THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

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

Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro

Written by: Guillermo Del Toro & Vanessa Taylor

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lauren Lee Smith, Nick Searcy & David Hewlett

I’ve yet to see a bad movie from Guillermo Del Toro. Whether it be the eerie combination of Gothic horror and old-fashioned romance in his highly underrated CRIMSON PEAK, a dark fairy tale/war drama in PAN’S LABYRINTH, or Lovecraftian sensibilities in both HELLBOY movies, Del Toro clearly creates the films that he wants to make. Even lesser efforts like giant insect B-movie MIMIC still is miles above other 90s B-flicks of its same genre. Del Toro knocks another film out of the park with THE SHAPE OF WATER! This film plays out like CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON meets BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. With an audience-pleasing narrative and loads of imagination, THE SHAPE OF WATER is a wondrous cinematic experience!

In 1962’s Baltimore, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute custodian working at a top-secret government facility. Esposito is looked down on by her snobby superiors, but has two great friends in talkative Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and oddball artist Giles (Richard Jenkins). Everything changes when Elisa’s workplace receives its latest experiment: an Amazonian humanoid-like amphibian (Doug Jones). In a strange twist of fate, Elisa and the “monster” begin to form a romantic bond. All the while, headstrong Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) turns into a fearsome villain intent on dissecting the creature and concerned scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) tries to keep the creature safe at all costs.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that THE SHAPE OF WATER began as Guillermo Del Toro’s original idea for a CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON remake. When he was a child, he wanted to see the creature and Julie Adams romantically end happily ever after. Unsurprisingly, Universal (the same studio that effectively killed its “Dark Universe” in the space of one movie) rejected Del Toro’s original take on a remake. Del Toro then transformed his idea into THE SHAPE OF WATER and has also dubbed it as his first “adult” film that tackles issues he’s concerned about in the modern age…as opposed to childhood fantasies and nostalgia seen in previous entries in his filmography. As a result, THE SHAPE OF WATER just might be Del Toro’s best film since PAN’S LABYRINTH.

Although it might sound hard to buy in a believable manner, the romance between Sally Hawkins’ protagonist and Doug Jones’ creature is totally compelling from start to finish. The ways in which these two outsiders bond over food, music, and sign language is beautiful. Hawkins is able to communicate everything she means without ever speaking a word…save for one dream sequence that serves as a great stylish WTF moment in the best way possible. Doug Jones does his usual weird thing as a monster, but doesn’t deliver any frights (save for when the creature is threatened).

Besides being a simple fantasy-romance between a mute woman and a fish-man (a description that woefully undersells this film), SHAPE OF WATER also has many subplots that further flesh out its characters in interesting ways. Nearly every character in this film receives a story arc that occurs around the woman-monster relationship. The most interesting of which easily belongs to Michael Shannon’s unusual villain. Strickland is easily one of the best roles that the madly talented Shannon has taken so far and allows him to flex his evil acting muscles as the story’s despicable antagonist. He also delivers a particularly gruesome moment that made my theater’s entire audience cringe and exclaim in unison.

I won’t mention too many details about the rest of the subplots. However, Michael Stuhlbarg is a very interesting character and his story arc is especially relevant to the time period of the 1960s. Richard Jenkins is just plain weird in spots, but that’s his character in this film. His distinct brand of quirkiness provides some chuckles, as well as many emotional moments that resonate in unexpected ways. Octavia Spencer is exactly a major character, but she does very well as a best friend who’s caught up in this monstrous mess. One thing that’s easy to notice is that almost all of these good characters are outsiders in some way, shape, or form. All the while, the main villain is the stereotypical 1960s macho-man American who’d usually be the hero in a 1950s/60s monster movie. It’s a fascinating switch-up to watch and one that only Del Toro could create in such a compelling manner.

As you might expect, SHAPE OF WATER’s visuals look amazing…much like the visuals in pretty much every other Del Toro production. The 1960s era is captured in a way that almost seems foreign…pointing out big problems that existed in the supposedly clean old-fashioned 60s. However, this is never done in a way that seems distractingly excessive or intrusive to the film’s story. Instead, it adds yet another layer to this wonderfully creative cinematic beauty. The effects are also worth praising as the blending of practical effects (in Doug Jones’ monster suit and brief gory bits) and computer-generated imagery (in the underwater sequences and shots that would be impossible to capture practically) is seamless.

Del Toro has done it again! This director has yet to make a bad or even mediocre film as he continues his winning streak in THE SHAPE OF WATER. WATER’s performances are stellar across the board, with especially impressive acting from a soundless Sally Hawkins. Spectacular special effects, a whimsical soundtrack, fantastical atmosphere, well-developed characters, and clever writing that blends a main story with many subplots, all make THE SHAPE OF WATER worth your time. If you want to see an out-of-the-ordinary romance that is romantic but not conventional by any means, then dive into this wondrous cinematic oddity.

Grade: A+

KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, and for brief Strong Language

Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Written by: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein & Derek Connolly

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary & John C. Reilly

KONG: SKULL ISLAND is the eighth film starring the titular giant ape and the second film in Universal’s newly established MonsterVerse (the first was 2014’s GODZILLA). SKULL ISLAND isn’t the tragic view of KING KONG that we’ve already seen in the 1933 classic and Peter Jackson’s overblown remake, but instead is simply a giant monster adventure. SKULL ISLAND is not without a few major flaws, but it’s pretty entertaining nonetheless. If you want to see some crazy creatures, witness giant beasts laying the smackdown on each other, and watch a lot of people die in horrible ways, then KONG: SKULL ISLAND is a fun two-hour-long ride.

The year is 1973. The Vietnam War is coming to an end and times are changing. In an effort to cash-in on the chaotic state of things, would-be crackpot William Randa (John Goodman) secures funds to lead a dangerous mapping expedition to an uncharted island. The mysterious Skull Island is rumored to be a place where myths and science collide. His team of adventurers includes: British tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), Army Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), Photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and a ragtag group of soldiers/scientists. Unfortunately, flying through a turbulent storm to get to Skull Island is easier than leaving Skull Island. The group of mismatched folks soon find themselves battling deadly wildlife, including one pissed-off, building-sized monkey.

SKULL ISLAND nails the most important part of a giant monster movie: the monsters! This film has lots of cool scenes and stand-out sequences of ferocious beasts going at it. This includes: folks being heartlessly killed, monsters fighting people (including a fantastic early confrontation between Kong and a group of helicopters), and monsters fighting each other (in multiple scenes). SKULL ISLAND doesn’t take the less-is-more approach to its creatures that Gareth Evan’s GODZILLA reboot had and it hugely benefits from it. We see lots of chaos and violence, and it sure is fun! The adrenaline-pumping action scenes are sure to make viewers giddy and will likely elicit vocal reactions from a theater audience.

The film has a big silly vibe to it as well and delivers wholeheartedly on that. A great soundtrack (of old-school hits) keeps the energy up during the slower moments of characters traveling and building some possible means of escape. The atmospheric visuals look great, while there are wisely chosen clips of archive footage incorporated into the opening credits (showcasing the passage of time) and there’s even a unique style to the title cards. There was clearly lots of attention to detail in the making of this film, including: the beautiful environments (a mix of Vietnam, Hawaii, and Australia), a flashing camera bulb in a monster’s stomach, and minute facial expressions on Kong’s stern mug.

The look of this rebooted Kong is unique and imposing. He basically has the appearance of a pissed-off gorilla, but not a monster (e.g. the 1933 original and Peter Jackson’s remake). Other beasties populate Skull Island too. Some of these have small memorable moments (like a water buffalo or strange insects, one of which is pure nightmare fuel), while others play a bigger role in the proceedings. Some pterodactyl-like birds felt a little too silly. However, bone-headed lizards that serve as the film’s primary antagonists (showcased in the trailers as “skull crawlers”) aren’t as scary as they could have been, but provide some tense scenes nonetheless. This is especially true of one battle-like encounter, between the surviving humans and a hungry Skull crawler, in a gassy graveyard.

SKULL ISLAND’s problems come in the form of one-note characters. There are lots of folks that venture to Skull Island and therefore, lots of people are going to die. However, the film briefly sets each of these folks up with an obligatory prologue scene and not much else. I wasn’t expecting thoughtful development on every single character, but it would be nice if we cared a little more about a few of them. When shocking deaths occurred, I didn’t feel like there was much of a loss and just thought the visuals/death itself was cool.

Tom Hiddleston gets by on his own charming merits, while Brie Larson is good enough as a peace-loving photographer. John Goodman has a strong set-up and then is sort of brushed to the side as a background character. Samuel L. Jackson is alright as a pissed-off colonel and actually became rather annoying in the proceedings (which seemed intentional). John C. Reilly is enjoyable as the comic relief. Meanwhile, Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham and Thomas Mann are serviceable as Vietnam soldiers thrown into a new kind of jungle. John Ortiz has a bit of a comic relief role, but they also try to give him a sensitive side. This backfires as I didn’t feel a thing for this mixed bag character. The same can be said for Jing Tian and Corey Hawkins as two scientists.

People usually don’t go to a giant monster movie and expect to see strong characters. Instead, you’re going for the monsters. KONG: SKULL ISLAND more than delivers in that department as we see lots of cool creatures, straight-up monster brawls, and people being killed in neat ways. It would have definitely been a better film if the viewer actually cared about the people being eaten, but it isn’t a huge detriment seeing that the style and fun factor definitely work here. KONG: SKULL ISLAND will likely satisfy the craving for big dumb fun and not much else.

Grade: B

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+

BONE TOMAHAWK (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: S. Craig Zahler

Written by: S. Craig Zahler

Starring: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, David Arquette, Sid Haig & Geno Segers

Two genres that don’t often go together are Horror and Westerns. Combinations of the two very different genres have only been attempted a handful of times to my knowledge (THE BURROWERS, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, and TREMORS). BONE TOMAHAWK just happens to be the latest effort that tries to blend these two distinct genres into one creative story. While it definitely leans more onto the Western side before diving straight into Horror country for the final third, I can easily fathom that this film will please fans of both cinematic genres. Blending a slow brooding pace of a John Wayne flick with some graphic cannibal horror, BONE TOMAHAWK is an unexpectedly great film that came out of nowhere and knocked me on my ass.

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Bright Hope is a peaceful, out-of-the-way town that never encounters any serious problems. Tonight is different as a strange drifter has just rolled into town and caught the eye of Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell sporting a magnificent bit of facial hair). One brief confrontation later and the drifter is behind bars at the local jail with only a law man and a nurse to keep him company. This drifter’s arrival was the mere beginning of something far more sinister and the jail turns up empty in the morning. Hunt suspects that Indians might have something to do with the three disappearances and soon learns that there’s something in the wilderness that even Indians are afraid of. Taking their lives into their own hands, Sheriff Hunt brings along Arthur O’Dwyer (the missing nurse’s husband), Chicory (an old-fashioned deputy), and John Brooder (a trigger-happy bigot) on a rescue mission into some very dangerous territory.

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For a movie that’s essentially been sold as Kurt Russell fighting cannibals in the Old West, BONE TOMAHAWK is far better than I think anyone could have anticipated. I mean, sure that one sentence pitch sounds fun in and of itself, but this movie treats itself as a dark and brooding ride. Everyone is playing this ridiculous-sounding material with a believable straight face. This approach works far better than it probably should have. First-time director S. Craig Zahler (who also penned the decent ASYLUM BLACKOUT) uses a confident hand behind the camera to bring his vision to life. This feels like a slow-burn Western that just happens to have a long showdown with vicious man-eating cannibals in the final act.

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This self-serious approach can also be seen in the performances of a remarkable cast of big-name actors. Kurt Russell (who’s also starring in certain other Western that arrives later this year) is very much in his element. He’s having a blast as Sheriff Hunt and gives the performance his all, which brings to life a likable bad-ass with a heart of gold. Patrick Wilson is especially good and plays the wounded husband (he has a broken leg all throughout the film) as a determined man on a mission. Richard Jenkins brings a strong screen presence as the kindly old deputy. Meanwhile, Matthew Fox really shines as the despicable Brooder (who has an interesting motivation of his own). David Arquette and Sid Haig also make brief, memorable appearances.

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When it does get into the horror section of its story, BONE TOMAHAWK also gets extremely graphic in the violence department. Seeing as the plot involves cannibals, I was expecting gore. I just wasn’t expecting this film to have a scene that rivaled the best moment of THE GREEN INFERNO in its sheer viciousness. Even when we get severed body parts and guts spilling out onto the screen, the movie never goes into cheesy or over-the-top territory. Instead, the brutality only adds to the dark atmosphere that the movie was playing with from the very beginning.

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Though the running time might be a little too long and there’s a noticeable leap of logic made in the final moments, BONE TOMAHAWK is far better than I think anyone could have anticipated it being. The premise may sound ludicrous on paper, but the way it’s executed with an exciting new director/writer behind the camera, a rock solid cast acting their hearts out, and exciting bursts of violence transform the silly material into a seriously great time. It’s a shame that BONE TOMAHAWK didn’t hit theaters, because there are scenes that would get great audience reactions (I found myself cheering while watching it at home). If you’re craving something out-of-the-ordinary for this final week of this Halloween season (or any time really) and don’t want to make a trip to the multiplex, BONE TOMAHAWK should satisfy your craving. This is one of the best horror movies of 2015!

Grade: A-

NORTH COUNTRY (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences involving Sexual Harassment including Violence and Dialogue, and for Language

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Directed by: Niki Caro

Written by: Michael Seitzman

(based on the book CLASS ACTION by Clara Bingham & Laura Leedy Gansler)

Starring: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek, Michelle Monaghan, Jeremy Renner & Woody Harrelson

NORTH COUNTRY sounds like a surefire winner on paper. You have an important story being brought to life with an A-list cast. Though it bombed at the box office, the film even managed to garner two Academy Award nominations (Best Actress and Supporting Actress) and rightfully so. Based on the Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Company case, NORTH COUNTRY showcases great performances and a hard-hitting issue that happens to be driven by a muddled script trying to tell two tonally different stories at once. One involves a court case over sexual harassment in the workplace and is obviously the more important and compelling of the two. However, screenwriter Michael Seitzman tries to tie this into a story of a woman returning to her childhood home. He seems focus too much on the less-interesting latter.

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After years of abuse, Josey Aimes has decided to leave her spouse, take her two kids with her, and move in with her parents. While her mother seems to support Josey, her father less than approves and is ashamed by her presence. In order to make ends meet and earn some real money, Josey starts to work at the Mesabi Iron Range. The company is less than welcoming and Josey (along with her female coworkers) are subjected to frequent sexual harassment. To boot, an ex-boyfriend of Josey’s happens to be working at the mine and instigating more verbal/physical abuse towards her. Josey decides to file a class-action lawsuit against the company, but struggles to find members of the community that will stand in support of her case. It’s all a fictionalized take on an actual court case that changed the working world forever, but the film seems to only marginally focus on that…changing into something else entirely by the conclusion.

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Aside from the important issues being addressed (however glossed over they might wind up being), the main reason to watch NORTH COUNTRY is for the cast. I mean, look at those names! I was originally sold on seeing this movie because of the plot, but the A-list talent in this film got me even more pumped up to watch it. Charlize Theron has proven herself to be one of the best actresses working today and demonstrates both vulnerability and strength in equal measure as Josey. Seeing as her character is subjected to slut-shaming from the very beginning, it makes the viewer reevaluate how they treat certain people in our society who do get pregnant at 16 years-old and what not.

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Frances McDormand is sympathetic as a union representative whose health is slowly declining and Sean Bean has a side role as her husband. Meanwhile, Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins are outstanding as Josey’s parents, especially Richard Jenkins as the seemingly emotionless father who you want to punch in the face on multiple occasions. Jeremy Renner plays Josey’s ex with a sort of scumbag glee. Aside from playing Jeffrey Dahmer, I never really saw Renner in any antagonist role. So this was a nice change of pace. Woody Harrelson is great as Josey’s lawyer/possible love interest. All in all, the performances are great from everyone in this film and that would warrant at least one viewing in my eyes.

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NORTH COUNTRY is certainly effective in moments. These are the infuriating scenes of sexual harassment, the indifference of the higher-ups, and Josey’s courtroom scenes. However, the movie teeters close to Lifetime Original Movie territory whenever it goes into Josey’s past with little reveals coming to light (especially a bombshell in the final third that almost feels like a cop-out). Whenever the former moments are on, the movie is great. Whenever the latter is being focused on, the movie dips into mediocre and easy clichéd storytelling. I really wish that the movie had been a more accurate representation of the real court case that it was inspired by and not loaded with a lot of fictional soap opera level drama that seems to detract from the important issues being discussed.

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NORTH COUNTRY is a decent flick thanks to great performances from an awesome cast and the upsetting issues being discussed, but it’s weighed down by a subplot that really had no business being in this film. Charlize Theron’s performance is well worth the rental price alone and the rest of the impressive cast also boost this film’s quality above simply being a movie-of-the-week melodrama. However, it seems as if NORTH COUNTRY is two movies under one title. The first is a compelling drama inspired by one of the most important court cases in recent history. The second feels like a Lifetime script that somehow got a budget of 35 million. I really wish the former stood out more than the latter, but they’re given equal screen time and that’s the problem. NORTH COUNTRY is worth a watch, but don’t expect it to be as amazing as it could have been.

Grade: B-

CHANGING LANES (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language

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Directed by: Roger Michell

Written by: Chap Taylor, Michael Tolkin

Starring: Ben Affleck, Samuel L. Jackson, Toni Collette, Sydney Pollack, Richard Jenkins, William Hurt, Amanda Peet, Dylan Baker

Is it really so strange to think that a simple road rage can escalate into something even more dangerous? There have been plenty of six o’clock news stories that began with road rage and ended with someone being either injured or killed in the street. CHANGING LANES is a thriller revolving around two very different men whose lives literally collide on the highway and the rapid downward spirals they both take. Featuring a big name case (even at the time) and clearly made with a substantial budget, the film was a box office success and praised among critics. Now that over a decade has passed, it seems like it’s been forgotten in the annals of cinematic history. Although I wouldn’t say it’s a great movie, as it does have some big flaws, it is a decent enough and (at times) unconventional thriller.

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Gavin is a cutthroat successful lawyer. Doyle is a recovering alcoholic. Both men are headed to the courthouse for entirely different reasons. Gavin has to get some files there in order to avoid being sued and Doyle has a hearing for joint custody of his children. After an accident leaves Doyle’s car totaled, Gavin writes a blank check and drives off without even giving the poor guy a ride to the same building he was already going to. Quickly discovering that he left an important file on the side of the road with Doyle, Gavin tries to get the document back. This is difficult, because Doyle is intent on teaching this hotshot lawyer a lesson in ethics. Ironically, this results in a dangerous feud between both men doing horrible things to make the other’s life as miserable as possible.

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CHANGING LANES is remarkable in its buildup to the actual collision itself. The viewer is introduced to both Gavin (Ben Affleck) and Doyle (Samuel L. Jackson). Affleck is usually hollow, but every once in a great while, he puts in a decent performance. Gavin is one of these cases. Samuel L. Jackson is the real standout of the entire film. I felt for the character of Doyle. The sheer amount of frustration he was experienced permeated through the screen and into my own emotions. Needless to say, I was on Doyle’s side the whole way, but other viewers may feel differently. This may be thrown into the same type of character battle as HARD CANDY, meaning that viewer’s may be manipulated into switching sides on more than once. In this respect, an interesting conversation among fellow film buffs might be why you were rooting for who at what point in the film.

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There are plenty of familiar faces in the supporting characters as well. While Toni Collette (THE WAY WAY BACK), Richard Jenkins (KILLING THEM SOFTLY), and Dylan Baker (TRICK ‘R TREAT) show up through Affleck’s storyline, the only real memorable side-character of note in Jackson’s life is his sponsor played by William Hurt (MR. BROOKS). Hurt also delivers the best piece of dialogue in the entire film. You’ll know it when you see it. However, there is one character whose appearance is damn near pointless and that’s Gavin’s seemingly emotionless wife played by Amanda Peet. This actress can range from good to terrible, depending on which movie you’re watching her in. She’s just plain wooden in CHANGING LANES. Some might argue that’s the point of her character, but I feel the purpose she appeared in two scenes for would have been more impactful, if she had more of an emotional range.

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The premise of CHANGING LANES is a great one and could make for a fantastic movie. This is the case for the first hour, then things steadily begin to strain credibility and go over-the-top. The running time is much longer than it should have been. As stated before, the plot is gripping for the first hour and then it significantly overstays its welcome. Just when the film should be at the highest peak of intensity, it decides to wax on about philosophy and how thin the line that separates ethics from chaos is. If the film had saved maybe one intense dialogue for the ending or used the significant one that William Hurt goes on about, that would have been more than enough. Instead, the message is as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face.

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CHANGING LANES begins with a bang and concludes with a whimper. To make matters worse, the ending is tied with a little bow on top that felt out-of-place in the story that had been taking place for the past 90 minutes. Samuel L. Jackson is great as a character unlike many others he’s played. Affleck is better in this film than all of the roles that have earned him the rotten reputation he has among the general public. The real problems come from the overlong running time and the not-so-subtle repeated moral of the story. CHANGING LANES would have been great as a tighter film that stayed true to the tone of the first hour. Instead, it’s a decent watch, but it’s not one that I’ll be adding to my collection. Worth a rental.

Grade: B-

BURN AFTER READING (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Language, Some Sexual Content and Violence

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Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Starring: John Malkovich, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons

The Coen brothers have a unique filmography to say the least. Mostly covering dark thrillers and quirky comedy, they have never made what many would consider a normal movie. This is a total blessing. BURN AFTER READING came at a bit of a bad time for them. They were fresh off the heels of the Best Picture winner NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and this was the next film…a dark comedy that really has no real plot to speak of. In fact, this is more of a series of connected events than an actual story and they received a lot of flack for this. This was a bit unfair to the movie itself, seeing as everyone was comparing it to the best of the siblings’ work. BURN AFTER READING is hysterical in most respects, even if it leaves something to be desired.

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Osbourne Cox is an alcoholic former CIA agent with an explosive temper. Katie Cox is his demanding unfaithful wife. Harry Pfaffer is a former body-guard and Katie’s secret lover, despite being a married man enjoying getting a run whenever he can. Linda Litzke is a woman obsessed with bettering herself through plastic surgery while also working at the gym, where the fitness crazy Chad Feldheimer also works. While there are slight circumstances that connect all of these people, their lives are about to collide in horribly hilarious and darkly violent ways that may lead to the untimely deaths of a few of them and other awful fates for the others.

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I don’t exactly want to reveal anything further about the plot, because the less you know, the more you’ll enjoy this movie. It’s a comedy of errors on an epic scale. This is much like the same kind of oddball comedy that the Coen Brothers previously dished out in RAISING ARIZONA and THE BIG LEBOWSKI, although this time the stakes are more grisly and violent. The colorful cast of characters make for a massively entertaining experience. Much like THE BIG LEBOWSKI offered an excuse for Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and John Turturro to act like immature lunatics, BURN AFTER READING brings in a class of serious performers (including George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, and the always kooky John Malkovich) to act like insane people. It’s a blast to watch

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The non-existent narrative, despite working wonders, also gives off some sense that the film is wandering without a sense of purpose or even a coherent storyline. The running time feels a bit too long in the tooth for a “plot” of this structure or lack thereof. It’s an oddball quirky dark comedy that fulfills its requirement of making the viewer laugh a lot, but also leaves something to be desired. This is the equivalent of the Coen brothers bringing the closest thing we’ll get to popcorn-crunching entertainment from them.

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It feels like it’s missing something integral to making it an A-grade movie, but it seems like the narrative itself may be the cause of this problem. The rushed climax also may not suit everybody’s taste, but I found the final scene to be the funniest moment in the entire film. In the end, it’s a weird slice of entertainment delivered by the esteemed Coen brothers. That’s worth far more than many modern so-called comedies…

Grade: B+

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