WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, Thematic Elements, and some Disturbing Images

Directed by: Matt Reeves

Written by: Mark Bomback & Matt Reeves

Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer & Terry Notary

2011’s RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was far better than anyone could have expected it to be. This primate-filled prequel wasn’t perfect, but it served as a solid origin story for the ape revolution and left the door wide open for a potentially superior sequel. 2014’s DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES blew RISE out of the water on every conceivable level. This sequel to the prequel was action-packed, had a lot on its mind, and things were again left open for another installment. It’s 2017 and WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is hitting theaters. Rest assured, WAR is bleak, depressing, emotional and brilliantly executed. Who knew that a PLANET OF THE APES prequel trilogy would wind up being one of the best movie trilogies of our time?

After Koba’s attack and subsequent defeat in DAWN, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his herd of intelligent apes have been hiding from military forces for two years. Things seem relatively peaceful until a band of human soldiers accidentally stumble across their fortress. An attack is made and Caesar suffers a devastating loss. Driven by revenge, Caesar vows to kill The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a crazed military leader who’s taken up residence in a well-guarded military base. On his journey, Caesar is warned by the few companions that accompany him that he’s in danger of becoming like Koba. All the while, the fate of ape kind and the human race hangs in the balance.

I tried to keep my plot synopsis as vague as possible, because WAR throws a lot of unexpected twists and turns at the viewer. The less you know, the more shocked you’ll be. Needless to say that director/co-writer Matt Reeves and writer Mark Bomback have found intelligent ways to tie WAR into the rest of the ape-pocalypse mythos. You might have the urge to go watch the 1968 original after this film has concluded, because Reeves and co. do such a masterful job of tying everything up in believable ways.

Though the APES films have previously wowed moviegoers with their effects by creating real-looking primates from computer graphics and motion capture performances, WAR is the peak of these special effects thus far. To say that this movie looks incredible is an understatement. Your eyes will be fooled into thinking that a chimpanzee is walking, talking, fighting, and killing. It certainly helps that Andy Serkis delivers his best performance yet as complex chimpanzee protagonist Caesar, with tons of emotion and a huge story arc to either overcome or be corrupted by. I know it’s cliché to say at this point (especially regarding this series), but Serkis more than deserves an Academy Award.

As supporting apes, Karin Konoval (playing orangutan Maurice) and Terry Notary (playing chimp Rocket) are especially great this time around. Steve Zahn (as a newcomer chimp nicknamed “Bad Ape”) delivers much-needed comic relief that never detracts from the story’s bleakness and emotional rollercoaster. WAR is very much the apes story because there are only two noteworthy human characters. Woody Harrelson plays the insane Colonel, who seems to be drawing inspiration from APOCALYPSE NOW’s Colonel Kurtz and also serving his own unique brand of evil driven by complex motivations. WAR’s most impressive newcomer is child actor Amiah Miller who plays Maurice’s adopted mute human daughter Nova. Without a single word of spoken dialogue, Miller conveys everything her character is feeling and will likely make you tear up during two of the film’s most emotional moments.

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES appropriately nails the feeling of a depressing war film, but with apes as the main characters. I caught hints of THE GREAT ESCAPE (which were intentional), alongside universal themes that can be seen in other war stories and (even) biblical epics. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES does what all great science fiction has managed to do and talks about complex real-life concepts through a fictional disguise. Yes, it’s a film about an ape trying to get revenge on an insane military commander, but it’s also about so much more than that. I don’t want to go into specifics for fear of spoiling some of the many emotions you’ll feel, but WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES made me cry, laugh, cheer, and sit in stunned silence. I’ve also been thinking about it for hours on end since watching it.

WAR is easily the most mature entry in a series that was already skilled at crafting smart, adult-aimed summer blockbusters. Action, explosions, and sheer spectacle mean so much more when there are well-developed characters, deep themes, and honest emotions carefully placed into them. No hyperbole whatsoever, I rank WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES alongside THE DARK KNIGHT and MAD MAX: FURY ROAD as one of the best 21st century summer blockbusters thus far. If you liked or loved the other APES movies, you’ll adore this one. It’s not just a great installment in one of the best trilogies to ever hit the silver screen, it’s an all-around phenomenal cinematic creation!

Grade: A+

THE RIDICULOUS 6 (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: Frank Coraci

Written by: Tim Herlihy & Adam Sandler

Starring: Adam Sandler, Terry Crews, Jorge Garcia, Taylor Lautner, Rob Schneider, Luke Wilson, Nick Nolte, Will Forte, Nick Swardson, Steve Zahn, Julia Jones, Danny Trejo, Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, David Spade, Jon Lovitz & John Turturro

Adam Sandler is a polarizing comedian. He was hugely successful in the 90s with recurring sketches on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and this was followed by a series of hit comedies (the best of which is easily HAPPY GILMORE). Somewhere around the mid-2000’s, the quality of Sandler’s output went downhill and he’s progressively gotten lazier and more unfunny as the years have rolled on. We’ve gotten to a point where studios have passed on Sandler’s ideas and he’s signed an eight-film(!) deal with Netflix. 2015’s THE RIDICULOUS 6 is the first of these eight straight-to-Netflix Sandler films, earning a whopping 0% on Rotten Tomatoes and breaking Netflix records as their most-watched film. While RIDICULOUS 6 isn’t Sandler’s worst movie, it’s definitely on the low end of his filmography.

Set in the Old West, the story follows Tom “White Knife” Stockburn (Adam Sandler). Tom never knew his father and was raised by a Native American tribe. One day, Tom’s deadbeat dad (Nick Nolte) inexplicably walks back into his life and is promptly kidnapped by an outlaw gang, led by fearsome murderer Cicero (Danny Trejo). In order to rescue his father, Tom begins robbing banks…only to realize that his dad had five other children with five other women. The gang of six misfit brothers sets off on an adventure that sees them stealing from various jerks, encountering historical figures, and ending up in (what else) an Old West gun fight. Meanwhile, about 1/4th of the jokes get laughs and 3/4ths fall flat.

Adam Sandler phones in his performance as White Knife. He seems to be trying to do a gruff Clint Eastwood impression, but lacks any charisma and the faintest bit of effort in this part. Sandler as a straight-man never should have been attempted in the first place, because he doesn’t seem fit for this part in comedy. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I might have preferred a more over-the-top, silly-voiced Sandler as the lead. Even more surprising is that Rob Schneider isn’t half-bad as the stereotypical Mexican brother and actually got a few chuckles out of me.

Delivering the worst performance in the film, Taylor Lautner is godawful as a high-pitched hillbilly. Nearly every moment he’s on screen is insufferable. Almost as bad as Lautner is Jorge Garcia (a.k.a. Hurley from LOST) who plays an incomprehensible mountain man. Luke Wilson and Terry Crews are also in this movie as the two other brothers and they don’t contribute much to the proceedings or laughs. Danny Trejo and Nick Nolte also show up, but are clearly phoning it in.

To its credit, THE RIDICULOUS 6 looks like it had a budget behind it. There’s only one scene of cheap CGI and that comes early on. The sets and cinematography are rather well done for a western comedy spoof, though I still much prefer Seth MacFarlane’s serviceable A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST over this. Two of RIDICULOUS 6’s main problem comes from its long running time and messy pacing. This film almost feels like an endurance test, because the story frequently meanders and there are many dull moments. If it ran at 90 minutes, this might have been far better. The first hour is dedicated to the brothers running into each other, following a predictable pattern of: the characters going to a location, meeting another brother, and then going to another location.

Three-quarters of the jokes in RIDICULOUS 6 are lame. This isn’t because they’re offensive and gross, but rather because they’re just plain lazy. The juvenile bits include: a donkey with explosive diarrhea, bestiality, farting, a fly getting castrated, charades for sex, and crude-sounding Native American names. Are we having fun yet? No, but what about a long musical number around a campfire that comes out of nowhere and lasts for nearly 5 minutes. Still not laughing, but what about half-assed cameo appearances from Vanilla Ice (as Mark Twain), David Spade (as Colonel Muster), Chris Kattan (as John Wilkes Booth), and Jon Lovitz (as a snobby rich poker player)? I wanted to laugh at Vanilla Ice playing one of America’s most celebrated writers, but they do nothing with it. The joke is simply him appearing as that character and nothing else.

Though I’m railing on this film’s flaccid excuses for humor, there are a handful of genuine laughs to be had. These are few and far between, but they do exist. Early cracks about the racism of the time made me giggle, while cross-eyed Steve Zahn gets a few good moments as a gun-toting hick. Steve Buscemi makes the most of his time as the small-town doctor/barber. Meanwhile, Harvey Keitel gets the darkest laugh of the entire movie and John Turturro is fantastic as the inventor of baseball (who makes up rules to avoid being beaten at his own game).

THE RIDICULOUS 6 is not Adam Sandler’s worst film because there are a few good laughs in this mess of a movie. That’s more than I can say about the likes of GROWN UPS and JACK AND JILL. A bloated running time and monotonous story take an unfixable toll on the proceedings, one that’s further hindered by a majority of the would-be jokes falling flat. I really hope that THE RIDICULOUS 6 winds up being the worst Adam Sandler straight-to-Netflix film, because this lazy and that in itself seems a little insulting to the Sandman’s fanbase.

Grade: D

CHAIN OF FOOLS (2000)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Sexuality and Language

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Directed by: Pontus Lowenhielm & Patrick von Krusenstjerna

Written by: Bix Skahill

Starring: Steve Zahn, Salma Hayek, Jeff Goldblum, David Cross, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson, David Hyde Pierce, Kevin Corrigan, Orlando Jones, Lara Flynn Boyle & Craig Ferguson

Slapstick humor, witty dialogue, bullets and ancient Chinese coins all come together in CHAIN OF FOOLS. Utilizing a style that’s more than a little reminiscent of Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, this directorial debut was dumped into a handful of theaters upon its release and then found slightly more success in other countries. There a lot of qualities to enjoy in this under-the-radar, oddball heist comedy. These include: an ensemble cast of quirky characters, clever intersecting storylines, plenty of goofy laughs, and a catchy alternative rock soundtrack. It may have a few noticeable flaws, but CHAIN OF FOOLS is a blast of dark laughs, unique characters and smart plot twists.

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Thomas Kresk (Steve Zahn) is a down-on-his luck barber, whose life drastically changes when shady criminal Avnet (Jeff Goldblum) walks into his shop and a simple haircut doesn’t go as planned for both the criminal and the barber. With the aid of his best friend Andy (David Cross), a mentally unhinged scout leader, Kresk finds himself in possession of three rare Chinese coins that are worth a fortune. Things get more complicated when a poorly educated gangster (Kevin Corrigan) enters the picture, along with corrupt rich guy Bollingsworth (Tom Wilkinson), teenage hitman Mikey (Elijah Wood), and sexy cop/Playboy model Kolko (Salma Hayek). Soon enough, Kresk and Andy find their get-rich-quick scheme is going up in smoke and will be lucky to make it out alive…let alone with the coins in hand.

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CHAIN’s main draw comes from the titular fools themselves, as portrayed by a large ensemble cast of big names and familiar faces. As Kresk, Steven Zahn is playing his usual typecast lovable loser…except with a bad mullet and barber jacket. Jeff Goldblum is clearly having a blast as straight-faced, twitchy Avnet and effortlessly steals the spotlight from the other cast members around him. Part of the reason that Goldblum winds up with so many good laughs is that he plays his part seriously, while everyone around him is goofing off like there’s no end. It’s like throwing a GODFATHER character into a wacky spoof and simply witnessing what follows.

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Even though Goldblum makes off like a bandit with a bag full of scenes, David Cross steals most of the show as borderline psychotic, socially awkward timber scout Andy. Cross frequently had me laughing and small details about his character get funnier the more I think about them. On a slightly lesser note, Tom Wilkinson is too exaggerated as Bollingsworth, while Elijah Wood’s angsty teenage hitman Mikey receives a few memorable moments. Salma Hayek is essentially playing the bland romantic interest and occasionally makes her way into other scenes as her clueless detective slowly gets close to the truth. David Hyde Pierce shows up for two minutes as Bollingsworth’s personal assistant, while Orlando Jones seems wasted as a transvestite caught up in the illegal proceedings.

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CHAIN OF FOOLS keeps itself interesting through a non-linear narrative that frequently takes us from one character to another and then back and forth in time. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, but these sudden shifts aren’t necessarily hard to follow. The film packs a lot of plotlines and characters into slightly over 90 minutes, so there’s never a dull moment…even if the main story can seem a tad cluttered. Indeed, some of this movie’s laughs are a direct result of flashbacks and reveals that slowly lay out the comical details of a character’s past. One of the film’s funniest scenes was a well-executed flashback that served as a big long visual joke. Even though the jumbled timeline seems integral to its charm, CHAIN OF FOOLS would likely remain just as entertaining if it were told in a straightforward manner. It’s a well-written movie that occasionally reaches beyond its grasp.

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In addition to feeling slightly overcrowded, CHAIN OF FOOLS has a lot of style, one might argue a bit too much. These “cool” details include: cartoony sound effects (lending to the over-the-top slapstick), title cards that introduce each main character with a tagline, and narration from Zahn’s bad barber. A couple of these touches (mainly the overuse of sound effects and title cards that add nothing to the story) seem a bit forced and awkward, detracting from some of the enjoyment packed into the fast-paced 98 minutes. Still, the pros far outweigh the cons in this quirky crime-comedy. The writing is clever. The characters are unique. It’s an all-around entertaining, funny film in the vein of Tarantino and Guy Ritchie. If that sounds up your alley, then CHAIN OF FOOLS will likely satisfy your cinematic craving.

Grade: B

THE GOOD DINOSAUR (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Peril, Action and Thematic Elements

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Directed by: Peter Sohn

Written by: Meg LeFauve

Voices of: Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, AJ Buckley, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn & Peter Sohn

2015 is the first year where Pixar has released two original movies, those being INSIDE OUT and this. While the story about emotions in a little girl’s head is far superior, THE GOOD DINOSAUR serves as a simple adventure that’s clearly geared for younger ages. Just because it’s better suited for little kids doesn’t mean that this film won’t entertain older viewers though. THE GOOD DINOSAUR is worth a watch thanks to beautiful animation and a strong emotional core. The lower end of the Pixar filmography is not a bad place to be as the company consistently produces great family entertainment (MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, CARS, and CARS 2 are all worse than this).

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In an alternate course of history, the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs goes slightly off track and misses Earth entirely. Millions of years pass and dinosaurs evolve into a farming society. Arlo is a cowardly Apatosaurus trying to make his mark in the family. When capturing a critter that’s been snacking on his family’s crops, Arlo discovers the corn-eating pest is a feral human child. Through a few acts of fate and a river with a strong current, the long-necked dinosaur and the little boy (later named Spot) get stranded miles away from home. With predators and various other dangers laid in their path, the unlikely pair must form a friendship and rely on each other to survive the long journey ahead of them.

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The first thing that I immediately noticed about THE GOOD DINOSAUR is how great the animation looks. I’m not talking about the character design (which is more cartoony than other recent Pixar films), but rather the background designs and landscapes that these dinosaur travel through. It looks as if someone shot actual footage of wilderness and then added the cartoon dinosaurs at the last second. I was thoroughly impressed with how the small, beautiful details stuck out in this film.

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The characters are a bit of a mixed bag. I like Arlo and Spot, but the rest of the dinosaurs come and go when the film needs them to drive the familiar plot forward. A family of T-rexes show up to guide our heroes for approximately ten minutes and then promptly disappear into the background as forgotten plot devices. The same happens with a quirky dinosaur who shows up for one brief scene (given away in the trailer) to give Spot his name. While FINDING NEMO sort of had the same formula, those undersea creatures were far better, more memorable characters than these so-so prehistoric reptiles.

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I was especially disappointed with the villains in this movie because they had real potential to add a darkness to the film that something like LAND BEFORE TIME had (not to compare this to another animated dino adventure). I really enjoyed their presence, but they only pop up for two scenes. I wouldn’t necessarily have a big issue with this, but the movie feels the need to throw in a pack of Velociraptors for one pointless moment that could have been used to further flesh out the main antagonists. This being said, Arlo and Spot are strong enough to carry the weight of the film on their shoulders. I enjoyed watching these two main characters evolve over the course of the film. The main message of the film is a familiar one (overcoming fear to do what is right), but the way it’s executed is undeniably emotional.

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For a movie that really isn’t on the same level as most of Pixar’s other creations, THE GOOD DINOSAUR had me teary-eyed during a couple of emotional scenes. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way either as a younger child in the theater knew precisely what was going on and was bawling her eyes out during the heartfelt final moments. This is one well-animated family film that will entertain viewers of all ages, though it’s obviously geared more towards younger viewers. While the movie definitely could have been better with a few creative decisions (the screenplay suffers from apparent rewrites) and remains on the lower end of Pixar’s scale, THE GOOD DINOSAUR lives up to its title in being good (but not great).

Grade: B

SHATTERED GLASS (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Language, Sexual References and brief Drug Use

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Directed by: Billy Ray

Written by: Billy Ray

(based on an article by Buzz Bissinger)

Starring: Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Zahn, Melanie Lynskey, Hank Azaria & Rosario Dawson

How much trust do you place in the news? A lot of Americans have found themselves evaluating that question after the recent incidents with Brian Williams (surprising) and Bill O’Reilly (not surprising in the slightest). Stephen Glass outdid those two reporters during the late 90’s. Glass worked for The New Republic (a much respected and honored magazine) and became a sensation during his three-year stint there. Unfortunately for the New Republic, Glass had completely fabricated more than half of his stories that were being printed as fact. SHATTERED GLASS is the directorial debut from Billy Ray (director of BREACH and writer of CAPTAIN PHILLIPS) and retells the Stephen Glass incident.

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The film is structured in a somewhat non-linear fashion as Glass lectures a high school journalism class about the pressures of reporting and keys to being a successful writer. Between these pieces of narration we see Stephen’s popularity among staff at New Republic and the chaos of an article that tore his falsely built career apart, titled “Hack Heaven.” When a writer at Forbes online branch discovers that Glass’s article seems to be a complete work of fiction and throws allegations at New Republic, editor Charles “Chuck” Lane becomes highly suspicious of Stephen. As the investigation furthers, tensions rise between Chuck, Stephen and the rest of the staff that may destroy The New Republic in the process.

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SHATTERED GLASS is based on an interesting true story. Therefore, the script doesn’t need to try too hard to be entertaining. This is a compelling story to begin with and director/writer Billy Ray seems to realize that he didn’t need to tweak too many details or plot points to win the viewer over. There’s a clear sense of frustration that rises to a fever-pitch as Stephen Glass grasps at straws to maintain his lies and finds himself digging a deeper hole for himself as he goes along, much to the dismay of Chuck Lane. There are a handful of recognizable faces throughout (including Steve Zahn, Rosario Dawson, and Hank Azaria), but Hayden Christensen and Peter Sarsgaard are the real stars of the show. Sarsgaard is completely believable as an editor who’s being placed in a comprising “damned he does, damned if he doesn’t” position. Meanwhile, Hayden Christensen is usually a so-so actor at best, but delivers a stellar performance as Stephen Glass that’s probably going to wind up as the best role of his career. You can’t believe a word that Stephen says and that’s the whole point.

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This film isn’t perfect thanks to a couple of script decisions that detract from what could have been a perfect film. Sections of Glass narrating the events to a class of high school students become downright distracting and unneeded at points. Not to mention that the way in which this narrative concludes is clichéd and disappointing. The Forbes reporters investigating the validity of “Hack Heaven” is just as interesting as everything else in this true story, but is completely neglected about halfway through the film. It seemed as if these scenes, with Steve Zahn as reporter Adam Penenberg, were building up to their own conclusion that never came to satisfying fruition. It’s not as if the script decisions derail a good movie, but they do keep it from perfection.

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SHATTERED GLASS is probably one of the most important movies about journalism and writing that I’ve seen. It will make you question how much faith you put in supposedly fact-based articles or news stories that you read/hear on a daily basis. Peter Sarsgaard and Hayden Christensen deliver phenomenal performances and the story is gripping the whole way through. Billy Ray seems to have a knack for turning real-life stories into good movies and I wish he’d make more of them. Over a decade later, SHATTERED GLASS is still relevant and highly recommended.

Grade: B

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