THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Rude Humor and some Action

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Directed by: Chris McKay

Written by: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern & John Whittington

Voices of: Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Mariah Carey, Jenny Slate, Susan Bennett, Billy Dee Williams, Hector Elizondo, Conan O’Brien, Jason Mantzoukas, Doug Benson, Zoe Kravitz, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Adam DeVine, Eddie Izzard & Seth Green

The first of three new LEGO movies, THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a spin-off for the popular DC superhero from 2014’s surprisingly awesome THE LEGO MOVIE. Will Arnett has returned to reprise the vocal work for Lego Batman/Bruce Wayne and this film is set entirely within the Lego DC Universe. Filled to the brim with comic book references and call-backs to other movies, LEGO BATMAN never takes itself seriously at all and yet still manages to throw in a touching message about family and friends. Though not as great as its LEGO predecessor, THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is the best DC Comics movie to hit nationwide theatrical release in years. This is a delight for parents, teenagers, and Batman fans who enjoy a good laugh.

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In Lego Gotham City, orphan-turned-superhero Batman (Will Arnett) enjoys wearing black, playing loud music and fighting crime. He’s always saving the day, but has never let anybody else into his life…other than faithful butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes). After Batman foils the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) yet again and hurts the evil clown’s feelings, the villain hatches an ingenious scheme for revenge. Meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson) has stepped into her dad’s shoes as chief of police and has enacted a new “it takes a village, not a Batman” approach to fighting crime. Also, Batman has taken young boywonder Robin under his reluctant parental wing. The real challenge Batman has to face though…is overcoming his fears about family.

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Will Arnett’s Batman was easily one of the funniest parts of THE LEGO MOVIE and he brings everything that fans loved about that character into a feature-length running time. Though this film has a handful of slow moments that drag, Arnett’s comedic timing and purposely brooding voice frequently rescue the story from being “too much of a good thing.” The rest of the voice cast is stellar as well, with Michael Cera delivering some of the biggest laughs as lively, no-pants-wearing Robin. Tons of Batman’s rogue gallery make appearances too, including a lot of C-grade baddies that provide giggles from their mere cameos. My two favorite side villains were Catwoman (who’s constantly saying “mew mew”) and Bane (who’s adopted the strange, but awesome-sounding voice from 2012’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES). Zach Galifianakis also shines in the most sensitive portrayal of the Joker that you’ve ever seen, making for an evil supervillain that throws tantrums like a depressed ex-girlfriend.

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It should come as no surprise that THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is chock-full of movie, TV and comic book references. There are so many jokes within the first five minutes that it seems impossible to catch them all in one viewing. From signs that cheering citizens are holding to bits of dialogue that directly tie into certain films to full-blown footage used from every big-screen Batman in history, there are tons of laughs and in-cannon material here to satisfy diehard Batman fans. The film also throws tons of references towards DC comics in general, featuring cameos from Justice League members and familiar places from Superman’s stories. Even still, the references don’t stop there because there are unexpected non-cannon characters that have a big part to play in the proceedings. I won’t go into detail, but I was grinning ear to ear for a majority of the action-packed climax.

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LEGO BATMAN MOVIE’s message isn’t exactly original, but seems perfectly suited to the nature of Batman’s character and how we’ve seen this character explored in past versions of the material. The film’s lively visuals explode off the screen, looking like stop-motion even though they are actually the result of highly-detailed computer animation. As clever, entertaining and downright fun as LEGO BATMAN is, the plot encounters a few dull stretches. These mainly come in the second act, where we need to see certain things develop. In writing my summary of this film’s story, it struck me that LEGO BATMAN juggles four different subplots and tries to bring them together as a cohesive whole. The script does a solid job of this for the most part, but occasionally meanders as it brings these storylines together. Still, the pay-off, countless references, sheer entertainment value, and never-ending sense of humor are all well-worth the price of admission.

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If you’re a fan of 2014’s THE LEGO MOVIE or any incarnation of Batman, then THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a must-see! I imagine that DC Comics fans will have a field day with the sheer amount of references, tie-ins, and clever writing; all while kids are having a blast watching Lego Batman run around on the screen. I saw LEGO BATMAN in a sold-out movie theater that was filled with families and an apparent birthday party going on the front two rows. At no point, during any minute of the running time, did a child begin crying or a bratty kid act out in any way. That’s almost unheard of, at least for me. Everybody was glued to the screen and that’s a major feat for any family film. Though the pacing isn’t perfect, but THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a ton of fun! Sometimes, that’s all you need!

Grade: B+

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 (2011)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sequences of Intense Action Violence and Frightening Images

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Directed by: David Yates

Written by: Steve Kloves

(based on the novel HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS by J.K. Rowling)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Tom Felton, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, John Hurt, Jason Isaacs, Kelly Macdonald, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith & David Thewlis

Though the decision to split HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS into two films still seems like a mistake on Warner Bros.’ part, this eighth (and final) film in the HARRY POTTER saga is cinematically spectacular final installment nonetheless. Sure, Part 2 understandably feels like the second half of a better whole, but that narrative flaw doesn’t have nearly the same impact in dipping quality that 2010’s Part 1 saw. Details from the previous films come into play, major plot revelations about certain characters come to light, and the HARRY POTTER saga comes to an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

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After narrowly escaping the clutches of Death Eaters, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) are searching for Voldemort’s remaining Horcruxes (dark magical objects that contain pieces of his soul). Their magical scavenger hunt takes them into the dark vaults of Gringotts Bank and then to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. With only three Horcruxes left and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) determined to kill “chosen one” Harry, Hogwarts will become the battleground for a massive confrontation. Prophecies will be fulfilled, truths will be revealed, deaths will occur on both sides and a final battle will decide the fate of the wizarding world.

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DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 is the exciting second half of a cohesive whole. This leads to some narrative issues as viewers will have to be fresh off DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 to fully appreciate Part 2 picking up mere seconds after that far lesser film concluded. There are only two major settings in this movie: Gringotts and Hogwarts. Gringotts Wizarding Bank was briefly glimpsed in THE SORCERER’S STONE, but Part 2 treats the viewer to a more in-depth look at the Goblin-run bank’s treacherous vaults filled with curses, elaborate security precautions and a show-stopping set piece that delivers excitement early on. As for Hogwarts, old places and familiar faces come into play as Harry desperately searches the corridors for a hidden chunk of Voldemort’s soul.

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In terms of spectacle, DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 delivers action that fans wanted to see on the big screen since the series began. There’s a massive battle featuring damn near every major character and supporting actor from the previous films, even Jim Broadbent and Emma Thompson pop in just to reprise their professors in the final conflict. The special effects and make-up work are just as solid as ever, though director David Yates occasionally goes a bit too over-the-top during final Harry vs. Voldemort fight. Though a tense wand duel throughout Hogwarts is stellar, a scene of Voldemort and Harry whizzing through the air like Superman is silly to say the least.

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There is no need to recap this final film’s many performances, because we’ve seen all these characters and cast members before. Nothing has changed in their greatness. However, I will say that there’s a sense of maturity in seeing these beloved characters and the series as a whole grow throughout the years. There’s something deeply satisfying about watching the conclusion to this eight-film-long franchise, be it from sheer nostalgia or fantastic storytelling. Voldemort’s speech to the tearful wizards and witches of Hogwarts is affecting. Two major plot revelations bring about the yearning to rewatch previous entries and cast a new light on the series as a whole. However, the titular Deathly Hallows once again feel like a throwaway subplot that’s merely there as a cheap plot device. Also, Alan Rickman’s Snape story arc delivers one of the most emotional sequences in the entire series.

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Would HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS have functioned better as one big three-hour film? I think so and it might have stood next to PRISONER OF AZKABAN as the best film of the series. Part 2 and (to an annoying degree) Part 1 both have scenes that could have been excised for a tighter, better film. I feel this finale could have functioned better as one long seventh movie. Still, in spite of being the second half of a whole story, DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 stands as one of the better films in the long-running fantasy series. Plot points are wrapped up in emotional ways with revelations that cast a new light on previous movies. We get to spend one last time with a large cast of beloved characters. The battle at Hogwarts also stands as the series’ most epic moment. DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 is a deeply satisfying final installment to an unforgettable cinematic saga.

Grade: A-

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sequences of Intense Action Violence, Frightening Images and brief Sensuality

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Directed by: David Yates

Written by: Steve Kloves

(based on the novel HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS by J.K. Rowling)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Tom Felton, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, John Hurt, Rhys Ifans, Jason Isaacs, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton & David Thewlis

Confession time: HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS is probably my least favorite book in the series. It’s an underwhelming conclusion to a groundbreaking fantasy series. However, the material seemed like it would make an exciting film. Enter the Warner Bros. execs who upon realizing they only had one HARRY POTTER adaptation left to milk for cash decided to keep the blockbuster train rolling for two more films. Though many fans seemed initially disappointed by the studio’s route, that didn’t stop this seventh film from becoming the third-highest grossing HARRY POTTER title in the franchise (behind the eighth film and the first film). DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 isn’t a bad movie. It’s better than a majority of split book adaptations (e.g. THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY and THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 1), but that doesn’t overshadow the fact that this is still half a story being stretched into over two hours.

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In the aftermath of Dumbledore’s death, the wizarding world has become dark and hopeless. Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is tightening his grip on the Ministry of Magic and Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) is taking over Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Chosen one Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is Voldemort’s prime target, which has led secretive rebel group Order of the Phoenix to stage a complicated rescue mission. After some casualties ensue and Voldemort’s Death Eaters find the Order’s location, Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) venture out on their own to track down Voldemort’s secret Horcruxes, magical objects that contain pieces of his soul. These dark magical objects must be destroyed in order to kill the Dark Lord…and the trio kick off their deadly scavenger hunt by hunting down a cursed locket.

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While the HARRY POTTER series had been progressively getting darker and darker through the previous six films, DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 ranks as the most depressing installment of the series. Part of this might be attributed to the “To Be Continued…” ending, while another reason easily comes from major character deaths that might shock those who haven’t read the material beforehand. However, I feel the main reason that DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 succeeds in being a suspenseful installment is because Harry, Ron and Hermione become fugitives. The corrupt wizard government no longer offers any safeguards towards the chosen one and is actively following Voldemort’s agenda. The lack of a safety net and danger coming from all directions offer a feeling of dread that the series has previously never seen before.

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It should come as no surprise that Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson slip right back into their iconic roles with ease. Though the rising threats cause tensions to erupt between their characters. Much like the film’s dark tone, this isn’t necessarily something completely new in the series but it’s never been executed to this degree. When we see longtime grudges emerge and drama between the three best friends, it’s a bit tough to watch because we’ve come to love these characters for so long. Still, these are the same protagonists, just more mature and grown up. Harry is just as courageous as ever. Hermione is smart and frequently gets the group out of trouble. Ron delivers comic relief that attempts to brighten up the rather depressing plot.

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Other familiar faces return with Dobby (the most annoying character in the series), Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson), worst teacher ever Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), a cameo from Wormtail (Timothy Spall), a hardly glimpsed Ollivander (John Hurt), a psychotic Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter), and many more. Ralph Fiennes has two scenes as Voldemort, while Snape’s presence is mostly regulated to the opening prologue. Series newcomers appear in: Bill Nighy as Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour, Andy Linden as scumbag Mundungus Fletcher, Peter Mullan as Death Eater Yaxley, and Rhys Ifans as Luna Lovegood’s eccentric father Xenophilius. All four of these characters serve as plot devices and nothing more.

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DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 is entertaining and nicely sets up the conclusion to the series, but unfortunately falls victim to an unnecessarily lengthy running time. Perhaps, Part 1 wouldn’t feel underwhelming if this movie wasn’t as long as previous HARRY POTTER entries. There are (at least) 20 minutes that could have been excised for the sake of a tighter running time and a more compelling movie as a whole. The introduction of the titular Deathly Hallows (three legendary magical objects) seems disconnected from the rest of the movie, because the exposition dump functions as an introduction for DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2. Also, this plot point directly contradicts a piece of the series that was introduced in SORCERER’S STONE and I’ve never been able to completely overlook that. This sloppy bit of writing leads me to believe that J.K. Rowling didn’t have the series fully mapped out in her head as she was going along.

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DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 isn’t the worst HARRY POTTER film. GOBLET OF FIRE still holds that title and HALF-BLOOD PRINCE is 75% filler, but Part 1 is still very much the first half of a plot and feels like it. The long running time certainly doesn’t help matters, but there are memorable sequences that stick out for positive reasons. I love the confrontations that Harry, Ron and Hermione have with various Death Eaters, especially a climactic showdown. There are tense scenarios brought up in visiting the Ministry of Magic in disguise and the completion of the cursed locket storyline. This is also the darkest HARRY POTTER film with a “doom and gloom” atmosphere the whole way through. DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 is far from the best installment in the HARRY POTTER series, but still remains a solid movie in the decade-long saga.

Grade: B

HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Fantasy Violence and Frightening Images

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Directed by: David Yates

Written by: Michael Goldenberg

(based on the novel HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX by J.K. Rowling)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Griffiths, Jason Isaacs, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson & Tom Felton

Two years after audiences experienced the worst HARRY POTTER film, David Yates stepped in as a director and proceeded to helm the last four films in the series (as well as 2016’s upcoming FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM). This long-running fantasy franchise’s fifth installment was one of the best films in 2007’s mixed bag summer movie season. I was working at a movie theater when this film came out and still remember going to see it three times on the big screen. ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is one notch below PRISONER OF AZKABAN (the POTTER’s highest point). ORDER earns its high ranking due to a fast pace, loathsome villainess, and an intricate story that thrives on believable character development.

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Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned. People are disappearing and dark magic is becoming more frequent, but the willfully ignorant Ministry of Magic wishes to look the other way. This leaves fifth-year Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) as social pariahs in the wizarding world. To make matters worse, the Ministry appoints cruel sociopathic witch Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts. Frustrated by Umbridge’s unwillingness to teach students how to actually defend themselves, a small band of Hogwarts students form a small resistance force known as “Dumbledore’s Army,” led by none other than Harry. Meanwhile, Harry discovers that he has a frightening psychic connection with Voldemort and attempts to control it.

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ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is probably the most stress-inducing HARRY POTTER cinematic chapter in that enemies come from both sides. In the first four films, Harry was seen as a sort of gifted celebrity by the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts staff. ORDER changes that, because the corrupt Ministry invades Hogwarts and shapes the school to their benefit. Of course, this is being perpetuated by probably the most despicable antagonist in the entire series: Dolores Umbridge. She’s a horrible person and you might have to restrain yourself from attempting to jump through the screen to strangle her. Imelda Staunton plays her to sickly sweet perfection in a performance that reminds me of two terrible teachers I had in school, making the character that much more aggravating on a personal level.

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Besides Dolores Umbridge, two new characters also pop up in murderous Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and optimistic oddball Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch). The former only appears for ten minutes of screen time, but makes the most of her scenes. The latter is a fantastic new addition to the main HARRY POTTER cast. Lynch was a perfect choice for the role and plays Luna exactly as I imagined her in the books. This character is a fan favorite and it’s easy to see why. To further praise Luna Lovegood as a positive role model, she has the admirable attributes of not caring what other people think and being true to herself.

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Daniel Radcliffe is back in top-form as Harry Potter, becoming outright confrontational in places and slowly evolving into the determined hero he needs to be in order to take down Voldemort. Emma Watson’s Hermione gets a few moments to shine. She passionately hates Umbridge and supports Harry. Rupert Grint’s Ron devolves back into only providing comic relief, but his funny bits alleviate the film’s more depressing moments. Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes and Gary Oldman all receive their shining highlights as well.

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ORDER’s finale delivers lots of excitement and carefully builds upon everything that’s previously occurred. An effects-heavy confrontation between Voldemort and Dumbledore easily stands as one of series’ best scenes, even if the closing minutes seem a tad too convenient. The running time is also among the shortest in the eight films, which makes the fast pacing even better. The final third’s emotional arcs have serious repercussions for the main characters and the rest of the series. Everything that comes before that point is a combination of magical suspense and uplifting entertainment about standing up for what you believe in…even when all sides seem stacked against you.

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Much like PRISONER OF AZKABAN, ORDER OF THE PHOENIX uses a carefully scaled-down plot to evolve the characters and series as a whole. The performances are solid across the board, with Imelda Staunton being one of the series’ best villains as Umbridge. ORDER functions on powerful ideas of a corrupt government (albeit a magical one) and brewing rebellions. ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is just a hair beneath AZKABAN on the HARRY POTTER totem pole. In this series, second-place isn’t bad at all!

Grade: A

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Suggestive Content and Smoking

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Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Alison Pill, Christopher Lambert & Clancy Brown

The Coen brothers make unique movies. You can automatically tell if you’re watching a Coen brothers film from the offbeat dialogue, awkward humor, or quirky characters. Something about their filmmaking and screenwriting is instantly recognizable. HAIL, CAESAR! is their latest film and its an oddball comedy that satirizes Hollywood’s Golden Age in hilariously weird fashion. Featuring a cast full of A-listers who seem to be having the time of their life on set and using a screenplay that’s impossible to predict, HAIL, CAESAR! is the kind of film that reminds me why I love movies to begin with and the sheer beauty (and questionable studio politics) within the industry itself.

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Eddie Mannix is a Hollywood fixer for the illustrious Capitol Pictures. The studio’s biggest film of the year is HAIL, CAESAR! (think BEN-HUR), a biblical epic featuring the biggest movie star: Baird Whitlock. However, something strange has occurred on the set. Whitlock has gone missing and a ransom note reveals that this is a kidnapping set to the tune of a $100,000 ransom. Mannix tries to track down Whitlock, while other cinema-related shenanigans break out in the studio. DeeAnna Moran (based on Esther Williams) is pregnant with a child out-of-wedlock, while marble-mouthed Hobie Doyle (think John Wayne crossed with Kirby Grant) has been called as a last-minute replacement in a classical drama. Mannix rushes to find complex solutions to all of these dilemmas in the space of a single stress-filled day.

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HAIL, CAESAR! is both a love letter to classical Hollywood cinema and a merciless riff on it. It makes for a film that’s hugely entertaining, captivating, and hilarious to watch from start to finish, even if you’re not necessarily familiar with the old-fashioned material that the Coens are lampooning. The entire audience in my theater was cracking up throughout the entire film at the oddball humor, goofy twists, and utter silliness of the story. The film is very light-hearted, but also carries profound writing in Mannix having his own personal arc/revelation develop during the course of the story.

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The visuals are shot in vibrant colors that illuminate off the screen and the film’s sets are elaborate. It’s hard to believe that the Coen brothers were able to recreate the 50’s in such detail on a meager budget of 22 million (which is nothing compared to most big films today). This is the kind of movie that I want to pause scene to scene in order to notice the smaller touches placed throughout each frame (movie posters at the studio, household appliances, etc.). HAIL, CAESAR! is a gorgeous film to look at and you can never fully predict where its story will head next. I kept wishing that Mannix’s various jobs and the amusing studio problems would go on long past the end credits.

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Performances from the cast are top-notch. Their colorful characters were inspired by Hollywood icons of the past and could easily serve as main protagonists in their own individual films. Josh Brolin landed the leading role as Eddie Mannix (based on the real-life “fixer” of the same name) and plays the part to perfection. Mannix is not without his flaws (he has a tendency of slapping certain problems away), but he’s a fascinating character to watch. I particularly enjoyed his personal story arc (which I won’t spoil here) that evolves over the varying degrees of chaos he endures in a single day’s time.

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George Clooney is hilarious as the overacting Baird Whitlock and receives some of the funniest moments of the entire film, but Alden Ehrenreich steals every scene he’s in as Hobie Doyle. His interplay with Ralph Fiennes’s frustrated director is utterly hysterical to behold. Channing Tatum also gets an equally hilarious moment to shine in a musical number (which had me laughing to the point of tears). Also worth mentioning is Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists (inspired by Hedda Hopper).

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HAIL, CAESAR! pays tribute to and simultaneously nails studio politics in a nutshell. This includes the Coen brothers shining amusing lights on: religious leaders critiquing potentially offensive content in films, disastrous last-minute studio casting decisions, intense production difficulties, multiple behind-the-scenes antics (that aren’t entirely unbelievable), early tabloid journalism, and certain controversies of the time. The films within this film are spot-on parodies of specific genres (musicals, biblical epics, dialogue-heavy dramas, and westerns). Though I do wish that certain subplots had received more screen time (we get a couple of plot points explained away via exposition dialogue), HAIL, CAESAR! is a unique and completely hilarious cinematic experience. This is the first great film of 2016!

Grade: A

SPECTRE (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 28 minutes

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

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Directed by: Sam Mendes

Written by: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & Jez Butterworth

Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes & Jesper Christensen

SPECTRE just might be the hardest review that I’ve had to write this year and that’s not for reasons you might expect. While I’ve revisited many franchises over the course of the summer movie season in order to prep myself for certain reviews, SPECTRE lurked over me like a giant mountain that I had to scale. Before the month of August, I had only seen one 007 film (2006’s CASINO ROYALE). So I found myself going through a long (sometimes painful) process to watch/review fourteen entries in this behemoth of a movie series. This resulted in me gaining a newfound appreciation for the iconic secret agent character as well as a love for (most of) the series. To quickly recap on the Daniel Craig entries: CASINO ROYALE is one of the best reboots to ever grace the silver screen, QUANTUM OF SOLACE was a lackluster follow-up, and SKYFALL is my favorite Bond film of all-time. Where does SPECTRE fit into Craig’s stint as 007? It’s not as good as CASINO ROYALE or SKYFALL, but it’s definitely miles better than QUANTUM OF SOLACE. Though the early word-of-mouth has been mixed, I imagine that many Bond fans will find a lot to like in this film.

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After causing an international incident on an unofficial mission, James Bond has been grounded by M. As we all know, Bond has never been one to respond well to authority and takes it upon himself to complete his unfinished unofficial mission. What should have been a simple visit to a funeral becomes something else entirely as 007 discovers a massive international criminal organization known as S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). The leader of this secret society is the author of all of Bond’s pain (as he so eloquently puts it). Soon enough, Bond and the daughter of a former Quantum agent find themselves hunted by S.P.E.C.T.R.E. as he tries to stop a diabolical plan that would cripple the 00 program and the world as we know it.

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Like the other Craig entries, SPECTRE is remarkably well shot and scored. The cinematography and gorgeous locations kept me invested in the film, even during the less exciting portions of the story. Speaking of which, SPECTRE is definitely the first Craig film in the 007 cannon that’s heavily relied on the stereotypical Bond formula. By this, I mean there’s a world-ending plan, a cat-stroking villain with a penchant for evil monologues, a seemingly unstoppable henchman with a weird quirk, a clichéd Bond girl, and some one-liners. Those elements aren’t necessarily bad things, but this is a definite change of pace for a rebooted series that seemed to be going out of its way to humanize the iconic character and deliberately throw cogs into the predictable formula.

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The plot for SPECTRE isn’t anything groundbreaking or surprising. You’ve seen this kind of Bond movie before with Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Pierce Brosnan. This just happens to be Daniel Craig’s turn to play the game. You can easily predict certain plot developments that are pretty obvious within the first third. It doesn’t necessarily lessen the fun to be had, but I do wish the script had kept a couple of these twists hidden. Running at well over two hours, SPECTRE just might be the longest Bond film to date and you can tell. As action-packed and exciting as most of the movie may be, there’s a noticeable patch in the middle that drags.

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As far as the cast is concerned, Daniel Craig is comfortable as ever in the skin of Bond. This might be his final entry in the series and I’d be happy with him going out on a high note rather than sinking to the embarrassment of Brosnan’s final entry. Lea Seydoux (BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR) is a serviceable Bond girl, though she isn’t exactly given much to do other than be a heart-throb for James. Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris all do well in reprising their roles as M, Q, and Moneypenny. Meanwhile, Andrew Scott is appropriately hateable as a cocky character with a very punchable face.

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The best characters of SPECTRE are definitely the villains. Christoph Waltz is having a field day as the main baddie. This man was born to play a Bond villain. Though it takes a while for him to really dominate the screen, he’s a ton of fun to watch. I loved every second that he was on the screen. Meanwhile, Dave Bautista (Drax the Destroyer from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) serves as a formidable Oddjob-like henchman. Though he doesn’t have any dialogue, the chases/fights between him and Craig are a blast to behold.

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SPECTRE is definitely not on the same level as SKYFALL or CASINO ROYALE, but it’s certainly an enjoyable fourth outing for Craig’s 007. The film’s problems stem from a predictable plot and pacing that drags in the middle. However, the returning characters are just as fun as ever, while the new additions really sell this film. The action scenes are exciting and I left the theater more than a little happy. If this had come out before SKYFALL, then I think the general reaction to it would be more positive. As a whole, I really enjoyed SPECTRE and it’s on the upper level of the 007 pantheon for me.

Grade: B+

SKYFALL (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 23 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Violent Sequences throughout, some Sexuality, Language and Smoking

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Directed by: Sam Mendes

Written by: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & John Logan

Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Berenice Lim Marlohe, Albert Finney & Ben Whishaw

To me, Daniel Craig is James Bond. Though the original Bond series had its ups and down, the momentum and fun was officially slaughtered by one really crappy Brosnan entry. The resulting box office returns and backlash from fans and critics alike forced the studio into rebooting the 007 franchise. This was a cinematic blessing. 2006’s CASINO ROYALE stands as one of the absolute best Bond films we’ve received to date (sitting ahead of GOLDFINGER for me). However, 2008’s QUANTUM OF SOLACE was a mediocre follow-up to that film. All cinematic sins have been repented for in 2012’s SKYFALL. This is a stunning return to top-notch form and stands as my favorite Bond film thus far (making me ridiculously excited for SPECTRE in a few months). Going in bold, new directions, SKYFALL is a 007 film unlike any other. Considering that it’s the twenty-third installment in the official cannon, that’s an impressive accomplishment.

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After a mission goes wrong in Istanbul, James Bond seizes an opportunity to fake his death and leave MI6. Enjoying an early retirement, Bond is forced back into duty when a cyber-genius psycho steals a list of undercover agents. It seems that the evil hacker has a bone to pick with M (Bond’s boss) and is doing so by revealing five names every week (getting agents killed in the process). Bond goes on the hunt for this cyber-terrorist and in the process uncovers a darker plot at work. That’s all I’ll say, because (unlike many other Bond films) SKYFALL packs a lot of unexpected twists and turns in its formula.

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It doesn’t bear repeating, but I’ll say it anyway. Daniel Craig is the perfect Bond. He brings humanity to a character that was once a one-note (though extremely fun to watch) charismatic ladies-man/action hero. Craig shows that there’s pain behind his tough persona and that occasionally seeps through. However, the most remarkable thing about this script is that it forces M (played once again by Judi Dench) up front and center as a main character. She mainly served as a side character who seemingly only showed up to berate Bond, but that’s not the case here. She’s developed into someone worth caring about and shares a solid chunk of screen time with Bond. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem is absolutely astounding as the villain. I won’t reveal much about him or his motivations, because I don’t want to spoil anything. What I will say is that Bardem played this psycho in a manner that no one else could have. He’s simply amazing to behold in the role. Finally, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw are introduced as two side characters who will be showing up in future Bond installments. Fiennes is a welcome presence as M’s superior and Whishaw is the new Q (and provides just as much comic relief as the older Q’s).

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SKYFALL is extremely well-written and not just for a Bond film. Instead of revealing the threat to us right away, the film takes its time to develop the story and we don’t see Bardem’s villain on-screen for almost the entire first half of the story. However, that doesn’t mean that the build-up and mystery isn’t compelling, because I was fully sucked into this movie for its entirety. The building, quiet tension only makes each of the plot revelations (including Bardem’s spectacular villain reveal) that much more sinister when they arrive. The action works perfectly and moves from creative set-piece to set-piece. My favorite of which involves a chase through subway tunnels between Bond and Bardem’s baddie. Especially praise-worthy is the final third which goes into territory that no Bond movie has ventured into before. It makes for a terrifically exciting climax and more than a few surprisingly emotional moments. The finale hits all the right notes and left me wanting to experience this movie all over again the second that it ended.

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Risk taking and a brilliant script elevate SKYFALL into being my all-time favorite Bond film (with CASINO ROYALE as a close second). SKYFALL takes the series into a new, exciting direction that is executed flawlessly. What else can I say about Daniel Craig other than he’s my definitive James Bond? Judi Dench’s M is fully developed into a main character this time around. Javier Bardem serves as a delightfully insane villain. SKYFALL is less jokey than previous Bond installments (with only a handful of one-liners that I could spot), but manages to be far more enjoyable, entertaining and resonates more than a majority of the franchise. SKYFALL is my favorite Bond film and I am giddy with excitement to see where SPECTRE takes us next.

Grade: A+

SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 3 hours 15 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, some Sexuality and Actuality Violence

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Steven Zaillian

(based on the novel SCHINDLER’S ARK by Thomas Keneally)

Starring: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagall, Embeth Davidtz & Malgorzata Gebel

Of all the atrocities in human history, the Holocaust certainly makes an argument for being one of the most depressing and depraved acts of evil. However, in times of unspeakable evil, goodness can always shine through in the kind actions of caring individuals. German businessman Oskar Schindler put his life on the line and went above and beyond to save 1,100 Jews during the Holocaust. Schindler’s heroic actions are brilliantly brought to stark life in SCHINDLER’S LIST, which also serves as director Steven Spielberg’s finest hour. This film is a masterpiece that is absolutely essential viewing.

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The time is WWII and Jews are systematically being stripped of their basic human rights. It is no wonder why Oskar Schindler has come up with a pretty ingenious, crooked plan to run a new company by employing Jews. Schindler is profiting off slave labor and reaping all the financial benefits. His Jewish assistant, Itzhak Stern, uses Schindler’s company to employ as many Jews as possible…much to Schindler’s dismay as he sees his business as a business instead of a safe haven. Though Schindler starts off as a uncaring businessman, he finds himself changed as the war continues and circumstances get more dire for his workers. This film tells Oskar Schindler’s story in beautiful and tragic detail.

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SCHINDLER’S LIST is ambitious epic that spans the duration of the Holocaust, detailing each significant step in that horrifying genocide. Despite being made in 1993, the film captures WWII Germany as best as it might ever be captured on the silver screen. There’s no possible way to bring all the real-life horrors to the screen, but Steven Spielberg definitely nails a suffocating atmosphere of despair that most certainly hovered over the concentration camps. Black-and-white cinematography lends to a timeless feeling, but also doesn’t shy from graphic visuals. Be warned, this movie is hard to watch in many places and frequently disturbing, as it should be considering the subject matter. At its heart, this is the story of one good man who did his best to save lives in the face of insurmountable wickedness.

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Liam Neeson is astounding as Schindler. Before Neeson became the unlikely action star that he is today, there was a quiet dignity around him. This quality shines through in Neeson’s Schindler going through a wholly believable transformation from cold businessman to unlikely hero. You grow to care about Schindler and appreciate every ounce of goodness this man contains in his bones, especially when he explains to skeptical Nazi officers why children and the elderly are essential to his company (thus saving their lives). Ben Kingsley disappears into his role as Stern who gradually becomes a best friend to Schindler as the years go on. Ralph Fiennes dominates his scenes as SS-captain Amon Goeth. Molding his portrayal based on actual testimonies from concentration camp survivors, Fiennes is scary and stone-faced as the Nazi. War can bring out the worst in people, but Goeth seems to have been an utter sociopath enjoying the benefits of killing without repercussions. Scenes between Neeson and Fiennes give some of the heaviest pieces of dialogue in the whole film, including a discussion about what makes real power.

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SCHINDLER’S LIST encompasses a lot of strong emotions. Oskar Schindler’s journey and selfless actions are inspiring and beautiful. The Holocaust imagery is harrowing and heart-breaking. I cannot think of one single moment where I was ever bored as this film covers a lot of ground with a steady pace that manages to capture years of sorrow in a running time of just over three hours. A scene involving the showers at Auschwitz is an agonizingly intense sequence and the ending is one of the biggest tear-jerking cinematic experiences that I’ve ever seen (I wound up nearly sobbing as a result).

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SCHINDLER’S LIST is deserving of every single accolade, bit of praise and award it has received since it’s release. Though Spielberg has laid down many cinematic corner stones in his career, this is the masterpiece that he’ll always be remembered for. War certainly brings out the worst in people, but also manages to bring out inherent kindness of genuinely good human beings. SCHINDLER’S LIST is a classic that deserves to go down as one of the greatest films ever made and one of the most important films that you’ll ever watch.

Grade: A+

My Top 10 Films of 2014

List by Derrick Carter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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