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+

KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

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

Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Written by: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein & Derek Connolly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Fantasy Action/Violence and Peril

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Directed by: Tim Burton

Written by: Jane Goldman

(based on the novel MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN by Ransom Riggs)

Starring: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Ella Purnell, Terence Stamp, Judi Dench, Chris O’Dowd, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie & Samuel L. Jackson

To be perfectly blunt, MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN is Tim Burton’s X-MEN. I’m far from the first person to say that and I know that this film is based on a popular series of dark-fantasy books. However, the comparison is definitely valid. Taken on its own merits, there are positive qualities in PECULIAR CHILDREN. However, lots of factors contribute to the film being merely okay as opposed to anything special or a return to oddball form for Burton. This is yet another young-adult adaptation that feels like set-up for a franchise with more interesting installments down the line.

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Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) is an angsty teen who’s recently lost his dementia-ridden grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) to unnatural causes. Abe would constantly wow kindergarten-aged Jake with tales of invisible children, monsters, and shapeshifters, but Jake outgrew those silly stories. In coping with his grandfather’s untimely death, Jake discovers there may be some truth to the old man’s stories. Jake soon finds himself immersed in a “time loop” with weird headmistress Alma Peregrine (Eva Green) and her peculiar children. Dark forces soon threaten Jake, Peregrine and the strange youngsters, putting bravery to the test and throwing Jake into a supernatural conflict that he’s just beginning to understand.

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The good news is that MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN isn’t on the same low quality that many other generic adolescent-aimed adaptations have been. This isn’t nearly as lame as something like DIVERGENT, BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, BEASTLY, TWILIGHT, etc. The slick cinematography, special effects (lots of cool CGI and impressive stop-motion) and sheer amount of creativity make PEREGRINE serviceable enough for older viewers and entertaining for younger viewers who might not be familiar with the books. Burton has occasional moments of great weirdness that feel like they belong in his earlier films. The second half is fun to watch as we see the X-Men, I mean the Peculiar Children, facing off against Lovecraftian monsters.

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Now for the negative, PECULIAR CHILDREN takes an entire hour to set up the basics of its plot and establish the supernatural world that Jake finds himself in. There have been plenty of fantasy adventures that introduced new story elements as the plot moved forward, but PEREGRINE seems to be deliberately taking its time to establish the universe for future films. There are so many rules, exposition-filled conversations, and explanations that it takes nearly 60 minutes to sit through these patience-testing plot developments. What’s even more frustrating is that apparently this film deviates significantly from the source material (according to a friend who has read the books), so this is a problem that lies squarely on the movie’s shoulders.

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As far as characters go, almost everybody seems to be defined by their powers. To bring up the aforementioned X-MEN comparison, there are mutants in that series who are defined by their powers, but there are also plenty of deep backstories and distinct personalities. The same cannot be said of MISS PEREGRINE as these kids are their peculiarities (a.k.a. powers). These supernatural abilities (or as Charles Xavier would call them “gifts”) serve as jokes, defense tools and excuses to further along the plot (e.g. one kid projects his dreams). Asa Butterfield has proven himself to be a talented performer in the past (HUGO, ENDER’S GAME) and seems to be have been handed a bland protagonist here. Jake feels like a character that we’ve seen a million times before and portrayed better.

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Terence Stamp is decent as Jake’s “delusional” grandfather, while Chris O’Dowd is entirely wasted as Jake’s concerned father. He’s understandably worried about his son’s mental health and we never get a concluding scene with his character. Eva Green is hollow as Miss Peregrine, serving almost no purpose other than guarding the children and explaining stuff to Jake (and the viewer). Samuel L. Jackson plays his most over-the-top villain since 2008’s THE SPIRIT as the eyeball-eating mad scientist Barron. It seems like Tim Burton (as so many other directors have) just let Jackson do his own thing in front of the camera. Sometimes this strategy works and other times (like in this film) it falls completely flat.

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Though MISS PEREGRINE definitely has problems, it should be mentioned that I don’t think this is a bad film. It’s just one of the lesser Burton efforts and seems overly familiar in a cinematic landscape that’s already become watered down with young adult adaptations in recent years. PECULIAR CHILDREN is just okay by both Burton standards, adolescent adaptation quality, and pure entertainment. I had fun watching the second half and was utterly bored by the poorly paced first hour. I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to sitting through any future PECULIAR installments in a potential trilogy. However, it would be nice if franchise starters could hold up on their own merits as opposed to feeling like a feature-length commercial for future sequels that might not even happen.

Grade: C+

FARCE OF THE PENGUINS (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 20 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Crude Sexual Content and Language

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Directed by: Bob Saget

Written by: Bob Saget

Voices of: Bob Saget, Lewis Black, Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Applegate, Jamie Kennedy, David Koechner, Whoopi Goldberg, Mo’Nique, Tracy Morgan, Carlos Mencia, Dane Cook, Jason Alexander, Jason Biggs, Norm Macdonald, Brie Larson, James Belushi, Dave Coulier, John Stamos, Jon Lovitz, Gilbert Gottfried, Damon Wayans & Abe Vigoda

If you’ve only seen Bob Saget in the long-running sitcom FULL HOUSE or hosting AMERICA’S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS, you might think he’s a family friendly comedian who constantly indulges in funny voices. You would be dead wrong though, because this man is a very adult-oriented, filthy comedian. Besides pulling a lot of dirty pranks behind the scenes of FULL HOUSE (which have been detailed in entertaining stories from former cast and crew members), Saget also had a penchant for producing disgusting stand-up comedy. He constantly swore up a storm on the stage and though I don’t find him to be hysterically funny, I can see the appeal in his profanity-laden brand of humor.

FARCE OF THE PENGUINS is Saget’s spoof of acclaimed documentary MARCH OF THE PENGUINS. Saget stated that he merely wanted to redub that original documentary, but wasn’t able to get permission from the filmmakers (gee, I wonder why). Instead, this X-rated real life counterpart to Danny Tanner compiled a mountain of stock footage and painstakingly edited it together. FARCE’s story revolves around penguins Carl (Bob Saget) and Jimmy (Lewis Black). Carl is a neurotic mess looking for love and Jimmy is a horny jerk starved for sex. Along with hundreds of other penguins, the two pals trek across the Antarctic for their annual mating season. Elsewhere, penguin Melissa (Christina Applegate) is waiting for “the one.” There are also subplots about a crazy loner (Carlos Mencia), a band of flightless birds that get lost in a barren landscape caused by global warming, and Samuel L. Jackson narrates with gratuitous “fucks” thrown every which way.

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FARCE seems like one of those animal clips from AMERICA’S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS with a larger voice cast, a feature-length running time, and more profanity/sex jokes than you would ever see on network television. Saget was clearly having a good time in making this movie and called out a lot of favors, as demonstrated by a large cast of big comedians (most of whom only pop in for a quick vocal cameo, before taking off running). Sadly, FARCE is an all-around failure that might have been funny if it were fifteen minutes long or if Saget found a way to keep things interesting beyond the one joke premise. Neither of those things happen though, turning FARCE into an all-out endurance test. This movie drags to a point where an 80 minute running time feels over two hours long. By the time the third act arrives (complete with extra scenes throughout the end credits), anyone drunk or high enough to get legitimate joy out of this film will likely be passed out or comatose in their boredom.

Even Saget seems to get bored with his main narrative, because he frequently finds reasons to cut away to other stock footage of different animals through FAMILY GUY-like throwaway lines. These include moments like Jimmy saying “Have you ever seen a walrus scratch it’s balls?” and then we cut away to thirty seconds of various walruses scratching themselves. Does that sound funny? What about the bit where they reference the writer of this movie and cut to an adorable monkey with a typewriter? That actually may have been a funny joke, but then Saget milks that primate footage for two more minutes of screen time. The only two moments that could have elicited chuckles out of me were already revealed in the 90-second-long trailer, Norm Macdonald asking to join in a threesome and Gilbert Gottfried screaming about “freezing his nuts off.”

In terms of lame spoofs, FARCE OF THE PENGUINS is marginally lower than reference-heavy garbage like MEET THE SPARTANS, DISASTER MOVIE, and EPIC MOVIE. Though those big-budget spoofs are abhorrently unfunny, mistake pop culture references for humor, and seem like pimples on the ass of the cinematic landscape, at least they have the decency to keep viewers rolling their eyes in frustration. FARCE OF THE PENGUINS is a struggle to get through and makes it seem like an insurmountable task to keep yourself awake for 80 straight minutes. If you have the desire to see comedians dub over penguins, then you’d be better off watching the FARCE trailer on YouTube and leaving it at that.

Grade: F

CELL (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Content, Terror, brief Sexuality and Language

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Directed by: Tod Williams

Written by: Stephen King & Adam Alleca

(based on the novel CELL by Stephen King)

Starring: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, Stacy Keach & Wilbur Fitzgerald

Even people who have never picked up one of Stephen King’s 54 novels are bound to know the man from his many big screen and small screen adaptations. CELL is the latest of these movies. Based on the 2006 zombie novel from King, this film has long been in the works with Eli Roth originally slated to direct and Dimension Studios backing the budget. Years passed. Nothing happened. People moved on with their lives. After a long and troubled production history, CELL has finally been unleashed onto the public. Is it worth the almost decade long journey to the big screen? Nope. Not even close. This is simultaneously one of the worst Stephen King movies and one of the worst zombie films to come out in a long time.

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Graphic artist Clay Riddell (John Cusack) is at an airport, when a mysterious electronic pulse is sent through every active cell phone in the world. Those exposed to the signal (anyone who happened to be on the cell phone) has transformed into a screeching, blood-thirsty “phoner” that wants nothing more than to eat your flesh. After escaping with the help of train operator Tom (Samuel L. Jackson), Clay desperately wishes to reach his family…if only to confirm whether they’re phoners or totally safe. Soon enough, the pair are joined by teenage Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman) and the newly formed trio of survivors make their way across the bloody cell phone apocalypse to rescue Clay’s family. As if things couldn’t get any more dangerous, phoners have formed a hive-mind and are now killing in flocks.

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I wanted to give CELL the benefit of the doubt. Believe me, I tried. I was a fan of the novel upon its release and have revisited it a few times since then, one of those was deliberately in preparation for this movie adaptation. Though it’s not exactly original, the book is a creepy, compelling and entertaining read. That being said, this movie is a complete and utter mess. As an adaptation of the source material, it fails to ignite any sense of suspense that the book carried so well. Part of this results from an obviously low budget that didn’t allow for the large-scale chaos and hysteria that King brought to life on the page. This is glaring in the consistently awful CGI that’s used for plane crashes, fire, explosions, smoke, and hordes of phoners. However, it seems outright useless in places, like when cheap CGI is employed for falling snow. I find it very hard to believe that this production couldn’t afford cheap plastic flakes that look more convincing than an obvious flash animation effect.

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Even when viewed as a standalone creation that’s loosely based on a Stephen King novel (a category in which some of the best King films fall into), CELL remains a boring, stupid slog to sit through. These 98 minutes feels like a chore to endure. The film opens with cheap lazy credits that hinted I might be in for something painful right from the start, but never gains any big momentum to make you feel that the world has fallen into a zombie-filled wasteland. The whole movie basically follows a repeating pattern of characters running into other characters, encountering a phoner flock, and meeting more characters. Some of these survivors happen to be plot points in the novel, but every side character (aside from our trio of survivors) is treated with an equal amount of disinterested blandness.

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John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson starred in one of the best King movies of the 2000’s: 1408. Cusack was even an executive producer on this film. In CELL, both of these talented performers look bored and I got the sense that they knew this material wasn’t working on the screen. Other supporting characters come and go in a forgettable flash, giving a variety of dull or comically over-the-top performances. One shining star in this bleak mess of a film comes in Isabelle Fuhrman (the creepy child from ORPHAN) as Alice. In the book, this character represents an innocence lost in the apocalypse. Fuhrman captures that relatively well, but is frequently swiped to the sidelines so Jackson and Cusack engage in tedious conversations. As far as other side characters go, Stacy Keach looks like he’s in pain as a boring school headmaster, Owen Teague receives about ten lines as a tag along student, and Anthony Reynolds goes beyond the point of over-the-top as a technological savvy survivor.

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For a zombie movie, CELL is shockingly dull and relatively tame in terms of gore. There are only about three or four notable zombie (er, I mean “phoner”) encounters after the airport chaos. These bits mostly include characters running away from zombies or firing guns (complete with Adobe after effects). However, these phoners aren’t exactly that threatening or scary to begin with. These zombies pretty much run in circles and emit electronic sounds from their mouths. While those details worked in the book, they look insanely silly and laughably bad on the screen. The main phoner antagonist, a red-hooded Raggedy Man, also comes off like a lame-brained, half-assed afterthought.

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To add insult to injury, CELL’s mind-bogglingly stupid ending lacks emotion or creativity. It should be noted that the film’s conclusion strays from the original novel and the author himself is partially responsible for this haphazard screenplay. Apparently, King had issues with the book’s finale (which was slightly ambiguous, but sent the story out on an interesting/possibly uplifting note) and attempted to remedy that here. He did about as good of a job as he accomplished in 1997, by “fixing” THE SHINING with a godawful six-hour miniseries starring Stephen Weber. The crappy ending is only more disappointment added onto this big failure of a film that somehow isn’t getting an F…thanks to a Isabelle Fuhrman’s good performance. This is easily one of the worst Stephen King films I’ve seen. It’s down there with THE TOMMYKNOCKERS, CHILDREN OF THE CORN, and THE LANGOILERS. Avoid CELL and stick to the book…or just watch a bevy of better zombie films.

Grade: D-

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Action and Violence, some Sensuality and brief Rude Dialogue

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Directed by: David Yates

Written by: Adam Cozad & Craig Brewer

(based on the TARZAN novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs)

Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent & Christoph Waltz

Hollywood loves to revisit classic characters (e.g. The Lone Ranger, Zorro, The Shadow, etc.), so it’s a bit odd that we haven’t seen a big-budget, live-action Tarzan film since 1984’s GREYSTOKE. It should be noted that a Tarzan reboot has been in the works since the early 2000’s, but kept running into various production problems and fell in development hell multiple times. This July, we finally have a new Tarzan film. However, this new adventure has been receiving negative reviews and might wind up as a box office flop. That’s a bit depressing, because THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is endearingly old-fashioned entertainment that is bound to make you laugh, get your adrenaline pumping, and feel the unique brand of movie magic that only good summer blockbusters can bring.

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In 1889, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) has become civilized into London life. Now going under the name of John Clayton III and sipping tea with his pinky out, Tarzan hasn’t been back to the jungle or African Congo villages in years. Instead he spends his days at a sophisticated manor with his lovely wife Jane (Margot Robbie), but that changes when Tarzan receives an invitation from King Leopold of Belgium. Accompanied by Jane and American freedom fighter George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), Tarzan soon learns that the royal summons was not exactly what it appeared to be. If he wishes to save his wife and countless people from the tyranny of evil Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), Tarzan will have to revert back to his wild ways and trek through the treacherous jungle.

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LEGEND OF TARZAN is directed by David Yates, who also helmed the latter half of the HARRY POTTER series. Injected with a grand visual style and capturing the sense of jungle adventure that its main character represents, this Tarzan story is simple to a fault and packs a ton of entertainment into less than two hours. What’s even more impressive is that it tells an origin story through flashbacks, while giving us a fresh adventure at the same time. The non-linear structure allows for well-placed flashbacks to fill us in on Tarzan’s beginnings and first encounters with Jane, while the main plot shows John Clayton III reverting to his old animalistic ways to save the day. If handled poorly, this approach could have backfired in a horribly misguided way. However, the flashbacks and 1889 storyline are perfectly balanced in that when one story begins to slow down, we are given more of the other narrative.

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Alexander Skarsgard is a likable lead as Tarzan and looks massive compared to everyone else around him. Though I praised how cool the non-linear story is for a classic character like Tarzan, this structure doesn’t leave a lot of room for supporting characters. Samuel L. Jackson serves as comic relief and gets a lot of hilarious moments, trying to keep up with Tarzan as he ventures through the jungle to rescue Jane. Speaking of which, Margot Robbie isn’t necessarily good as Jane. She’s plays a damsel in distress, which I guess was her character’s sole function to begin with, but I didn’t see a believable romantic connection between her and Tarzan. Jane also seems to get captured more than Lois Lane.

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On the villainous side of things, the always great Christoph Waltz plays sinister Captain Rom. Waltz seems to elevate any movie he’s in, especially when he’s playing a diabolical antagonist. That being said, I’d be lying if I said that Rom wasn’t a bland baddie. He just wants money and power, only receiving a handful of scenes to show off his evil chops. The only unique thing about his character is a strange weapon of choice, but that feels underdeveloped as well. Waltz is a fun enough villain, but I wish more time had been spent developing the character of Rom. Still, he seems entirely fleshed out when compared to Djimon Hounsou’s violent tribal leader who receives a whopping two scenes and better motivation for his villainy in a single less-than-a-minute-long flashback.

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As far as the look of the film goes, LEGEND OF TARZAN was clearly put together with a lot of attention to detail and fantastic CGI. The animals look completely realistic, even when they’re doing things that animals wouldn’t normally be doing, such as engaging in a one-on-one fist fight with a human being. The action isn’t strictly limited to apes, elephants, and cheetahs either, as other wildlife pops up purely for exciting action, a satisfying villain comeuppance, and comic relief that’s actually funny. Even though the film wasn’t shot in Africa, the locations come off as totally believable. The film is gorgeously put together all around and an atmospheric soundtrack adds a further air of sophistication and excitement.

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THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is one of the summer’s biggest surprises thus far. The film is exciting from start to finish, capturing the viewer’s imagination through an entertaining adventure that doesn’t feel the need to modernize itself through cheap jokes and revamped origins. The humor works on a timeless level. Samuel L. Jackson steals the show in certain scenes. Alexander Skarsgard plays a compelling Tarzan. The non-linear storytelling keeps things interesting and doesn’t simply retread a familiar origin story. Even in its faults, the film is still a lot of fun to watch. Christoph Waltz is always entertaining as a villain and the same can be said about his one-dimensional character here. Margot Robbie is simply a damsel in distress, but does what she can with those limitations. LEGEND OF TARZAN is simply a great adventure on the big screen and should satisfy those looking for pure old-fashioned entertainment.

Grade: B+

My Top 15 Films of 2015

List by Derrick Carter

2015 was a great year for cinema. So much so, that I’ve decided not to make a “Top 10 Films” of the year, but a “Top 15” instead. It should be noted that I haven’t seen every single movie that came out during the past twelve months. I’m one man after all and only pay money for and spend time on stuff that interests me. That being said, I reviewed 132 new releases during 2015. There are a few movies that I plan on covering and could have potentially made this list if I had seen them in 2015. These are: THE REVENANT, CAROL, ANOMALISA, and SON OF SAUL. The fifteen titles that did make the cut are flicks that I absolutely loved, plan on adding to my collection, and rewatching many times for years to come. I don’t expect everybody to agree with all of them, but hopefully I’ve recommended a couple of films that peak your interest.

Before getting into list itself, I feel a few honorable mentions are in order. BRIDGE OF SPIES showed that Steven Spielberg has not lost a shred of talent over the years. THE JINX proved to be a groundbreaking true-crime documentary that literally made history. Coming off a string of misfires, Melissa McCarthy delivered her funniest comedy yet in SPY. Finally, on the scary side of things, KRAMPUS is a great holiday horror-comedy that I plan on making an annual Christmas tradition and GOODNIGHT MOMMY is a freaky shudder-inducing little nightmare. Without further ado, I’ll move onto my favorite films of 2015…

15. Black Mass

15. BLACK MASS: Throughout the years, Johnny Depp has become a ghost of his former talented self, but delivered one of his best performances ever this year. He disappeared into the role Whitey Bulger and became a terrifying on-screen monster. The story is a complex one that couldn’t easily be told in the space of a two-hour film. Though I feel it would have been a modern crime masterpiece if 30 more minutes had been tacked onto the final third, director Scott Cooper did a phenomenal job portraying one of the most notorious gangster stories in American history. Depp isn’t necessarily the star of this movie as the rest of the cast is especially strong. Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, and many more round out a great ensemble picture. It might not be a modern GOODFELLAS, but I’d rank it as a modern CASINO. BLACK MASS is easily one of the best real-life gangster films to come out of the new millennium.

14. It Follows

14. IT FOLLOWS: In the vein of the original HALLOWEEN and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, IT FOLLOWS is one of the single scariest viewing experiences that I’ve had all year. I attended a midnight screening at Sundance and everyone was losing their minds in the theater over this film. While it only has a few big jolts, IT FOLLOWS manages to get under your skin and stay there. I found myself getting progressively more creeped out when I arrived home and couldn’t stop thinking about the film. What’s even better about this movie is how it took the more difficult and complicated route instead of merely becoming a supernatural slasher. Instead, the film lets a dread-soaked atmosphere float around the viewer…and like “it” does to the characters themselves, that feeling follows you around long after the end credits have rolled.

13. Going Clear

13. GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF: The best documentary that I watched all year, GOING CLEAR is a fascinating and disturbing look into the inner workings of Scientology. Covering the formation of this so-called “religion” (you won’t blame me for calling it a cult after you watch this doc) to the huge amount of controversy surrounding it to the systematic abuse of its followers and opponents, GOING CLEAR is a harrowing watch. The testimonies from former members of the church are both chilling and heartbreaking. Some masterful editing also allows for brief moments of humor, such as a cheesy Scientology music video and an improvised awards ceremony invented specifically for Tom Cruise. As I stated in my review back in March, GOING CLEAR would almost be ridiculous and amusing, if it weren’t so devastating and terrifying.

12. Hateful Eight

12. THE HATEFUL EIGHT: It might not be Tarantino’s best film, but I loved the hell out of the HATEFUL EIGHT! A far more contained story than Tarantino’s recent Oscar nominees, this is pretty much RESERVOIR DOGS set in the Old West with more suspense. Besides that familiar set up, Tarantino manages to milk a massive amount of tension from each scene leading up to many unexpected revelations, over-the-top gore, and sick humor. I was on the edge of my seat throughout, almost fell out of my chair laughing at one point, and left totally satisfied.

11. Kingsman

11. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE: Nobody expected this movie to be nearly as good as it was. The two best descriptions I can give KINGSMAN are that it’s either the KICK-ASS of spy movies or a very R-rated take on SPY KIDS. The film is wild, crazy, fast-paced and never takes itself seriously. In a year that’s been populated by plenty of superheroes, KINGSMAN is my favorite comic book adaptation of 2015. The church scene alone was one of the most jaw-dropping sequences I’ve sat through all year. The rest of the film is hugely entertaining and has the balls to take risks. KINGSMAN was definitely one of the biggest cinematic surprises I had all year, but it was upended by…

10. Gift

10. THE GIFT: This is the biggest surprise that I had in 2015. The trailer made it look like a generic thriller that had already been done a million times before. However, this can all be chalked up to bad marketing because Joel Edgerton pulled triple duty and put his heart into this well-crafted shocker. The film intentionally misleads the audience through various points before unleashing big bombshells upon them. The ending also left me speechless and contemplating it for days afterwards. This is one of those films that is pretty much guaranteed to generate a discussion with other film-loving friends. THE GIFT is not a predictable black-and-white thriller, but something much deeper and far scarier.

9. MI5

9. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -ROGUE NATION: The MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series has had its ups and downs. The first was good. The second was crap. The third was great. The fourth was fun. However, I don’t think anybody could have predicted that the fifth installment of this high-octane spy series would be the best of the bunch thus far. That was definitely the case as ROGUE NATION unleashed compelling high stakes, brought back old characters as if no time had passed at all, introduced a cool new ones, and had some fantastic set-pieces. In many ways (Bond girl, villain, secret evil organization), MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -ROGUE NATION was a far better Bond movie than the actual Bond movie we received this year.

8. Crimson Peak

8. CRIMSON PEAK: This gorgeously realized film feels like Edgar Allan Poe and Jane Austen penned a novel together and then Guillermo Del Toro adapted it to the screen. Those who go in expecting endless jump scares and a typical ghost story will find themselves either let down or elated by the film being a gothic romance that happens to contain some very frightening ghosts and thick horror elements in its story. Every frame of the film is beautiful to look at and atmospheric beyond belief. There are shots of this movie that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since I originally saw it and I believe it’s among the very best of Guillermo Del Toro’s filmography. Jessica Chastain is also a fearsome force to behold!

7. Spotlight

7. SPOTLIGHT: A tastefully made movie about one of the most disturbing cover-ups in recent history. SPOTLIGHT could have easily gone for shock value and went all out to demonize religion as a whole. Actually, that’s sort of what I was expecting it to do when I walked into the theater. Imagine my surprise at how restrained and respectful this film is. Aided by one of the most realistic looks at journalism that you’re bound to see on film, the movie packs in so much emotion without ever crossing the line into anything that possibly resemble shock value or cheap shots. Instead, the film asks tough questions, brings powerful performances to the screen, and leaves the viewer with a lot to chew on. This is one of the most important movies of 2015.

6. Macbeth

6. MACBETH: Shakespeare has been brought to the big screen in many ways by many different filmmakers. This beautiful, bleak take on the Scottish Play might just be my favorite Shakespeare movie thus far. With dialogue being delivered in a naturalistic manner and some creative licensing thrown into the centuries-old material, this version of MACBETH somehow improves upon the already perfect tragedy by adding unexpected context into the mix. Michael Fassbender is stunning as the title character, but it’s Marion Cotillard who steals the show. Lady Macbeth is actually made into a sympathetic character which is something that I felt could never, ever be accomplished in any take on the play. It’s also worth noting that this is definitely not a Shakespeare adaptation that will be shown in many high school classrooms, which is a very good thing indeed!

5. Sicario

5. SICARIO: In 2013, Denis Villeneuve wowed me with PRISONERS. In 2015, he returned with the complex cartel thriller SICARIO. A movie that never allows you to get comfortable in your seat or breathe normally throughout its entire running time, SICARIO is a grim, bleak, and depressing movie…and all the better for it. This thriller had a number of stand-out sequences, an intense beyond words finale being one of them. Villeneuve knew precisely when to merely imply the dark deeds occurring just beyond a locked door and when to casually showcase disturbing sights in broad daylight. Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin are all fantastic in their parts. It’s likely that SICARIO will keep you thinking about it long after you’ve finished watching it, but just be prepared for that as there’s no glimmer of happiness or hope to be found within a single frame of this film.

4. Ex Machina

4. EX MACHINA: One of the best pieces of thought-provoking science-fiction to come out in a long, long time, EX MACHINA is a brilliantly crafted beast of a film. I loved everything about it when I first watched it back in April. The performances from the leads (likable Domnhall Gleeson, robotic Alicia Vikander, and scary Oscar Isaac) make for a film that’s pretty much a three character play. The uniquely designed house/research facility is almost a character as well, because the sense of claustrophobia and steadily rising tension become damn near nightmarish by the final third. The effects are excellently rendered and the film gets even better upon repeat viewings (little details stuck out more during the second and third times that I watched it). The hauntingly beautiful soundtrack is just the icing on the cake for my fourth best film of 2015.

3. Room

3. ROOM: Difficult and immensely rewarding, ROOM is a drama like no other. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name (which in turn was inspired by a real-life kidnapping case), this film is tense and remarkably uplifting. Throughout the whole running time, the story walks a tightrope between being heartwarming and heartbreaking. It ultimately winds up with the best of both worlds as various audience members (including myself) were crying at various points throughout the film. As sad as it can be, I left feeling immensely uplifted by this beautiful movie about love and courage. Brie Larson (the frontrunner for Best Actress of 2015) and 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay (giving one of the best child performances that I’ve ever seen in my entire life) are both wholly convincing and believable. I cannot praise this movie enough. It’s amazing!

2. Inside Out

2. INSIDE OUT: A family film that’s made more for adults than it is for children, INSIDE OUT wound up being one of the most emotional theater experiences of 2015 for me (pun fully intended). Though it may look sweet, innocent and cute on the outside, the movie packs a lot of emotional truths that will hit older viewers far more than kids who just want to watch a cartoon. It’s also the biggest tearjerker that I saw all year (right next to ROOM). The film is just beautiful and encapsulates everything that life itself in brilliantly creative ways. It also has one of the most mature messages that I’ve ever seen in a children’s film. It’s not only my second favorite movie of 2015, but my favorite Pixar movie thus far!

1. Mad Max Fury Road

1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD: Director/writer George Miller had over two decades to craft his fourth MAD MAX movie to perfection and that’s exactly what he did! MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was easily one of the most adrenaline-pumping, kick-ass movies that I’ve ever experienced in a theater. I loved it so much that I saw it twice within four days on the big screen and it has enjoyed many repeat viewings since its home video release. Though some fans have joked that it’s simply a two-hour chase scene, the story manages to encapsulate far more than that. There are issues of gender, slavery, religion, etc. that all come up in subtle (sometimes, obvious), smart ways throughout the film. The movie never stops to deliver heavy-handed exposition to the viewer and gives enough details so we can simply figure it all out for ourselves. The visuals look incredible as this apocalyptic wasteland was wholly convincing, in no small part due to practical effects, dangerous stunt work, and subtle green screen effects. FURY ROAD has joined the rare breed of perfect summer blockbusters that includes the likes of ALIENS and TERMINATOR 2. Bravo!

2015 was a year that was packed full of releases. Some were amazing, some were good, and others fell lower on the cinematic totem pole. It’s definitely been one of the most interesting years for cinema and I look forward to seeing what 2016 has in store for filmgoers!

THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence, a scene of Violent Sexual Content, Language and some Graphic Nudity

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Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, James Parks, Channing Tatum & Zoe Bell

Love him or hate him, it cannot be argued whether or not Quentin Tarantino is a unique filmmaker. You can always tell when you’re watching a Tarantino film. To me, he hasn’t yet made a bad movie and his winning streak continues with the heavily anticipated HATEFUL EIGHT. Tarantino’s eighth movie is a gory western crossed with an Agatha Christie mystery. Though HATEFUL EIGHT definitely isn’t made for everyone, I had a blast watching Tarantino’s suspenseful, stylish western-mystery unfold.

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In the aftermath of the Civil War, black bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren has found himself stranded in the middle of a wintry wilderness. His chance at survival comes in a lone stagecoach carrying John Ruth “The Hangman” (a bounty hunter who keeps his prisoners alive to see the hangman’s noose) and prisoner Daisy Domergue (a murderess with ten thousand dollars on her head). Warren, The Hangman, Daisy, and another passenger are overtaken by a vicious blizzard and find shelter in an isolated lodge. Inside this comfy establishment are a handful of questionable folks. Things slowly turn violent as one of lodge guests appears to be have deadly intentions of setting Daisy free.

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Two versions of THE HATEFUL EIGHT are currently playing in theaters: the general release (the version that I saw) and an extended director’s cut (running 20 minutes longer in road show format). The film is a little long in the tooth (mainly due to establishing shots and scene transitions), but definitely packs the bloody punch. Though it’s a far more contained movie than INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (my favorite of Tarantino’s filmography) or DJANGO UNCHAINED, HATEFUL EIGHT finds Quentin returning to his roots as the film somewhat resembles his debut RESERVOIR DOGS. A majority of the story takes place within a single location (in this case, the lodge) and most of the tension arises from an antagonist hiding in plain sight.

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My comparison of Tarantino’s latest film to his directorial debut is not meant as a negative one, because HATEFUL EIGHT thrives on slow-building suspense and mystery that is unlike anything this filmmaker has attempted before. While the rest of his filmography ranges from bloody journeys of vengeance to non-linear crime tales, this is ostensibly a murder mystery set in post-Civil War Wyoming. The first half builds on uneasy tension and colorful character introductions/interactions. The second half becomes a carnage-laden bloodbath and dangerous discoveries lie around every corner.

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The HATEFUL characters themselves are played by a solid cast of talented performers. Samuel L. Jackson takes center stage as Warren and its one of the best roles of his entire career. Tarantino has managed to combine everything that’s badass about Jackson’s usual action heroes into one character with a complicated sympathetic side. Kurt Russell seems to be channeling John Wayne in “The Hangman.” Jennifer Jason Leigh is a fiercely unhinged screen presence as the psychotic, dangerous (and frequently abused) Daisy Domergue. Walton Goggins (previously seen in this year’s underrated AMERICAN ULTRA) receives the biggest role of his career thus far, while Tim Roth plays a slimy character with unclear intentions. Meanwhile, Bruce Dern shows up as a racist old-timer, Michael Madsen plays a foreboding cowboy, and Channing Tatum also has a brief (but very memorable) role. The best thing about all of these characters is that we don’t know who to root for and clues revealed during the second half of the film unveil who’s bad and who’s worse.

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To cap all of these positive qualities off, HATEFUL EIGHT’s cinematography is gorgeous and the dread-soaked soundtrack lends a perfect sense of unease to the already well-crafted story. Seeing as this is a Tarantino film, you should brace yourself for plenty of witty dialogue, over-the-top bloodshed, and a darker than dark sense of humor. The last of these qualities seems to have made a splash with people as one of the running gags could be seen as controversial. However, it seemed to get a big positive reaction from the audience in my theater and I was laughing the whole way through. Tarantino has managed to balance unexpected suspense with his special brand of expected blood-soaked mayhem. Though THE HATEFUL EIGHT might run a tad long, it’s a near-perfect film from one of my all-time favorite directors. Face it. You already kind of know whether this movie is for you or not.

Grade: A

THE MAN (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 23 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Language, Rude Dialogue and some Violence

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Directed by: Les Mayfield

Written by: Jim Piddock, Margaret Oberman & Stephen Carpenter

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Eugene Levy, Luke Goss, Miguel Ferrer, Susie Essman, Anthony Mackie & Gigi Rice

Samuel L. Jackson and Eugene Levy are funny on their own, so someone might assume that THE MAN would get a few chuckles by combining the two into one movie. It’s a fish-out-of-water comedy with potential for clever, if not familiar, laughs. However, THE MAN just might be one of the lamest, laziest and most poorly written comedies to come out of the 2000’s. This film seems to be using a script that’s been collecting dust since the mid-80’s. Instead of simply being as generic as its title, THE MAN runs on a plethora of stale jokes and farts. Before getting into why this movie sucks as badly as it does, I’ll set up the premise.

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Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. Andy Fiddler is a dorky dental equipment salesman who’s visiting the city of Detroit to make an important speech at a sales convention. Agent Derrick Vann is a loose cannon cop who doesn’t play by the rules. Vann’s partner was recently discovered to be dirty and deceased (gunned down by a group of dangerous arms runners). Through a sheer coincidence, Andy gets mistaken for Vann in an undercover operation. This leads to Vann having to drag the reluctant, loud-mouthed Andy along for the investigation as he tries to capture these arms dealers. Wacky, unfunny hijinks ensue.

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Comedy is a hugely subjective genre. What might be hilarious to one person could be lame to someone else. This all being said, I suspect that THE MAN didn’t have many people rolling in the aisles at the movie theater or laughing out loud at home. These jokes have all been done before in countless other movies. We also get not one, but multiple fart jokes as Andy doesn’t do well with red meat. Meanwhile, the entire plot is an overly familiar mistaken identity/fish out of water story and mainly hinges on Eugene Levy. This recognizable performer is simply off his game as a bumbling goof who is far more annoying than he is funny. Some of his “highlights” include holding up an airport line to discuss a tongue scraper with a disinterested flight attendant, getting in a scuffle with a hobo over a paper bag, and getting shot in the butt. Also, I’d be remiss not to bring up those two terrible fart scenes again. The whole shtick with Levy’s Andy is that he’s constantly chatting off the ear of Samuel L. Jackson’s hard-boiled cop and driving him to his breaking point. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Jackson as Levy’s constant yammering was driving me close to shutting the movie off too.

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Samuel L. Jackson is his usual badass self and a stereotypical loose cannon cop at the same time. Some of his clichés include flipping out at his superiors and meeting informants for no other reason than to get exposition while making a public spectacle of chasing them down with his car. Honestly, Jackson seems bored and isn’t the biggest problem with this movie. Other cast members include Luke Goss as the villain (the only character to elicit a single chuckle out of me), a younger Anthony Mackie as the informant, and an underused Miguel Ferrer as Jackson’s superior.

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If THE MAN were simply a lame comedy, it might be a tad more tolerable than it actually is for trying to include a forced sentimental side halfway through. The screenplay (penned by three writers!) somehow tries to turn Eugene Levy’s Andy into a sympathetic do-gooder by the middle of the film in having him give life advice to Samuel L. Jackson. It goes further down this hole by trying to play off the two forming a friendship that isn’t convincing or believable, especially considering all the stuff they put each other through. On the technical side of things, the cinematography ranks with older network television procedurals and the soundtrack adds a “derpty derp” sense of blandness. Besides one chuckle that I got from the villain, the only positive thing I can say about THE MAN is that it has the decency to run at under 90 minutes. This film bombed at the box office as well as tanked with critics and audiences alike. It deserves to be forgotten in the annals of cinematic flops and I’m probably giving it more attention than I should be by writing this review.

Grade: D-

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