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

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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

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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

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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-

ROAD TO PERDITION (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Language

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Directed by: Sam Mendes

Written by: David Self

(based on the graphic novel ROAD TO PERDITION by Max Alan Collins & Richard Piers Rayner)

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Liam Aiken, Dylan Baker & Ciaran Hinds

Try to think of nice guy Tom Hanks as a hitman. It’s not exactly an easy image to get into your head, let alone process how it might play out. Talented director Sam Mendes and versatile actor Tom Hanks pull of this unlikely feat in ROAD TO PERDITION. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, this film combines a father-son drama with a crime thriller. The result is one of the best movies from 2002!

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Michael Sullivan is a devoted husband and loving father who works closely with notorious mob boss/father figure John Rooney. His life is simple and he deeply loves his wife and two sons. When Michael Sullivan Jr. (his elder son) gets curious about his father’s mysterious work, he makes the shocking discovery that his father is actually a hitman for Rooney. This results in lives being lost and both Michael Sullivans (Sr. and Jr.) trying to get make it out of a bullet-ridden cat-and-mouse game alive, while also seeking revenge against Rooney’s gang.

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I was hesitating about details in that initial synopsis of this film. It’s very easy to give key plot points away that might come as shocking to someone who doesn’t know too much about this movie to begin with. I will say that the premise sounds simple on paper, but things actually get complex. With those twists and turns included, it never felt as if story was overly complicating itself. There’s a looming suspense that’s hovering over the whole film from the moment Hanks’s job is revealed.

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It goes without saying that if you have a movie where a son discovers that his father is a hitman, you’d expect the father and son to spend a lot of time together from that point onwards. That is the case here and it’s made all the better that their relationship feels real. Tom Hanks, though technically a bad guy, comes off as more of a concerned father than a cold-hearted killer. I never forgot what his violent profession was, but he was still a fantastic character. His job may have gotten his family into an awful mess, but I was rooting for him for the entire movie. Hanks breathes life into a character that was probably difficult to balance. A newcomer at the time this was filmed, Tyler Hoechlin (who hasn’t gone on to do much since) is phenomenal as Sullivan Jr. The pairing of Hanks and Hoechlin seems like a match made in heaven as they play off each other so well.

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Besides Hanks, a lot of other big names populate the cast. The best of which is Paul Newman (in his final live-action appearance) as Rooney. The late actor (who still had a joyful glint in his eye) excels in mafia boss role, injecting conflicted emotions that help the audience feel the struggle of his tough dilemma. Rooney isn’t just a cut-and-dried villain. He’s actually a sympathetic guy. You understand the appeal of working for a man like this and he’s also a father being torn apart by the sins of his son (played by Daniel Craig, pulling off a damn good American accent). The relationship between Newman and Craig is the antithesis of Hanks and Hoechlin, but there are also a lot of parallels that make things even more interesting. Stanley Tucci and Dylan Baker aren’t given a lot of screen time, but make the most of what they have. Then there’s Jude Law as the creepy Maguire. With long fingernails, thinning hair, and a devilish smirk, Law embodies a ghoul with a gun. As if that wasn’t enough to make his character terrifying, he also has an unusual hobby (shown in his introduction).

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To put the icing on the cake, the mood and atmosphere created in PERDITION is potent! If other directors had attempted to tell this story, they might have included tons of explosions and clichés galore. Sam Mendes opts for a more subtle approach and creates a quiet sense of tension that escalates in the more exciting scenes. It’s not all about brooding suspense though, as plenty of emotional moments (including a couple of devastating scenes) had enough impact to bring me close to tears. Adding to the mix is the awesome soundtrack from Thomas Newman, who seems to have constructed the music to fit the mood of each scene perfectly with a subtle pieces of music.

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Overall, ROAD TO PERDITION is not nearly as big today as it was upon its original release, but remains an amazing movie that still has a powerful emotional core. The premise might sound predictable on paper, but it moves into some pretty unexpected directions. Instead of just being a movie about violence, tragedy and revenge, ROAD TO PERDITION is more focused on fathers, sons, actions and consequences. This movie is perfect and I adored every second of it! One of the greatest crime films I’ve ever seen!

Grade: A+

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 1 (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

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

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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, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Donald Sutherland, Natalie Dormer, Sam Claflin, Robert Knepper, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci & Jeffrey Wright

HUNGER GAMES has been filling the void of good young adult book adaptations left behind by the (mostly) phenomenal HARRY POTTER saga. It’s staggering how popular this series is and I’ve been excited for MOCKINGJAY Part 1 to a certain degree. I actually didn’t care for 2012’s THE HUNGER GAMES (it was a silly teeny-bopper version of BATTLE ROYALE) and found last year’s CATCHING FIRE to be a remarkable step up in quality on pretty much every level. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 falls somewhere in between those two films. It’s not great entertainment, but never sinks to the silliness of the first film. The biggest problem that knocks this film down in quality is obvious in the title, but more on that in a moment.

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When we last left two-time Hunger Games survivor Katniss Everdeen, she had been used as part of a rebel plot against the Capitol and was being taken to the supposedly destroyed District 13. That’s where we pick up in this movie. Katniss witnesses the cruelty that the evil President Snow has brought onto her District and others (including executing those associating with the Mockingjay symbol and oppressing everyone even further). She becomes the face of a rising revolution and the tables begin to turn on the Capitol, but this is violent revolution and lives will be lost on both sides. That’s the general plot of this film and it leaves us with a huge “see you next November” final scene (more so than CATCHING FIRE did).

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Production values on MOCKINGJAY are fantastic. Seeing this world come to life was actually my favorite part of this third entry. With the plots of the previous two films revolving around battles-to-the-death in complex arenas that provided many dangers (besides the group of teenage killers running around), it didn’t seem like enough time was spent on developing this futuristic society enough for the viewer to care about the overall struggles of the huge class system. Jennifer Lawrence slips right back into Katniss mode with little effort and has made the character her own at this point. The same can be said for every returning cast member. The new additions (mainly Julianne Moore and Natalie Dormer) are good in what they’re given to do (which doesn’t amount to much other than a few conversations). The overall plot is compelling, but there’s a problem that sticks out like a sore thumb…

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The main issue that many (including myself) will likely have with MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is that “Part 1” at the end of the title. Greed might have ruined what could have been a stand-out conclusion to an entertaining trilogy. The whole movie (as compelling as it is) feels like a first act stretched to feature-length. If you’re still waiting for things to get fully going by the time the end credits roll, then I feel you because that was my exact reaction. The main character of Katniss is given remarkably very little to do in this film other than utter some lines and encourage others to fight back against a corrupt government. Nearly every piece of action you’ve seen in the marketing is taken from one scene that happens early on. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is far more focused on this revolution beginning than actually showing the revolution taking place. It’s all set-up and filler. While I enjoyed details about it, there will be viewers who wholly dislike this film for that reason and it’s a valid point.

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Despite feeling like a stretched first act to a really solid movie, the film does have a handful of intense scenes. The political subtext isn’t as subtle as many might prefer it to be, but the messages in MOCKINGJAY Part 1 are far more mature than most of the young adult adaptation counter-parts this year. Most of the character bonding moments are filler. We know who these people are and we don’t need to see them bond anymore as we want to see the action (which has been building for two movies) come to fruition. These were merely included to pad out the running time even further and they feel useless.

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In a world where studios are milking every closing chapter of young adult franchises for all that they’re worth, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 isn’t a bad set-up film for a good finale. However, it still remains a set-up film for the finale. One giant MOCKINGJAY movie would have done the job just fine and it seems like studio greed might be slightly spoiling this final book adaptation. As far as books being split into multiple movies go, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS and THE HOBBIT are both getting the concept right. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 feels like BREAKING DAWN Part 1 in the sense that this all could have been wrapped up in the opening hour of a 2-3 hour long final film. At any rate, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is disappointing, but still worth a watch. You just might want to skip it in theaters and watch it at home before going to see MOCKINGJAY Part 2 next year.

Grade: B-

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Sexuality and Language

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Directed by: Paul McGuigan

Written by: Jason Smilovic

Starring: Josh Hartnett, Bruce Willis, Lucy Liu, Morgan Freeman, Ben Kingsley & Stanley Tucci

In the opening minutes of LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN (after a grisly montage of different people being taken out in violent ways), Bruce Willis explains what a Kansas City Shuffle is. He describes it as when everybody goes right and you go left. The entire plot of SLEVIN could be summed up that description. This ingenious and underrated crime thriller leads goes left where every other crime thriller goes right. It’s a constantly surprising and very well-written flick that needs a bigger following behind it. If there was any best Tarantino movie that Tarantino didn’t direct in the new millennium, this is it!

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Slevin Kelevra (Josh Hartnett) is an unlucky young man who has found himself in quite the predicament. After losing his job, apartment and girlfriend, Slevin goes to visit his friend Nick Fisher in New York. Once there, his luck gets even worse as he’s mugged (wallet with ID and all is taken) and Nick is nowhere to be found. After making friends with a nosy neighbor (Lucy Liu), Slevin winds up in a classic case of mistaken identity. Nick owes money to two different mob bosses, The Boss (Morgan Freeman) and The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley), who live across a busy street from each other. Slevin is caught in between these crime lords and a brutish cop (Stanley Tucci) on his case. All the while a shady hitman named Goodkat (Bruce Willis) waits in the background to make his move. It’s a confusing plot to get down properly and things get even more complicated as the movie goes along, but the second half is where everything pays off in spades! This is an understated near masterpiece.

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LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN is comparable to a Tarantino crime flick in any number of ways. Namely the dialogue which is sharp, fast, and full of wit. The colorful characters all have their special personalities. Even someone as basic as two thugs who are seen in three scenes, make their presence known with different quirks. Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley are fantastic as two rival crime bosses who have their own different sense of humor. Both are intimidating, especially Morgan Freeman, but their smartass attitudes make them a joy to watch. Bruce Willis also shines Goodkat, rarely glimpsed in the first half but making his presence well-known in the second.

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The one thing that I would fault is the connection between Josh Hartnett and Lucy Liu. A romance is kindled between the two and they aren’t exactly compelling as a couple. I’ll go as far as saying that Lucy Liu is the weakest part of this flick. Josh Hartnett is a smartass that kind get a little grating at points, but I completely dug his character by the end. Also, Stanley Tucci is underused as the main police officer on Slevin’s tail. Some viewers might find it a little hard to get through the seemingly convoluted nature of the first half, but things go from confusing to downright excellent and rewarding in the second half. This is a movie that turns into something you don’t expect it to. Keeping it vague, you won’t know what hit you.

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LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN is a Kansas City Shuffle (you’ll know the origin of this term in the final seconds of the film). It’s one of the most underrated films that you’re bound to find. One of the best crime stories you’ve never heard of and if you have heard of this film, then you know exactly why its awesome and how it tricks the viewer in so many ways. There are tons of twists in LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN and I’ve kept things vague enough so you won’t guess exactly what’s coming. The second hour is one of the finest reveals that keeps pulling even more reveals as it goes along. Though the forced romance might keep things from being perfect, it’s damn near a masterpiece regardless. A bloody brilliant film that is the definition of a hidden gem. If you’re even remotely into gangster movies, then you must see this!

Grade: A

EASY A (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Mature Thematic Elements involving Teen Sexuality, Language and some Drug Material

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Directed by: Will Gluck

Written by: Bert V. Royal

Starring: Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Thomas Haden Church, Patricia Clarkson, Cam Gigandet, Lisa Kudrow, Aly Michalka, Dan Byrd, Stanley Tucci & Malcolm McDowell

Plenty of teenage movies come out every year. Most of them feature an overly cheesy romance full of unconvincing 20-somethings portraying high school kids. Every now and then, a rare film comes along that captures the joys of being young and the adolescent drama that teenagers face on a daily basis. It’s easy to forget how tough times seemed as a high school student. It’s easy to forget how painful insults from your peers could be. Well-done stories about teenagers can perfectly encapsulate all of those feelings in a meaningful and entertaining way for any age group. EASY A is not only one of the best teenage comedies I’ve seen in the new millennium, but one of the best films in that specific subgenre ever.

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Olive is a seemingly invisible good girl in a California high school. After a little white lie about losing her virginity escalates, Olive finds herself as an unwanted center of attention. Using her completely untrue reputation to her advantages, she banks on spreading more rumors about her false sexuality with classmates she really doesn’t sleep with. It’s the ultimate meaning of the term “Let’s not and say we did.” However, the realization of just what sort of trouble she’s getting herself into dawns after losing friends and becoming the ultimate outcast. Needless to say that Olive will do whatever she can to clean up her name.

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Narrated by Olive through a webcam, EASY A feels like a solid young adult novel turned movie. It’s an awesome teenage comedy that has authentic characters. The dialogue doesn’t feel scripted in the slightest. This scenario being shown isn’t exactly out of the ordinary either. It’s about as everyday as a group of kids being stuck in detention together or a girl turning sixteen. Therefore, it’s easy to get emotionally involved with a character as likable as Olive. Emma Stone delivers her A-game as the teenage protagonist. Though her filmography ranges from quality to questionable, Olive is the best role she’s been given thus far and showcases all of her talent as the lead.

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Besides Emma Stone, the entire cast of side characters are great too. Though some of these performers aren’t given a huge amount of screen time, the smallest of roles are memorable in some way. Malcolm McDowell plays the school principal for about five minutes in three brief scenes. Recently I had some girls get on me about my criticizing of Gus from FAULT IN OUR STARS (another good teenage-aimed movie). No guy is as perfect as that one-note character, but Penn Badgley plays Stone’s romantic interest as someone who I believe exists. Meanwhile, Cam Gigadent and a surprisingly tolerable Amanda Bynes are fantastic as Jesus freaks that tick off the viewer. There are plenty of other notable performances (Thomas Haden Church as a teacher, Aly Michalka as Olive’s best friend, etc.), but Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson play the best parents in the world. There’s real chemistry between the two. Their delivery is hysterical but also touching.

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The sense of humor in EASY A is as great as the dramatic angles being presented. Everything is funny but believable. The movie hearkens back to the good old days of John Hughes’s prime and comes as the ultimate homage to 80’s teen movies. Emma Stone’s Olive references these flicks in some of her dialogue. Bert Royal’s script also includes a whole lot of self-aware dialogue poking fun at the clichés in every teenager-aimed flick, but does so in a way that’s fresh and enjoyable. One thing that should also be highly praised is that EASY A is endlessly rewatchable. I’ve seen it about six times since its release in 2010 and it’s just as excellent during (if not improving with) every viewing.

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Through down-to-earth writing, great performances, and genius comedic sensibilities. EASY A is as funny and entertaining as it is emotionally involving. EASY A easily earns a grade higher than the one already in the title. This is an amazing comedy that happens to revolve around teenagers, but will entertain every demographic. There’s no other way of saying this, but EASY A is a must-see!

Grade: A+

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