DEATH NOTE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: Adam Wingard

Written by: Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides & Jeremy Slater

(based on the DEATH NOTE manga by Tsugumi Ohba & Takeshi Obata)

Starring: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi & Willem Dafoe

An American DEATH NOTE film has been in the works since 2009, with directors like Shane Black and Gus Van Sant rumored to be attached and even a brief space of time where it appeared that Zac Efron would be playing the lead role. The studio also screwed with the formula from the very beginning, actively trying to remove the Shinigami (death gods) from the plot altogether. Adam Wingard has a reputation as a solid genre director and Netflix has been making ballsy risks with its steady supply of original content, so I was actually looking forward to DEATH NOTE. Sadly, diehard anime/manga fans, those who have only seen the Japanese films (I fall into this category), and newcomers will all likely be disappointed by this mess of a movie.

Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is an angsty teen coping with his mother’s untimely death and a frequent target of bullies at his Seattle high school. One day, Light finds a nasty little notebook and discovers that the pages within grant him the god-like ability to kill simply by writing down a name. This “Death Note” was dropped by bored death god Ryuk (a performance-capture/vocal performance by Willem Dafoe) and Light is all too happy to begin using it. Good intentions of killing only criminals soon give way towards personal, vengeance-driven motives as Light falls for psycho-bitch Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley). Matters only get worse when Light finds himself being hunted by mastermind detective L (Lakeith Stanfield) and the body count continues to rise…all while his high school prom is on the horizon. What’s an angsty whiny teen with god-like killing abilities to do?

2017’s DEATH NOTE isn’t all bad. There are aspects that I really enjoyed about this film, but they don’t fully counteract the many problems that I cannot overlook. The best quality comes in Willem Dafoe’s Ryuk. Many will know Dafoe for playing the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN and gracing other oddball roles. Ryuk is no different. Dafoe steals the show as a chaos-loving, shit-stirring death god. I was entertained during every minute that Dafoe was on the screen. The problem is that Dafoe’s death god is noticeably absent from a majority of the running time, when he has a big role to play in the proceedings.

Another quality that I really enjoyed is that the gory deaths aren’t simple heart attacks like the manga, anime and original films. Instead, Light’s killings are reminiscent of FINAL DESTINATION. Though I’ve seen some fans complain about this online, I really enjoyed how this DEATH NOTE shook up its demises. It’s also worth mentioning that the final 30 minutes of the film have a few nifty plot twists that reminded me of better moments from the first two live-action Japanese films. 2017’s DEATH NOTE isn’t nearly on the same level as DEATH NOTE or DEATH NOTE II: THE LAST NAME, but this film has a couple of unexpected revelations that were clever and deserved to be in a better script.

This is where my praise ends, because everything else ranges from mediocre to stupid to downright baffling. That third descriptor is especially apt in saying this film’s 80s soundtrack simply doesn’t fit the proceedings and tonally distracts from what’s happening on the screen. There’s a big dramatic scene that’s supposed to be emotional and shocking, but comes off as laughably silly thanks to an idiotic song choice. The film isn’t set in the 80s either, so what’s with all of the 80s songs? Earlier this year, ATOMIC BLONDE rocked an 80s soundtrack because it was set during the 80s and BABY DRIVER had an assortment of tunes constantly playing on the main character’s iPod. Both of those soundtracks made sense of the context of their films, but DEATH NOTE’s soundtrack is weirdly placed for no apparent reason.

Besides the out-of-place songs, DEATH NOTE’s script is bland and muddled. This film was penned by two brothers (who’ve only written one other film, 2011’s IMMORTALS) and Jeremy Slater (the guy who wrote the worst superhero flick I’ve ever seen: FANTASTIC FOUR). It’s safe to say that DEATH NOTE’s writing is its biggest weakness. Somehow, this less-than-two-hour film packs tons of information into its opening 15 minutes and yet drags for a majority of its running time. The bigger plot points include a school prom and a forced teen romance with no believable chemistry, instead of a downward spiral of the Death Note corrupting Light or a tense cat-and-mouse game between two geniuses.

Speaking of which, 2017’s DEATH NOTE has terrible characters. Nat Wolff is unbearable as Light, coming off like a whiny little edgelord who’s oh so upset because life isn’t fair. Having a deadly notebook in the hands of a hormonally unstable teen could make for a very interesting take on the material, but Light’s annoying personality and frequent dumb decisions (like using the Death Note in the middle of gym class where everybody can see him) constantly get in the way of a potentially cool spin on the material.

Still, Nat Wolff’s obnoxious portrayal of Light is nowhere near as misguided as Margaret Qualley’s Mia (this film’s version of Misa) who’s a sociopathic psycho-bitch cheerleader who impulsively kills and seeks to manipulate Light at every turn. It’s almost like this version of DEATH NOTE did a 180 degree spin on the personalities of sociopathic Light and naïve Misa, but in a way that’s not at all enjoyable for franchise fans and newcomers alike. There’s no chemistry between Mia and Light, but the film forces their angsty teenage romance to the forefront. Also, Lakeith Stanfield is embarrassingly bad as mysterious detective L, who gets teary-eyed every single time one of his half-baked schemes backfires and eats candy to stay awake for 48 hours at a time (because that’s how sugar works, I guess?).

Adam Wingard has directed good films in the past and that’s one of the many reasons why DEATH NOTE is so damn disappointing. There are positive qualities that I really liked about this film, mainly Dafoe’s Ryuk, the FINAL DESTINATION-like deaths, and plot twists that felt like they belonged in a better film. However, the sheer amount of bad acting, dumb character decisions, plot holes, poor pacing, and misguided 80s songs really put a damper on the whole movie. DEATH NOTE isn’t the disaster that some have made it out to be, but it’s still pretty bad.

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

COP CAR (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, Violence and brief Drug Use

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Directed by: Jon Watts

Written by: Jon Watts & Christopher Ford

Starring: Kevin Bacon, James Freedson-Jackson, Hays Wellford, Camryn Manheim & Shea Whigham

When I first heard about COP CAR, I thought to myself, “Really? How could you make a feature-length film with that premise?” Even with positive word of mouth and an intriguing trailer, I was still a bit skeptical. Having now seen COP CAR, I am happy to say that it’s a mean-spirited little thriller. This movie largely succeeds thanks to Kevin Bacon stealing the show and a finale that didn’t go where I was expecting it to at all. COP CAR is a cool little indie that will hopefully gain a large fan base over time.

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Travis and Harrison are two 10-year-old friends who have run away from home. While walking through a field, they pull the usual shenanigans you would expect young hooligans like this to do. These mainly include reciting cuss words and poking around in potential snake holes. Their journey escalates when they come across a seemingly abandoned cop car. Soon enough, the boys are behind the wheel of said vehicle and careening through a desolate stretch of highway. Little do the boys know that the cop car they’ve just stolen wasn’t so abandoned. In fact, it belongs to the corrupt Sheriff Kretzer, who isn’t above breaking the law and putting others in danger to get his car (packed full of incriminating evidence) back.

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COP CAR uses two storylines with entirely different tones for its first half. The first storyline follows the two runaway kids and I have to say that these characters annoyed me. It may have been partially because the talent of the child actors varied from scene to scene, but I mainly blame the writing on this one. These kids are stupid. That sounds obvious, especially because the plot revolves around them stealing a cop car…but I really, truly hated these characters for the first half of this film. A few montages of them toying around with semi-automatic guns and crime scene tape just felt unneeded and didn’t quite pull of the dark comedy factor off very well. The second half of the film is where I actually started feeling sympathy towards the kids and that’s because the latter half becomes an all-out road thriller. The tension (from constant threats around them) is probably the only thing that made these child characters tolerable to me. However, something more than makes up for their annoying hijinks in the first half. That something is…

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Kevin Bacon! This man has acted as a variety of different characters over his career. He’s played good guys, hardened vigilantes, and also a few villains. Sheriff Kretzer is one of the more morally reprehensible villains of Bacon’s filmography. He’s a slimy, corrupt-to-the-core guy who’s in a desperate hurry to cover up this situation brought on by a couple of 10-year-olds. While the kids goof off in the first half of this movie, we also keep cutting to the Sheriff frantically hiding his tracks, destroying evidence, and being a generally creepy guy. We know that he’ll confront the two boys at some point in the film and a sense of unease rises as to how that encounter might end. Kevin Bacon oozes menace off the screen in every scene he’s in and makes for one hell of a memorable corrupt cop on film.

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As I mentioned before, the first half of COP CAR cuts between two storylines. The first quickly gets annoying, but the second more than makes up for that. The goofy tone becomes lost when things take a hard left turn into all-out thriller territory during the latter half of the film. Running at just under 90 minutes, the movie barely has any time to wear out is welcome. Though it starts off slowly (much like the kids driving their stolen vehicle at 35 mph), it fully kicks off in the scenes with Bacon and leads to an ultimately satisfying finale. COP CAR is a tense little thriller that should entertain those looking for something a little out of the ordinary.

Grade: B

SAVAGES (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 11 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal and Grisly Violence, some Graphic Sexuality, Nudity, Drug Use and Language throughout

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Directed by: Oliver Stone

Written by: Shane Salerno, Don Winslow & Oliver Stone

(based on the novel SAVAGES by Don Winslow)

Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Blake Lively, Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro & John Travolta

SAVAGES sounds like it has all the makings of a stellar crime-thriller. Controversial director Oliver Stone is behind the camera and using ingredients of drugs, violence and gangsters all blended into a film that could have and should have been great. In a sad turn of events, SAVAGES is not great. It’s not even good. Instead, this is an utter disappointment that suffers from a mixed bag cast of characters and messy pacing in spite of stylish sensibilities. This is a basic, run-of-the-mill kidnapping thriller.

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Chon and Ben are two dope-dealing best friends who share the same girlfriend, Ophelia. A particularly unique type of marijuana has turned these up-and-coming dealers into wealthy criminals. Ben handles the peaceful business side of things, while Chon takes care of the violence that occasionally arises in their highly illegal line of work. Meanwhile, Ophelia doesn’t do much except for smoking weed, having sex and lying around in the sun. When Ben and Chon are approached by the cartel and a highly questionable business deal goes bad, Ophelia is kidnapped by cartel leader Elena and vicious enforcer Lado. Together, Chon and Ben must use their brains and brawn to take down the crazed cartel and save their mutual girlfriend.

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The cast of characters is a combination of good and bad. Benicio Del Toro is great as Lado, a fearless thug who delights in every single one of his sick actions. John Travolta also gives one of his better performances of the last few years as a crooked DEA agent. Even though he’s a minor character in the grand scheme of things, Travolta adds much-needed talent to this movie. Selma Hayek is only okay as Elena. She is an intimidating villainess at points in the film, but there’s also a forced attempt to flesh out her character as a loving mother struggling to have a relationship with her daughter. At least, Hayek’s cartel leader has far more development than any of the three protagonists. Taylor Kitsch comes off as a bland tough guy and Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays laughably silly hippie. Meanwhile, Blake Lively doesn’t do much save for play a damsel in distress, look pretty and give an irritating voice over throughout the film. The stuff she’s describing is happening right before our eyes too, so there’s really no need for it to begin with.

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Oliver Stone directs SAVAGES with style and a slick look. There are definitely well-executed scenes on display, but they’re bogged down with pacing that drags for too long before arriving at any of the exciting stuff. Since the characters aren’t well-developed to begin with, that leaves us with almost an hour of screen time before Ophelia even gets kidnapped. By the time that happens, one might expect the film to pick up drastically. You would be wrong, because the action scenes and revenge moments are few and far between. There’s an appropriately savage vibe to the violence on display (things get gory and downright brutal) which is a good thing given what this story is about. However, the conclusion is a huge cop-out! This felt like an ending that cheated the viewer in every possible way. The final moments are dishonest and out-of-place.

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SAVAGES might have been a great, rip-roaring thriller if it had the right script and cast behind it. Instead, this comes off like a pretty standard by-the-numbers B-flick that underwhelms. Style, gruesome violence, a few good scenes as well as Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta aren’t enough to save this film from mediocre writing, a really stupid ending, poor characters, and bland performances. SAVAGES is strictly a middle-of-the-road effort.

Grade: C

NON-STOP (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Action and Violence, Some Language, Sensuality and Drug References

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Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

Written by: John W. Richardson, Chris Roach & Ryan Engle

Starring: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery, Nate Parker, Linus Roache, Scoot McNairy, Corey Stoll & Shea Whigham

When he’s not rescuing his family from Albanians (twice), violently retrieving his stolen identity, or punching wolves in the face, Liam Neeson takes on the demanding position of air marshal. NON-STOP is the latest in Neeson’s slate of being a badass. The film also turns into a product that feels like an Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle from the 80’s. There is also a bit of an identity crisis happening, because the film isn’t this way for its entirety. In fact, there’s a pretty awesome thriller nestled somewhere within the confines of NON-STOP. It is in the conclusion that things get so wildly over-the-top and downright silly that it almost drags the whole movie down.

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Bill Marks, an alcoholic air marshal, boards a long international flight. This is seemingly just like any other day at work. This changes as he’s airborne and a stranger issues a threat through the secure network on Bill’s phone. This anonymous unseen person is threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes unless 150 million is transferred into an off-shore account. Naturally, every crew member on the flight (with the exception of Bill) takes these text messages as an elaborate prank…until the devious killer shows that he or she is very serious. Through complex chain-of-events people begin biting it in horrible ways and it’s up to Bill to put a stop to it. The complicated situation gets even more dire when everybody on the ground suspects that the lone air marshal (trying to save the passengers) is actually hijacking the plane.

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NON-STOP starts off with such promise. The idea of a criminal mastermind executing an elaborate plot on a plane is nothing new. It’s been seen in FLIGHTPLAN (another underwhelming would-be thriller), RED EYE (which started off decently enough, but got really stupid in the final act), and TURBULENCE (the less said about that one, the better). My point is that there may be a good movie in the weirdly specific psycho on a plane subgenre, but I have yet to see it. NON-STOP is not that film. Carrying a strong amount of tension and a long list of possible suspects, the script keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat for a majority of the runtime. Just when things should be at the height (no pun intended) of the craziness, the film goes so far over-the-top and ludicrous that it becomes laughable in almost every aspect.

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As far as characters go, there are a few interesting ones on board the flight and I appreciated some conventions being thrown out the window (e.g. a Muslim character helps Neeson’s protagonist greatly). However, the motivation of the attacker is very preachy. It’s one thing to throw in a little food for thought in some underlying themes of a movie and it’s quite another to shove a political statement down the viewer’s throat. NON-STOP’s conclusion (including a lengthy monologue from the villain) is frustrating and brings the film down significantly. It doesn’t really need to be said that Liam Neeson doesn’t play characters. Liam Neeson plays Liam Neeson. In this film though, Neeson seems tired and exhausted from doing this sort of badass role so many times before. There isn’t a whole lot of action until the finale either and that’s where things made me roll my eyes.

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One might expect that Julianne Moore would at least put in a somewhat watchable performance, but she’s terrible. Her character isn’t convincing and she seems to be struggling with how to deliver her lines in every scene she appears in. To make matters worse, the film suffers from what I’ll call “RETURN OF THE KING syndrome.” Meaning that all the side characters are shown to have an ending. We can’t merely focus on the main two, we get whole concluding moments dedicated to nearly every solitary figure who had a line of dialogue. There’s also a pointless speech made on Neeson’s part that was clichéd beyond belief and served no real purpose to the film at all. It’s timing was also pretty friggin’ hilarious (I won’t dive into specifics as to not spoil anything major).

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I wish I could say that the film was decent enough, but that final act really derails so many things in so many different ways. This went from being a suspenseful thriller into cheesy 80’s action territory and that didn’t belong with what was being constructed for the first two-thirds. Liam Neeson seems to be playing the exact same role we’ve seen in his past action films. Julianne Moore ranges from wooden to confused to indescribably bad. The motivation becomes a preachy monologue that probably reflects the thoughts of the screenwriters on a certain issue and the movie devolves into a cheese-fest that might have been more at home in the 80’s, rather than attempting to be a nail-biting thriller in this day and age. This is one flight that should have never left the ground.

Grade: C

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