THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

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

Directed by: Taika Waititi

Written by: Franco Escamilla, Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost

(based on the THOR comics by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins & Benedict Cumberbatch

THOR: RAGNAROK is the third THOR film and the seventeenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the exception of 2008’s THE INCREDIBLE HULK, THOR was easily the weakest origin story in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. THOR: THE DARK WORLD served as an entertaining sequel, but couldn’t reach the heights of the rest of MCU’s second phase of films. THOR: RAGNAROK is easily the best THOR yet (not exactly high praise) and is a highly entertaining mythological superhero romp. While I don’t think this third THOR is nearly as awesome as some folks have been making it out to be, there’s loads of fun to be had and it’s a big step up in quality from the rest of 2017’s MCU offerings (including the vastly overrated SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING and the slightly underwhelming GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2).

Two years after the events in THE DARK WORLD, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has discovered that his mischievous adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has taken over the home world Asgard and his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has been banished. While on the journey to bring his dear old daddy home, Thor discovers that an ancient prophecy is coming to light and it might spell doom for all Asgardians. Unfortunately, god of death Hela (Cate Blanchett) has returned and seems hellbent on conquering Asgard. All the while, Thor has wound up stranded on a junk planet in the clutches of the cruelly kooky Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). In order to save his people from destruction, Thor must fight his way through gladiator battles, unite with old friends and new faces, and find a way to stop the seemingly undefeatable Hela.

RAGNAROK follows the usual superhero formula and is fairly by-the-numbers in terms of its plot. There’s an evil bad gal who’s bent on world domination, an ancient prophecy that might be fulfilled, and a story arc that must be experienced by our main hero that causes him to grow even more powerful. However, THOR: RAGNAROK does something extremely well that the other THOR films only did occasionally well. It’s funny, really funny. Not just in scenes that feature Tom Hiddleston’s Loki (who still remains a charming fan favorite) either, but also in nearly every moment. RAGNAROK contains more laughs than pretty much any other MCU entry, with the sole exception being the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.

Viewers who watch RAGNAROK in search of other Marvel goodies will receive those in spades too because this plot also serves as the best HULK movie never made. To elaborate further, Thor’s entrapment on the junk planet is blended with the much celebrated PLANET HULK storyline. Hulk’s inclusion gives Thor another hero to relate to and shows that Hulk can star in a great movie that doesn’t need to involve all of the other Avengers. Also, the end credits scene promises serious stakes for the upcoming INFINITY WAR (which hits next May) and Benedict Cumberbatch squeezes in five minutes of (very funny) screen time as Doctor Strange. Tessa Thompson adds a fresh new heroine to MCU’s mix as the hard-drinking, harder-hitting Valkyrie, while Idris Elba doesn’t get receive much to do as Heimdall.

RAGNAROK mainly falters in its big antagonist. Cate Blanchett’s Hela looks cool as all hell. Her intimidating costume design and weaponized black spikes that fly from her body are pure eye candy. Sadly, that doesn’t translate into her as a character though, because she’s just another bland baddie who wants to take over the world. I found her slightly reluctant lackey Skurge (played by Karl Roden) to be a much more interesting character and his story arc (though familiar) was far more satisfying. Hell, I even felt that Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster was a far superior villain to Hela. Grandmaster had an odd kookiness to him and still came off as threatening, though simultaneously hilarious. I guess I’m saying that I wish Hela had been more interesting and that Grandmaster had even more screen time.

If you are a Marvel Cinematic Universe fan (and you should know if you are by the seventeenth film in the long-running franchise), then you’ll find a lot to enjoy in THOR: RAGNAROK. The by-the-numbers plot may be familiar, but the hilarious, colorful and spectacle-loaded execution kept me smiling from ear to ear as the entire movie played out. The film’s main problems arrive in Hela looking cool, but being rather bland. However, Goldblum’s Grandmaster is worth the price of admission alone. RAGNAROK also injects a few much-needed risks into the MCU that will likely pay off in big ways during INFINITY WAR. THOR: RAGNAROK comes highly recommended!

Grade: B+

DEAD CALM (1989)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Directed by: Phillip Noyce

Written by: Terry Hayes

(based on the novel DEAD CALM by Charles Williams)

Starring: Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman & Billy Zane

DEAD CALM is a thriller that left more of an impact in cinema history than you might believe. Charles Williams’s novel of the same name was partially adapted into film form by Orson Welles, but the troubled production (and an actor’s death) halted the movie before filming was completed. This 1989 adaptation received some acclaim from critics and made enough of an impression to be adapted by THE SIMPSONS in one of their final good TREEHOUSE OF HORROR episodes. However, taken purely on its own merits as a film, DEAD CALM is a mixed bag of Hitchcockian suspense, clichés, and stupid decisions.

After the tragic loss of their son, John Ingram (Sam Neill) and his deeply depressed wife Rae (Nicole Kidman) take their yacht to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to recover. Rae’s fragile mental state seems to be slowly healing with the calm environment. The couple’s vacation takes a turn when they happen upon a sinking boat and meet sole survivor Hughie Warriner (Billy Zane). Hughie claims that his fellow crew members succumbed to deadly food poisoning. Curious about inconsistencies in Hughie’s story, John boards the sinking boat…only to discover a gruesome crime scene. Meanwhile, psycho Hughie wakes up and takes the John’s boat…with an unconscious Rae still onboard. Now, Rae must contend with a murderous psychopath to stay alive and John desperately tries to salvage the sinking death-trap of a boat.

DEAD CALM has a simple premise and three characters. Unfortunately, for this plot to kick off, otherwise rational human begins make irrationally dumb decisions in order to keep the story moving forward. Obviously, this happens in the unconvincing move that John would paddle out to a sinking boat and leave his mentally unstable wife with a creepy stranger who he already believes is lying. A few stupid decisions are made later in the film too, though luckily for the viewer (and the film’s characters), John and Rae seem to regain most of their brain functions and common sense after their first disastrous incident.

As John and Rae, Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman have convincing chemistry. You can feel a connection between their characters early on and will likely find yourself rooting for them to reunite. Sam Neill spends a majority of the running time alone…trying to save himself and rescue his wife. The film milks tension out of little things that frequently bite this character in the ass. These problems mainly involve ocean water seeping into the boat and pieces of the boat falling apart. There was originally going to be a scene in which Neill’s John gets harassed by a shark, but this was removed from the final cut. Strangely enough, I was expecting a shark to pop up because there are shots of blood in the water that could attract a hungry finned menace and the film could have benefited from that extra threat.

In an overly familiar and clichéd plotline, Nicole Kidman maintains a charade of civility to keep Billy Zane’s psychopath at bay. Kidman’s Rae has a few smart moments that will likely have the viewer cheering, but she also makes simple mistakes (missing prime opportunities to kill the killer). The worst performance of the film easily belongs to Billy Zane as would-be sympathetic psychopath Hughie. He’s unbelievably over-the-top in his manic mood swings and murderous tendencies. The film attempts to make him more human, but this character falls apart simply due to Zane’s inability to convincingly emote.

Besides suffering from stupid character decisions and a very corny performance from Billy Zane, DEAD CALM tries to substitute shocks for suspense in spots. There are numerous sequences of escalating tension and the story’s high stakes are sure to keep the viewer curious about how the couple will possibly escape this mess, but this movie isn’t above showcasing a graphically murdered dog and a baby flying out of a window. The score seems to be composed of heavy breathing and gasps, which becomes distractingly annoying at points. The ending also feels wildly out of place as test audiences were unsatisfied with the original conclusion, so the studio threw in an unconvincing stinger that had me to rolling my eyes and laughing at its sheer silliness.

DEAD CALM contains enough suspense and cheap thrills to be an okay-at-best time killer. Unfortunately, the film’s good qualities are frequently overshadowed by dumb decisions that seem included to further the plot along and Billy Zane’s hammy bad guy. The final scene is beyond laughable in its ineptness and serves as a prime example of how cinematic decisions made by audience screenings (instead of filmmakers) can really leave a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth. To be fair though, Orson Welles’s planned version doesn’t sound like it would be too much better than this mixed bag thriller.

Grade: C+

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 57 minutes

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Starring: Douglas Booth, Charles Dance, Maeve Dermody, Burn Gorman, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens, Noah Taylor & Aidan Turner

Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE might sound familiar because: (a.) it’s required reading in some schools and (b.) it’s commonly cited as one of the greatest mysteries of all-time. With a fantastic reputation and worldwide acclaim, one would think that Christie’s novel would have been properly adapted to the screen already. You’d be sadly mistaken though, because most screen adaptations of the text rely on a silly clichéd ending (used in the stage play) and go for light-hearted chills instead of a dread-soaked atmosphere. BBC’s miniseries of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE may have added changes to the source material (after all, it needed to fill three hours), but remains a highly suspenseful, dark, and faithful execution (pardon the pun) of Christie’s most famous work.

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Ten strangers have been invited to Soldier Island, off the coast of England, by an unseen host. It appears that each guest was summoned under different pretenses, but they all share one thing in common. They are all, in some way, connected to the death of an innocent person. After eating a delicious dinner and still not having met their host, a strange record plays and reveals that all ten guests stand accused of murder. Nine of them shrug it off, while one fully admits to it. Soon, a death results from a glass of poisoned wine. It appears that someone on the island has the intention of murdering all ten guests (in ways related to a grim children’s rhyme) and bodies begin to pile up…

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I’ve purposely kept the plot synopsis vague, in case you’re not familiar with Agatha Christie’s novel. There are many twists and turns strewn throughout this complex mystery and I wouldn’t dare spoil any of them. Seeing that a few of these characters are killed throughout the three-hour running time, I will not single out a specific performance that might potentially reveal key details. Instead, I’ll briefly run through these performances one-by-one. Douglas Booth is perfectly smarmy as a reckless rich kid/motorist. Charles Dance brings his usual sophisticated manner to the table as a government official. Maeve Dermody is sympathetic as a teacher with some serious baggage.

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Burn Gorman is delightfully scummy as a questionable police officer. Anna Maxwell Martin and Noah Taylor play a foreboding servant couple. Sam Neill is tragic as the PTSD-suffering general, while Toby Stephens is equally distraught as a doctor with a drinking problem. Miranda Richardson is perfectly despicable as a holier-than-though upper-class zealot. Finally, Aidan Turner is great as a man who says what’s on his mind. All of these characters are potential suspects and each has a part to play in the proceedings, even if that just means being gruesomely murdered.

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A deliberate change that was not in Christie’s original novel are added flashbacks that flesh out these characters/suspects. Besides including some fantastically disturbing imagery in these moments, the miniseries masterfully dishes out nuggets of background information that grow as the number of living guests steadily decreases. I thought I had one character completely figured out (I’ve read the book) and flashbacks revealed something I didn’t see coming. These flashbacks are creative deviations from the original text, but actually feed off of the source material to make the already suspenseful story even more compelling.

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I appreciated that AND THEN THERE WERE NONE had a thick, gloomy atmosphere that rang absolutely true to Christie’s darker than dark mystery. There’s a sense of hopelessness and impending dread that’s aided by the stormy isolated setting. Slight tweaks are made to the book’s original conclusion that help it play out cinematically (and arguably in a far more brutal manner), but this is the most faithful on-screen conclusion to Christie’s twisted book. When I originally read the novel, my jaw was on the floor during the final chapter. The same thing happened here during the final ten minutes. I absolutely adore this miniseries’ final scenes and its unflinching eye for a chilling note to the send the viewer out on.

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The only subplot that I didn’t care for was a love-interest angle between two of the characters. This forced romance seems to come out of nowhere, with little rhyme or reason. People are dying, only a handful of survivors are left, there’s a killer in your midst, and you think it’s a good idea to start flirting with a stranger? It was too far-fetched for me to buy, though it does benefit a later scene. The deaths themselves are kept mostly off-screen, but we do see the graphic aftermath of each kill (packing graphic gore into a couple of moments).

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AND THEN THERE WERE NONE is easily the best adaptation I’ve seen of Agatha Christie’s novel. It captures the sense of impending dread and gut-punches the viewer multiple times with clever twists, turns, and guilty revelations. Though it tweaks a few of the book’s details along the way, only one of these changes was to the miniseries’ detriment. The rest adds to the already stellar and suspenseful viewing experience. AND THEN THERE WERE NONE is a must-see for fans of dark mysteries, intense thrillers, and (yes, I’m saying this) slasher flicks!

Grade: A

JURASSIC PARK III (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sci-Fi Terror and Violence

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Directed by: Joe Johnston

Written by: Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor

Starring: Sam Neill, William H. Macy, Tea Leoni, Alessandro Nivola & Trevor Morgan

1993’s JURASSIC PARK has stood the test of time as an incredible adventure that has left a lasting impact on the cinematic world. 1997’s THE LOST WORLD wound up being a colossal disappointment that tried way too hard to duplicate its hit predecessor’s success (going as far as damn near replicating specific scenes from the first film). You have to hand a bit of backhanded praise to JURASSIC PARK III. This third dinosaur adventure doesn’t try to duplicate the first (or even second) film, instead this third installment feels like a Syfy Channel script somehow got thrown into the JURASSIC PARK series. Talk about a decline from former glory. I really hope that JURASSIC WORLD delivers this summer, because it has a lot to make up for with both sequels taken into consideration.

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Years after the incident at Jurassic Park (not to mention a T-Rex running loose through the streets of San Diego), Alan Grant has become famous. Unfortunately, his fame is tinged with bitter resentment that most aren’t taking his science seriously and people merely give him a celebrity status for surviving Dr. Hammond’s theme park. After a particularly embarrassing lecture, Grant is hired by the Kirbys to guide them through an air tour of the Jurassic island. Not surprisingly, there are ulterior motives for his presence. Paul and Amanda Kirby are actually parents to a child who went missing near the dinosaur-populated island. Grant, Billy (one of his students), the Kirbys and a few others find themselves running for their lives from the prehistoric monsters one last time.

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JURASSIC PARK III feels like the (three!) screenwriters and director are really just scraping the bottom of the barrel in the storyline department. The excuse to get people onto the island is possibly more ridiculous than THE LOST WORLD, not to mention that the characters have the personalities of cardboard cut-outs. For a third installment of a franchise that’s had plenty of blood and dinosaurs devouring people, JURASSIC PARK III plays it insanely safe. While I don’t want unnecessarily mean-spirited kills from THE LOST WORLD, the original JURASSIC PARK had cool death scenes in spite of you being able to count the casualties on one hand. This second sequel has uninspired deaths that don’t really show the characters turning into a dinosaur buffet. There’s almost no excitement to be had as the film rushes from scene to scene with a running time of just over 90 minutes (by far the shortest of the series).

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The dinosaurs themselves feel old and tired at this point too. There’s a T-Rex for a brief second, but the Velociraptors appear multiple times throughout. You’d think bringing back the scariest part of the original film would make for some intense scenes, but you’d be sorely mistaken. These once-terrifying dinosaurs have now been replaced by cheap looking puppets (introduced in a laughable attempt at a first jump scare). The once elegant Brachiosaurus is turned into a direct-to-video quality abomination with terrible looking CGI. There are two new dinosaurs to speak of that are enjoyable enough. There’s the Spinosaurus serving as the central antagonist and at the very least, he looks cool. Then there are the flying Pteranodons appearing in the best sequence of the entire movie. The real mystery comes from this JURASSIC PARK film having the highest budget, but somehow winding up with the worst effects in the series.

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JURASSIC PARK III is by far the worst in the franchise, but it’s not an all-out failure of a movie. Even Syfy Channel flicks can be slightly enjoyable garbage from time to time. That’s precisely where I’ll categorize this third film. The two new dinosaurs bring some mild enjoyment, even if the characters are hollow (including a strapped-for-cash Sam Neill) and the story is wafer-thin. JURASSIC PARK III at least has the good sense to be short. It almost seems like the movie is desperate to get itself over with. You could do a lot worse as far as monster movies are concerned, but you can also do a hell of a lot better!

Grade: D+

JURASSIC PARK (1993)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Science Fiction Terror

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Michael Crichton & David Koepp

(based on the novel JURASSIC PARK by Michael Crichton)

Starring: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Ariana Richards, Joseph Mazzello, Bob Peck, Martin Ferrero, Wayne Knight & Samuel L. Jackson

JURASSIC PARK holds a special place in my heart. Aside from a couple of Disney movies, this is one of the first films I have vivid memories of watching. When the movie wasn’t scarring me with its scary moments, I was taken on a cinematic adventure that I enjoyed over and over again (damn near wearing out the VHS copy that my family had). It’s been years since I had seen this 1993 dinosaur flick. I figured it was time to revisit the franchise with an approaching fourth film on the horizon. No sugar-coating in any way, the story of JURASSIC PARK basically boils down to a good, old-fashioned, science-gone-wrong monster movie. The monsters just happen to be dinosaurs and the result just happens to be one of the greatest cinematic adventures ever crafted!

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In case you’ve somehow been left in the dark about the general premise of this movie, JURASSIC PARK is about a fantastical theme park where dinosaurs literally come to life. Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler are two romantically involved paleontologists invited by mad scientist Dr. Hammond to certify that his newly created island theme park is safe. Along with a handful of other specialists, the scientist couple are wowed by living, breathing clones of prehistoric animals. However, we wouldn’t have much of an exciting adventure if this movie was merely about a group of folks casually walking through a theme park looking at dinosaur exhibits. So thanks to a security glitch, electric fences shut down and dinosaurs freely roam the park…which leads to people dying. Grant, Sattler, Hammond, and the rest must fight for their lives to survive the massive amusement park turned bloody hunting ground.

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Make no qualms about it, JURASSIC PARK is a simple story. It’s an effectively crafted one as master filmmaker Steven Spielberg manages to capture the same sense of slow-building suspense that he did in JAWS. We know we will get a glimpse of all of these dinosaurs that we hear details about, but we don’t know exactly when it will happen. The viewer’s patience is constantly rewarded with multiple big reveals spread throughout the film (one of which doesn’t even hit until the final 30 minutes). Without playing all of his cards at once, Spielberg and screenwriters Crichton and Koepp maintain a solid sense of excitement all through the entire film.

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The 63 million budget (at the time, this number was huge) is brought to the screen as this film feels like a window into another world. The location of Jurassic Park looks real enough that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone actually stumbled across it. Little details are evident in small set design decisions. The characters populating this world feel genuine. At first, I felt like Alan was a bit of a one-dimensional protagonist at the start of the film. However, the character development given through small interactions and brief comments give all the character information needed about every single person in this story. A perfect example of this comes in Alan’s crotchety attitude towards Hammond’s grandchildren, which seems quietly annoyed upon meeting them and rapidly grows into concern as prehistoric shit hits the fan. I can’t think of a character that I actively disliked or thought was performed poorly by a cast member. A questionable exception would be the game warden’s reaction of saying “clever girl” in the face of imminent death which winds up being silly and awesome at the same time.

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On the main subject of the dinosaurs themselves, the combination of CGI and practical effects still holds up perfectly. The movie could have simply relied on the carnivores running loose, but there’s equal time devoted to the beautiful herbivore dinosaurs as well (including a great tree-top sequence with a Brachiosaurus). This decision only heightens the frightening encounters with the man-eating monsters. Though Steven Spielberg considered the impressive T-Rex as the “star of the show,” I actually find the smaller beasts to be scary. The poison-spitting Dilophosaurus is given one moment of screen time, but it’s definitely a memorable moment that will have young kids and grown adults screaming in terror. To me, the main attraction of JURASSIC PARK is the Velociraptors. A lot of dialogue and small scenes are devoted to building up these fearsome predators and they certainly don’t disappoint when unleashed at full force, becoming the main antagonists in the final act.

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JURASSIC PARK is truly one of the huge stand-out moments of film history. Besides introducing revolutionary special effects onto the screen (bringing convincing dinosaurs to life), the story is terrifically exciting and endlessly rewatchable. This is a creature feature, but it’s one of the absolute best. JURASSIC PARK holds up flawlessly as a masterful cinematic adventure to this day!

Grade: A+

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