WAR MACHINE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: David Michod

Written by: David Michod

(based on the book THE OPERATORS by Michael Hastings)

Starring: Brad Pitt, Ben Kingsley, Anthony Hayes, Emory Cohen, RJ Cyler, Daniel Betts, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall, John Magaro, Scoot McNairy, Will Poulter, Josh Stewart & Tilda Swinton

Based on the non-fiction book THE OPERATORS, WAR MACHINE is the true-ish story of a military general’s rise and fall. Anti-war films and satire have gone together before. We’ve seen this combination in various TWILIGHT ZONE episodes and Stanley Kubrick made possibly the ultimate anti-war comedy in DR. STRANGELOVE. WAR MACHINE seems to be aiming for a satirical target, but frequently forgets the laughs and also tries to play itself up as a serious-ish drama at points too. This leads to an uneven film that’s not good and not bad, but somewhere in-between.

The war in Afghanistan has raged on for years, so the USA has sent in General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt) to bring the conflict to an end. Instead of simply toning things down and readying to withdraw the troops, McMahon takes the unwinnable “war on terror” as a challenge and vows to come out with a victory. His quest for greatness leads the ego-driven military man and his colorful soldiers on a publicity-filled journey to win the war. As you might imagine, things don’t exactly go according to plan…because, well, you probably saw on the “war on terror” ended?

WAR MACHINE’s best quality comes in Brad Pitt’s performance as the determined general. At times, the film seems to almost turn into a character study of sorts and Pitt’s Mahon serves as a fascinating subject. He’s not a bad guy, not at all. His intentions are good and he wants to end his career on the noblest note possible. He just doesn’t seem to understand that he’s been thrust into a hole and keeps digging himself deeper. In certain moments, Pitt gets some chuckles in his reactions to the less-experienced higher-ups’ decisions (like having to wait for not one, but two, elections before going into combat). Furthermore, moments between McMahon and his wife provide extra effort in humanizing this character. Pitt’s McMahon, based on real-life general Stanley McChrystal, is easily one of the film’s biggest highlights.

The supporting cast is noticeably weaker as A-list actors briefly pop in for cameo-like appearances, while other actors are wasted on one-note stereotypes. There’s the geeky hacker soldier, the guy with anger issues, the one who doesn’t do much of everything, and the press guy who tries to put a positive spin on everything. Out of these four so-so characters, the only real performance of note is Topher Grace as the press relations guy and he gets occasional chuckles. Scoot McNairy plays a substitute for real-life Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings, while Tilda Swinton receives one scene as an inquisitive German journalist. Ben Kingsley only has two brief scenes, the latter of which serves as one of the film’s more powerful moments as he reveals he knows his consent isn’t a big part of this war.

On a positive note, WAR MACHINE looks great. There was clearly a budget behind this project. Unfortunately, solid production values and a good leading performance can’t save the disjointed tone of the entire film. WAR MACHINE gets laughs early on, but then feels like it’s half-assing the comedic angle. As it tries to become more serious, it finds only a decent amount of success as a character study thanks to Pitt’s performances and a few good scenes showcasing the McMahon’s admirable qualities and weaknesses. The film falters when it comes to its most important aspect…being a war film. There are too many mixed bag moments before admittedly effective later scenes, so the final message feels disingenuous.

In watching WAR MACHINE’s tepid attempts at humor and not-quite-earned final message, I couldn’t help but wonder why David Michod didn’t just make a drama about a troubled general in the final days of the Afghanistan war. There are a few good laughs early on and great bits of drama that arrive in the second half, but the rest of the film feels confused and unsure of itself. Brad Pitt’s performance is a plus and I don’t consider WAR MACHINE to be a bad film at all. It’s just very messy and completely scattershot. It’s confused and unfocused, kind of like the “war on terror.” You can’t win a war against a concept and you can’t make a proper anti-war film without clear focus from the beginning. WAR MACHINE is just okay. If you need a two-hour time killer and like war movies (or Brad Pitt), this might do something for you.

Grade: C+

SLEEPLESS (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language throughout

Directed by: Baran bo Odar

Written by: Andrea Berloff

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Clifford Joseph Harris Jr., Michelle Monaghan, Dermot Mulroney, David Harbour, Gabrielle Union & Scoot McNairy

SLEEPLESS had every indication of sucking. It was a remake of an acclaimed French action flick SLEEPLESS NIGHT (which I haven’t seen), it had a foreboding January release date (a dumping ground for studios), and I’d heard nothing but negative things about it since its release. Still, something kept me interested in watching this flick and I’m glad that I did. Don’t get me wrong, SLEEPLESS isn’t necessarily special or outstanding. This is a simple, fun action flick with slick visuals and some smart storytelling; along with a healthy dose of silly clichés and dumb decisions.

Vincent Downs (Jamie Foxx) is a corrupt Las Vegas policeman who indulges in robberies from time to time. His latest stick-up happened to be 25 kilos of cocaine that belongs to casino owner Stanley Rubino (Dermot Mulroney). Things seem to be going fine for Downs until Rubino’s men kidnap his disgruntled teenage son (Markell Watson) and demand their illegal white powder back. A simple exchange of drugs for a hostage becomes far more complicated and dangerous, because two internal affairs officers (Michelle Monaghan and David Harbour) show up looking for Downs and a psycho gangster (Scoot McNairy) comes into play.

For a majority of its running time, SLEEPLESS takes place in Rubino’s large casino. Certain characters interact with each other on one floor, while other characters attempt to avoid detection or kick ass in a different area. There’s a constant threat of enemies coming from all sides and different subplots weave in and out of each other. The two cops are on his tail, his son is being held hostage, and there’s the psycho drug dealer’s contentious relationship with the casino owner. As you might imagine, a few twists make their way into the mix. Some of these developments are unexpectedly clever, while others are silly and a little too convenient.

SLEEPLESS’s biggest problem is its reliance on some really stupid character decisions to further its plot along. These aren’t egregiously annoying as the film tries to write their dumb mistakes off in “smart” ways. However, a few plot developments are somewhat unbelievable. It does help that the performances are solid across the board though. Jamie Foxx makes for an interesting protagonist, who initially tests the viewer’s empathy by being corrupt and kind of a jerk towards everyone around him. Michelle Monaghan is great as a do-gooder antagonist in this plot. Her decisions will likely make the viewer throw their hands up in frustration, but in any other movie, we’d probably be rooting for her. David Harbour brings his usual level of quality as Monaghan’s partner and is easily become one of my favorite modern character actors.

As the casino owner, Dermot Mulroney comes off as a bland baddie. He’s not the main antagonist though, because Scoot McNairy’s psycho gangster easily steals the show. McNairy is so good at playing scumbags and delivers one of his most unhinged characters to date. From his torture-happy introduction to his bullet-filled final scene, McNairy is downright scary. Meanwhile, Markell Watson is okay enough as the kidnapped kid and Gabrielle Union seems to be phoning it in as the concerned mother (who conveniently keeps a gun in her glove box, of course).

SLEEPLESS’s has a variety of action-filled moments and no two scenes seem alike. There’s are a few hand-to-hand confrontations that involve a glass table (which, of course, has somebody being thrown through it) and kitchen utensils (which, of course, results in a surprisingly anticlimactic knife fight). There are gun fights and a broken champagne bottle becomes a deadly weapon in one of the film’s best kills (wasted on a poor random henchman). Also, a showdown in a parking garage gets increasingly ridiculous, but remains entertaining the whole way through. Of course, the gangster would have a gas mask and smoke grenades in his car…because what psycho gangster wouldn’t have those readily on hand?

SLEEPLESS has more than its fair share of clichés and increasingly convenient plot developments that arise as the fast-paced running time chugs along. For all of its faults though, I had fun watching this movie. The acting is solid from damn near every cast member, with a few delivering outright terrific performances. The action is mostly well-executed (with minimal shaky cam) and the cinematography is visually pleasing. The premise of setting the film almost entirely within a casino is cool and the storytelling does a lot with this colorful environment. If you want a dumb little actioner and don’t mind noticeable silliness, then give SLEEPLESS a look.

Grade: B-

BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action throughout, and some Sensuality

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Directed by: Zack Snyder

Written by: Chris Terrio & David S. Goyer

(based on the DC Comics)

Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter & Gal Gadot

The cinematic Cold War between DC and Marvel has officially begun! As a result, many films will be arriving in the next four years from both companies, much to the delight of superhero fans everywhere. After delivering a brand new Superman with 2013’s MAN OF STEEL (which was a polarizing film, but I fell on the side that liked it as big dumb fun), DC is back with a clash of superhero titans that also serves as a backdoor for the Justice League to be formed. However, DC might have been better if they had slowly built up their Extended Universe before getting into crossover plotlines, because BATMAN v SUPERMAN is a movie that is brimming with potential and almost none of it comes to the screen. I really wanted to love this film or even just enjoy it as another big budget superhero blockbuster, but I walked away very disappointed.

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The story kicks off with MAN OF STEEL’s final fight from a different perspective: Bruce Wayne/Batman’s (Ben Affleck) who frantically rushes to save civilians from falling rubble. Traumatized by Clark Kent/Superman’s destructive powers, Wayne becomes obsessed with the Man of Steel being able to wipe out humanity. This eats away at his personal life as Batman’s crime-fighting tactics become more vicious. Meanwhile, Clark Kent becomes obsessed over the violent vigilante in the neighboring Gotham City. Once Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne cross paths at a party held by the villainous Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), a conflict arises between both heroes that can only resolve in a brutal fight…with possible world-ending stakes also at hand.

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I’ll list the positives about this film first. Despite many overreactions to his casting announcement, Ben Affleck is pretty damn good as Bruce Wayne/Batman. He brings a level of intensity and grittiness to the character that we’ve come to expect and goes slightly darker (akin to Frank Miller’s more violent take on the hero). Jeremy Irons is perfectly cast as Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler/Batman’s loyal servant. Though he isn’t given much to do…other than delivering a handful of snappy one-liners and quick-witted remarks, Irons is a lot of fun in the role. Finally, the expected fight scene between Batman and Superman is well-done. There are creative set pieces utilized (leveling the playing field between the two) as well as the sequence just being plain cool to watch as two iconic superheroes duke it out!

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Now that those positives have been stated, allow me to mention the many downsides to this film. Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill don’t have a hell of a lot of screen time together. In fact, Batman and Superman aren’t given much to do before the big fight scene (that arrives in the second half of the film). We see Batman hide in a corner and chase a truck, but that’s about all we get. As far as Kal-El is concerned, we get a montage of Superman rescuing people from disasters and occasionally saving Louis Lane (as per usual)…but not much actual crime fighting. Instead of any superhero action or excitement, we’re treated to Bruce Wayne having horribly cheesy nightmare sequences (one of which actually used the dream-within-a-dream cliché) and Superman being demonized by a Senator.

Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice

If only the villains were entertaining to watch while Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent go about their daily lives. Instead, Luthor and Doomsday are two underwhelming antagonists. Lex Luthor is being played by a woefully miscast Jesse Eisenberg. Though its clear that they were trying something new with the famous comic book villain (who was previously portrayed by Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey), this young and hip approach didn’t work as Luthor comes off as a whiny spoiled rich kid as opposed to being a legitimately intimidating, despicable baddie. I didn’t hate this villain like I should have, but was rather annoyed every time he was on the screen. It’s like they told Jesse Eisenberg to do a slightly quirky, hyperactive version of Mark Zuckerberg from THE SOCIAL NETWORK and then played classical music over it. Eisenberg’s Luthor is laughably bad to behold.

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As for Doomsday (playing a major role in the second half of the film), his inclusion feels arbitrary, half-assed and useless. Poorly rendered CGI cause this alien foe to resemble a radioactive version of the cave troll from LORD OF THE RINGS. This monster looks like it belongs in a Syfy Channel movie as opposed to a 250-million-dollar blockbuster. The only positive thing to come out of his appearance is a glorified cameo from Wonder Woman. However, watching the trio of DC heroes fight off this damn near unstoppable villain becomes repetitive and dull after five minutes.

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There are a number of reasons why BATMAN v SUPERMAN is a disappointment. One might be from the DC Extended Universe shooting themselves in the foot by shoving this tent pole title out too soon. Imagine if Marvel had put out THE AVENGERS before developing any other characters besides Iron Man? Another big reason why this clash of superheroes underwhelms is due to its messy, unfocused script. There’s not nearly the level of action, excitement and humor that there should be in a film where Batman is fighting friggin’ Superman! The animated series had a better well-rounded conflict between these characters. Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne barely encounter each other before the admittedly well-done fight scene. The main problem though is that BATMAN v SUPERMAN is a film packed with too much filler and obvious bridge-building for future installments (something that Marvel’s AGE OF ULTRON also suffered from), and not nearly enough of the titular promised hero vs. hero conflict.

Grade: C-

BLACK SEA (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout, some Graphic Images and Violence

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Directed by: Kevin Macdonald

Written by: Dennis Kelly

Starring: Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, David Threlfall, Karl Davies & Michael Smiley

BLACK SEA is a nice surprise. Though I was sold on the concept and talent involved, the promotional material for this film made it look like a standard thriller about a killer picking people off one by one that happened to be set on a submarine. This was not the case at all. BLACK SEA turned out to be a thrilling adventure that had me on the edge of my seat and elicited many gasps from the decent sized audience who saw it with me. This might go down as one of 2015’s most underrated flicks.

BLACK SEA, Jude Law, 2014. ph: Alex Bailey/©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

Robinson is a dedicated submarine captain who has sacrificed his relationships for his job and has also just been unceremoniously fired. Frustrated with the prospect of living out of a dingy apartment and flipping burgers for the rest of his life, this former ocean expert is offered the opportunity of a lifetime. He and a specialized crew are hired to go on a treasure hunt. A sunken U-Boat lying at the bottom of the Black Sea is supposedly filled with millions in Nazi gold. The submarine is picked. The expedition is financed. The crew is assembled (half British and half Russian). As the trip begins, tensions ignite. Danger comes from all sides and the deep-sea voyage begin to go sour.

BLACK SEA, Jude Law, 2014. ph: Alex Bailey/©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

Being partially misled by a trailer that seemingly gave away the whole plot, I was surprised that BLACK SEA not only to avoided generic thriller tropes, but quickly turned into a adrenaline-pumping adventure. The story isn’t only about tensions rising in a crew that’s split down in the middle, but also about the many perils of the treasure hunt to begin with. While there are bombastic scenes of bad things hitting the fan (especially in the final third), there are equally moments of quiet dread and tension coming from the outside of the submarine as well. Plot developments can be predictable in moments, including the addition of a teenage sidekick in the submarine and a few generic memory flashbacks from Jude Law’s character, but BLACK SEA is a highly entertaining blast.

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Director Kevin Macdonald masterfully piles on intense atmosphere. This film will definitely make claustrophobic viewers majorly uncomfortable as most of the story takes place under the sea where death surrounds the crew with no easy escape. The cinematography is beautiful and I was wholly convinced that this film was shot on location, though it was actually filmed in England and not war-torn waters of Russia. The story takes a dark turn as bodies pile up, but these aren’t simply the result of a crazy crew member (though there are a couple of those in tow). These deaths are made more devastating given how damned good most of the performers are in their roles. When a character died, I was sad to see them go.

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Jude Law is a quality actor and that hasn’t changed for his role as hardened Captain Robinson. Ben Mendelsohn is particularly memorable as a diver with a short fuse. Scoot McNairy seems to have a knack for playing assholes and that translates well into his role as a snobby high-class assistant thrown on board with a lower-class crew. Michael Smiley is a nice addition as well, but young Bobby Schofield is annoying as the young teenage Tobin. That might be attributed to this character being a casualty of a number of clichés that make their way on board. Besides a kid-in-peril, there’s also familiarity in where things ultimately wind up. However, these issues don’t detract too much from the terrifically fun experience.

BLACK SEA, Jude Law, 2014. ph: Alex Bailey/©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

BLACK SEA might have a few clichés in tow, but is a great adventure nonetheless. This is not the generic thriller that was advertised, even if you can easily guess where the conclusion will wind up about 15 minutes before it hits. The performances are stellar as is the adrenaline rush left by this modern sea tale. BLACK SEA is a trip that’s well worth taking!

Grade: B+

GONE GIRL (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 29 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for a Scene of Bloody Violence, some Strong Sexual Content/Nudity, and Language

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Directed by: David Fincher

Written by: Gillian Flynn

(based on the novel GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn)

Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Casey Wilson & Missi Pyle

Since 2014 began, I was looking forward to GONE GIRL. This was one of the most anticipated films that I’d been waiting all year to see and I’m so glad to say that it didn’t disappoint. David Fincher is one of  the best directors working today and continues to excel at telling dark stories with this diabolical thriller. It should be said right out of the gate that GONE GIRL is probably not the most ideal first date movie. The film is a complex piece of work that covers a variety of timely topics in a twisted story about a marriage gone very wrong.

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On the morning of their fifth anniversary, Nick Dunne comes home from visiting his sister to find that his wife, Amy, has disappeared. There are signs of a struggle and the police are called. Though Nick is cooperating with the police and putting on the appearance of a good guy, there seems to be something off about him. It’s not too long before its revealed to the viewer that the situation isn’t quite as clear-cut as it seems. It would be sugar-coating things to say that Nick and Amy’s marriage was dysfunctional. Events arise, things get more complicated, and if anyone dares try to spoil this movie for you, punch them in the face!

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David Fincher has previously turned well-known novels into A+-worthy films (FIGHT CLUB, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO). It’s no easy feat, but Fincher does it yet again with GONE GIRL. Besides the man’s knack for directing awesome movies, it probably helps that the author of this source material has penned the screenplay for this adaptation. She knows precisely how the characters should behave and in what way certain plot developments should be given to the audience. The less said about the story itself, the better. You’ll be captivated if you go in knowing the general gist of the plot, but nothing else…unless you’re a fan of the book and then you’ll love it as well. GONE GIRL is a thriller that never goes in the direction you expect it to.

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Every actor in every single role (no matter how minor or large) nails their part perfectly. Ben Affleck (as questionable a Batman as he may wind up being) encapsulates Nick Dunne as a mysterious puzzle that the audience is dared to solve before the end credits roll. Rosamund Pike as Amy (seen in flashbacks) gets across the nervous wreck that this woman becomes due to many different problems caused by their crumbling relationship and the effects of a bad economy on a marriage before her ultimate disappearance. Neil Patrick Harris is suitably creepy as Amy’s ex-boyfriend/possible suspect. Of all people, Tyler Perry knocks it out of the park as a lawyer! Missi Pyle puts on her best Nancy Grace impression as a cable news host. Finally, there’s the relatively new Carrie Coon as Nick’s concerned twin sister. She was an unfamiliar face who put in a convincing performance and garners a lot of emotion from the viewer in her direction.

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Besides the phenomenal story and the great acting, GONE GIRL also has a sense of unease that lasts from the opening until the closing credits have begun to roll. The ending almost plays out longer than it should (in the same sense that GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO stretched its final minutes out), but it ultimately winds up paying off in spades. The final shot of the film is a haunting one that leaves you with a whole lot to ponder long after you’ve left the theater. This is an intelligent, compelling, intense piece of cinema that holds as a true product of our time too (there are plenty of news cases that resemble the one that this movie covers).

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There’s not a doubt in my mind that GONE GIRL will wind up on my top 10 films of 2014. It might even be my favorite movie of the year. I’m going that far because the film is that phenomenal. It’s a thriller that I’ll revisit over and over again for a variety of reasons. There’s not a bad thing I can say about GONE GIRL and to dive into specifics would give away too many details about the plot. Just know this is a thriller that does precisely what it should (thrills you) and leaves you with a whole lot to think about afterwards.

Grade: A+

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