder keg of a story. With a lawsuit involving allegations of child molestation against a Catholic priest still fresh on everyone’s mind, the Spotlight team begins digging deep into this case. None of them are prepared for what they discover in a massive ring of pedophile priests, underhanded legal tactics, and cover-ups that go back decades. In order to break one of the most important news stories of the new millennium, the team will have to track down sources, uncover hidden paperwork, and deal with the Catholic church’s backlash.

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SPOTLIGHT is a movie made of conversations. As such, the film hinges a lot on its cast. There is no single main character, but rather a team that’s viewed as a main character. The cast here is full of big names and a few of them are likely to receive nominations in the coming awards season. Michael Keaton proves that BIRDMAN wasn’t a fluke by acting his ass off as a reporter who’s made mistakes throughout his career. Mark Ruffalo dominates every scene as a man enraged at how deep this rabbit hole of a story goes. Amy Adams exudes soft-spoken comfort as a elapsed Catholic woman who approaches her victims with a wholly sympathetic, understanding eye. John Slattery is an aged reporter who’s skeptical as to whether or not the story is worth investigating. Meanwhile, Brian d’Acy James is remarkable as a father who discovers the story might hit closer to home than he originally thinks.

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On the supporting side of things, SPOTLIGHT brings Liev Schreiber, usually typecast as an intimidating guy (e.g. RAY DONOVAN), as a dorky outsider to Boston. Schreiber plays the out-of-character role very well and gets us to feel for him even though he doesn’t receive nearly as much screen time as the rest of the Spotlight team. Billy Crudup is infuriatingly smarmy as a lawyer who’s made his living by making underhanded deals with the church, while Stanley Tucci is a frazzled lawyer who’s fighting for what is right. Tucci’s performance is especially memorable as his conversations with Mark Ruffalo are some of the most memorable scenes in the film.

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Besides the excellent performances all around, SPOTLIGHT benefits from a stellar screenplay (which was formerly on the 2013 Black List) that treats its uncomfortable story in the most tasteful way possible. The film never aims for shock value (which it easily could have done during the victim interview scenes). Instead, it feels like a mix of conspiracy thriller and tragic drama. What’s equally as bold is that the film doesn’t take a potentially easy attack on religion and instead questions why bad people who are supposed to be doing good are allowed to get away with evil. The tone of the whole film aims for a mix of sad melancholy and constant anxiety. I found myself on the edge of my seat as Ruffalo’s Michael Rezendes races against time and the system to nab some public records that could bring ultimate proof to the table. An encounter that Adams’s Sacha Pfeiffer has with a pedophile ex-priest is highly disturbing. Meanwhile, Keaton’s Robinson finds himself making enemies out of former lawyer friends.

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Above all of these things, SPOTLIGHT is powerful beyond words. It’s a true story that needed to be told and the people who ran the intense investigation should all be commended as journalistic heroes. Every painstaking step is examined as we watch the Spotlight team slowly uncover something abominable and make huge sacrifices to do what is right. Be warned, this film is depressing. I haven’t left a movie theater that bummed out since I saw 12 YEARS A SLAVE, but this film is rewarding and deserves every bit of praise it has been receiving. SPOTLIGHT is among the very best films of 2015!

Grade: A+

A MOST WANTED MAN (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: R for Language

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Directed by: Anton Corbijn

Written by: Andrew Bovell

(based on the novel A MOST WANTED MAN by John le Carre)

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Derya Alabora, Daniel Bruhl

How far are you willing to go to ensure that the world is a safer place? This difficult question has been tackled many times in plenty of dramas and thrillers. A MOST WANTED MAN (based on the John le Carre novel) is a crucially relevant spy story that leaves the viewer wanting to have a serious discussion afterwards. The film also serves as a farewell to one of the most remarkable actors of this generation: Philip Seymour Hoffman. Though I cannot predict the possibilities of any Oscar nods (it does deserve some sort of recognition come awards season), this brooding thriller is a remarkably subtle piece of work that packs a huge punch in making the viewer question what the outcome will be and keeping the more probing scenes in their thoughts for some time after.

A MOST WANTED MAN, Philip Seymour Hoffman, 2014. ph: Kerry Brown/©Roadside Attractions/courtesy

Hamburg is the German city where the September 11 attacks were planned and this has kept authorities on high alert. Gunter (Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last leading role) is the head of a private team that does things German law cannot. Upon the arrival of an illegal Chechen-Russian immigrant, Gunter’s team takes an interest in the mysterious man. His name is Issa Karpov and his family has known ties to jihadists. It’s up in the air as to whether this new visitor comes in peace or is secretly activating terrorist plans. Gunter is highly suspicious and goes to lengths in order to discover what Issa is up to and possibly use those around him to uncover a bigger terrorist at work. This involves a lawyer (Rachel McAdams), a banker (Willem Dafoe), and an American agent (Robin Wright) being manipulated for the greater good, but will Gunter be successful in his pursuit and at what cost?

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A MOST WANTED MAN can be broken down into a single sentence. It’s a film about people using each other in different ways. Those hoping for a spy thriller packed with car chases, gun fights, and explosions would do well in sticking to JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT. WANTED MAN is subtle and comprised almost entirely of conversations. It’s story of talking heads where decisions have lives hanging in the balance. The film is beautifully constructed in the writing, the acting, and just about everything else you can think of. When a story is so intense that a man sitting at a table signing documents has you on the edge of your seat, then you know that there’s something special about it. One thing that may slightly throw off viewers is that characters are juggled and there are a handful of them to keep track of. It may almost be like a chore in remembering who’s who and how they’re connected to one another, but it becomes easier after the first third and very rewarding in the final act.

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Hoffman delivers a brilliant final performance as a complex character. It’s not easy to feel for Gunter. Despite his mission being about saving people’s lives, he comes off as heartless and his methods are questionable. However, I actually cared for him by the end of the film as little touches reveal that he does have humanity, but it’s hidden down deep inside of him. Robin Wright and Daniel Bruhl have rather thankless parts, almost the length of a brief cameo. Both their characters do serve different purposes and it was nice to see talent even in the tiniest of roles. Grigoriy Dobrygin is a Russian newcomer, but makes a big impression as Issa. The man keeps you on edge wondering where his loyalties lie in a performance that is an integral piece of the story working as well as it does. Willem Dafoe is excellent as a banker with his own set of personal problems. It is in Rachel McAdams that I had seen a faulty performance. She’s not awful, but her German accent randomly turns itself on and off. This wasn’t a not a huge distraction, but it’s a crack in a damn near flawless film.

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When watching A MOST WANTED MAN, I felt that there were only two possible ways this movie could have ended and that might detract from my overall enjoyment of it. However, the film took some twists and two possibilities quickly turned into four. Then a fifth option that I didn’t even consider or see coming hit the screen in an emotionally devastating conclusion. Few endings have left me speechless and this is one of them. I hesitate to even mention the movie that this ending vaguely reminded me of, because it might be too much of a spoiler. So I will say that it left me with a whole lot of mentally digest. I was provoked. It got a reaction out of me. I’ll be pondering over it for days and loving every second of it.

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After finishing A MOST WANTED MAN, I felt like I had just read a fantastic novel and wanted it to continue. The movie picked touchy subject matter and brought it to the screen in a very compelling way. It’s a mystery that will lead to plenty of interesting conversations from those who have watched it. Philip Seymour Hoffman has gone out on a fine note and the movie is amazing on its own. A couple of cracks come in Rachel McAdams magical accent and the juggling of characters that takes a little while to get used to. The film never once did anything I expected it to. It was completely unpredictable every step of the way. Don’t go in expecting action and stalking scenes. Walk in expecting a movie full of probing matters and conversations, a film filled with ethical dilemmas and complicated characters, and a mystery that will hook you and leave you in shock. I loved this film!

Grade: A

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