MONKEY SHINES (1988)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Directed by: George A. Romero

Written by: George A. Romero

(based on the novel MONKEY SHINES by Michael Stewart)

Starring: Jason Beghe, John Pankow, Kate McNeill, Joyce Van Patten, Christine Forrest, Stephen Root, Stanley Tucci & Janine Turner

George A. Romero had become a master of horror purely through low-budget independent efforts, but he eventually wanted to make his way into the studio system. His first foray into this unfamiliar territory was 1988’s MONKEY SHINES. Based on Michael Stewart’s novel of the same name, MONKEY SHINES is a killer animal movie that doesn’t follow the typical tropes of a killer animal movie. This film features an adorable little monkey, focuses on the human drama of the characters, and milks surprisingly competent suspense out of its ridiculous premise. The film also has a silly camp factor to it, which greatly benefits the overall entertainment value.

College athlete Allan Mann (Jason Beghe) has a bright future ahead of him, until it all comes crashing down with a car accident. Paralyzed from the neck down, Allan is unable to do much of anything and his will to live is fading. Things begin looking up once Allan is introduced to super smart service monkey Ella. With a new furry friend by his side, Allan discovers love with specialist Melanie (Kate McNeil) and also develops some anger issues. Soon enough, strange deaths befall folks who piss Allan off. This mysterious wave of violence couldn’t have anything to do with Ella…or recent unexplainable dreams that Allan has been having, right? This is a horror movie, so you probably already know the answer to that question.

For a movie about an adorable killer monkey, MONKEY SHINES actually manages to evoke real suspense from its ludicrous plot. The clear reason for this comes from Allan being quadriplegic and Ella being a super smart monkey that can severely mess with him. There are moments where Allan is completely helpless and forced to watch as Ella terrorizes his friends. Part of the reason why Allan’s disability works as a strong plot device and doesn’t feel like a cheap exploitative gimmick is because Romero actually takes the time to develop Allan as a full-fledged character. This means the film’s first act is relatively slow, but the plot is compelling enough to engage the viewer’s interest.

Once the killer animal mayhem and scares get going, MONKEY SHINES has two modes: creepy and goofy. Surprisingly, it works on both of these contrasting tones. I found myself hooked to the screen during some of the quieter moments, including a final third that features a murderous Ella running amok and Allan struggling to keep his ever-dwindling amount of friends alive. I also busted out laughing during certain scenes purely because of how silly, but thoroughly enjoyable they were to watch. Name one other movie that has an adorable monkey electrocuting an old lady in a bathtub? What about another horror flick that has nightmare sequence that climaxes in a monkey version of the ALIEN chestburster moment? You likely can’t and that shows just how damned unique, silly, and fun MONKEY SHINES really is.

As for the performances, the monkey (or monkeys?) playing Ella steal the show as this is some of the most impressive animal acting you’re likely to ever see in a horror film. Ella is adorable in some moments, funny in other scenes, and also maintains the sense of menace as she constantly kills (and attempts to kill) characters. Jason Beghe is convincing and sympathetic as protagonist Allan, while Kate McNeill is solid as his love-interest. Joyce Van Patten is positively hateable as Allan’s overly controlling mother and John Pankow is fun as Allan’s mad scientist best friend. The cast also has an underused Stanley Tucci as a scumbag surgeon and Stephen Root (in his first acting role) as a rival scientist.

MONKEY SHINES has equal amounts of laugh-out-loud moments (some of which are downright unintentional), killer animal hijinks, and genuine suspense. George A. Romero may not have had a great experience while making this movie and the studio was ultimately disappointed by its low box office performance, but MONKEY SHINES is a blast. The script takes the time to flesh out its story and develop characters, has a tense final third, and maintains a fun tone throughout. Overall, MONKEY SHINES is a really strange, but very fun overlooked horror gem from the 80s.

Grade: B

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some Action Violence, Peril and Frightening Images

Directed by: Bill Condon

Written by: Stephen Chbosky & Evan Spiliotopoulos

(based on the fairy tale BEAUTY AND THE BEAST by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont)

Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Ian McKellen & Emma Thompson

1991’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is the latest in a long line of Disney classics to get the live-action remake treatment. Even though none of these remakes have been bad thus far, I was a bit more skeptical on this film because 1991’s animated classic is one of Disney’s best movies (whereas the original SLEEPING BEAUTY, JUNGLE BOOK and CINDERELLA aren’t exactly amazing). Surprisingly, I found myself delighted with the 2017 rendition of this classic fairy tale romance. It’s not a masterpiece like the animated film that it’s based upon, but this live-action remake is great nonetheless. Featuring creative liberties (to set it apart as its own film), fantastical visuals and brilliant casting, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is sure to win over viewers of all ages.

Set in 18th century France, the plot follows bookworm Belle (Emma Watson), an outsider in a small-minded town. Though the villagers sneer at her constant reading and intelligence, one person who admires Belle for all the wrong reasons is war hero Gaston (Luke Evans). This pompous, egotistical stud is determined to make Belle his trophy wife, but she rebukes him at every corner. When her inventor father (Kevin Kline) goes missing in a dark area of a nearby forest, Belle discovers that he’s been imprisoned by a hairy Beast (Dan Stevens) and offers to take her father’s place to grant his freedom.

Belle’s courageous act may just wind up reversing a long-standing curse on the Beast’s castle…as he must find true love to break the spell that imprisons him and the castle’s many inhabitants (who have been transformed into living inanimate objects). Will love spring forth in the unlikeliest of places? Does personality matter more than outward appearance? Will the spell be broken? Seeing as you’ve likely watched the animated classic or are familiar with this fairy tale, you probably already know the answers to all of those questions. However, that doesn’t lessen this enchanting fantasy-romance.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST has great visuals for the most part. The various inanimate objects look cool and detailed, especially when they get to shine in musical numbers and a hilarious stand-off in the final act. The settings all appear real, even when the viewer is placed inside the Beast’s massive castle. Huge camera movements (panning out between towers and faraway places) lend a huge scope to this story and the atmosphere is appropriately fantastical. This remake completely nails the feeling of the 1991 original and the CGI is almost flawless.

The key word there being “almost” because Beast’s face looks unconvincingly cartoonish. This poor quality isn’t distracting to the point where it completely ruins major parts of the story, but there are moments in certain scenes where my mind went “that looks sloppy.” The effects on the Beast’s facial features are so mediocre that my mother (who never notices or cares about CGI) leaned over and asked me “Is the Beast’s face CGI?” upon first seeing him. The computer-animated Beast’s ugly mug sticks out, especially when compared to the beauty of everything else around him, in a unintentionally bad way.

That’s not detract from Dan Stevens as the Beast because his performance is true to the character. This remains the case when he sings a new song that’s original to this remake. Stevens’s solo “Evermore” is easily the best new tune added to the mix, while the rest of the fresh musical additions seem utterly bland and forgettable. This especially goes for “Days in the Sun” which seemed to be filling in for the far superior “Human Again” (which was added into rereleased versions of the 1991 film). Don’t worry though, because all the original beloved songs are included in this version and sung flawlessly. From the rowdy “Gaston” and high-energy “Be Our Guest” to the uplifting opener “Belle” and the beautiful-as-always “Beauty and the Beast,” this 2017 version captures the musical spirit of the original film!

Besides Dan Stevens as the Beast, the rest of the cast is packed full of A-list talent. Emma Watson (from the HARRY POTTER series and THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER) now joins the ever-growing list of live-action Disney princesses and makes a phenomenal Belle. Though she has an instantly recognizable face, Watson manages to disappear into the good-hearted bookworm protagonist. Kevin Kline shines as her loving father, with an added subplot that wasn’t in the original film. Luke Evans is perfectly cast as good-looking villain Gaston and Josh Gad is clearly having a blast as his sidekick LeFou. Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Emma Thompson, Audra McDonald and Gugu Mbatha-Raw all bring their voices to the main inanimate objects.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST isn’t perfect (like 1991’s animated masterpiece), but it remains a fantastic piece of magical entertainment nonetheless. Some scenes are directly recreated from the 90s classic, while new creative liberties have also been taken. Some of these additions work in the film’s favor, while a majority of the new songs are totally forgettable (with the exception of the Beast’s “Evermore”). The effects are spectacular for the most part, with the exception of the Beast’s distracting CGI face. Still, the film’s positives far outweigh its negatives. If you want a lively musical, an uplifting fantasy, emotional romance or good old-fashioned entertainment, then 2017’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST delivers on all of those fronts.

Grade: A-

SPOTLIGHT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 8 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Language including Sexual References

Spotlight poster

Directed by: Tom McCarthy

Written by: Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer

Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Jamey Sheridan, Billy Crudup, Richard Jenkins & Len Cariou

SPOTLIGHT has been one of my most anticipated movies of 2015. Part of this is because of the impressive ensemble cast, but most of it stems from the hugely important true story that it portrays. This film was probably a risky project from the beginning as the script presents infuriating material and any filmmaker would have to be extremely careful in bringing this sort of story to the big screen. That’s exactly why SPOTLIGHT works as perfectly as it does. Tackling a touchy subject in the most tasteful manner possible and unfolding the story with expert pacing, director/screenwriter Tom McCarthy has brought to the screen one of the most important films in recent years. Though it’s probably too depressing and disturbing for some viewers, SPOTLIGHT is absolutely fantastic.

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In 2001, the Boston Globe was a struggling newspaper with a strong investigative team called Spotlight. Struggling for their next lead and under the advice of a new editor, Walter Robinson and his fellow reporters are placed onto a potential powder keg of a story. With a lawsuit involving allegations of child molestation against a Catholic priest still fresh on everyone’s mind, the Spotlight team begins digging deep into this case. None of them are prepared for what they discover in a massive ring of pedophile priests, underhanded legal tactics, and cover-ups that go back decades. In order to break one of the most important news stories of the new millennium, the team will have to track down sources, uncover hidden paperwork, and deal with the Catholic church’s backlash.

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SPOTLIGHT is a movie made of conversations. As such, the film hinges a lot on its cast. There is no single main character, but rather a team that’s viewed as a main character. The cast here is full of big names and a few of them are likely to receive nominations in the coming awards season. Michael Keaton proves that BIRDMAN wasn’t a fluke by acting his ass off as a reporter who’s made mistakes throughout his career. Mark Ruffalo dominates every scene as a man enraged at how deep this rabbit hole of a story goes. Amy Adams exudes soft-spoken comfort as a elapsed Catholic woman who approaches her victims with a wholly sympathetic, understanding eye. John Slattery is an aged reporter who’s skeptical as to whether or not the story is worth investigating. Meanwhile, Brian d’Acy James is remarkable as a father who discovers the story might hit closer to home than he originally thinks.

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On the supporting side of things, SPOTLIGHT brings Liev Schreiber, usually typecast as an intimidating guy (e.g. RAY DONOVAN), as a dorky outsider to Boston. Schreiber plays the out-of-character role very well and gets us to feel for him even though he doesn’t receive nearly as much screen time as the rest of the Spotlight team. Billy Crudup is infuriatingly smarmy as a lawyer who’s made his living by making underhanded deals with the church, while Stanley Tucci is a frazzled lawyer who’s fighting for what is right. Tucci’s performance is especially memorable as his conversations with Mark Ruffalo are some of the most memorable scenes in the film.

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Besides the excellent performances all around, SPOTLIGHT benefits from a stellar screenplay (which was formerly on the 2013 Black List) that treats its uncomfortable story in the most tasteful way possible. The film never aims for shock value (which it easily could have done during the victim interview scenes). Instead, it feels like a mix of conspiracy thriller and tragic drama. What’s equally as bold is that the film doesn’t take a potentially easy attack on religion and instead questions why bad people who are supposed to be doing good are allowed to get away with evil. The tone of the whole film aims for a mix of sad melancholy and constant anxiety. I found myself on the edge of my seat as Ruffalo’s Michael Rezendes races against time and the system to nab some public records that could bring ultimate proof to the table. An encounter that Adams’s Sacha Pfeiffer has with a pedophile ex-priest is highly disturbing. Meanwhile, Keaton’s Robinson finds himself making enemies out of former lawyer friends.

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Above all of these things, SPOTLIGHT is powerful beyond words. It’s a true story that needed to be told and the people who ran the intense investigation should all be commended as journalistic heroes. Every painstaking step is examined as we watch the Spotlight team slowly uncover something abominable and make huge sacrifices to do what is right. Be warned, this film is depressing. I haven’t left a movie theater that bummed out since I saw 12 YEARS A SLAVE, but this film is rewarding and deserves every bit of praise it has been receiving. SPOTLIGHT is among the very best films of 2015!

Grade: A+

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 2 (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, and for some Thematic Material

Mockingjay2 poster

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Written by: Danny Strong & Peter Craig

(based on the novel MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Natalie Dormer, Willow Shields, Jeffrey Wright & Stanley Tucci

This year marks the conclusion of THE HUNGER GAMES. Fitting snugly into the young adult fiction void left by HARRY POTTER and TWILIGHT, Suzzanne Collins’ teeny-bopperized version of BATTLE ROYALE made huge waves on the big screen. While I didn’t care for the first film at all, I found CATCHING FIRE to be surprisingly well-executed. Like seemingly all modern book adaptations, the final novel of the series was split into two separate films. As a result, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 felt like a feature-length first act. Picking up from the exact final seconds of Part 1, MOCKINGJAY Part 2 returns to the level of quality that CATCHING FIRE brought to the franchise. This is a very dark, intense, and satisfying final chapter to the HUNGER GAMES saga.

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Katniss’s propaganda campaign worked wonders for the rebels of Panem and the nation is in the midst of a full-blown revolutionary war. While the united Districts may have a massive army of soldiers, the sinister President Snow still has a few dirty tricks up his sleeve. He’s employed brainwashing techniques to turn Peeta against Katniss and has rigged the Capitol with hundreds of deadly booby traps. As this war progresses towards its darkest final hours, Katniss (aided by a handful of former Hunger Game survivors and freedom fighters) sets out across the deadly city landscape to assassinate President Snow. However, she discovers that there are few people that she can trust in this war.

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MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is dark, really dark. This fourth and final HUNGER GAMES installment is more horrific and intense than any of the previous chapters. Though it still contains a slight level of silliness, I found myself sucked into this story more than I was during the entirety of Part 1. Instead of merely using the repeated formula of a group of individuals trying to kill each other in a booby-trapped stadium, MOCKINGJAY Part 2 instead makes the viewer realize how big and bad the war raging in the Capitol is. As a result, the script is far more mature than I expected it to be. There’s a very strong anti-war message that’s undeniable as lives are lost on both sides and certain individuals twist the chaotic violence for their own personal gain.

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As far as the cast goes, Jennifer Lawrence has never been better as Katniss. The character has a quiet intensity for most of the film that feels convincing (especially given everything that’s happened to her throughout the past three movies). Lawrence’s strongest scene comes from her character having a pure emotional meltdown during a moment in the final third that was completely believable. I imagine that particular scene is bound to get a few fans crying in the theater. Though MOCKINGJAY Part 2 still has an annoying love-triangle aspect (which did remind me of the horrible TWILIGHT movies), I felt that both Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth brought their A-game as Peeta and Gale. They are more than just eye candy for teenage girls and actually serve a purpose in the plot.

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Julianne Moore returns for a much bigger role than she had in Part 1 as President Coin. Next to her side is the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final on-screen performance. Though he only receives about 5 minutes of total screen time, Hoffman is just as talented as he ever was. Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson reprise their roles, but don’t necessarily have a ton to do in this final chapter. The colorful-haired Stanley Tucci also pops in for a one scene appearance, while Jena Malone (who plays one of my favorite characters in the whole series) is mostly regulated to the sidelines for about three good scenes. Natalie Dormer, who was an important player in Part 1, only receives about a handful of lines and mainly stands in the background as an extra gun. Donald Sutherland owns the role of President Snow as a menacing politician who’s always the smartest, and most dangerous, person in the room. Most of the supporting cast members aren’t necessarily given a ton to do, because this is Katniss’s story.

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MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is beautifully shot and has many stand-out sequences. Creative booby traps provide some of the more exciting moments (an oil pit being a definitely highlight). There’s a nice atmosphere of tension and hopelessness (despite us knowing full well how this story is probably going to play out). Though most of the CGI works well, there’s one scene in a sewer that looks as if it took a page out of RESIDENT EVIL or (more recently) THE SCORCH TRIALS with some silly-looking creatures. There’s also a minor plot hole that annoyed me for a few minutes when it popped up. The running time runs a tad too long thanks to this film having the same amount of endings as RETURN OF THE KING. There were about three shots where the movie could have ended perfectly and it kept going as if to show us every minor detail to the point of annoyance.

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Truthfully told, there’s no reason why MOCKINGJAY couldn’t have just been a three-hour long final movie. The decision to split the story in two films was purely financial and contributes to pacing problems. Part 1 feels like the first act of a movie and Part 2 feels like the last two acts of that same movie. With some complaints aside (silly monsters, an ending that overstays its welcome, and a few wasted performances), MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is on the same level as CATCHING FIRE for me. It was nice to watch a young-adult movie series that started off on a shaky note and became something far better than it probably should have been by its finale. THE HUNGER GAMES franchise has left a mark in cinema as a new blockbuster sci-fi saga that will be remembered for years to come. MOCKINGJAY Part 2 serves as a more than satisfying final note to go out on.

Grade: B

THE FIFTH ESTATE (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 8 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Violence

FifthEstate poster

Directed by: Bill Condon

Written by: Josh Singer

(based on the book INSIDE WIKILEAKS by Daniel Domscheit-Berg)

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Moritz Bleibtreu, Alicia Vikander, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney & Carice van Houten

THE FIFTH ESTATE is one of those films that quickly entered and then just as quickly exited theaters in 2013. It was hyped up as a potential Oscar contender and even premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in hopes of gaining early praise. However, a middling response from critics and outright disinterest from audiences (the film debuted at number eight in its opening weekend and then vanished) did this whistleblower thriller a massive disservice. THE FIFTH ESTATE is a movie for our current age regarding information available online and serves as an important analysis of a touchy subject. That subject is WikiLeaks and its two founders (Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg).

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In 2007, a German journalist (Daniel) meets an Australian hacker (Julian) at an international hacker convention. The two quickly form a friendship and Daniel expresses interest in working with Julian. The pair begin constructing a website called WikiLeaks. This site is devoted to releasing confidential information (regarding corruption or other hidden problems from all over the world) to the general public. However, WikiLeaks becomes a double-edged sword as it becomes difficult to maintain anonymity for the whistleblowers releasing the information and tensions between Julian and Daniel rise. When they receive a profound amount of secret military information from U.S. soldier Bradley Manning, Julian and Daniel are forced to make wise, critical decisions that could make or break their site, their lives and the lives of many others…

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Before he was nominated for playing Alan Turring, Benedict Cumberbatch wonderfully brought the twisted personality of Julian Assange to life. The best way of describing this person (I won’t call him a character, because he really exists) is to call him a pompous dickhead that has done us a great service. The fact that Assange was so opposed to this film (as well as direct quotes from him) sort of hint to Cumberbatch’s portrayal being somewhat accurate (sort of like Mark Schultz’s opposition to his portrayal in the recent FOXCATCHER). You have to admire certain aspects about Assange, but also find other actions to be repugnant and hard-headed. He’s a deeply flawed genius of sorts and that’s what Cumberbatch flawlessly brings to the screen. Daniel Bruhl is fantastic as Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Daniel admires Julian’s cause, but also (as his girlfriend points out) seems to ignore the flaws in the man until it becomes startlingly clear that Daniel may have to break his whistleblower union with Assange. Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney, and Stanley Tucci all appear as U.S. government officials and (though slightly underused) make the most of every scene they have. David Thewlis is equally stellar as a reporter for The Guardian who sympathizes with Julian and Daniel’s cause.

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What I really admire about THE FIFTH ESTATE is that it remains neutral on its topic. It shows that while people have a right to the truth, there might be limits on how much information should be readily available. In one tense confrontation between the WikiLeaks founders, Daniel points out that by revealing informants’ identities they are betraying “sources fighting for the very thing that we’re fighting for.” It’s sort of depressing that THE FIFTH ESTATE bombed so badly in theaters and failed to make an impact with audiences, because it’s a stellar conversation starter about complex issues. I hope that the upcoming SNOWDEN doesn’t befall the same fate.

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Another really impressive aspect that THE FIFTH ESTATE brings is in its style. What essentially boils down to a story of different people having conversations and typing on computers is brought to life with flare and creative visuals. For example, we’re given an imaginary endless office that we see Julian and Daniel working in throughout the film. Add a good soundtrack as well as fantastic-looking locations (we don’t merely hear about stuff happening in other countries, we see pieces of it happening) and you’ve got yourself one hell of a whistleblower thriller. THE FIFTH ESTATE is one of the biggest hidden gems to come out of the last three years and I highly recommend it. If you’re watching it with friends, plan for a long night because you’re bound to get into a lengthy conversation about the touchy subject matter and mixed messages afterwards.

Grade: A-

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