BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 44 minutes

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

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Written by: Hampton Fancher & Michael Green

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Dave Bautista & Jared Leto

In 1982, Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER bombed at the box office and polarized critics. Throughout the following years/decades, the film drew greater appreciation, gained a strong cult following, and is now widely considered to be one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. If anyone were to helm a sequel, they would certainly have their work cut out for them and would need to be among the top tier of modern filmmakers. Thank God that long-awaited sequel BLADE RUNNER 2049 (released 35 years after its predecessor) has master director Denis Villeneuve (ARRIVAL, SICARIO, and PRISONERS) as its guiding source. To put it bluntly, BLADE RUNNER 2049 is one of the best sequels to ever hit the silver screen.

Set thirty years after the events of the previous film, 2049 follows blade runner K (Ryan Gosling) as he goes about his daily job of “retiring” (code for killing) older replicants (bioengineered robots). When he’s not at work, K spends his free time with his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas). However, K’s depressingly simple existence is about to get a lot more complicated as his latest job unearths evidence that a replicant child has been born. This was thought to be impossible and seems like an “abomination” of nature, so K is instructed to “retire” the replicant child and uncovers a deeper mystery that takes him to dangerous places, puts him in the sights of the evil Wallace Corporation, and brings back a blast from the past.

BLADE RUNNER 2049’s marketing is deceptive in that it paints this film as an action-packed sequel that has Harrison Ford playing sidekick for a majority of the screen time and sees Jared Leto as the main villain. However, the film is far more subtle than that and has occasional spurts of action…very much in the same vein of the 1982 sci-fi noir. It’s also worth noting that Jared Leto only has about 2-3 scenes and yet makes the most of every second that he’s on screen. The real threat comes from Sylvia Hoeks’s psycho replicant Luv. She’s scary as hell. Also, Harrison Ford’s Deckard doesn’t pop up until the film is over halfway over, but his presence is a strong point in the film’s complicated, super bleak plot.

Ryan Gosling is a fantastic leading man in the role of protagonist K. This blade runner is very much a replicant (while Deckard’s identity was merely an ambiguous idea at the end of the original) and struggles with his “soulless” existence. Gosling’s K is a depressed robot-killer who undergoes a transformation over the course of the film’s storyline, in a similar way to Harrison Ford’s Deckard in the first film. However, BLADE RUNNER 2049 differs in many respects and takes place during a whole new chapter of this neon-lit, robot-inhabited future.

One of the more twisted elements of this future setting is embodied by K’s holographic girlfriend Joi, played the gorgeous and extremely talented Ana de Armas. Even though she’s a literal two-dimensional character, Armas is fully fleshed out as Joi and is (pardon the pun) a joy to watch on the screen. The romantic chemistry between a robot detective and his holographic girlfriend is one of the most fascinating, emotional, and surprisingly believable things that I’ve seen on the big screen all year. Gosling and Armas have palpable on-screen chemistry and they share tons of scenes together throughout the running time. There’s also suspense built as we pray that nothing will tear their bond apart.

BLADE RUNNER 2049’s storyline is intelligently told in a deliberately paced manner that feeds the viewer small chunks of information and turns their eyes towards strange clues, but doesn’t ever talk down to them by spoon-feeding massive details in a giant exposition dump. Instead, conversations between characters feel entirely natural and director Denis Villeneuve shows us lots of things rather than simply telling us. Some of the BLADE RUNNER 2049’s most powerful scenes don’t have a bit of spoken dialogue and that’s something truly special to behold. It’s also worth noting that Hans Zimmerman’s score is fantastic and noticeably seems to have a bit of Nine Inch Nails influence thrown into it.

2049’s spectacle is impressive as hell. The blending of computer generated imagery with heavily detailed sets is seamless. I couldn’t tell where one began and the other ended. The neon-lit, orange-dusted, and watery-colored locations all built their own atmospheres (from eerily creepy to just plain cool). The 2049 future was the most creative and believable cinematic setting that I’ve witnessed since MAD MAX: FURY ROAD‘s apocalyptic world. It felt like I was whisked away to another place while I was watching BLADE RUNNER 2049 and when I finally exited the theater, nearly three hours had flown by without my knowledge of them passing. You lose yourself in this film’s spectacular visuals and engrossing plot; and those are two of cinema’s most beautiful qualities.

With fantastic performances (from old cast members and new), smart storytelling, amazing visuals and effects, and a purely cinematic vision, BLADE RUNNER 2049 is easily one of the best sequels to ever hit the silver screen. This follow-up brilliantly connects to the classic predecessor, while also serving as its own original story. I can’t think of a single complaint that I had with this science-fiction noir. I cannot wait until I am able to watch the double feature of BLADE RUNNER and BLADE RUNNER 2049, because these films fit together like two pieces of a giant movie puzzle. BLADE RUNNER 2049 is easily one of the best films of 2017, one of the best sequels ever made, and one of my favorite science-fiction films in years!

Grade: A+

WONDER WOMAN (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Violence and Action, and some Suggestive Content

Directed by: Patty Jenkins

Written by: Allan Heinberg

(based on the WONDER WOMAN comics by William Moulton Marston)

Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya & Lucy Davis

A WONDER WOMAN movie has been in the works since the mid-90s and this superheroine has finally received her own film in the DC Extended Universe’s fourth installment. To this point, the DC Universe has been mixed in its output. MAN OF STEEL was okay (though heavily flawed), BATMAN v SUPERMAN was a disappointment (with more negatives than positives), and SUICIDE SQUAD was dumb fun. WONDER WOMAN marks the highest point in the DCEU so far! DC’s competition isn’t exactly fierce, but this blockbuster should be celebrated for being one of the best comic book movies in recent years. I’m positive that this film and LOGAN will go down as the two best superhero films of 2017!

On the mystical island of Themyscira, Diana (Gal Gadot) and her fellow Amazonians were created by Zeus to protect the humans from fabled god of war Ares. When WWI pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands in the ocean near Diana’s uncharted home, it becomes clear that a potentially endless war is raging and Diana becomes convinced that Ares is behind it. The determined Diana sets out on a quest to slay Ares and free mankind from his corrupt influence. This adventure takes her across the battlefields of WWI and behind enemy German lines. Of course, things aren’t as simple as they initially seem though.

Gal Gadot was easily one of the biggest highlights of last year’s lackluster BATMAN v SUPERMAN and she comes back in full-force as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. Because this film plays out like the main origin story of Wonder Woman, we watch a more naïve version of the character discover the pleasures and tragedies of the human world. Gadot completely sells the viewer on her self-assured, but very innocent heroine. Her fish-out-of-water reaction to the concepts of fashion, the treatment of women in the early 1900s, and (even) the frozen dessert of ice cream all provoke humor and understanding from the viewer. Gadot also kills more emotional moments of realizing just how messed up the humans inhabiting the world can be.

On the sidelines, Chris Pine has the pleasure of taking the role-reversal of Wonder Woman’s guy-in-distress. This isn’t done in an over-the-top manner, but rather in a subtle way. Pine gets lots of the laughs, but also provides a caring friend/loving companion for Diana. His scenes with Gadot’s Wonder Woman later in the film provide some big emotional pay-offs. Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen make strong impressions in the film’s opening 20 minutes as Diana’s watchful protectors. Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Brenner, and Eugene Brave Rock are enjoyable as Pine’s soldier friends. David Thewlis is great in his side role and Lucy Davis is amusing as Steve’s comic relief secretary.

This story doesn’t have a lot of focus when it comes to its villains, because the main antagonist of this movie is war itself. It’s an odd approach that works phenomenally well. That being said, Danny Huston is good in the role of snarling General Enrich Ludendorff (based on an actual historical figure) and Elena Anaya is creepy as deadly chemist Doctor Poison. This villainous pair share a handful of scenes together before ultimately engaging in the main confrontation between Wonder Woman and Steve. Even though they aren’t developed extraordinarily well, they serve as capable human baddies.

As far as spectacle goes, WONDER WOMAN is perfect. The action scenes are exciting, the effects are great, and the settings are highly detailed. Some viewers may wind up thinking that slow motion is overused, but these bits echoed the original MATRIX (in a positive way). The action isn’t constant from beginning to end either, because WONDER WOMAN devotes time to developing characters and naturally laying out stakes. This careful storytelling results in action sequences that are much more adrenaline-pumping, because there’s depth behind them. I particularly love the final stand-off for many reasons (all of which I can’t give away because they’d be spoiling big surprises).

My only complaint with WONDER WOMAN comes in an unnecessary prologue and epilogue. These bits make up about of five minutes of screen time, but seemed tacked on to remind the viewer that a JUSTICE LEAGUE movie will be hitting theaters in November. These forced book-ends weren’t horrible or particularly bland, but they didn’t add anything to the proceedings. Their inclusion was the equivalent of having an end-credits scene start and end the main movie.

To say that WONDER WOMAN is DCEU’s best film thus far doesn’t seem like enough of a compliment, because it’s easily one of the best superhero films to arrive in the past five years. Director Patty Jenkins, screenwriter Allan Heinberg, and actress Gal Gadot have crafted a special kind of superhero film that extends beyond familiar conventions and functions as a deeper emotional story. This is a historical war film with a superhero in it (but it’s much better than Marvel’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER) and strays from the norm. At the risk of sounding clichéd and corny, I’m going to say that WONDER WOMAN is a wonderful cinematic experience. If you like comic book films or superhero entertainment, this is a must-see!

Grade: A

EVEREST (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Peril and Disturbing Images

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Directed by: Baltasar Kormakur

Written by: William Nicholson & Simon Beaufoy

Starring: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Sam Worthington, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson & Thomas Wright

Having not read the book INTO THIN AIR (which many of my friends have endlessly recommended to me), I walked into EVEREST knowing next to nothing about the true events that inspired this film. I was sold strictly on the premise, cast, and marketing. This looked like an intense, beautifully shot, and emotional disaster flick. For the most part, it is. Though the sizeable cast and lengthy running time become detrimental to the storytelling, EVEREST serves as a thrilling “based on a true story” film in which a group of adventurers hike up the world’s tallest mountain and find themselves woefully unprepared for the danger that awaits them.

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The time is 1996 and various hiking organizations have set up camps at the base of Mount Everest. These groups (springing from New Zealand, America, South Africa, etc.) have taken it upon themselves to line the slopes of the world’s tallest mountain with various ropes and ladders. The purpose of this being that even mere novices could reach the summit of Mount Everest with a professional guide’s help. This year, New Zealander Rob Hall of Adventure Consultants has a rather large group of hikers and so does American Scott Fischer of Mountain Madness. Due to the sheer size of their teams and a potentially hazardous waiting time, the two men decide to combine their groups for an expedition to the summit of Everest. Unfortunately, nobody expects two vicious storms that arrive just as the group is turning around from the summit. This force of nature will cost some hikers their lives and inspire others to rise above overwhelming odds of certain death…

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Though pieces of the film were shot on location at the actual Everest base camp, most of the Mount Everest imagery is actually made up of the Otztal Alps in Italy. I’ll be damned if they’re not a convincing substitute. To be completely honest, the main reason you should see EVEREST is for the visuals alone. This film feels and looks huge. You get the sense that these characters are venturing into a place where Mother Nature has the ultimate upper hand. The cinematography, locations and sets all had me convinced that what I was seeing was real, if only for the two hours I sat in the theater. Speaking of which, the main way to experience this movie is on the big screen. For the sheer scope of the film, you will want to see it in a huge theater. I imagine that it won’t play nearly as well on home video or cable.

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As impressive as the visuals are and as harrowing as the film feels, EVEREST does encounter problems in both pacing and characters. We don’t simply start the film with the hikers venturing up Mount Everest, but get a long introduction of them trying to climatize to the environment because one does not simply climb Everest. This build-up portion of the film runs arguably a bit too long. That can be said for various other parts of the movie as well, even once the disaster is in full force. Rest assured, there are intense moments and I’m sure that the movie might hit the emotions harder of someone who has read INTO THIN AIR, but I felt the film noticeably dragged in spots.

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As far as characters go, there are a lot of them and EVEREST tries to juggle all of them equally. More time is definitely spent on Rob Hall (a well-cast Jason Clarke), Scott Fischer (the always solid Jake Gyllenhaal), Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin delivering the best performance of the film) and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes in a memorable part). Little pieces are shined on other characters such as two guides who don’t get along, Hall’s pregnant wife, the frantic crew at base camp watching helplessly as the storm gets worse and a Japanese woman who has scaled seven summits. The film simply tries to cram too many people into one movie. As a result, aside from the four main guys we follow, it feels like other characters exist simply to die or to help the main characters survive as best they can.

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EVEREST is based on a real life expedition and that story is fascinating for those who take the time to read it (whether it be in a book or simply on a Wikipedia page). As a film, there are problems in both the pacing and characters. It feels like the filmmakers tried to cram too much within the space of two hours, but also didn’t know how to keep the pace from dragging at points (this feels like two-and-a-half hours as opposed to two). There are emotional moments and I don’t regret watching this movie in the slightest, but the film can’t fully overcome its pacing and so-so characters. EVEREST is a good movie, but I’d recommend seeing it on the big screen or not seeing it at all.

Grade: B

THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

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Directed by: Rob Reiner

Written by: William Goldman

(based on the novel THE PRINCESS BRIDE by William Goldman)

Starring: Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Chris Sarandon, Mandy Patinkin, Christopher Guest, Andre the Giant, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, Peter Falk & Fred Savage

In the realm of cult movies, THE PRINCESS BRIDE is probably one of the most well-known and highly regarded. In the realm of fairy tales, the film is probably the most meta and comedic out there. PRINCESS BRIDE is a story that should please pretty much everyone in the audience. Though some younger male viewers might be scared off by the feminine sounding title, they’ll find plenty of adventure and laughs to be had. Adults expecting heartfelt romance will also find a love story far more fleshed out than early Disney Princess flicks. With a sense of humor and clever attitude, PRINCESS BRIDE may not be a masterpiece (I’ll discuss my minor gripe with the film later on)…but it’s close to perfection nonetheless.

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A grandfather reads a book to his sick grandson. Thus we’re given an excuse for an old man narrating our actual plot/fairy tale. The main story follows Buttercup and Westley. The two fall head-over-heels in love with each other on a countryside farm, but Westley doesn’t exactly have the funds for marriage…so he travels out to sea to make a fortune and winds up presumed dead. Years later, Buttercup has gone from poor peasant girl to Prince Humperdinck’s fiancé. It’s a loveless union, because part of her died the day that Westley was killed. When Buttercup is kidnapped by a trio of criminals (a sword-wielding Spaniard, a fearsome giant, and a spit-filled strategist), a masked man comes to her rescue. Three guesses who the masked man is and true love is rekindled…though it faces opposition from the evil Humperdinck, his six-fingered torture-happy assistant, and rodents of unusual size.

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The colorful characters populating THE PRINCESS BRIDE turn what might have been a typical fairy tale into something unique. Supposedly villainous characters are fleshed out into people worth rooting for and our romantic leads are complex in their own ways (while also deeply in love with each other). These qualities make for a fantasy-romance unlike any that you’ve ever seen before. A narrative that jumps through multiple characters doesn’t necessarily become distracting in the fairy tale setting because they’re all so entertaining to watch. Each of their arcs (my personal favorite is the Spaniard’s quest for revenge against a six-fingered man) is interesting for a different reason. However, I find the structuring story to be a tad forced. I’m not talking about anything involving the fairy tale or the romance, but rather the grandfather reading to his grandson. The movie doesn’t just start and end with these segments, but keeps cutting back to them for comedic effect…and that doesn’t necessarily work well. Instead, it distracts from the main story at hand: the comedic fairy-tale romance. The segments interrupting the fairy tale don’t detract too much from the film overall, but remain annoying. I sort of wish that a fairy tale character were narrating the story as opposed to a grandfather reading to his grandson.

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The biggest strength of THE PRINCESS BRIDE is definitely its sense of humor. This movie never takes itself too seriously. There are laughs to be had practically ever minute. This is not mention that the dialogue is endlessly quotable. The comedic timing and meta-sensibilities come across in lines from the characters. These could be from a giant recognizing that throwing a rock at his opponent’s head isn’t very sportsmanlike or a wizard coating his miracle pills in chocolate to make them go down easier. These little touches create big laughs. The film is a self-aware fairy tale, but done in a way that isn’t lampooning the material…but rather celebrating it with uniquely comedic sensibilities.

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THE PRINCESS BRIDE is a movie that I really can’t imagine anyone hating. This is a crowd-pleasing, endlessly quotable, and laugh-filled fairy tale romance packed with adventure. The characters are all memorable as are some of the biggest laughs that the movie has to offer (the introduction to the Pit of Despair gets me every time). Well-constructed and entertaining beyond belief, even if it slightly suffers from narrative flaws, THE PRINCESS BRIDE is essential viewing.

Grade: A-

A MOST WANTED MAN (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: R for Language

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Directed by: Anton Corbijn

Written by: Andrew Bovell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

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