THE SNOWMAN (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Grisly Images, Violence, some Language, Sexuality and brief Nudity

Directed by: Tomas Alfredson

Written by: Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan & Soren Sveistrup

(based on the novel THE SNOWMAN by Jo Nesbo)

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Val Kilmer, J.K. Simmons, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ronan Vibert, Chloe Sevigny & James D’Arcy

There were plenty of reasons to look forward to THE SNOWMAN. Martin Scorsese produced it. Tomas Alfredson (who directed one of the best vampire films ever in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN) directed it. This movie was based on an acclaimed novel that tons of people love and it’s regarded as a very scary book. Also, look at that cast! Just look at that cast! This should have been a great movie. The key phrase there being “should have been,” because THE SNOWMAN is one of the biggest disappointments in quite some time. Everything you’ve heard is true. This film is terrible.

Detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) is on the trail of a mysterious serial killer, known as “The Snowman Killer.” This psycho gained this rather goofy nickname because he builds snowmen of his victims. He also cuts his victims up into little pieces with razor-sharp cord, but he also builds snowmen. So, the snow-related quality just stuck out more than his graphic dismemberment, I guess? With the help of newbie recruit Kathrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), Harry Hole must stop the Snowman Killer before the murderer strikes somewhere personal. All the while, there are flashbacks to seemingly unrelated events and a conspiracy theory about Norway trying to host the Winter Sports World Cup.

THE SNOWMAN is a trainwreck in nearly every aspect, but I’ll get the positives out of the way and state what qualities I enjoyed upfront. The cinematography is great. The Norwegian locations are cool to look at (pun fully intended). Also, there are brief effective scenes scattered throughout this film too, but these are mostly small bits that are unconnected in the grand scheme of things. I really liked a moment when the Snowman Killer was right in front of Harry’s face and he didn’t even know it, but the audience knew it and the director still managed to keep the murderer’s identity a secret in that scene. This was a truly great moment in an otherwise crappy film.

Now that I’ve given my minor praise, it’s time to dig into why this film doesn’t work. The first reason for why THE SNOWMAN doesn’t work actually comes from a troubled production that recently concluded with the film’s director stating that there are about 15 minutes of major script pages that were never even filmed. This means that there are scenes literally missing from this movie, which consequently results in baffling character decisions and last-minute plot revelations that don’t make a lick of sense. I know that the source material is widely acclaimed and I cannot even imagine what pain the novel’s fanbase will endure when they sit down to watch this clichéd, confused mess of a movie.

The second reason for why THE SNOWMAN doesn’t work is heavily tied to the first reason: a talented cast of A-list performers are trying their best and, yet, this incoherent jumbled film doesn’t make any of their characters worth remembering. It’s also a juvenile comment to make, but Harry Hole is an incredibly stupid name for the protagonist of a serious serial killer thriller. Was Hugh Jass already taken? What about I.P. Freely? Okay, I’ll stop harping on this one. Many of Michael Fassbender’s decisions don’t make a lick of sense and he makes big revelations that just sort of pop out of nowhere with no rhyme or reason. Also, J.K. Simmons is completely wasted in the role of a useless would-be important character. Val Kilmer also shows up for five minutes of embarrassingly bad flashbacks as a seemingly unrelated detective who was also after the Snowman Killer in the past. The only cast member who seems somewhat believable is Rebecca Ferguson.

As far as the film’s suspense goes, there isn’t much to be found at all. There are a couple of effective moments (ala scenes in which we see how close the Snowman Killer is to Fassbender’s Harry Hole), but everything else is a tedious slog to get through. The film can’t even nail its gory, graphic violence. A shaky-cam fight scene is filmed in such an incoherent fashion that it took me a full minute to realize who suffered a life-altering injury and how the hell that even happened. A shotgun blast and a half-blown-off head is rendered with godawful CGI that looks like it belongs in a Syfy Channel original movie. There are also long stretches where no bodies pile up because Fassbender’s Harry Hole is on the trail of a Winter Sports conspiracy…because that’s what we came to this serial killer thriller to watch, right?

THE SNOWMAN is the kind of cinematic disaster that one can pick apart scene by scene, analyzing what’s wrong with nearly every moment and observing what could be done to improve the overall film. I’m sure that the 15 minutes of unfilmed scenes also had a distinct factor to play in THE SNOWMAN’s shockingly shoddy quality. While the cinematography and locations are pretty to look at and there are a couple of effective bits, THE SNOWMAN is mostly a long bore to get through. Instead of being on the edge of their seats, viewers will likely be checking their watches to see how much more time is left in this endurance test of a grisly thriller. Don’t be fooled by the trailers, the cast, the premise, or the praise for the (undoubtedly) superior source material, THE SNOWMAN isn’t worth your time or money.

Grade: D

LIFE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout, some Sci-Fi Violence and Terror

Directed by: Daniel Espinosa

Written by: Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare & Olga Dihovichnaya

When I first saw the trailer for LIFE, I thought it strongly resembled a certain 1979 horror classic. I’m sure that some studio executives felt the same way, because they quickly swapped the film’s release date from May to March in order to avoid competing with a prequel to that 1979 horror classic. My hopes weren’t exactly high for this film because it seemed derivative and unoriginal from premise to promotional material. However, I decided to give LIFE a shot and surprisingly enjoyed this film. It’s not mindblowing or terrifying, but it’s a fun little sci-fi horror romp with loads of good qualities.

The ISS (International Space Station) is manned by a tight six-person crew and they’ve recently undertaken a mission to retrieve a soil sample from Mars. Wouldn’t you know it, the red planet’s dirt contains a bit of alien DNA. With some experimentation, one scientist manages to resurrect a cell and it becomes a rapidly evolving organism. Unfortunately for the ISS crew, the organism (nicknamed “Calvin”) reveals deadly tendencies and begins to run amok. In order to save themselves and the human race, the ISS crew will have to kill Calvin before it kills them.

That plot description might not sound like the most intriguing thing in the world because LIFE is like ALIEN crossed with THE BLOB. However, there’s pleasure to be taken from that as this B-movie material is executed with A-grade effort. The effects are top-notch as “Calvin” frequently shapeshifts depending on his growth and environment. This monster resembles more of a plant/squid hybrid than any straight-up horrific beast. “Calvin” is beautiful to look at, which makes his bloody rampage even more cool to watch. The creature design was based on a cross between actual fungus and moss found in nature, so there’s even an extra bit of realism to this threat.

Concerning “Calvin’s” actions, LIFE embraces its R rating with gleefully memorable kills. This isn’t a total gorefest, but things get very violent and (at points) disturbing. A couple of the film’s best deaths take a less-is-more approach, letting our imagination fill in the most graphic bits and giving us enough on-screen details to confirm our worst fears. There’s also a stellar sequence in outer space that sees a uniquely twisted demise. Basically, LIFE is a slasher film crossed with a creature feature and its entertaining when taken as either of those things or a combination of both.

As far as the ISS crew members go, LIFE fumbles the character development a bit as these people are mostly one-note stereotypes. The performances from a talented bunch of actors make them likable enough, but there’s next to nothing to them. Sure, there have ham-fisted attempts to flesh them out a bit. Jake Gyllenhaal reads from a children’s book, Rebecca Ferguson is a hard-ass with a penchant for protocols, Ryan Reynolds is his usual sarcastic self, Hiroyuki Sanada is a new father, Ariyon Bakare is a scientist who has insights on the creature, and Olga Dihovichnaya is the Russian one. However, there simply isn’t much to these thin characters…other than being lambs to the slaughter.

LIFE has its fair share of familiarity and clichés. There are attempts to kill “Calvin” that are directly lifted from the ALIEN series (complete with flamethrowers, ship thrusters, and air vents). However, these are made up for by the monster being so damn interesting and effective tension that’s built up with a skillful eye behind the camera. I’m also going to praise the hell of out this film’s ending, because, holy shit, this conclusion is awesome! I loved the final minutes and found them to be effectively haunting. It was the meanest possible way to end this story and I applaud the screenwriters’/director’s viciousness in having the balls to go there.

Overall, LIFE isn’t exactly original, but the ALIEN mixed with THE BLOB storyline provides plenty of entertainment on its own merits. Throw in a cast that breathe likability into rather dull characters, lots of effective tension that overcomes the clichéd familiarity, and one of the freakiest aliens to hit the big screen in quite some time, then you’ve got yourself a winner. LIFE is shockingly good and I give it a hearty recommendation for those who are craving a cool creature feature.

Grade: B

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Sexual Content, Language and Nudity

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Directed by: Tate Taylor

Written by: Erin Cressida Wilson

(based on the novel THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins)

Starring: Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Allison Janney, Edgar Ramirez & Lisa Kudrow

I didn’t know what to expect when walking into THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. I hadn’t read the novel and had next to no knowledge about the plot (other than a girl disappears and there’s a mystery afoot). So despite the mixed bag reception from both critics and audiences, I think GIRL ON THE TRAIN may (already) be one of the more underrated gems of 2016. This thriller is unpredictable for most of its running time, has a thick atmosphere of dread, a compelling mystery and three characters that play off each other in surprising ways. Though this seems to be an unpopular opinion at the moment, I feel that GIRL ON THE TRAIN is a solid thriller.

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Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) is an alcoholic who rides the train back and forth every day. Throughout her daily commutes, Rachel has become obsessed with a couple who live outside one of the train stops. As soon as Rachel notices this couple’s “perfect” life beginning to show cracks, unfaithful wife Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett) goes missing and Rachel finds herself being labeled a suspect by intimidating Detective Riley (Allison Janney). Desperate to discover the truth behind what happened to Megan, Rachel gets close to the missing woman’s husband (Luke Evans) and a potentially immoral psychiatrist (Edgar Ramirez)…all while finding herself at odds with her ex-husband (Justin Theroux) and his homewrecker wife (Rebecca Ferguson). The mystery gets stranger as it goes along and Rachel soon finds her life in danger.

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One of the big things that stuck out about THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN for me is the titular protagonist. Rachel isn’t necessarily someone who you’d want to talk to and you’ve likely seen this kind of weirdo on the train before. However, bits of her narration give us insight into her state of mind and make her sympathetic. Even though I found myself reluctant to side with this creepy alcoholic turned amateur detective, the film does a good job of getting the viewer to root for her. Emily Blunt’s convincing performance makes Rachel into a fleshed-out protagonist who’s far more complex than her strange outer appearance might suggest.

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The side characters are equally as fascinating. Luke Evans (who’s had good roles and bad roles) is intimidating as Scott Hipwell, while Haley Bennett is purposely hard to read as his missing wife Anna. Her flashbacks slowly dish out new details about her disappearance as the plot steadily becomes more complicated. Other potential suspects in Anna’s disappearance include Edgar Ramirez as shady therapist Kamal Abdic, Rebecca Ferguson as a homewrecker with unclear intentions, and Emily Blunt’s alcoholic Rachel (yes, the main character remains a possible villainess to the viewer). Justin Theroux is solid as sympathetic ex-husband Tom and Allison Janney is appropriate tense as the detective investigating Anna’s disappearance.

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Because the list of potential killers is small, this makes for a more tense mystery with twists and turns having a greater effect on the story. This film builds a lot of suspense, so much so that I was willing to ignore plot holes in the moment that became more annoying afterwards. Though arguments have been made that GIRL ON THE TRAIN feels generic in a lot of places, I’d argue that the film purposely goes out of its way to subvert a number of preconceived notions. I thought a potentially forced romance would spring up between one of the suspects, but that never occurred and I was all the happier for it. The ever emerging clues mostly surprised me, though one big reveal had me properly guessing the ending twenty minutes in advance. That didn’t stop the finale from playing out in a dark, suspenseful way though.

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Though it has a moody cinematography, a grim atmosphere and a haunting musical score, GIRL ON THE TRAIN’s style occasionally works against it. The film’s non-linear structure relies on a lot of flashbacks and jumps through time. These weren’t always clear and had me trying to play catch up during a few scenes. The film also relies on a few moments of cheap-looking slow motion. It appears as if this was done in post, because it looks like the movie slows down a fast frame rate with a shoddy (almost pixelated) appearance as a result. These complaints, along with a few nagging plot holes keep THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN from reaching the heights of a stellar thriller.

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THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN has problems (see the two paragraphs above), but that doesn’t take away from the film’s tense mystery, dark tone and surprising plot twists. Emily Blunt’s deeply flawed protagonist makes this thriller worth watching for her performance alone. I also enjoyed how complicated the side characters were and how many plot revelations caught me totally off guard. Enjoyed purely on the merits of entertainment, good acting and clever storytelling, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is a solid thriller!

Grade: B

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 11 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Action and Violence, and brief partial Nudity

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Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie

Written by: Christopher McQuarrie

(based on the TV series MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE by Bruce Geller)

Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin, Simon McBurney & Zhang Jingchu

Before June of this year, I had never seen a single MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie. I didn’t grow up watching the series, so I didn’t have any nostalgia for it. Watching those four movies for the first time, I saw the series like this: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is big dumb fun, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 tries too hard to be cool, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III has the best villain of the series, and GHOST PROTOCOL is a better-than-expected fourth installment. All my preparation of watching those films was for ROGUE NATION (the fifth film in the franchise) and I’m so glad I got into this series at all, because MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION is one of the best films to hit the big screen this summer!

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IMF agent Ethan Hunt is convinced that there’s a threat out there far bigger than any he’s ever faced before. This enemy is a group known as The Syndicate. Though they only serve as tall-tales for the C.I.A. and the rest of IMF, Ethan discovers that the Syndicate is very real and have it out for him. They are an anti-IMF. They assassinate world leaders and collapse foreign economies. It’s a mastermind criminal group made to break societies. With IMF torn down by the C.I.A., only Ethan and a handful of former IMF agents (as well as a questionable femme fatale) have any hope of stopping this terrorist organization from completing their master plan.

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The plots in the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise range from clichéd and stupid (a deadly virus being used by a terrorist, a madman armed with some nukes) to complicated and clever (a weapons dealer enacting revenge on an IMF agent). Having sat through all four films recently, I find ROGUE NATION’s plot to be the most complex story yet in the series. This feels like the most mature and adult MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie yet. It’s a result of the series slowly evolving over the later sequels. Tight editing and strong momentum make the film seem neat and compact in its 131-minute running time.

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It should come as no surprise that Tom Cruise slips right back into the role of Ethan Hunt with ease. As an action hero, there’s no denying that Cruise can still carry a blockbuster squarely on his shoulders. However, ROGUE NATION also lends bigger roles to the side characters this time around. Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames and Jeremy Renner all have big parts to play. It was nice seeing them used as equal members of a team and not merely as means to an end. Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson (coming off last summer’s awful HERCULES) plays one of the most interesting female characters in this franchise. You’re never fully certain which side she’s on, but her mere presence forces you to like her either way. While Philip Seymour Hoffman remains a vicious baddie who cannot be topped, Sean Harris plays my second-favorite villain in the series. He’s evil and calculating, but there’s also an understandable motivation behind his actions (explained as the film goes along). He was perfect in this role and can’t wait to see what he takes on next.

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Of course, what’s a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie without insane action scenes. Opening with an airplane stunt (that’s been posted in every piece of marketing for this film), ROGUE NATION packs a ton of adrenaline-pumping excitement into a story that knows where to place these crazy scenes. The gun fights and car chases don’t feel pointless or forced in the slightest. Instead, they weave right into the complex plot. One lengthy sequence set at an opera house was a special highlight for me. I was constantly on the edge of my seat through the whole film though. Every scene is riveting for one reason or another.

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It’s crazy how the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise seems to have come full circle and become the highest possible version of popcorn entertainment. However, this fifth film is far from big and dumb. Instead, it’s the most mature, complicated entry yet and made all the better for it. It was originally rumored that this fifth entry would be the final MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie and I can say that the franchise would have gone out on its highest note. However, if the sixth film (now in production) is anywhere near as accomplished and hugely entertaining as this fifth entry, bring it on! I have nothing negative to say about this summer blockbuster. I loved every second of ROGUE NATION!

Grade: A+

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