OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language throughout, some Sexuality, Nudity and brief Drug Use

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Directed by: Susanna White

Written by: Hossein Amini

(based on the novel OUR KIND OF TRAITOR by John Le Carre)

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard, Damian Lewis, Naomie Harris, Khalid Abdalla, Velibor Topic, Alicia Von Rittberg & Mark Gatiss

From 2011 onwards, there has been a recent trend of cinematic adaptations from John Le Carre’s novels. OUR KIND OF TRAITOR has been in development since midway through 2014. After the positive reception of tense thriller A MOST WANTED MAN and award-winning miniseries THE NIGHT MANAGER, OUR KIND OF TRAITOR opened to not much reception from audiences and critics alike. This movie’s reviews seemed to be underwhelming and it has all but been forgotten within the space of a few months. Having finally seen the film for myself, I found it to be the weakest Le Carre movie to come out of the 2010’s. However, OUR KIND OF TRAITOR is an enjoyable dose of suspense and entertainment.

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While on vacation in Morocco, troubled couple Perry MacKendrick (Ewan McGregor) and Gail (Naomie Harris) are attempting to repair their severely damaged marriage. A dinner conversation in a fancy restaurant goes south and Perry soon finds himself left without a companion for the night…until boisterous stranger Dima (Stellan Skarsgard) offers him a drink. Perry and Dima soon become best pals, while a reluctant Gail takes a liking to Dima’s wife and children. However, not everything is as it seems when Dima asks Perry to deliver a USB drive to his government. It turns out that Dima is actually a Russian gangster who fears for his life and wants asylum in the United Kingdom. When hot-headed MI6 agent Hector (Damian Lewis) discovers this, he decides to milk Dima’s desperate situation for everything that it’s worth in order to get information and a possible promotion at his job. Perry and Gail soon find themselves caught in the middle of an intricate cat-and-mouse game between a reforming Russian gangster and an arrogant secret agent driven by questionable motives.

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Much like Le Carre’s other spy stories, OUR KIND OF TRAITOR tackles espionage through many conversations and various characters’ interactions. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t some action and tense surprises to be had though, because this is easily the most action-packed Le Carre adaptation of the 2010’s so far. Bullets, beatings, and explosions make their way into the proceedings and cause a bigger impact with their presence due to the script’s less-is-more approach. The film is shot with slick cinematography and an eye for style, making what may have been mundane dialogue-filled moments into scenes that are visually stimulating to look at.

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The characters and performances are a mixed bag. Stellan Skarsgard is phenomenal as titular traitor Dima. Skarsgard injects a loud personality into the charismatic Russian gangster, who seems very much like a good guy doing what is best for his family. Dima’s personality offers a stark contrast to his crimes that we’re told about, but are never fully shown on-screen. Dima is more than likable as a result and also puts the viewer through a sea of conflicting emotions. Ewan McGregor stars as Dima’s new best friend and only hope, Perry. We are given tiny tidbits that suggest that this character has deep flaws, but these aren’t explored much. Instead, he’s just a Good Samaritan…and comes off as a bland cardboard protagonist as a result. Yes, you can argue that his character is just a hero and we should be rooting for him simply because of that. However, Ewan McGregor isn’t given much to work with as Perry is a boring. His scenes with Dima are fun, but his moments with other characters fall emotionally flat.

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Damien Lewis is criminally underused as potentially shady MI6 agent Hector. This character is prominently featured in the film’s trailer, poster and DVD cover. However, he only has a couple of stand-out scenes and is sadly wasted away in a corrupt bureaucracy subplot, echoing THE NIGHT MANAGER’s weaker points and outright repeating a few of that story’s plot twists. This is really a shame too. Lewis delivers a great performance as the impossible-to-predict secret agent and seemed like he was building towards becoming a more intense presence in the story’s grand scheme. Instead, he’s wasting away behind a desk and debating ethics. Yes, this is the more realistic approach to spy stories that Le Carre is known for, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. Still, Lewis, McGregor and Skarsgard put in good performances…even if two of the characters are poorly written. The same cannot be said for Naomie Harris as Gail, who’s just an aggravating character being brought to life by a rather lifeless performance.

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For all of its faults, OUR KIND OF TRAITOR remains an entertaining, suspenseful spy thriller. If you’ve liked Le Carre’s other recent adaptations, then you’ll probably enjoy this film. The performances are mostly solid, even if the characters don’t allow the cast to work with much. The visual style and spurts of intense action keep the dialogue-driven plot interesting. However, don’t go into this film expecting something along the same lines as A MOST WANTED MAN (my favorite Le Carre adaptation thus far) or THE NIGHT MANAGER. Instead, just go in craving a fun movie in the vein of Le Carre’s more realistic espionage stories and you’ll likely leave satisfied.

Grade: B

THE KILLING GENE (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal Violence including a Rape, Gruesome Images and Pervasive Language

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Directed by: Tom Shankland

Written by: Clive Bradley

Starring: Stellan Skarsgard, Melissa George, Selma Blair, Tom Hardy, Ashley Walters & Paul Kaye

Serial killer thrillers are a dime-a-dozen. That was happening long before David Fincher’s SE7EN arrived and has continued long after. Why mention Fincher’s 1995 thriller? Well, because after SE7EN became a huge hit in the 90’s, everyone and their dog seemed to be trying to replicate the dark and gritty style of that masterpiece. Over the years, most have fallen short and some rare exceptions have been made. Tom Shankland’s THE KILLING GENE is one of those exceptions.

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Detective Eddie Argo has worked the city streets for years and that has taken a toll on him. He’s seen a lot of horrible things in his career, but he’s never seen anything quite like the body they’ve just uncovered. A pregnant woman has been killed with a math equation carved into her flesh. While Eddie immediately suspects that this murder has something to do with a local gang (run by the vicious Pierre), his new partner Helen thinks that something deeper and darker might be occurring. The pregnant woman is the first in a string of killings that seem to revolve around Pierre’s gang. Clearly, someone is trying to solve a complex math problem with bloodshed. A serial killer is conducting an experiment to see how much pain someone will endure before eventually killing the person they love most. Needless to say, Eddie and Helen must get to the bottom of this twisted case as corpses continue to pile up.

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THE KILLING GENE isn’t your typical cop vs. killer fare. Instead, the movie opts for a grimmer, more potent approach. It uses its premise to probe a darker issue in human nature and how far we will go to stay alive. Think a less gory and over-the-top version of SAW. The movie doesn’t exploit its disturbing premise though and mostly keeps the violence off-screen. We do see a couple of nauseating bits play out, but not nearly enough where this might be considered torture-porn or even on the same violent level of your typical serial killer flick. THE KILLING GENE’s most obvious influences come from SE7EN in capturing a scummy underbelly of a city and bringing an after-the-kill approach to the crimes. Shankland does seem to be trying a little too hard in areas to be gritty with an overuse of profanity. Typically, swearing doesn’t bother me in movies. However, KILLING GENE uses a distracting, unrealistic amount of profanity (like every other word in a couple of arguments). This doesn’t become a huge deal in the movie, but it is a recurring annoyance.

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The cast is an unusual mix of names that work well together. Stellan Skarsgard usually plays the villain, but finds himself playing the disillusioned Eddie. He’s a compelling lead. Even when he was revealed to be a bit of an asshole and a cop who doesn’t mind using questionable methods, I still liked Eddie as a character. Melissa George is a much more stereotypical rookie partner, but she manages to stick out of the crowd by being smarter than those around her. Though her delivery ranges from good to somewhat stilted, George surprised me here by making a clichéd character into someone slightly more realistic. This is not a spoiler, seeing that this detail is given upfront, but Selma Blair is slightly miscast as the killer. Her motivations are interesting and add another layer onto the already clever plot, but her line delivery is a little unconvincing. There is one more recognizable face as Tom Hardy is perfectly cast as the sadistic scumbag Pierre.

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THE KILLING GENE isn’t immune to clichés that are common in serial killer thrillers, but it still stands as a refreshing entry in an overcrowded subgenre. Stellan Skarsgard and Tom Hardy both deliver solid performances, while Melissa George makes the most of what she’s given and Selma Blair sort of fumbles her part. This movie utilizes the same dirty style of SE7EN, though it tries a little too hard with a noticeable amount of excessive swearing. I do commend this film for taking the high road and not just devolving into generic torture-porn (which was hugely popular at the time this was made). THE KILLING GENE is more than just your typical serial killer thriller and well worth a watch, if you feel you can stomach it.

Grade: B+

BEOWULF & GRENDEL (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language and some Sexuality

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Directed by: Sturla Gunnarsson

Written by: Andrew Rai Berzins

(based on the epic poem BEOWULF)

Starring: Gerard Butler, Stellan Skarsgard, Sarah Polley, Ingvar Sigurdsson & Tony Curran

It seems like the epic poem of BEOWULF cannot be adapted properly into the cinematic medium. This problem seems to stem from filmmakers and screenwriters feeling the need to put their own “unique” spin on the beloved source material, while neglecting that the script practically writes itself. The epic poem serves as a blueprint for current tales of heroism and fantasy, but everybody has to put their unneeded little twist on it. BEOWULF & GRENDEL is a supposedly more humanized version of BEOWULF that comes off as contrived, frequently dull and poorly constructed in every sense. It’s not that a little creativity on old material can’t be a good thing, but this movie is a shoddy mess all around.

The time is 500 A.D. and the place is Denmark. King Hrothgar has just slain a troll on the edge of his land. The troll’s young son witnesses the bloody affair and hides in the seclusion of nearby caves. Years pass and the young troll has grown up into a powerful beast named Grendel. In that enormous period of time, Grendel has plotted his revenge against Hrothgar’s kingdom. As bodies pile up and the king drinks himself into a stupor, the heroic Beowulf comes to the shores with the intentions of slaying Grendel. However, the situation soon appears more complex than originally thought. Beowulf starts to realize that maybe Grendel isn’t the monster that everyone is making him out to be, but a bloody deed must be completed before Beowulf can sail back home.

If there were a single compliment that I could give BEOWULF & GRENDEL, it would be about the locations. The film was shot in Iceland and the landscapes are simply beautiful. This lone positive quality makes the rest of the film feel like the giant cinematic disaster that it is. The production values appear to be fairly cheap, but that’s no excuse for poorly executed scenes that become unintentionally hilarious at points. Take for example when a rubber-looking webbed hand casually comes out of the ocean and caresses Beowulf’s face. The moment almost seems like it was intended as a jolt-worthy scare, but plays off in a passive way. The editing looks hastily glued together, especially during the final conflict. When it’s not cheesy or stupid enough to be unintentionally comedic, the pacing of the film really drags this whole thing down. Despite whatever new spin is put on the material, one thing is for certain: BEOWULF should never be boring. This film has two modes: dumb and dull. That’s about it.

Aside from awful production values and wasted locations, the acting is beyond bad from everybody. The dialogue is riddled with so much swearing that it becomes distracting. If curse words are to be used in the dialogue, they should feel like they’re a natural part of the character who happens to be saying them. It feels like the frequent F-bombs were really the only thing that got this film the R rating as the violence and sex are surprisingly tame. Gerard Butler portrays Beowulf as a bland guy who doesn’t seem the least bit heroic or someone worth caring about. He’s wooden delivery of “I am Beowulf” made me chuckle a few times. I mean, even Ray Winstone put emotion into those lines in 2007’s misguided animated adaptation and he was a cartoon character. Stellan Skarsgard chews the scenery as the drunken king. Two unneeded characters come in the forms of Sarah Polley as a witch and Eddie Marsan as a cowardly Christian missionary. Finally, the portrayal of Grendel merely consists of a guy in heavy make-up who occasionally yells out a bit of gibberish, pensively stares off in the distance, and (I kid you not) plays a game of bowling with human skulls on a cliff.

I’m not completely opposed to a creative take on the age-old tale of BEOWULF, but it would be nice to see a proper adaptation grace the screen as well. Even though there might have been creative liberties taken in this film that could have possibly played off well in other hands, this movie fails at everything it’s trying to do. I didn’t feel an ounce of sympathy towards Grendel or any emotion for any given character in the film. I was bored instead of excited. The locations are gorgeous, but wasted on a poorly written screenplay. Even though Syfy produced its own take on the material (simply titled GRENDEL), BEOWULF & GRENDEL feels very much like it deserves regular airings on the Syfy Channel. The only bit of entertainment I got from this film was when a crew member accidentally wandered onto a scene that occurred 18 minutes into the running time and then quickly darted off as soon as he realized the camera was filming. BEOWULF & GRENDEL is that kind of failure.

Grade: F

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Action, Violence and Destruction, and for some Suggestive Comments

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Directed by: Joss Whedon

Written by: Joss Whedon

(based on the AVENGERS comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgard, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Andy Serkis & Julie Delpy

Hats off to Marvel. Seriously, it takes an indescribable level of skill to plan out different films that all tie into one massive storyline. I can honestly say that I haven’t disliked a single movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON doesn’t change that. This being said, I didn’t love the first AVENGERS. I found it to be a lot of fun with some flaws. With the initial set-up of the Avengers out of the way, I was hoping that AGE OF ULTRON might prove itself to be even better than 2012’s superhero opus. That was definitely not the case. It’s a serviceable piece of blockbuster entertainment, but ULTRON falls on the lower end of the spectrum in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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After raiding a Hydra station, the Avengers have finally retrieved Loki’s scepter. While much celebrating is in order, Tony Stark is haunted by the possibility of a day when the Avengers won’t be able to save the world. In order to stop that apocalypse from ever happening, Stark and Bruce Banner create the Ultron program. Ultron is an advanced A.I. that becomes all too self-aware. Unfortunately for the Avengers and humanity in general, Ultron sees the only solution to peace as world domination and destruction. It’s up to the Avengers to stop the threat that Stark created!

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The most enjoyable part about the original AVENGERS was watching well-known superheroes have casual banter and interactions with each other. That holds true of this sequel too. A lot of the humor and running jokes between the characters work well. Though we know there will be plenty of explosions and fights down the line, one can’t help but laugh during an early party sequence in which War Machine tries to impress Thor with a pretty basic story or Iron Man and Thor trying to one up each other in comparing their girlfriends. Running jokes about Thor’s hammer and Captain America’s reluctance to swearing got laughs out of me every single time they appeared. Audiences aren’t simply there to watch the superheroes have casual conversations and hang out though, they are expecting rollicking action scenes and high stakes. ULTRON delivers in a few stand-out sequences. The show-stopper of which is a scene involving Hulkbuster armor.

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We’ve already seen plenty of Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor to know who their characters are and what they stand for. Credit to ULTRON for bringing out more development on both Black Widow and Hawkeye. The former is far more interesting than the latter. There’s also possibly too much time being spent on the latter, but this sequel made an honest effort to flesh these side characters out further. Hulk is a far more interesting character here too, not to mention that his CGI design doesn’t look nearly as cartoonish this time around. New faces come in Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch (who are both entertaining, but underused) as well as Vision (wonderfully played by Paul Bettany). Finally there’s the title villain: Ultron! James Spader voices the mechanical menace with humor being injected into his performance, but he’s about as clichéd a bad guy as you can find.

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AGE OF ULTRON’s overlong running time doesn’t necessarily help matters either. There are far too many scenes spent setting up future films (CIVIL WAR, RAGNAROK, and IFINITY WARS) at the expense of putting the main storyline in the backseat during solid chunks of this movie. There are spots in AGE OF ULTRON that easily could have been snipped out for a far tighter and better film. The finale also gets pretty repetitive with the Avengers facing off against a massive army of Ultron-controlled droids whose only purpose is to get smashed up by the Avengers. It makes sense to pit an army against a band of superheroes, but I wish the actual climactic showdown was far more interesting and entertaining than it wound up being.

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Though it’s far from bad or mediocre, AGE OF ULTRON is the third worst movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far. The two MCU films that I would consider worse than ULTRON would be IRON MAN 2 (which also spent too much time setting up future films and not focusing enough attention on the story at hand) and THE INCREDIBLE HULK. AGE OF ULTRON has both good and bad qualities. The good far outweighs the bad, but enough problems (flawed pacing, a repetitive finale, clichéd villain, etc.) remain to make this a step down from the first AVENGERS. AGE OF ULTRON is an okay superhero flick, but we’ve come to expect a lot more from Marvel.

Grade: B-

THE AVENGERS (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 23 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action throughout, and a mild Drug Reference

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Directed by: Joss Whedon

Written by: Joss Whedon

(based on the AVENGERS comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany & Powers Boothe

In the history of cinema, there’s never been anything quite like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Through various origin stories and connections, Marvel released a number of films (IRON MAN, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, IRON MAN 2, THOR, and CAPTAIN AMERICA) with the intentions of leading up to a massive epic AVENGERS movie that comic book geeks never thought they would receive in their wildest dreams. While the films leading up this 2012 summer blockbuster ranged in quality, THE AVENGERS fast became a critically acclaimed blockbuster that ranked as one of the biggest money-makers in the history of film. Everybody loved this movie and most still do, but I don’t fawn over it as much as everybody else seems to. THE AVENGERS is hugely entertaining, but far from perfect thanks to three problems.

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Top secret organization S.H.I.E.L.D. is experimenting with the Tesseract (an infinity stone) and find themselves in a bit of trouble. The evil Loki has come to our world with the goals of using the infinity stone for evil and dominating all of mankind. It’s up to special agent Nick Fury to assemble a ragtag group of superheroes to form the Avengers. They might not get along with each other, but this team of heroes is here to save the day. It’s Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow, and Hawkeye vs. Loki and his army of intergalactic conquerors.

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The biggest pleasure of watching THE AVENGERS is to see this group of Marvel superheroes interact with each other. You get to watch as Iron Man gets into arguments with Captain America and forms a friendship with the Hulk. There’s also Thor being aggressive towards everyone as well as the entire S.H.I.E.L.D. team being wary of Bruce Banner to much comic relief. Seeing as these characters have been developed through separate movies (save for Black Widow and Hawkeye), there’s no real need for extra character development. It’s a cast of actors slipping right back into their established roles with ease. Black Widow is a good character on her own, but Hawkeye is underdeveloped (though that’s mainly the result of a plot device in the first 5 minutes).

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The biggest drawback character is Loki as the main villain. He’s already been given his time to shine as the bad guy in THOR, but we’re expected to find him just as interesting in THE AVENGERS (having already seen Thor beat his ass once already). While Tom Hiddleston is funny in the role, he just isn’t that great of a threat for the Avengers. The rest of the baddies are a bunch of faceless aliens that really aren’t given much of a purpose other than to be beaten by the Avengers. For a movie that was set up as an action-packed superhero extravaganza from beginning to end, AVENGERS takes an awful long space of time just focusing on the team members squabbling with each other on their floating S.H.I.E.L.D. base. It’s as if this movie that was clearly setting itself up as a fanboy’s wet dream decided to take a break in order to build supposed tension and that doesn’t really work out in the movie’s favor.

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As far as the spectacle itself is concerned, AVENGERS looks huge and feels epic. The action set pieces are entertaining and it’s a blast to watch this well-known group of mismatched heroes working together in a climax set across the streets of New York. There are plenty of one-liners, fights, and explosions to go around. Everything looks great with one problem and it’s a big one. The Hulk is really cheesy. Mark Ruffalo is quite good in the role of Bruce Banner, but the CGI monster that he turns into looks pretty silly compared to everything else around him. It’s possible that we’ll never see a Hulk who looks perfectly rendered because, well, the Hulk isn’t that great of a hero to begin with. However, even the Hulk from 2008’s INCREDIBLE HULK was a lot better than this green Ruffalo-resembling creature. It doesn’t distract from any of the awesome scenes featuring the other heroes, but he’s pretty dumb looking by himself. That being said, a scene between him and Loki is pure gold.

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Overall, THE AVENGERS is a lot of fun. That being said, it’s far from a perfect movie. Hell, there are even films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that have managed to outdo this one (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY). The running time is bit too long and the design of Hulk looks pretty silly. Also, we’ve seen Loki before and I wish they could have given us a better villain. With all these things in mind, THE AVENGERS is a highly entertaining comic book film that delivers the goods. I do think it’s a bit overrated, but there’s hope that AGE OF ULTRON could manage to one-up this in every possible way.

Grade: B+

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