THE BFG (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Action/Peril, some Scary Moments and brief Rude Humor

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Melissa Mathison

(based on the novel THE BFG by Roald Dahl)

Starring: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall & Bill Hader

Though his novels are magnificently imaginative, author Roald Dahl’s film adaptations seem cursed at the box office. This has occurred numerous times over the decades. Even though it found later success through TV airings and is now considered a timeless classic by many, WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY originally flopped in the theaters (though its lesser Burtonized remake was a success). The same fate befell the creepy THE WITCHES in 1990 and cult favorite JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH in 1996. Not even Steven Spielberg seems immune from the Dahl curse, because his adaptation of THE BFG has recently made headlines for bombing. However, that has nothing to do with the quality of this film itself, because BFG (which stands for Big Friendly Giant, get your mind out of the gutter) is a heartwarming fantasy that’s fun for all ages.

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Set in 1980’s London, THE BFG opens with young orphan Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) awake at the witching hour (3 am). Though she’s suspected his presence many times, Sophie has never actually met the “boogeyman” until tonight. This boogeyman turns out to be a big eared, speech impaired giant (Mark Rylance in a motion capture performance) who takes Sophie back to his cave-like home. Unlike other giants in Giant Country, Sophie’s gigantic captor doesn’t eat children. Instead this Big Friendly Giant (or BFG, as Sophie calls him) opts to eat foul-tasting cucumber-like vegetables and catches dreams for sleeping children. Sophie and the BFG become fast friends, but the fearsome brutish giants begin to suspect that BFG is harboring a new pet…and a potential snack for them.

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BFG’s biggest (pardon the pun) highlights come from the many scenes between Sophie and the main giant. Mark Rylance (who won Best Supporting Actor for his other recent Spielberg outing) is oddly adorable as the naïve, well-intentioned Big Friendly Giant. Having known in advance that Rylance delivered his performance through motion capture, I distinctly recognized his face on this giant character for the entire running time…even if huge ears, frail hair, and a thin chin were morphed into his CGI looks. You have to wonder how much time Rylance spent on the set though, because a majority of the film seems to have young Ruby Barnhill acting against creatures and environments that aren’t really there. Huge props to this child actress, because she puts in a far better performance than one might expect from a kid acting by themselves. This story almost entirely focuses on the friendship of Sophie and Big Friendly Giant, while supporting characters seem to exist merely for jokes and plot devices.

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Weak supporting characters don’t lessen the colorful environments and weird-looking giants that Spielberg brings from the page to the screen. This big-screen BFG is very faithful to the source material, which means that there are magical moments, darker aspects (lines of dialogue referring to the other giants feasting on children), and a timelessly upbeat atmosphere to this fairy tale. That being said, it seems like Spielberg was dialing himself back a bit in THE BFG. With E.T. and his other family films as well as Roald Dahl’s books themselves, there was a sense to treat kids with a level of maturity that was rather unheard of at the time. There were dark, scary threats in these stories (on the page and screen) that made the happy, lighter moments shine even brighter. THE BFG tiptoes around a couple of these more intense areas, with the other giants set up as (literal) big antagonists, but Spielberg seems disinterested in these villains and they seem underused as a result.

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Executed with visual flair, charm, and whimsy, THE BFG is a simple and sweet fantasy-adventure that’s bound to entertain kids, captivate grown-ups through impressive imagery, and feels like a throwback to a better time for live-action kid’s entertainment. Although it doesn’t go as far as it could have in certain areas and resorts to fart humor on a couple of occasions (one joke is actually well set up and executed), THE BFG is an all-around good movie. It’s not one of Spielberg’s best films, but it remains an entertaining fantasy that’s likely to please both adults and children.

Grade: B

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Lawrence Kasdan

Starring: Harrison Ford, Paul Freeman, Karen Allen, John Rhys-Davies, Ronald Lacey, Denholm Elliott, Wolf Kahler & Alfred Molina

Unlike many film fans, I didn’t grow up with an instant nostalgia for Indiana Jones. I vaguely remember sitting through the original trilogy, but most of my memories revolve around the infamous beating heart scene from TEMPLE OF DOOM and the awesome Disneyland ride. So when RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was announced as a title in this Spring’s Cinemark Classic series, I was pretty excited to experience this acclaimed adventure on the big screen (the way it was meant to be seen). It’s been a full day since watching the film and I’m still reeling from it. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is the cinematic equivalent of an exciting rollercoaster ride!

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Set in 1936, Indiana Jones may seem like an average college professor to his colleagues, but has an interest hobby of exploring dangerous places in search of rare artifacts. When some G-Men come knocking to inform Jones that the Nazis are searching for the fabled Ark of the Covenant, Indiana is intrigued by a potential new treasure hunt. In order to keep this mystical relic from falling into occult-obsessed Nazi hands, Indiana Jones makes a perilous trek to Cairo. Finding the Ark is easier said than done as ancient clues must be unearthed, danger lurks around every corner, and a familiar face from Jones’ past reenters his life, former lover Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen).

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RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is non-stop excitement from its iconic opening to its memorable finale. This film is so fast-paced that the brief breaks it offers in between its many creative action-packed scenarios seem there entirely for the purpose of giving the viewer a quick breather before heading right back into the action. Director Steven Spielberg had a few hits under his belt at this point in his career (JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND), but RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK could likely be considered the film that cemented his reputation in Hollywood as an unquestionable force to be reckoned with. The film perfectly balances comedy with action in a way that lets you constantly laugh while remaining on the edge of your seat.

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Besides being exciting and funny the whole way through, it should also be noted that RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is surprisingly violent. I was taken aback (in a good way) at how mean this movie was to its villains. While TEMPLE OF DOOM was the film that pretty much invented the PG-13 rating (along with GREMLINS), RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK definitely had a hand in making parents scratch their heads at what was getting through the PG rating. People are impaled, stabbed, shot, have their faces melted off, and also get run over by trucks (complete with comically over-the-top hands and legs flying up to emphasize the impact). I’m not complaining (far from it), but I was genuinely surprised at how balls-to-the-wall RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was in its bloody portrayal of death and danger. It also adds the sense that threats are lurking around every corner (from elaborate booby traps to a floor filled with venomous snakes).

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It is hard to imagine anyone other than Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones, even though Tom Selleck was originally offered the part. Eventually, Spielberg convinced a reluctant George Lucas to cast Harrison Ford in the lead role and averted another severely dumb Lucas decision (because we already have plenty of those floating around). Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones and nobody else could possibly fill the character’s shoes. Ford is simply the perfect fit for the iconic fedora-wearing explorer!

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The film boasts memorable performances on the sidelines as well. The beautiful Karen Allen plays Marion Ravenwood and is slightly more than just another damsel-in-distress (though she finds herself in that position numerous times). She actually aids Jones in fighting off some of the baddies and contributes to one of the film’s most exciting sequences (a battle alongside a grounded plane). Aside from Ravenwood, another great character comes in Egyptian digger Sallah, John Rhys-Davies serving as a comic relief sidekick. The villains are one-dimensional, but entertaining nonetheless. Paul Freeman plays a rival archeologist who isn’t above trying to murder Jones in cold blood and working with the Nazis for personal gain. As far as the German baddies go, Ronald Lacey is unbelievably creepy as a sadistic Gestapo agent.

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Stellar production values and an unforgettable John Williams score are icing on the cake. Indiana Jones is one of the biggest heroes in cinema and though I never quite grew up with him in the way that many others have, I completely understand why people love this character! RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is pretty much the perfect adventure film. It never slows down, moves from creative set piece to creative set piece, occasionally might scare some viewers (the opening of the Ark is legitimately creepy), and will thrill you from start to finish. Harrison Ford’s performance as Indiana Jones really sells the whole film, but everything else would make for a stellar movie…even with the absence of Ford’s iconic character. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is a classic adventure for the ages!

Grade: A+

BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 22 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Violence and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Domenick Lombardozzi, Sebastian Koch, Eve Hewson & Peter McRobbie

BRIDGE OF SPIES sounded like a stellar project right from the beginning. You have Steven Spielberg directing Tom Hanks in a script written by the Coen brothers. It sounds like this film couldn’t possibly go wrong even if it tried. Based on a fascinating true story and set during the height of the Cold War, BRIDGE OF SPIES is an enthralling piece of cinema. That’s made even more impressive seeing that the film is made up of a bunch of conversations and people walking to conversations. If this doesn’t sound the least bit intense, then don’t worry, because you’ll be surprised at how suspenseful conversations can be when they involve warring nations and negotiations that might save lives.

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James Donovan is a gifted insurance lawyer living in Brooklyn. He’s very good at his job, so good that his superiors want him to defend a man who they believe no one else could possibly craft a defense for. Donovan’s latest client is Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy. Unsurprisingly, the evidence is overwhelmingly against Abel and mob mentality is calling for the man to be hanged. Donovan tries his very best to keep Abel from getting the death penalty. That turns out to be both a wise and humane move as Russia has captured an American spy of their own. Pilot Gary Powers was shot down in a specialized plane traveling through Soviet territory. So, taking his safety and life into his own hands, Donovan travels across the dangerous borders of East Germany and West Berlin to negotiate a trade of Abel for Powers.

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Unsurprisingly, Tom Hanks delivers yet another stellar performance. The man knows how to emote on a convincing level and he does the same thing here as James Donovan. You can feel that Donovan is a man who just wants to do what’s right and the compassionate side to his character makes him charming to watch. This character can also lay down an articulate verbal beatdown on certain people in this movie who need a good tongue-lashing. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen Mark Rylance in anything that stood out to me, but he’s great as Rudolf Abel. Even though he’s a Soviet spy, I couldn’t bring myself to hate this character. He seems quietly dignified and resigned to his fate, whatever that eventual fate might be. Next to Hanks, I’d argue that Rylance steals the show, even though his scenes are far more plentiful in the first half of the film. The rest of the performances are stellar, but I feel the only other major players come in Austin Stowell as Gary Powers and Scott Shepherd as a CIA agent who is aiding Donovan in his negotiations.

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As far as setting goes, Steven Spielberg captures an era where it seems like it was impossible to feel safe. As idealistically peaceful as certain movies and TV shows paint the 1950’s, it’s more realistic to believe that people were frequently worried that Russia was going to bomb the country or invade small towns. Spielberg successfully gets across the sense of unease that seems to have been a constant during the Cold War. I believed that I was watching an authentic recreation of a certain period in recent history and that becomes even more apparent when the movie goes to Germany for a majority of its second half. It’s all beautifully shot and pain-staking attention to detail seems to have been put into every frame.

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This constant tension also lives within the Coens’ dialogue. Though there are a handful of funny moments and good quotes, I found myself fully engaged in watching a number of different people simply have conversations for two hours about the Cold War and swapping spies. Every time I heard that the plan had hit a “snag” or had a “wrinkle,” I found myself thinking “How are they going to solve this mess now?” It became an automatic response for the plight of these characters and that alone shows that the story was insanely compelling.

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Spielberg arguably doesn’t go as far as he could have in depicting the harsh conditions of Berlin (this is PG-13 after all), but there’s a sense of constant danger here. A couple of speeches made by Hanks in the opening act border on becoming melodramatic, usually revolving around the repeated question of “What makes us American?” However, these are two minor complaints in an otherwise excellent film. BRIDGE OF SPIES is another winner for Spielberg, Hanks, and the Coen brothers. I would love to see these four talented names unite once again for something special in the future. BRIDGE OF SPIES is mature filmmaking that should deeply move those who are up for a movie that’s on the more serious side of things.

Grade: A

JAWS (1975)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 4 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Peter Benchley & Carl Gottlieb

(based on the novel JAWS by Peter Benchley)

Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary & Murray Hamilton

JAWS is the quintessential shark movie. It’s the ultimate killer animal flick. This is the sensation that kicked off the creation of the summer movie season. Based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name, JAWS is a movie bound to make anyone who watches it afraid of sharks. While sharks are already scary as hell in my opinion, Steven Spielberg and Peter Benchley capitalized on that with this thrilling adventure! There’s not exactly a lot I can say about JAWS that hasn’t already been said by thousands of other people, but I do feel the need to talk about this film…so I’ll post my thoughts in this review anyway. Because it’s my website and I can talk about whatever movie I want to. Don’t judge me…

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Amity Island is a peaceful little community that makes most of its profit off summer tourism. Plenty of vacationers go out of their way to visit the beautiful beaches for the Fourth of July every year. This Fourth of July celebration might not exactly go over that well as Police Chief Brody discovers that a killer shark has carved out a piece of territory alongside the island. This monster of a fish is eating unlucky folks (including skinny-dipping hippies, hapless sailors, and even a poor little kid). It’s a bad situation that’s made even worse when the reluctant mayor won’t let Brody close the beaches. Aided by Hooper (an oceanographer) and the crazed Quint (who hunts sharks for a living), Brody takes to the ocean to kill the shark before it devours anyone else.

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It would be crazy to say that a simple technical difficulty helped make JAWS the masterpiece that it is, but that’s sort of true. The mechanical shark (nicknamed Bruce) was constantly breaking down and Spielberg was unable to show the giant fish for almost the entire first half of the film. This led to a less-is-more approach where we are shown a simple fin in the water, a shadowy outline or iconic POV shots as the shark moves in for the kill. I’m sure JAWS would have been entertaining and fun even with the shark being shown constantly, but it’s made that much better because the big bad fish isn’t fully revealed until about halfway through the film. What’s even more surprising is this film’s PG rating (which meant something totally different at the time) as it’s graphically violent. The opening shark attack isn’t particularly gory, but it’s still terrifying to watch. We are shown a severed limb and a few bloody body parts as the film progresses. However, JAWS isn’t simply a slasher film with a shark…which it might have become in the wrong hands and JAWS 2 is an example of how badly this could have turned out. Instead, the movie sustains a constant suffocating tension that never grants the viewer any relief until the end credits have rolled.

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Tense feeling in the pit of my stomach be damned, the characters are a blast to watch. These are some of the most well-crafted people to ever grace the silver screen. We know everything we need to know about them through their actions and the way they speak to each other. Chief Brody is a likable protagonist played to perfection by Roy Scheider. Hooper is a kind (and rich) person obsessed with sharks and desperately wants to save the day with Brody. Richard Dreyfuss will always be Hooper to me, even if he’s been in many other movies since. The scene-stealer comes in Robert Shaw’s Quint. He’s a one-of-a-kind hermit-like crazy person. He can be fun in one moment, but unpredictably crazed during the next. It’s all part of who he is. One performance that doesn’t get as much light shone on it (and really should) is the insufferable mayor played by Murray Hamilton. Besides the shark, he feels like the primary antagonist and represents every awful quality in politics. He’s all about image, profit and doesn’t seem to give a damn about who gets hurt in the process until it starts hurting his image. There’s never a scene featuring him where you won’t be furious at this character and that’s exactly how he should have been played.

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With only three small movies behind him, Steven Spielberg constructed a masterpiece in JAWS. Every scene is a joy to watch and the constant atmosphere of terror is sure to be conjured up whenever anyone speaks the title. Everything about this film is perfect in my opinion and I don’t have a single complaint or negative thing to say about it. JAWS is an expertly crafted blockbuster that helped change the world of filmmaking and also give birth to the summer movie season. To say this is simply the best killer animal movie ever made would be doing the film a disservice as it’s one of the best movies ever made. Rest assured, after watching this, you’ll be afraid to go into the water!

Grade: A+

GREMLINS (1984)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

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Directed by: Joe Dante

Written by: Chris Columbus

Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Polly Holliday, Frances Lee McCain, Corey Feldman, Dick Miller, Howie Mandel & Frank Welker

Out of all the pint-sized monster films (not exactly a subgenre known for its originality and quality) in cinematic history, GREMLINS is likely the best. This horror-comedy is full of creature chaos, dark humor, and silly scenes. Director Joe Dante (who also helmed THE HOWLING and the second-best segment in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE) made an enjoyable monster movie that feels like it would be right at home in the 1950’s…if it weren’t for the impressive practical effects and surprising level of violence. GREMLINS is one of those nostalgic pieces of entertainment that encapsulates what 80’s family classics are made of (ala THE GOONIES and MONSTER SQUAD).

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Inventor Randall Peltzer is searching for a special Christmas present for his son, Billy. When he stumbles across an underground store in Chinatown, it seems that he’s found the perfect gift: a furry, adorable creature called a Mogwai. Billy begins to care for this Mogwai, named Gizmo, as an unusual pet. However, there are three rules that come with Mogwai. You can’t expose them to bright light. You can’t get them wet. Most importantly, you can’t feed them after midnight. Billy accidentally breaks all three of these rules and soon after, reptilian-looking Gremlins are wreaking havoc in his small town on Christmas Eve. It’s up to Billy and Gizmo to put a stop to this monstrous mess.

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Believe it or not, GREMLINS is one of the films that had a significant impact on the MPAA’s rating system (alongside RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and POLTERGEIST). Though it only sports a PG rating, GREMLINS contains some surprisingly dark moments. There are creepy images on display, including cocoons that form before the actual Gremlins emerge. I also like how the movie took a semi-JAWS approach before reveling in the Gremlins themselves. You only catch a few shadows and a very brief glimpse, before the movie goes balls-out in showing off the little monsters. The film is surprisingly violent too, not that I’m complaining. While you don’t necessarily see a lot of people get killed by the Gremlins (there are a couple), the title monsters themselves get it pretty bad. One sequence with Billy’s mother wandering through her house while five Gremlins stalk her is both suspenseful and beyond satisfying as the little monsters bite it in gruesome ways.

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GREMLINS isn’t all good though, because the humor is very hit-or-miss. The movie especially gets a little too stupid in its final third. There are two montages that go on way too long: Gremlins drinking at a bar and Gremlins partying at a movie theater. It’s not as if these ideas are terrible (though the bar thing is dumb), but they drag out and feel tired. While the last third of this movie gets downright comedic, one depressing monologue comes right out of nowhere and is arguably a bit too dark for this film. It’s not like it’s a bad monologue, but it’s oddly placed and doesn’t help the shifting tone of the story. The mixed bag of characters complicate things too. Billy is an okay protagonist, but bland. Meanwhile, Dick Miller is great as a drunk neighbor with a prejudice against foreign machines. Of course, in a monster movie like this one, the characters aren’t supposed to the be the stars. Those would be the Gremlins themselves and they’re fun to watch, even if they can be too ridiculous.

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This is one of those family films that had a big impact on kids growing up during the 80’s and 90’s. The tone of the movie doesn’t exactly stay consistent. Sometimes, it’s all-out comedic (a couple of montages are way too long) and it can also be a bit too dark (a Santa Clause monologue comes right out of nowhere). However, it makes up for its shortcomings though legitimately creepy moments and a risky level of chaos. GREMLINS is enjoyable and easily the best little-monster movie that I’ve ever seen (competing with the likes of GHOULIES and CRITTERS). Recommended!

Grade: B

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