THE MARTIAN (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Strong Language, Injury Images, and brief Nudity

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Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Drew Goddard

(based on the novel THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir)

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor & Donald Glover

In recent years, space survival films have hit a resurgence on the big screen. In 2013, we had GRAVITY (which I loved). In 2014, we had INTERSTELLAR (which I thought was good, but far from great). It’s 2015 and now, we have THE MARTIAN. The key difference between THE MARTIAN and the other two aforementioned films is that this movie is an adaptation of a best-selling novel that happens to be directed by Ridley Scott. However, Scott hasn’t exactly been at the top of his game lately. In 2013, he disappointed with THE COUNSELOR. In 2014, he left audiences apathetic with EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS. Now, Scott has returned to his A-game. THE MARTIAN isn’t perfect, but it serves as a highly entertaining blockbuster.

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Astronaut Mark Watney is in the most dire situation imaginable. During a manned mission on mars, a freak storm causes his team to make an emergency evacuation. A piece of debris hits Mark and his captain makes the split-second decision to leave him for dead. However, Mark is not dead. In fact, he’s very much alive and now trapped on a uninhabitable planet, while his unaware crew members fly back home. All is not lost though as Mark has useful equipment left on the planet as well as a ground lab and a food/water supply. However, this won’t be enough to last four years (which is when the next possible NASA mission will arrive). Mark frantically does his best to (in his words) “science the shit out of this thing,”  all while NASA becomes very aware of the situation and scramble to rescue Watney.

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THE MARTIAN excels in making the viewer feel for Watney’s plight. Everything that can possibly go wrong does. You just can’t help but feel frustration at every hurdle the universe seems to be throwing Watney’s way. The atmosphere of desperation doesn’t exactly dampen any of the entertainment value to be had here. This is a really fun movie that’s meant to be taken more as an entertaining sci-fi flick rather than a realistic survival story. I say this because THE MARTIAN gets increasingly ridiculous during its third act. At this point, we’ve accepted that Mark can grow food in Martian soil and create his own water through a recipe, but there are definite moments that almost seem a little too over-the-top and far-fetched.

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Matt Damon is perfect as Mark Watney. He’s a likable presence and seems to have a constant sense of humor in the face of his dire predicament. For viewers who aren’t so science-savvy (including yours truly), there’s no need to worry about getting lost in the techno-babble of Mark’s actions, because he provides a constant commentary and explanation in his video logs. This also serves as an ingenious plot device to get dialogue out of a character who’s the only person on an entire planet. Jessica Chastain is usually solid in whatever role she takes on and there’s no change here. It almost felt like she was playing Murph from INTERSTELLAR as an astronaut, so that has to count for something. Michael Pena, Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan all do well in the side parts of Mark’s other crew members. Meanwhile, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor serve as NASA agents trying to bring Watney home, while Jeff Daniels is the closest thing this film has to an antagonist. The only performance that comes out of left field is Donald Glover serving as comic relief combined with a plot device instead of an actual character.

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As far as spectacle goes, THE MARTIAN looks fantastic. Ridley Scott is no stranger to bringing other worlds to life on film, whether it be ALIEN or PROMETHEUS, and he does the same with the barren, crater-laden landscape of Mars in this film. None of the effects struck me as cheap or cheesy. Every piece of spectacle also serves a purpose and isn’t merely there to wow the audience. For a movie running at over two hours, the story feels very well paced and moves by quickly, save for a somewhat pointless epilogue.

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THE MARTIAN marks another thrilling space adventure in the world of cinema. It’s also a return to form for Ridley Scott (who’s been down and out for the past two years). The performances are all enjoyable. The spectacle is spectacular. The film provides a lot of entertainment combined with desperation. The story strays into a couple of silly areas during the final third, but remains an entertaining blast nonetheless. THE MARTIAN is a surefire crowd-pleaser!

Grade: A-

GOLDENEYE (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for a number of sequences of Action/Violence, and for some Sexuality

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Directed by: Martin Campbell

Written by: Jeffrey Caine & Bruce Feirstein

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Izabella Scorupco, Famke Janssen, Joe Don Baker, Judi Dench, Gottfried John, Robbie Coltrane & Alan Cumming

The seventeenth Bond film in the series and the eighth in my 007 retrospective, GOLDENEYE brings a fresh-faced, modern take on Bond. It turns out that through studio disputes and (possibly) poor reception to Timothy Dalton’s previous outing (which is my pick for the worst Bond film I’ve seen thus far) was enough to sort of “reboot” the franchise. This 90’s Bond takes off with material that’s in line with the rest of the franchise and does so with an even more action-packed style. GOLDENEYE brought Pierce Brosnan to the screen as 007 and managed to be a big hit, both financially and critically. After watching it, there’s no surprise as to why that is.

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In the mid-80’s, oo7 and 006 (Bond’s partner and best friend) undertook a mission to destroy a Soviet biological weapon facility. The mission was an overall success, but 006 was killed in the process. Nearly a decade later, Bond finds himself on the trail of a super weapon that has fallen into very dangerous hands. This weapon is able to detonate locations from outer space and only one person has survived its power. The sole survivor is Natalya Simonova and Bond is forced to partner up with her. The search for the weapon will lead Bond to a sadistic murderer as well as a familiar face from the past (take a guess as to who that could possibly be).

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First things first, how’s Pierce Brosnan as Bond? Some people I’ve spoken with really don’t like him as the iconic secret agent, but I actually dig Brosnan’s 007 quite a lot. He seems to be taking the old-school Connery approach. By this, I mean that he balances a charismatic ladies man attitude with a likable action hero persona. I totally bought him as the character. However, certain Bond films are only as good as their villains and the baddie here is amazing. It’s not a spoiler (considering that most plot descriptions give more away than I will) to say that Sean Bean is impressive as a rogue agent. Seeing as Bean’s character was a former MI6 agent, it makes him a far more intimidating foe because he knows all of Bond’s tricks intimately. This also leads to tense confrontations and damn near impossible life-or-death situations that Bond finds himself trying to escape. Bean isn’t the only impressive baddie though as Famke Janssen plays a henchwoman who literally gets off on the violence she inflicts. Her scenes are both frightening and darkly hilarious in a really sick way.

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The Bond girl this time around comes in the form of Izabella Scorupco. I really enjoyed her performance as Natalya and she asks a question that few Bond girls have ever dared ask. She gets frustrated at the violence Bond inflicts and asks him why he must kill his enemy as opposed to merely thwarting and capturing them. This verbal bombshell gives her character far more development than most of the Bond girls from previous films. However, Natalya’s complaints fall on deaf ears as GOLDENEYE is pretty much constant action that moves a rip-roaring pace. The plot may resemble Bond movies of the past, but it’s executed in a bigger, better and smarter way. The Bond girl is a survivor of a horrific attack. The villain is a former friend of 007’s and not simply a cat-stroking, eye-patch-wearing madman. The weapon isn’t simply a nuclear bomb, but a threat that can hit from space. The sense of humor works with Alan Cummings playing an “invincible” hacker whose punchline is well worth a potentially annoying running joke. There’s also a fantastic chase scene in which Bond pursues the baddies through the city streets in a friggin’ tank (yes, you read that right!).

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The best part about GOLDENEYE is that it feels like a Bond movie that’s seen the rest of the Bond series. It’s not simply repeating well-worn clichés and staples in the series. Instead, it’s using the previous films to its advantage in keeping the viewer on their toes. The villain is well-aware of MI6 protocols and Bond’s personality, which makes him a more intimidating presence. There’s a Bond girl who actually is frightened and upset by the bloodshed around her, instead of merely shrugging it off as part of the battle. The whole plot is smart and thwarts expectations set by the series. Overall, GOLDENEYE stands as a fantastic example of why James Bond can survive various actors, over 20 films, and decades of pop culture. In the right hands, this material provides some of the best spy entertainment ever brought to the screen!

Grade: A

PIXELS (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Language and Suggestive Comments

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Directed by: Chris Columbus

Written by: Tim Herlihy & Timothy Dowling

Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Josh Gad, Peter Dinklage, Michelle Monaghan, Matt Lintz, Brian Cox & Ashley Benson

PIXELS is based on a 2010 French short film. That goofy little short was entertaining and cool, even if little time was put into an actual story. It was a quick excuse to watch pixelated video game characters wreak havoc on the real world. A full-length feature with this premise might be fun in the right hands, but that potential drops a bit when Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison (a company that doesn’t exactly have a reputation for making good movies) produces said film. PIXELS is a movie fighting with itself over becoming one of two things. One of these possibilities is a goofy nostalgia-filled adventure and the other is your typical low-bar Adam Sandler comedy. Guess which one wins.

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In 1982, NASA launched a time capsule (with footage of TV shows, commercials, presidential speeches, and video games) in hope of making contact with extraterrestrial life. Aliens misinterpreted our message as a declaration of war and have sent real-life versions of video games to our planet for a dangerous “competition.” The loser of the competition gets their planet annihilated. Our only hope lies in Sam Brenner (a washed-up loser and 2nd place video game pro), Will Cooper (Brenner’s best friend and President of the United States), Ludlow (another video game champ and conspiracy theorist), and Eddie Plant (an ex-con and Brenner’s former video game rival). This small band of heroes must work together through real life “games” if they hope to save our planet from certain doom.

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Now, that premise actually sounds like it could be fun. In fact, the script practically writes itself. I was one of the people who saw the trailer for PIXELS and got genuinely excited. For the record, the film is not a total failure (despite the verbal thrashing it’s receiving from most critics). There are a couple of enjoyable scenes. Not surprisingly, these come in parts of the movie with video game characters. A real life game of Centipede is enjoyable for what it is and a Pac-Man chase through the streets of New York stands out as the film’s biggest highlight. I’d be lying if I said that the effects in this movie didn’t look good either. There was clearly a big budget and it was used. However, everything between the video game scenes and a lackluster finale cause this film to fall flat on its face.

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This is because PIXELS winds up being a Sandler comedy through and through. It might not be scraping the bottom of the barrel like JACK AND JILL or THAT’S MY BOY, but the film is significantly weighed down by unlikable characters and (very) cheap jokes. Aside from a few chuckles, I can’t recall any big laughs in this whole movie. Sandler doesn’t even seem to be trying in his washed-up loser role (that feels so much like his other washed-up loser roles) and Josh Gad mistakes shouting for being funny. Though that’s not entirely on his shoulders as the script doesn’t provide him with much material to begin with. Kevin James seems to be playing himself and just so happens to be the President of the United States. That could have made for some laughs, but feels like a missed opportunity. Sean Bean and Brian Cox show up for a quick paycheck, while Peter Dinklage delivers the only semi-decent performance of the cast as an overly obnoxious jerk.

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At one point in the film, Sandler’s character is watching a preteen boy play a FALLOUT-style video game and points out that the game doesn’t have a pattern and simply chugs along with “no rhyme or reason.” That one comment can sum up the entire screenplay. There doesn’t really seem to be a reason for why things happen during parts of this story and the movie doesn’t seem to care. That wouldn’t necessarily be all bad if we were given cool-looking scenes to satiate our appetite for video game characters terrorizing the real world, but instead we’re handed a half-assed romantic subplot (because I guess this movie needed one of those) and a huge plot hole that’s simply taken as part of the story. The huge gap in movie logic is simply accepted as an excuse for a finale that feels too forced and jumbled.

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There’s probably a good movie lying somewhere inside of PIXELS. However, the cool premise loses out to becoming just another lame Adam Sandler comedy. You can feel potential radiating off the screen and not much of it was used. Why is Q*Bert a prominent side character featured for a few quick and easy jokes, but Mario is only seen once hopping around in the background? What about other gems like Dig Dug or Asteroids (which we see a character playing, but never comes to fruition)? The biggest question of all comes in why was so much time and money poured into what essentially amounts to yet another bad Adam Sandler comedy that has more spectacle than the rest of his filmography? If you want a great throwback to old-school video games, stick to WRECK-IT RALPH. If you want a good Sandler movie, stick to HAPPY GILMORE, ANGER MANAGEMENT or BIG DADDY. I simply can’t see PIXELS satisfying anyone. What a waste.

Grade: D+

NORTH COUNTRY (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences involving Sexual Harassment including Violence and Dialogue, and for Language

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Directed by: Niki Caro

Written by: Michael Seitzman

(based on the book CLASS ACTION by Clara Bingham & Laura Leedy Gansler)

Starring: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek, Michelle Monaghan, Jeremy Renner & Woody Harrelson

NORTH COUNTRY sounds like a surefire winner on paper. You have an important story being brought to life with an A-list cast. Though it bombed at the box office, the film even managed to garner two Academy Award nominations (Best Actress and Supporting Actress) and rightfully so. Based on the Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Company case, NORTH COUNTRY showcases great performances and a hard-hitting issue that happens to be driven by a muddled script trying to tell two tonally different stories at once. One involves a court case over sexual harassment in the workplace and is obviously the more important and compelling of the two. However, screenwriter Michael Seitzman tries to tie this into a story of a woman returning to her childhood home. He seems focus too much on the less-interesting latter.

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After years of abuse, Josey Aimes has decided to leave her spouse, take her two kids with her, and move in with her parents. While her mother seems to support Josey, her father less than approves and is ashamed by her presence. In order to make ends meet and earn some real money, Josey starts to work at the Mesabi Iron Range. The company is less than welcoming and Josey (along with her female coworkers) are subjected to frequent sexual harassment. To boot, an ex-boyfriend of Josey’s happens to be working at the mine and instigating more verbal/physical abuse towards her. Josey decides to file a class-action lawsuit against the company, but struggles to find members of the community that will stand in support of her case. It’s all a fictionalized take on an actual court case that changed the working world forever, but the film seems to only marginally focus on that…changing into something else entirely by the conclusion.

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Aside from the important issues being addressed (however glossed over they might wind up being), the main reason to watch NORTH COUNTRY is for the cast. I mean, look at those names! I was originally sold on seeing this movie because of the plot, but the A-list talent in this film got me even more pumped up to watch it. Charlize Theron has proven herself to be one of the best actresses working today and demonstrates both vulnerability and strength in equal measure as Josey. Seeing as her character is subjected to slut-shaming from the very beginning, it makes the viewer reevaluate how they treat certain people in our society who do get pregnant at 16 years-old and what not.

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Frances McDormand is sympathetic as a union representative whose health is slowly declining and Sean Bean has a side role as her husband. Meanwhile, Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins are outstanding as Josey’s parents, especially Richard Jenkins as the seemingly emotionless father who you want to punch in the face on multiple occasions. Jeremy Renner plays Josey’s ex with a sort of scumbag glee. Aside from playing Jeffrey Dahmer, I never really saw Renner in any antagonist role. So this was a nice change of pace. Woody Harrelson is great as Josey’s lawyer/possible love interest. All in all, the performances are great from everyone in this film and that would warrant at least one viewing in my eyes.

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NORTH COUNTRY is certainly effective in moments. These are the infuriating scenes of sexual harassment, the indifference of the higher-ups, and Josey’s courtroom scenes. However, the movie teeters close to Lifetime Original Movie territory whenever it goes into Josey’s past with little reveals coming to light (especially a bombshell in the final third that almost feels like a cop-out). Whenever the former moments are on, the movie is great. Whenever the latter is being focused on, the movie dips into mediocre and easy clichéd storytelling. I really wish that the movie had been a more accurate representation of the real court case that it was inspired by and not loaded with a lot of fictional soap opera level drama that seems to detract from the important issues being discussed.

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NORTH COUNTRY is a decent flick thanks to great performances from an awesome cast and the upsetting issues being discussed, but it’s weighed down by a subplot that really had no business being in this film. Charlize Theron’s performance is well worth the rental price alone and the rest of the impressive cast also boost this film’s quality above simply being a movie-of-the-week melodrama. However, it seems as if NORTH COUNTRY is two movies under one title. The first is a compelling drama inspired by one of the most important court cases in recent history. The second feels like a Lifetime script that somehow got a budget of 35 million. I really wish the former stood out more than the latter, but they’re given equal screen time and that’s the problem. NORTH COUNTRY is worth a watch, but don’t expect it to be as amazing as it could have been.

Grade: B-

JUPITER ASCENDING (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes

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

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Directed by: Lana Wachowski & Andrew Wachowski

Written by: Lana Wachowski & Andrew Wachowski

Starring: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Sean Bean, Tuppence Middleton, & Terry Gilliam

Ever since the MATRIX sequels, it seems like people are quick to rip apart the Wachowski siblings. While I don’t necessarily find RELOADED and REVOLUTIONS to as all out terrible as many do, I can fully admit that they’re nowhere near the level of the original MATRIX. The siblings quickly moved on from their newly carved science fiction trilogy to work on other interesting (if not financially successful) titles. V FOR VENDETTA is one of my favorite movies. I didn’t bother watching SPEED RACER (it doesn’t really appeal to me), but it looked like it was visually stunning. CLOUD ATLAS wound up being one of my favorite films of 2012 and I consider it criminally underrated. This all being said, JUPITER ASCENDING is the Wachowskis taking on aliens and winds up as an enjoyable (though flawed) space opera.

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Jupiter Jones is an illegal immigrant making her living through cleaning houses. She lives a fairly boring and mundane life. However, her world is far bigger than she imagined. For some unforeseen reason, Jupiter has become marked for death by an evil intergalactic ruler. Rescued by a splice (half-man, half-wolf) named Caine Wise, Jupiter discovers the true origins of Earth and her ultimate destiny. This also puts her in the path of the powerful Abrasax dynasty (three heirs with different motives). Jupiter is put on an adventure that will decide not only her fate, but the fate of mankind.

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JUPITER ASCENDING is a fun, goofy science-fiction adventure. The scale is highly ambitious and so are most of the ideas at work, although some plot points are familiar. The Wachowskis incorporate a concept used in their MATRIX trilogy through a not-so-subtle way (complete with long-winded speech from a villain). Even so, there’s a lot of creativity to be seen which include little winks at alien mythology (e.g. crop circles, conspiracy theorists, etc.). Some of the ideas don’t necessarily work though. Creatures called splices (half-man, half-animal) play a big part in the proceedings. While some of them look cool (Channing Tatum, a rat-like henchman), others look downright ridiculous (an owl guy and an elephant pilot). The sillier looking creatures kept me from being fully immersed in the story, which essentially boils down to a dysfunctional family feud over who owns the Earth.

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Performances range from good to awful. Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum are enjoyable in their roles, but they don’t necessarily seem to make these characters their own. Sean Bean is a welcome presence as a disgraced splice (half-man, half-bee) and there aren’t any other real heroes of note. The Abrasax dynasty reminded me a lot of the Henry VIII and his violent children. I kept thinking that their characters resembled the Tudors in space. Douglas Booth and Tuppence Middleton are solid in their roles as two powerful heirs, but Eddie Redmayne is awful. He uses a misguided soft-spoken, weirdly accented delivery that becomes unintentionally hilarious at points. Redmayne is supposed to be the menacing big bad villain, but comes off instead like a spoiled brat.

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Mixed bag acting and somewhat derivative story aside, JUPTER ASCENDING has great action sequences and lots of them. The design of some of the aliens (aforementioned splices, little green men, and winged reptiles) can be a tad distracting, but there’s still much excitement to be had in these long scenes. This being said, there are some downright painful moments of comic relief involving Jupiter’s family back on Earth. It’s a bit jarring to go from an intense space battle to a family dinner of people yelling at each other. These latter scenes feel like they’re from a completely different film. However, they’re mercifully short-lived compared to all the aliens, spaceships, and intergalactic politics.

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Though it’s far from great or arguably good, JUPITER ASCENDING is a decent flick. The film has its share of problems (silly creatures, brief tonal shifts, and Eddie Redmayne’s annoying villain), but has more strengths (beautiful visuals, huge ambition that pays off in areas, cool plot points, and exciting action scenes). I was entertained from start to finish and that’s really what I hope for in a space opera. There are definitely flaws in the film, but it’s nowhere near the disaster that many are calling it. You might be surprised by how much you actually like JUPITER ASCENDING.

Grade: B-

RONIN (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and some Language

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Directed by: John Frankenheimer

Written by: J.D. Zeik & David Mamet

Starring: Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgard, Sean Bean & Jonathan Pryce

RONIN is the best FAST & FURIOUS movie never made. This thriller doesn’t venture too far over-the-top in its many action sequences, features a likable band of rag-tag heroes, and rip-roaring car chases. Though the plot is pretty simple stuff, the execution of the material offers a lot of fun for viewers who just want a cool action thriller that doesn’t require over-complicated twists or a ridiculous number of explosions. Plus, you have Robert De Niro and Jean Reno as a pair of badass mercenaries. There’s something to be said for that alone.

On the streets of Paris, five strangers have been recruited by an Irishwoman to retrieve a mysterious briefcase. The contents of the case are not revealed to the group. They are only informed that they need to retrieve it from some heavily armed men and that they will be handsomely rewarded. Whatever is inside of this small case seems to be causing a lot of tension between various nations (including Russia and Ireland) and the group soon find themselves put through shifting loyalties, lots of car chases, and double-crossings galore. This also leaves two of the mercenaries, Sam (De Niro) and Vincent (Reno) to fend for themselves in the chaotic violence.

RONIN gets off to a solid start by introducing our band of diverse characters. The witty banter between them is entertaining to watch, especially Robert De Niro throwing smartass dialogue at a mile a minute. Other cast members include Jean Reno (a few years past his iconic LEON role), Jonathan Pryce (always a welcome face), Sean Bean (in a small part), and Stellan Skarsgard (who has a significant role to play in the proceedings). Though a few characters are drastically underused (especially Bean) and a so-so romantic angle muddles the proceedings, RONIN could be recommended purely on the merits of watching its R-rated OCEAN’S ELEVEN style characters talk amongst themselves.

The characters are just icing on an adrenaline-filled cake as this film packs in some of the most exciting cinematic car chases I’ve ever seen in my life! RONIN isn’t wall-to-wall action, especially because the first third spends so much time developing these characters and setting up the stakes. When the film takes off in a high-speed pursuit (one of many), it rarely lets up. Bullets fly, betrayals occur, suspense is milked, and people die. It’s all tremendously exciting stuff, especially since the characters are actually worth caring about.

The downside to RONIN comes in the form of several clichés that rear their ugly heads in an overly familiar story that also becomes too predictable during moments. This is especially true of the climax which is set in a location that really felt like it was from an entirely separate movie and used one twist too many. These clichés don’t hurt the proceedings much, but are dusty nonetheless. Even more annoying is that Jean Reno isn’t given much to say when Robert De Niro keeps throwing out an endless stream of clever one-liners during his scenes.

RONIN is far from a classic, but does contain some of the greatest car chases in cinematic history. The simple plotline only serves as an excuse to get all of these big actors in one film that happens to have a fair share of gun fights, explosions, and criminals. It’s basic and to-the-point fun that should entertain those looking for a quick fix of car chases and bullets.

Grade: B

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Epic Battle Sequences and some Scary Images

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Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson

(based on the novel THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Ian Holm & Andy Serkis

In 2001, Peter Jackson released a first chapter in the most ambitious undertaking in the history of fantasy film. LORD OF THE RINGS exploded into a cultural phenomenon and went on to receive universal acclaim from both critics and audiences alike. The original Middle Earth trilogy ranges in its quality, but all three films are notable in their own way. If I had to pick a least favorite entry though, it would be FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. While this first epic introduces the viewer into a world of magic and wonder, the lengthy run-time and formulaic storytelling are a couple of kinks in an otherwise steady beginning to one of the most celebrated cinematic trilogies ever constructed.

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Middle Earth is a land populated by different creatures and filled with magic. Times weren’t all bright and cheerful as a dark era has long since past. Something survived from those bleak times. That wicked survivor is the spirit of the Dark Lord Sauron. A powerful ring exists that, if Sauron were to posses again, will lead to the destruction of Middle Earth. This ring was lost for thousands of years but somehow landed into the possession of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins. The tiny object has now been passed onto his nephew, Frodo. Frodo and a group of individuals are charged with getting this one ring to the fires of Mount Doom (the only place where it can be destroyed). This fellowship of the ring (as an elf leader prolifically puts it) includes four hobbits (Frodo included), Aragorn (a man with a mysterious past), Legolas (an elf and master bowman), Gimli (an axe-wielding dwarf), and Gandalf the Grey (a powerful wizard). The fellowship begin their quest and find that many perils lie at the start of their journey.

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FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING is a beautiful film to look at. Peter Jackson brings a world only thought possible in the pages of a book to life. Through gorgeous New Zealand locations and stunning effects, Middle Earth is right in front of the viewer’s eyes the whole time. Talented actors become their roles as well. The best of which is definitely Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey. Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, and John Rhys-Davies almost form a three musketeers sort of trio as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. The only real weak links come in Elijah Wood as Frodo. He comes off as a wussy protagonist, especially when compared to every interesting person around him. It might be argued that this was required for his character, but his delivery still seems a little forced in moments.

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One arguable problem is clear in FELLOWSHIP’s formulaic storytelling that becomes apparent in the second half. The plot pretty much moves into a rinse, lather, repeat mode of the group encountering one threat and then moving on, where they only encounter another threat. In this sense the viewer is moving from set piece to set piece. This isn’t necessarily a bad tactic, but it does get distracting when it’s so obvious that it’s being used. The dangers are creative, including my personal favorites of an almost invincible cave troll and a towering demon, but other threats almost seem like throwaway monsters. This is especially seen in one sequence with an octopus-like beast that randomly pops up from a lake for the sole purpose of causing a little havoc.

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While I don’t find the film to be the masterpiece that most diehard fans claim it is, FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING is a technical masterwork in the sheer nature of bringing a mystical world to life in the most detailed way imaginable. The beginning of any trilogy usually suffers from the syndrome of leaving the viewer wanting more, which can be both positive (wanting the story to continue) and negative (wanting a more satisfying conclusion). FELLOWSHIP has a couple of issues that might detract from the overall awe-inspiring factor of it thanks to storytelling and a so-so protagonist, but remains a very good film that has stood the test of over a decade of time passing. Fantasy fans who haven’t checked this out (I can’t imagine there are many), would do well to introduce themselves to Middle Earth with FELLOWSHIP.

Grade: B+

SILENT HILL (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Horror Violence and Gore, Disturbing Images, and some Language

Silent Hill poster

Directed by: Christophe Gans

Written by: Roger Avary

Starring: Radha Mitchell, Laurie Holden, Sean Bean, Deborah Kara Unger, Alice Krige & Jodelle Ferland

Turning a video game into a movie is usually a death sentence for both the game in question and the film adaptation. Leave it to Christophe Gans (director of the adult fairy tale BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF) to do it properly. Originally Konami didn’t want anybody to even attempt to do a feature film of their hit horror franchise. Gans eventually convinced them into giving him permission after completing a short version financed on his own budget that impressed the company greatly. They gave him the rights and he created the best video game film to date, not a huge compliment but it still stands for something.

Silent Hill 1

Rose is a mother struggling to make sense of the emotional distress that Sharon, her adopted daughter, is going through. Sharon keeps waking up in the middle of the night, sleepwalking into dangerous places and muttering something about a town called Silent Hill. In order to try and cure her daughter’s mental problems, Rose makes a trip to Silent Hill with Sharon, against her husband’s wishes. Her husband was very right to be worried, because Silent Hill is an abandoned ghost town and Rose crashes on the side of the road.

Silent Hill 2

She wakes up to find that her daughter is missing and the town is somehow cut off from the rest of the world. A mist engulfs Silent Hill and ash seems to be constantly falling. Things get even stranger as Rose discovers that a mysterious darkness takes over at seemingly random periods of time. This darkness invites twisted beings and disturbing monsters to come out. Rose must brave the heat of a literal hell and a nightmarish dimension to save her daughter.

Silent Hill 3

SILENT HILL nails many things down perfectly. These include the atmosphere of dread and an emotionally depressing final note. Elements from different games are combined and used to create a film that stands on its own as much as it does justice to the video games that served as an inspiration for the movie. In some aspects, things are a little corny. This is mainly in some really bad dialogue, but these moments are few and far between.

Silent Hill 4

The monsters that would seem impossible to bring to life without a studio using cheesy CGI are brought on-screen using some downright cool methods of practical effects and make-up techniques. Though this movie isn’t all about the creatures, because there is actual emotion and underlying themes injected in it as well. The backstory is given in bits of exposition and pays off in spades in the finale, which simply has to be seen to be believed. What’s truly astounding is the little details that Gans includes, from the grimy soot on a barefooted woman’s feet as she walks through piles of guts to the impressively constructed industrial wasteland that a school transforms into. It feels like the game has come to a hellish reality and one can appreciate the film for that alone.

Silent Hill 5

With a running time that exceeds just over two hours, I can see some people easily being bored by SILENT HILL and only enjoying it when the mayhem and monsters come into play. Personally, I loved the build up. I thought the atmosphere was suffocating and great. The horrifically beautiful and twisted imagery makes for more than just a standard video game film (cough, RESIDENT EVIL, cough). Give SILENT HILL a watch this Halloween season!

Grade: B+

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