THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language throughout

Directed by: Patrick Hughes

Written by: Tom O’Connor

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Elodie Young, Salma Hayek & Yuri Kolokolnikov

The trailers for THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD promised three things: Samuel L. Jackson, Ryan Reynolds, and explosions. I like Samuel L. Jackson. I like Ryan Reynolds. I also enjoy explosions. Lucky for me, THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD pretty much delivers on its promises of lots of bickering between Jackson and Reynolds, set alongside occasionally rousing action. THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD is tepidly enjoyable. I wish the overall film was more entertaining and funny, but it’s okay enough for what it is.

Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) was a top-tier bodyguard until one of his targets was horribly assassinated. Ever since that tragic event, Michael has been regulated to bottom-of-the-barrel bodyguard status. Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) is a hitman who’s killed well over 200 people and enjoys his violent line of work. Darius is also the only person who can put brutal Belarusian dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman) behind bars. Darius needs to be at a Netherlands courtroom by a certain time or the international case against Vladislav will be thrown out. A reluctantly bitter Michael is dragged into protecting Darius’ life. Together, the mismatched pair dodge bullets, get chased by cars, and scream profanity at each other. If the bad guys don’t kill them, they might just wind up killing each other…or become oddball friends. You already know how these buddy action comedies tend to work.

HITMAN’S BODYGUARD’s best quality is the chemistry between Reynolds and Jackson. Both of these actors are great at generating laughs and seeing them paired together is pretty damn enjoyable by itself. Ryan Reynolds mostly serves as the straight man and his frequent agitation at the increasingly dire situation is amusing. Samuel L. Jackson spews his expectedly excessive profanity (including a constant use of “motherfucker”). Jackson also seems to be having a complete blast at this deadly, ultra-sarcastic hitman. The film even manages to milk some good character development between Reynolds and Jackson as their reluctant friendship evolves.

On the negative side of things, THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD is noticeably unbalanced in its tone. Gary Oldman plays a stone-cold dictator and his introductory moment includes the brutal execution of a man’s family. In an action-comedy, this entire scene feels too bleak. The film frequently cuts to this main villain being a genocidal dictator who is accused of “ethnic cleansing.” We see photos of mass graves and this all seems mighty depressing for what’s mostly trying to be a light-hearted action comedy. Oldman’s performance is straight-faced and serious too, which certainly seems to throw a wrench into the fun factor. The script’s darker spots drastically put a damper on some of the potential enjoyment to be had.

Besides a tone that seemingly doesn’t know what it wants to be, this film also runs a tad too long in the tooth. HITMAN’S BODYGUARD is just barely under two hours long and it feels like 25 minutes could have easily been shaved off this entire experience for a tighter running time. There’s a love-interest plot between Ryan Reynolds’ character and Elodie Young’s bland Interpol agent that feels tacked on, but Penelope Cruz gets a couple of decent scenes in as Kincaid’s equally violent wife.

HITMAN’S BODYGUARD ranges in its action sequences. A few potentially exciting spots are compromised by choppy editing and shaky camera work. This mainly arrives during the opening 30 minutes and one car chase. Not every action scene is ruined by bad editing though, because there are a handful of cool bits. An early confrontation between Jackson and Reynolds is equally funny and tense as they go at it with fists and guns. There’s also a moment where Reynolds deals with a thug in a hardware store and this very violent (but oddly goofy) sequence ranks as the best fight in the entire film.

THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD is generic in terms of its plot and the tone seems to awkwardly shift between exciting/funny to needlessly dark/depressing. However, there’s still entertainment to be had in watching Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson play off each other in swear-filled verbal sparring matches. The action also squeezes in some cool sequences. If you’re sold on the idea of Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson in a buddy action-comedy, then you’ll likely have some fun with THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD. If that idea doesn’t interest you at all, then you’re not missing out on much.

Grade: C+

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

SMOKIN’ ACES (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence, Pervasive Language, some Nudity and Drug Use

Directed by: Joe Carnahan

Written by: Joe Carnahan

Starring: Jeremy Piven, Ryan Reynolds, Martin Henderson, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, Tommy Flanagan, Alicia Keys, Common, Taraji P. Henson, Nestor Carbonell, Chris Pine, Kevin Durand, Maury Sterling, Jason Bateman, Ben Affleck, Vladimir Kulich, Peter Berg, Joel Edgerton & Matthew Fox

Playing out like a Tarantino imitation that’s just snorted a heavy dose of cocaine, SMOKIN’ ACES is not a traditionally good movie. It’s ludicrous, over-the-top, and pushes excess for the sake of excess. However, it’s a whole lot of fun. This is a big guilty pleasure of mine that doesn’t deserve the bad rep that it usually receives. I’d go as far as calling this high-octane action-comedy-thriller an underrated gem. Its flaws actually make for part of its charm. This was one of my favorite films in high school (so there’s definitely nostalgia here), but having recently rewatched it for the first time in years, I have to say that SMOKIN’ ACES is a gory good time that consists of bullets, blood and rock-and-roll.

FBI Agents Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Carruthers (Ray Liotta) have been placed on a special extraction mission. Their team is close to cracking open one of the biggest mob busts in history and their entire case hinges on the testimony of Las Vegas performer-turned-snitch Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven). Not wanting to be exposed, the mafia has put out a 1-million-dollar price for Israel’s heart. This ginormous paycheck attracts various undesirables, including: three psychopath neo-Nazi brothers, two lesbian sharpshooters, three smart-aleck bounty hunters, and a couple of very scary killers. The casino hotel that Israel is holed up in soon becomes a bloody battleground between FBI agents and security guards against a slew of psychos who want Israel’s heart (literally).

SMOKIN’ ACES immediately lets us know that it values style over substance with a 1970s-esque credits sequence and title cards to introduce every character. These many introductions take up the first ten minutes of screen time, but are executed in a way that makes every scene naturally flow together. Much like CLOUD ATLAS cut between storylines in a flawless manner, SMOKIN’ ACES carefully balances the many plot threads that it’s juggling throughout (for a majority of the running time). This film employs flashbacks, quick cuts and different scenes of dialogue that deliberately bleed into each other (like one steady conversation between different characters in different locations). Even when the exposition-heavy introductions occasionally seem like a bit much, Joe Carnahan knows how to hold the viewer’s interest.

ACES’s characters include a colorful band of criminals, psychopaths, and scumbags (with a couple of heroic FBI agents thrown in for good measure). Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta do well in their roles as the film’s only two good guys, but the only development they’re given comes from a debriefing and a so-so bit of comic relief near the opening. Andy Garcia seems to be forcing a mind-bogglingly bad Southern accent and winds up with the film’s worst performance as a result. However, the totally irredeemable characters are where this movie shines strongest. Jeremy Piven is in rare form as cokehead, small-time crook Aces and even has a bit of an emotional story arc when he realizes how far he’s fallen. This might not be as effective as it should have been, but it’s a refreshing bit of levity to the bloody chaos ensuing in the hotel’s hallways and elevators.

Speaking of which, SMOKIN’ ACES is super violent! Machetes, chainsaws, grenade launches, creative means of dispatching someone, gruesome torture, and boxes of bullets (for many different types of guns) make their way into the proceedings. This film is ferocious in its action scenes and unabashedly depraved in its wicked sense of humor, but this makes it a blast for viewers that enjoy films like CRANK, SHOOT ‘EM UP or Quentin Tarantino’s entire career. These weapons are wielded by merry miscreants, my favorite of whom are the Tremor brothers (one of which is played by a young Chris Pine). This trio of redneck neo-Nazis aren’t subtle in any way, shape or form. They go into a place blasting and have the film’s most memorable action scene, while also delivering the most darkly hilarious moments in the entire movie.

The relationship between hired killers Sharice (Taraji P. Henson) and Georgia (Alicia Keys) is surprisingly strong, though this occasionally feels like it exists purely for the exploitation factor of having sexy gun-toting lesbians. Common has a brief role that makes for an unexpectedly tense moment, while Joel Edgerton has a silent (but memorable) part in the proceedings. Ben Affleck, Peter Berg, and Jason Bateman are sadly underused as two of the bounty hunters and a deeply depressed lawyer. The film’s biggest problems come from the storyline of Martin Henderson’s reluctant sidekick to Affleck’s bondsman. It’s not that Henderson’s acting is terrible, but most of his scenes feel drastically out-of-place. The worst of these include unfunny bits with a karate-loving preteen wangster. That all being said, this subplot’s grisly punchline is satisfying beyond belief.

SMOKIN’ ACES crams a ton of storylines into one movie and balances them surprisingly well for almost 90 minutes, but a few of these don’t receive satisfying pay-offs in the long run. The biggest examples being an intense killer known as The Plague’s anti-climactic final moment and a face-swapping baddie not receiving a great send-off. The final 20 minutes are meant to arrive as a giant shock to the viewer with two inspired plot twists. One of these is clever and the other is…well…kinda stupid. The film lays down heavy foreshadowing early on as to what the stupid twist might be and I correctly guessed it upon my first viewing. This dumb plot twist and mixed bag conclusion feel like a weak sigh to an otherwise hilarious, raunchy, and chaotic ride.

As a whole, SMOKIN’ ACES is a very entertaining action flick with spurts of insanity, plenty of humor, a cast of colorful characters, and constant fun for viewers who enjoy this sort of thing. The film isn’t perfect in that its final minutes are easily the weakest part of the entire story, there’s a noticeably terrible performance from Andy Garcia, and one subplot feels a little too “out there.” However, I truly enjoy SMOKIN’ ACES for the unabashedly silly action flick that it is. If this sounds like your kind of movie, then it probably is!

Grade: B+

The Top 15 Movies I Reviewed in 2016

List by Derrick Carter

2016 has been a crazy year both on film and in real life. I’ve reviewed just under 200 movies in the course of the last twelve months and for the most part, have fared pretty well in catching cool new flicks as well as crossing many revered classics off my cinephile “shame list.” As a result, my focus in 2016 wasn’t necessarily on catching every new film that graced the big screen and I instead went off whatever the hell I felt like watching/reviewing. Though I didn’t get as many reviews up during 2016 as I have in previous years (for a myriad of reasons), I do feel that For the Love of Celluloid sort of matured over the past twelve months and deeply appreciate the support of anyone who bothers to read my little movie blog.

Apologies if I briefly bore you with a technicality, but my year-end lists will now focus on first time watches in the course of the year and not specifically releases from the year. Without further ado, here are my fifteen favorite first time watches from 2016…

Honorable Mentions: If I hadn’t previously seen RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, THE SHINING, and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE before 2016, then they all would have easily made this list. ANTHROPOID, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, ZOOTOPIA, SAUSAGE PARTY, THE NICE GUYS, THE HANDMAIDEN and TRAIN TO BUSAN were all stand-out movies in this rather mixed bag cinematic year. SPIRITED AWAY, UNITED 93, and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY also barely scraped by in missing this list. So, what did make the list?…

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15. LADY SNOWBLOOD: Before getting into how much I love this movie, this film deserves some context. A local cinema pub runs monthly Kung Fu Movie Nights here and a buddy of mine occasionally drags me to them. I’m not a big martial arts aficionado and most of the movies I’ve seen at this pub have been entertaining and undeniably stupid. However, LADY SNOWBLOOD blew me out of the water. This was more than just a martial arts flick being shown in a cinema pub, but rather a beautiful, bloody revenge tale that carefully unwound its plot and sold its bad-ass heroine as someone to root for as she sliced and diced her way to vengeance. Featuring geysers of blood, gorgeous visuals, and a calculated delivery of fun, LADY SNOWBLOOD may likely go down as my favorite martial arts flick of all-time!

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14. THE INVITATION: Easily the best horror film that I saw this year, THE INVITATION is brilliant in planting the viewer on the edge of their seat for 100 minutes. The premise is simple. A man goes to a suspiciously casual dinner party held by his ex-wife. Through the course of seemingly mundane actions and a possibly paranoid protagonist, we are taken on a tense ride of two terrifying possibilities. This film does a fantastic job of keeping the viewer flip-flopping on their stance and trying to figure out the dark mystery behind the plot, which fully unleashes itself in a truly frightening third act. Don’t watch the trailer. Don’t read any long plot synopsis. If you want to be scared and appreciate a classy Hitchcockian sense of unease, then definitely go into this film as blind as possible!

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13. DREDD: When DREDD came out in 2012, I quickly wrote it off as a RAID rip-off in spite of the comic book source material. Having finally watched the film four years later, I realize just how wrong I was. Though it may resemble THE RAID on the surface, DREDD could not be any more different. This ultraviolent, highly entertaining and fully loaded sci-fi action extravaganza had me laughing and cheering from start to finish. The film doesn’t present its action in a gritty, heavily edited, shaky-cam style as attention to detail and beautiful lenses have been used to portray the gory chaos. I really hope that DREDD 2 eventually becomes a reality, because this needs to be a franchise!

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12. DOCTOR STRANGE: The Marvel Cinematic Universe has now been running for nine years and fourteen films. Though none of its installments have failed to entertain me (some far more than others), I wouldn’t call any of them perfect entertainment…until now. Telling the most inventive origin story thus far in the Marvel universe and simultaneously functioning as a mystical adventure, DOCTOR STRANGE is easily the best MCU movie yet! The acting is stellar, making the main character’s transformation from selfish jerk to courageous hero all the better as a result. The effects are mindblowing (not to sound cliché) and deliver some of the most memorable sequences to hit the big screen in quite some time. It’s like a magical acid trip had a baby with a superhero movie and I loved every second of it!

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11. THE BREAKFAST CLUB: Yes, I know. I hadn’t seen this movie before and was only pressured into watching it by a co-worker who kept bugging me about it. After finally caving in, I discovered why this John Hughes classic has so many fans and is widely considered to be one of the best films to come out of the 80’s. Revolving around five fleshed-out characters and skewing teenage clique stereotypes (that still exist to this day), THE BREAKFAST CLUB is equally funny as it is insightful. The film is a perfect balance of comedy and drama, resulting in an emotionally involving and beautiful story about how people are alike in spite of their differences. Maybe, in a world that’s so divided by differences and labels, we should all just kick back, watch this movie and remember that we can get along. I’ll never forget about this movie. Get it? That’s a reference to the song that plays during the end credits. Whatever, let’s move on…

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10. THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY: Yes, I know this is technically a miniseries, but you know what? This is my list and I don’t care. THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON is better than damn near every true-crime film I’ve seen in my lifetime. Featuring a bevy of great acting talent and more than guaranteed to push a few buttons on every viewer, this 10-part miniseries stays true to the facts and relives the “trial of the century” in painstaking detail. I was addicted to this show when it aired earlier this year and have since binge-watched it as a complete cinematic experience. When paired with ESPN’s excellent five-part documentary O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA, there isn’t much left to be examined about the O.J. Simpson case. If you are the least bit intrigued by true crime, then PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON is a must-see!

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9. DEADPOOL: Though this year had more than its fair share of disappointing superhero flicks, 2016 still managed to deliver two spectacular comic book movies. I loved DOCTOR STRANGE, but DEADPOOL might just be one of my favorite superhero movies of all-time (next to the DARK KNIGHT trilogy). This rowdy X-MEN spinoff did everything in its power to be entertaining as hell and milked the R rating for everything it was worth. Because of DEADPOOL’s massive success as an R-rated money-maker, I truly hope that more studios will realize older audiences will pay to see great R-rated movies on the big screen too. Not everything needs to be accessible to younger viewers and every demographic, DEADPOOL was refreshingly bonkers and the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater since MAD MAX: FURY ROAD!

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8. ON THE WATERFRONT: Another title that I crossed off my shame list this year, ON THE WATERFRONT never seemed that appealing to me. Sure, I had seen Marlon Brando’s contender speech out of context and heard the basic premise, but none of it sounded particularly special. This movie isn’t about a corrupt union and poorly-treated dock workers though, instead it’s a story about broken souls and a long walk to redemption. Marlon Brando’s performance is breathtaking as he disappears into the role of a tough guy with a soft heart. This film progresses naturally and doesn’t cheat out on its dangerous stakes, resulting in some very tense moments. The final minutes are unbelievably emotional as a simple dockside walk becomes a test of willpower and ultimately sums up the entire film. ON THE WATERFRONT is an emotional, brilliantly acted, and spectacularly written piece of art that deeply moved me!

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7. ANIMAL HOUSE: Here’s another movie I crossed off my shame list during 2016. I had never seen ANIMAL HOUSE before, though I was well aware of its reputation. No hyperbole, this film changed the face of movie comedies and opened the door for crass humor to hit the big screen in gross-out fashion. This movie has plenty of hilarious scenes and quotes, but taken within the film’s context, they become ten times funnier. The dark sense of humor in areas had me cackling while the many sex jokes easily contributed to the likes of AMERICAN PIE and SUPERBAD further down the line. Also, John Belushi was a comedic tour-de-force to be reckoned with. With jokes about sex, death, horses, chainsaws, beer, racial differences, impressions of zits, and much more, ANIMAL HOUSE truly is one of the greatest and wildest comedies of all-time!

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6. TRAINING DAY: Though it was released fifteen years ago, TRAINING DAY still seems frighteningly relevant in today’s world. Showcasing a dark underbelly of corrupt cops and street gangs, this film takes place in the space of 24 hours and sunk its hooks into me from start to finish. Ethan Hawke is a naïve protagonist (that’s kind of the point of the story) and we are forced to follow in his footsteps as he stands alongside one of my new favorite cinematic villains. Denzel Washington’s character is a beast and delivers one of the greatest movie monologues (for my money) of all-time in Detective Alonzo Harris’s street-side closing speech. Grim, gritty, and suspenseful the whole way through, TRAINING DAY is one of my new favorite movies!

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5. ARRIVAL: A beautifully crafted and mature piece of science fiction, ARRIVAL’s true brilliance didn’t fully hit me until the closing credits began to roll. This film takes the alien invaders trope and spins in a mature, realistic direction. Though this has already been done in films like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and CONTACT, I guarantee that it hasn’t been executed in the complex and thought-provoking manner that ARRIVAL delivers. Seemingly innocuous scenes take on whole new meanings when you realize the story’s true nature. The ending also guarantees that you won’t be able to watch this film in the same way upon a second viewing, much like Christopher Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE becomes a completely different movie once you’ve been wowed the first time around. ARRIVAL is a science fiction masterpiece and continues director Denis Villeneuve’s winning streak.

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4. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD: Despite stemming from a book that’s required in many classrooms and existing for decades as a beloved classic that’s cherished by countless film fans, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD somehow never made its way across my eyeballs before 2016. However, I now count it among the most emotional dramas that I’ve ever seen. This film tackles hard-hitting issues through the innocent eyes of a child in a coming-of-age tale crossed with a courtroom drama. Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch is outstanding and the rest of the cast put in stellar work as well. This profoundly powerful film deeply moved me and left me on the verge of tears with its beautiful conclusion. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a masterpiece!

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3. THE REVENANT: The film that finally won Leo an Academy Award, THE REVENANT is an amazing cinematic feat that was created by both madness and brilliance. Did Leo look like he just puked when biting into a buffalo liver? That’s because he did. Do these cast members look like they’re freezing their asses off? That’s because they are. Does it seem like these are real locations? That’s because the director shot in natural light and proceeded to put his cast and crew through a hellish outdoor shooting experience. Production accomplishments aside, THE REVENANT remains a riveting tale of revenge and survival in harsher than harsh circumstances. This film is a gritty, unforgiving, and awe-inspiring piece of cinematic art that has blown me away twice at this point and will continue to do so many times in the future. Also, this movie may have given me a fear of bears too.

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2. THE LOBSTER: The best love story I’ve seen all year belongs to a twisted dystopian dark comedy about a guy who’s forced to choose between finding a romantic partner or being turned into an animal. Sound weird? Oh boy, it is! Besides being strange all the way around, THE LOBSTER is also a wonderfully unique flick that’s equal parts charming and disturbing. This cinematic world felt like Terry Gilliam made a movie with David Lynch. The feelings this film gave me are almost impossible to properly describe as there really hasn’t been anything like it before. It’s a romance like no other and if you have a penchant for weird arthouse cinema, then I highly suggest that you watch THE LOBSTER at your earliest convenience…preferably with a significant other who’s also into awesome cinematic oddities.

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1. HIGH-RISE: So if you thought THE LOBSTER was an odd choice for this list, then brace yourself because I can see people flat-out hating my number-one pick. HIGH-RISE is one of the few movies to be adapted from the work of British science fiction author J.G. Ballard. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because David Cronenberg adapted his work into twisted romantic thriller CRASH. That’s the level we’re at here, folks. HIGH-RISE is a grim, darkly hilarious and disturbing tale about a high society that devolves into a bloody class war in the space of a forty-floor apartment building…and I absolutely friggin’ adored this film! I’ve watched it four times within the space of the year and plan on revisiting it many more times in the future. The stylish visuals, colorful characters, twisted story arcs, oddball humor mixed with darkly disturbing content, a suffocating atmosphere, and shocking social commentary blew me out of the water. I love this movie so much that I actually listened to the DVD commentary. It’s the first film to make me do that in years! Though it’s definitely not for everyone (see THE LOBSTER’s divisiveness and crank it up to 11), HIGH-RISE is my favorite movie of 2016 and makes me hope for more big screen adaptations of Ballard’s work.

2016 was a pretty insane year in a lot of different ways. Many movies disappointed me in the theater, but I still saw plenty of good and great films. I also crossed many titles of my cinephile “shame list,” though I still have many more to eventually get through. Here’s hoping for an even better 2017!

DEADPOOL (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

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

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Directed by: Tim Miller

Written by: Paul Wernick & Rhett Reese

(based on the DEADPOOL comics by Fabian Nicieza & Rob Liefeld)

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, T.J. Miller, Gina Carano, Brianna Hildebrand, Stefan Kapicic & Leslie Uggams

Deadpool has finally arrived on the big screen! Fox previously tried to bring the merc with a mouth to the big screen in X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, which easily stands out as the worst X-MEN movie in the whole franchise. They botched that attempt badly. Fear not though, because fans’ hopes and prayers have been answered with this gleefully R-rated superhero flick that’s strictly for mature audiences. DEADPOOL is awesome from beginning to end with multiple jokes being fired off every few seconds, a non-linear storyline, and copious amounts of sex and violence.

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Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a freelance mercenary living in New York City. One night, he falls head over heels for escort Vanessa Carlysle (Morena Baccarin) and the two begin a fairy tale romance. These happy times come to an end when Wade is diagnosed with cancer in multiple organs. In an effort to cure himself, Wade volunteers to be subject in an experiment to create super soldiers. It turns out that the people running this top-secret program (mutants Ajax and Angel Dust) have more sinister intentions in mind. Soon enough, Wade is scarred from head to toe and Deadpool is born. Wielding multiple weapons and an infinite amount of smart-ass quips, Deadpool begins a bloody hunt for Ajax (Ed Skrein) in an effort to regain his former face.

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DEADPOOL is a superhero origin story that’s unlike any other origin story to previously hit nationwide theatrical release. This plot is told in a style that constantly breaks the fourth wall, pokes fun at the proceedings, and is told in a non-linear fashion. This film reminds me that seemingly overdone narratives (in this case, superhero origins) can still be brought to the screen in new, exciting ways. DEADPOOL’s nearly two-hour-long run time breezes by as I was laughing the whole way through, found myself fully invested in the plot, and had blast watching every bit of over-the-top action.

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I highly doubt that any other performer could have played Deadpool as perfectly as Ryan Reynolds. Reynolds’s filmography has seen its ups and downs (the latter are openly mocked throughout this film), but DEADPOOL is the best thing he’s done thus far. His narration, constant fourth wall breaking, and comedic timing bring this delightfully deranged antihero to life. Reynolds is not the only memorable mutant here as Ed Skrein is well-cast as the sword-wielding Ajax (who has super strength and is immune to pain). This is a despicable villain that I loved to hate and his frustration towards Deadpool’s sarcasm makes their confrontations ten times funnier. Ajax’s second-in-command is Angel Dust (a well-cast MMA fighter Gina Carano) and though she doesn’t receive as much dialogue as Ajax, she’s still a very strong screen presence.

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As far as Deadpool’s various helpers go, Stefan Kapicic voices a well animated Colossus. Colossus’s nice guy persona make his reactions towards Deadpool’s extremely violent nature stand out as some of the funniest scenes in the film. Newcomer Brianna Hildebrand steals every bit of screen time she’s in as Negasonic Teenage Warhead (who’s essentially a human bomb). TJ Miller is also well cast as the human sidekick Weasel, while Morena Baccarin has great chemistry with Reynolds as Vanessa. This film also features my favorite Stan Lee cameo in any Marvel film thus far.

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The non-linear way in which DEADPOOL is told (with lots of flashbacks) kept me hooked in the story, despite me knowing full well how this origin tale was likely to play out. DEADPOOL may not be free of clichés, but it does openly mock them at every given opportunity. There are tons of references to other superheroes and films as well. All of this is done in hilarious fashion and doesn’t become repetitive in the slightest. The opening credits rank as some of the funniest in recent memory.

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It should be noted that DEADPOOL definitely deserves its R-rating and pushes it to the limits. Of course, there’s lots of violence with bodies being dismembered, decapitated heads being used as soccer balls, and plenty of insane action sequences. The sex is also off the charts as we get nudity (both male and female), crude running gags, and gross-out jokes. The constant sense of humor is wildly irreverent as nothing is off-limits and the F-bomb is thrown around like candy. I have no earthly idea how this movie could ever possibly be edited for basic cable. One can only hope that this film’s guaranteed success will open doors for more R-rated superhero flicks down the line (I’d love to see a proper SPAWN reboot).

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DEADPOOL is exactly what you think it is and I mean that in the best way possible. This is one of the most insane superhero flicks out there. The film is fueled by non-stop sarcasm, crude humor, T&A, gory violence, tons of references, and love for the source material. It will definitely benefit from multiple viewings as there are so many jokes being fired off at a mile-a-minute that it’s simply impossible to catch all of them in one sitting. Simply put, this film is a self-referential, profane, darkly hilarious, gloriously violent, and very R-rated superhero/anti-hero story. If that sounds up your alley, then DEADPOOL is a must-see!

Grade: A+

SELF/LESS (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Violence, some Sexuality, and Language

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Directed by: Tarsem Singh

Written by: David Pastor & Alex Pastor

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ben Kingsley, Matthew Goode, Michelle Dockery, Natalie Martinez, Victor Garber & Derek Luke

SELF/LESS doesn’t exactly have the most original premise in the world, but that doesn’t mean the film didn’t have potential. The marketing and promotional material had me sold on seeing this movie. All I could think was that it looked like an updated version of a TWILIGHT ZONE episode or the super underrated Rock Hudson flick SECONDS. It certainly helped that Tarsem Singh was behind the camera, because that meant the film would probably have good visuals. The cast, consisting of Ryan Reynolds (who showed acting chops in BURIED), Ben Kingsley (who has delivered plenty of quality performances), and Matthew Goode (who is very good at playing bad), made this look like it could be a surefire winner. I walked into SELF/LESS with hope in my eyes and a spring in my step. Cue me walking out as the end credits rolled two hours later. The film isn’t the travesty that some have apparently been making it out to be online, but it certainly is a letdown. Sacrificing a quiet and intelligent approach to a creepy idea in favor of generic action scenes and spoon-fed answers, SELF/LESS is serviceable…but that doesn’t make it any less of a disappointment.

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Damian is a wealthy businessman dying from cancer. It seems that his wealth and power can’t save him from the approaching shroud of death. That’s when he receives a mysterious business card and is introduced to the super-secret process of “shedding.” This procedure involves Damien switching his consciousness out of his dying old body and into a healthy young body grown in a lab. Damien deludes himself into thinking that there could be no possible downside to “shedding” and decides to go through with it. Turns out that swapping bodies has its side effects, including hallucinations that seem oddly like memories from a stranger. It turns out that the body Damien is in might not be the lab-grown empty vessel he was promised and the sinister mad scientist behind shedding will do anything to keep that a secret. Cue car chases, gun fights, and clichés.

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There are things about the cast that can be criticized as well as praised. As much as I enjoy Ben Kingsley and was looking forward to seeing him in this flick, he really seems to have taken this role for a quick paycheck. His performance is contained to the first fifteen minutes and then he disappears from the movie entirely. This was to be expected, but felt like a bit of a letdown as soon as he was out of the picture. This leaves us with Ryan Reynolds playing Damien in the “empty vessel.” Though he’s starred in big-budget failures in the past (GREEN LANTERN and R.I.P.D. immediately spring to mind), Ryan Reynolds actually put in a fairly good performance. I saw Damien in his old body (Kingsley) and Damien in his new body (Reynolds) as one character and that’s to be commended. Reynolds is good in the serious role that occasionally turns into an action hero, the latter of which is clichéd and a bit bland. Meanwhile, Matthew Goode (who has played evil people in the past) shows up once again as a psychopathic villain. He’s good in this sort of role and he doesn’t exactly seem to be phoning it in, but he does flirt with 007 villain territory.

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The biggest problem with SELF/LESS is the screenplay. The film’s decision to make this more of an action movie as opposed to a brooding thriller seems like a big mistake. The marketing that misleadingly excludes any significant footage of gunfights and car chases seems to know this too. By resorting to cheap well-traveled clichés, SELF/LESS settles for easy answers and scenes that feel tonally out-of-place with the story it’s trying to tell. Would-be bombshell plot developments can be correctly predicted early on, one of which seemed entirely obvious but is later shown to be a failed surprise twist. The conclusion is anti-climactic and stupid…even when taken on the dusty action clichés this film so desperately relies on.

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There’s a good movie lying somewhere inside of SELF/LESS. With a few more drafts and fine tuning, this could have been an updated and chilling take on SECONDS or an unnerving thought-provoking feature-length TWILIGHT ZONE episode. The quiet and smart approach would have made for a haunting sci-fi thriller. While the film is merely okay (serviceable performances, a few enjoyable scenes, and some cool ideas), SELF/LESS feels like a phoned in version of a really good story. It really is two different genres competing for the same movie…which is sort of ironic given the plot of this film.

Grade: C+

THE VOICES (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Bloody Violence, and for Language including Sexual References

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Directed by: Marjane Satrapi

Written by: Michael R. Perry

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Anna Kendrick, Gemma Arterton & Jacki Weaver

I was interested in seeing THE VOICES from the first moment I heard about it. This sounded like a quirky dark comedy that would be out of the ordinary. Though he’s become known for fast-and-cheap comedies, Ryan Reynolds seems to have a knack for choosing quality independent projects (BURIED) and this film is no different. After over a year of waiting, THE VOICES has finally been released and it’s an entertaining (if tonally inconsistent) film. I’m still trying to fully process my overall emotional reaction to this movie as it’s a strange beast to dissect. The misleading promotional material hasn’t exactly done the dark story justice. The trailer plays it up as a ridiculous comedy, but that’s not necessarily the case…which is one of the reasons why I like this film so much.

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Jerry is a nice guy with mental problems. He’s an awkward new worker at a factory and frequently sees a court-appointed therapist. Jerry also takes care of his two pets, a dog named Bosco and a cat named Mr. Whiskers. His pet situation is odd in that these two animals literally talk to him. While Bosco is a friendly hound, Mr. Whiskers constantly ridicules Jerry. After a brief series of mishaps that involve being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Jerry has blood on his hands. Bosco urges Jerry to turn himself into the police and Mr. Whiskers tries to convince Jerry to embrace his killer instinct. This mentally unhinged factory worker’s life only gets worse from there on out…

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THE VOICES combines an over-the-top sense of dark comedy with a grim little horror story into one deranged genre-bending mix. The visuals are beautiful to look at and there seems to be a lot of attention paid to detail. One aspect that I really loved is that almost the entire movie is seen from Jerry’s perspective. When he takes pills (to control his delusions), we see the ugly and sad state of his life. When he goes off his meds and starts getting crazier, everything looks chipper and upbeat. The latter becomes ridiculously apparent in one scene that had me laughing out loud multiple times. The sense that we’re watching the insanity of this character adds an unnerving quality to the film that I wasn’t expecting at all. I spent half of this movie cackling at the humor and the other half emotionally invested in Jerry’s troubled life.

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It may sound odd, but Jerry is actually a sympathetic character for the most part. He’s doing unforgivable things, but this film also shows him struggling with his schizophrenic identity. One great scene has him sitting down with various personalities of himself (in his dog, his cat, and a victim’s severed head) and having a serious discussion about who he really is. Ryan Reynolds is outstanding in the role of Jerry and the supporting cast members are equally great. These include Anna Kendrick and Gemma Arterton as two of Jerry’s love interests and Jacki Weaver as Jerry’s frustrated therapist. However, the mix of emotional drama (some of the flashback scenes are really heavy and disturbing) and wacky comedy (the most jarring moment comes in the end credits) make for a tonally unbalanced film. This didn’t ruin the movie for me in the slightest, but it’s noticeable and might be too distracting for some viewers.

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THE VOICES isn’t only a dark comedy. Instead, it’s a genre-bending exercise that surprised me in a lot of ways. I was initially expecting to laugh my ass off at how ridiculous this story would be, but I emotionally bought into the character of Jerry. I cared about him and was upset by some scenes (in a very good way). There was clearly a lot of professionalism put into this film because the cinematography looks beautiful, the script is interesting, and the performances are solid all around. Those hoping for a laugh riot might be disappointed. THE VOICES is essentially MANIAC with two talking pets and a nasty sense of humor. Take that as you will.

Grade: B

R.I.P.D. (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violence, Sci-Fi/Fantasy Action, some Sensuality, and Language including Sex References

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Directed by: Robert Schwentke

Written by: Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi

(based on the comic books by Peter M. Lenkov)

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Bacon, Mary-Louise Parker, Stephanie Szostak, James Hong & Marisa Miller

As I write this, R.I.P.D. has already become the fifth biggest box office bomb of all-time. For a movie financed on a budget of over 100 million, it certainly doesn’t show in the film itself. This comic book adaptation is either trying to channel a new GHOSTBUSTERS for a new generation or (more obviously) completely ripping off MEN IN BLACK with a supernatural twist. The biggest complement I give R.I.P.D. is that the ultra-quick pacing rushes through the entire film (kind of how I, FRANKENSTEIN seemed in a hurry to get the plot over and done with). I found one running joke to be funny, but everything else falls flat on its face. It almost seems like the production was halted halfway through completion and the result was still released as a finished film. If the poor script is any indication though, more time dedicated to the production might have churned a movie that’s even worse than this cut already is.

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Nick Walker (Reynolds) is a cop who has recently stolen some gold with his shady partner Bobby (Bacon). After being killed in the line of duty, Nick is sucked up into a heavenly vortex and winds up in an atypical otherworldly office. He’s given the choice of either facing judgment as a dirty cop or working off his sins by serving the Rest In Peace Department. So Nick becomes a member of the R.I.P.D. Saddled with Roy (Bridges), a deceased cowboy whose methods are radical, for partner, Nick comes across an undead conspiracy that may spell the end of mankind on Earth. It’s up to Roy and Nick, despite contradictory orders to follow simple directions, to get to the bottom of a possible apocalypse and save the day.

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For a movie set in Boston, the streets seem to be damn near deserted in every city scene. This might come off as nitpicking, until you take into account that it merely adds to a half-assed feeling that R.I.P.D. reeks of. Nobody seems to be even trying to make a good movie. Ryan Reynolds plays the straight-man role and executes it with the same comic book hero charisma that he showed off in GREEN LANTERN, which is to say none at all. Jeff Bridges can do comedy well. That’s already been seen in THE BIG LEBOWSKI. He’s just plain embarrassing here and playing the over-the-top bad-accented cowboy shtick to an aggravating level. Then there’s Kevin Bacon as an obvious antagonist (not a spoiler, since it’s given away in the first five minutes). Bacon seems to be reciting lines of cue cards whilst a check is being waved behind the camera. The man can act, but he’s sleepwalking through this role.

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The effects don’t fare any better. The Deados (evil spirits hiding on Earth) that Reynolds and Bridges hunt appear to be ripped right out of the LEFT 4 DEAD video games. These Deados bear a striking resemblance to the special-infected zombies in LEFT 4 DEAD. When looking at a hugely overweight one with a bulging neck, anyone familiar with those games will instantly be reminded of a Boomer. It’s not even as if they were designs based on those monsters, but it appears as if somebody literally took the video quality graphics and placed them within this failed blockbuster. R.I.P.D. fails at the comedic elements too. Running jokes make little to no sense and feel very forced. Deados reveal themselves around spicy food (your guess is as good as mine) and there’s a blob-like Deado (the Boomer lookalike) that makes Elvis quotes the whole time he’s on-screen. This nonsensical joke might have been funny if this film were made back in the 70’s or (even stretching it) 80’s, but it’s remarkably stale and dusty here.

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One running gag in R.I.P.D. got a couple of chuckles out of me. That would be how Reynolds and Bridges appear in the eyes of the living around them (their “avatars” are an old Chinese guy and a petite young woman). I admittedly thought that was a little clever and it’s the only saving grace that keeps this film from an F grade. Though based on a comic book series (which was also written after the Men In Black comics had been published), R.I.P.D. comes off as desperate to imitate MEN IN BLACK at every possible turn and comes off as a disastrous, painfully lazy movie. It’s appropriate that this film flopped in its theatrical run (losing more than 50 million in the process). I shudder to think that any of the people working on this film had complete faith in this project. R.I.P.D. is dead on arrival. To those who think that’s a clichéd and corny pun to end this review on, it’s about as clever as anything this movie has to offer.

Grade: D-

THE CHANGE-UP (2011)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Strong Crude Sexual Content and Language, some Graphic Nudity and Drug Use

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Directed by: David Dobkin

Written by: Jon Lucas & Scott Moore

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Jason Bateman, Leslie Mann, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin & Mircea Monroe

If one were to look at some of the major comedies starring big name actors in recent years, they’d find a decent amount of retracing material from older films. These aren’t out-and-out remakes, but they do seem to be borrowing quite liberally. For example, take into consideration DUE DATE (borrowing from PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES), THE SITTER (ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING) or HORRIBLE BOSSES (THROW MAMA FROM THE TRAIN, although they actually address that film within the script). THE CHANGE-UP was released in Summer 2011 without a whole lot of enthusiasm and bombed domestically at the box office. It’s essentially an R-rated retelling of FREAKY FRIDAY starring grown-ass men and set over a longer time period than a single day. Quite a few solid moments work, but ultimately the film winds up a bit bogged down in and unnecessary lengthy running time and a deep message at the heart of the story that simply doesn’t belong.

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Dave is a married lawyer with three children. Dave’s routine is made up of working his ass off and taking care of the kids. Mitch is a single man with no routine whatsoever. When Mitch is not starring in bit parts as an actor once a year, he’s in his apartment getting stoned and having sex with random girls. Dave and Mitch have been best friends since they were kids and have stayed close, despite their radically different lifestyles. After a night of drinking and verbally venting to each other, the two are pissing in a mysterious park fountain and both utter at the same time “I wish I had your life.” When the morning comes, their wish has become a horrifying reality. They have somehow wound up in each other’s bodies. Fish-out-of-water hijinks ensues as both men try to find a way to switch back and try not to wreck the life of the other person. This is made more difficult seeing as Dave is currently close to a huge promotion and Mitch has recently received a big starring role in a movie.

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In body-switching movies, some unusual talent is forced out of the performer in said body-switching role. They have to play two entirely separate characters. Both Bateman and Reynolds are up to the task. Bateman goes from hard-working family man into slacker trying to put on the appearance of hard-working family man, all while Reynolds goes from slacker into man with newfound freedom and nervousness at all the hot new women interested in him. It’s a fish-out-of-water premise that does have some solid laughs to be had. Some of the best of these either come from one of the two completely altering decisions that the other man (in their original body) had made or secrets being revealed on the spot to the unsuspecting body-switcher. The introduction of a hot new woman Mitch has been meeting up with is a doozy and provides some pretty disgusting punchlines.

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THE CHANGE-UP has some faults in its length and a tonal switch near the end that doesn’t jive well with the rest of the film. At nearly two hours (even longer if you’re watching the Unrated version), things can get stretched and padded. Some of these scenes are brought on by a would-be heartwarming message that’s found at the center. The problem with this sudden change in direction is that up to that point nothing was ever given to indicate that the film would be heading in this direction, so any heavy-hitting emotional moments feel a tad unearned. There are fantastic comedies that are simply a joy to watch due to a crude nature combined with some emotional content (e.g. KNOCKED UP), but THE CHANGE-UP seemed just like a regular R-rated comedy that supplied some dirty laughs and nothing else. The tonal switch didn’t help things and in fact, hindered them due to some more space dedicated to this cheesy content.

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Overall, THE CHANGE-UP is a decent time-waster. The jokes do hit their marks most of the time and I appreciated that the film went into some unabashedly disgusting territory that did supply some gross punch lines. Reynolds and Bateman play well alongside each other, while everyone else (including Leslie Mann, Olivia Wilde, and Alan Arkin) are merely means to move the plot forward. The film is too long and fumbles with a would-be message, but it’s still an okay flick. Can’t really say I’d recommend it whole heartedly, but if it were on late-night cable then I’d probably watch it again.

Grade: C+

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