OKJA (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: Bong Joon-Ho

Written by: Bong Joon-Ho & Jon Ronson

Starring: Ahn Seo-Hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Byun Hee-Bong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins & Giancarlo Esposito

South Korean director/screenwriter Bong Joon-Ho has carved out quite a nice filmography for himself. He’s made acclaimed thrillers (MEMORIES OF MURDER, MOTHER), one of the best monster movies of the new millennium (THE HOST), and recently broke into English language films with the slightly-overrated-but-still-good SNOWPIERCER. OKJA sees Bong Joon-Ho constructing a creature-feature crossed with a wild adventure and a deep bond between a girl and her animal friend. This eccentric film probably won’t please everyone because it’s pretty damn weird to begin with, but it’s a crazy ride from beginning to end that had me grinning from ear to ear.

In an effort to roll out a new kind of GMO meat, CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) has created a breed of genetically engineered super-pigs and zoologist/reality star Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) has spread those super-pigs throughout different countries to see which farmer has the most effective methods. Cut to 10 years later in South Korea, young Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) has a best friend in giant super-pig Okja. When the Mirando Corporation comes to collect Mija’s companion for tasty meat, the determined farmgirl decides to take matters into her own hands and fights to get Okja back…with the help of a radical PETA-like group called the Animal Liberation Front. Chaotic craziness ensues, alongside lots of laughs and a surprising amount of feels.

OKJA kicks things off in the right direction as the first quarter of the film sets up the comical premise in a convincing way and develops the relationship between Mija and Okja. The friendship between this little girl and her giant pig is surprisingly effective and the viewer can feel the connection between them. This greatly benefits the story when Okja is stolen and we root for Mija to rescue him. I sincerely wanted to see this girl and her giant pig reunited, which resulted in lots of vocal reactions as her journey puts her into perilous situations and pits her against a cruel corporation. Young newcomer Ahn Seo-Hyun puts in the best genre-based leading child performance since Onni Tommila in the twisted Finnish Christmas flick RARE EXPORTS.

The supporting cast has a number of big names and stand-out performances. Tilda Swinton does a fine job as unusual antagonist Lucy, who cares about Mija and Okja’s situation more than I anticipated. She also does well as Lucy’s sinister twin sister during the final third. Giancarlo Esposito (Gus from BREAKING BAD) has a few moments as Lucy’s reserved assistant. Meanwhile, the ALF is populated by the likes of Paul Dano, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Daniel Henshall, and Devon Bostick. The motley crew of activists supplies lots of comic relief and a surprising amount of heart.

The only bad performance and one of OKJA’s two major flaws arrives in Jake Gyllenhaal’s over-the-top antics as the crazy scientist/reality star. I seriously don’t know what happened here because Gyllenhaal is (in my opinion) one of the best actors working today. This actor takes odd, artsy, and serious roles that usual have him acting his ever-loving heart out. His attempt as a goofy, cartoonish villain is cringe-inducing for all the wrong reasons. He sucked me right out of a major moment that should have been hard to watch. Instead this would-be depressing scene became depressing purely because of Gyllenhaal’s unusually terrible performance.

OKJA’s second problem comes in its not-so-subtle message hitting the viewer over the head like a sledgehammer. That’s not a huge detraction as the film is still massively entertaining and hits its emotional cords just right. However, I feel that PETA, vegans, and vegetarians will likely hold up OKJA as a crowning achievement of cinema. Meanwhile, meat-eaters in the audience may find themselves occasionally rolling their eyes. Still, the film overcomes Gyllenhaal’s crappy acting and the overbearingly preachy message through sheer entertainment, well-executed laughs, stellar effects, and an emotional core. The super-pig Okja looks every bit as good as THE HOST’s freaky-ass monster and that’s a massive compliment.

Viewers who will dig on what’s essentially an entertaining R-rated version of a heartwarming family-friendly adventure will likely find themselves head over heels for OKJA. This movie is weird, hilarious, and moving. I loved every second of it, even when the two notable flaws reared their ugly heads. OKJA is something out of the ordinary and I hope that plenty of viewers love it as much as I did. OKJA comes highly recommended for the delightful little oddity it is.

Grade: A-

WAR MACHINE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: David Michod

Written by: David Michod

(based on the book THE OPERATORS by Michael Hastings)

Starring: Brad Pitt, Ben Kingsley, Anthony Hayes, Emory Cohen, RJ Cyler, Daniel Betts, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall, John Magaro, Scoot McNairy, Will Poulter, Josh Stewart & Tilda Swinton

Based on the non-fiction book THE OPERATORS, WAR MACHINE is the true-ish story of a military general’s rise and fall. Anti-war films and satire have gone together before. We’ve seen this combination in various TWILIGHT ZONE episodes and Stanley Kubrick made possibly the ultimate anti-war comedy in DR. STRANGELOVE. WAR MACHINE seems to be aiming for a satirical target, but frequently forgets the laughs and also tries to play itself up as a serious-ish drama at points too. This leads to an uneven film that’s not good and not bad, but somewhere in-between.

The war in Afghanistan has raged on for years, so the USA has sent in General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt) to bring the conflict to an end. Instead of simply toning things down and readying to withdraw the troops, McMahon takes the unwinnable “war on terror” as a challenge and vows to come out with a victory. His quest for greatness leads the ego-driven military man and his colorful soldiers on a publicity-filled journey to win the war. As you might imagine, things don’t exactly go according to plan…because, well, you probably saw on the “war on terror” ended?

WAR MACHINE’s best quality comes in Brad Pitt’s performance as the determined general. At times, the film seems to almost turn into a character study of sorts and Pitt’s Mahon serves as a fascinating subject. He’s not a bad guy, not at all. His intentions are good and he wants to end his career on the noblest note possible. He just doesn’t seem to understand that he’s been thrust into a hole and keeps digging himself deeper. In certain moments, Pitt gets some chuckles in his reactions to the less-experienced higher-ups’ decisions (like having to wait for not one, but two, elections before going into combat). Furthermore, moments between McMahon and his wife provide extra effort in humanizing this character. Pitt’s McMahon, based on real-life general Stanley McChrystal, is easily one of the film’s biggest highlights.

The supporting cast is noticeably weaker as A-list actors briefly pop in for cameo-like appearances, while other actors are wasted on one-note stereotypes. There’s the geeky hacker soldier, the guy with anger issues, the one who doesn’t do much of everything, and the press guy who tries to put a positive spin on everything. Out of these four so-so characters, the only real performance of note is Topher Grace as the press relations guy and he gets occasional chuckles. Scoot McNairy plays a substitute for real-life Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings, while Tilda Swinton receives one scene as an inquisitive German journalist. Ben Kingsley only has two brief scenes, the latter of which serves as one of the film’s more powerful moments as he reveals he knows his consent isn’t a big part of this war.

On a positive note, WAR MACHINE looks great. There was clearly a budget behind this project. Unfortunately, solid production values and a good leading performance can’t save the disjointed tone of the entire film. WAR MACHINE gets laughs early on, but then feels like it’s half-assing the comedic angle. As it tries to become more serious, it finds only a decent amount of success as a character study thanks to Pitt’s performances and a few good scenes showcasing the McMahon’s admirable qualities and weaknesses. The film falters when it comes to its most important aspect…being a war film. There are too many mixed bag moments before admittedly effective later scenes, so the final message feels disingenuous.

In watching WAR MACHINE’s tepid attempts at humor and not-quite-earned final message, I couldn’t help but wonder why David Michod didn’t just make a drama about a troubled general in the final days of the Afghanistan war. There are a few good laughs early on and great bits of drama that arrive in the second half, but the rest of the film feels confused and unsure of itself. Brad Pitt’s performance is a plus and I don’t consider WAR MACHINE to be a bad film at all. It’s just very messy and completely scattershot. It’s confused and unfocused, kind of like the “war on terror.” You can’t win a war against a concept and you can’t make a proper anti-war film without clear focus from the beginning. WAR MACHINE is just okay. If you need a two-hour time killer and like war movies (or Brad Pitt), this might do something for you.

Grade: C+

DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Violence and Action throughout, and an Intense Crash Sequence

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Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Written by: Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill

(based on the DOCTOR STRANGE comics by Steve Ditko)

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen & Tilda Swinton

Fourteen films and eight years later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still going strong. DOCTOR STRANGE is a rather unique addition to this long-running cinematic franchise though, because it injects mystical powers and wizards into the MCU. I thought that GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and ANT-MAN were tough films to sell, but DOCTOR STRANGE seems downright challenging. Fortunately, director/writer Scott Derrickson is more than up to the task. Aided by fantastic performances, astounding special effects, and a smart script, DOCTOR STRANGE is easily the best Marvel Cinematic Universe movie thus far!

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Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant surgeon with a huge ego. After saving lives and carving out an acclaimed career, Strange suffers severe nerve damage in his hands from a horrible car accident. When Western medicine fails him, the down-on-his-luck doctor turns to Eastern mythology. His skepticism turns to amazement upon meeting centuries-old sorceress The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Strange soon finds himself immersed in a world of infinite possibilities, many universes, magical talents, mythical weapons, and dark threats. When evil zealot sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) attempts to bring use The Ancient One’s magic books for evil, it’s up to emerging hero Doctor Strange to save the world.

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Benedict Cumberbatch is a welcome addition to the bevy of A-listers who populate the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As Steven Strange, he starts off as completely unlikable and slowly begins to humble himself through magical teachings. Strange’s arrogance rivals Tony Stark’s cocky attitude, which makes me excited for the possibilities that might erupt when the two eventually meet face-to-face. After being an utter ass for the first third of the film, Strange’s changing attitude and emerging heroism ultimately wins the viewer onto his side. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Karl Mordo, a good-natured wizard who finds himself constantly at odds with Strange’s view of the world.

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Though a lot of hubbub erupted for her part in this film, Tilda Swinton vanishes into the charming role of The Ancient One. Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams plays Strange’s former lover and best friend…providing great comic relief and believable emotion. Finally, Mads Mikkelsen plays Kaecilius, Marvel’s equivalent of Saruman and introduction for bigger threats in the future, as an intimidating presence with insane powers that make for great fight scenes…particularly when one of Strange’s plans backfires spectacularly.

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One has to admire how brilliantly written DOCTOR STRANGE’s script is. Yes, it’s a superhero origin story…but it’s the most compelling origin story to come out of the Marvel Universe thus far. This film stands entirely on its own and doesn’t fully seem connected to the MCU (a good quality), save for a few brief Avengers references and a mid-credits scene that promises more of Strange in future Marvel projects. Strange’s training takes time and introduces lots of complicated concepts that come into play throughout the story (astral projection, relics, other dimensions, spells, etc.). The ways in which we are given this complex information feel entirely natural and provide laughs…as well as sheer awe-inspiring moments.

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In terms of special effects and action scenes, this movie is awesome! I know that word has become commonplace, but it definitely applies to DOCTOR STRANGE’s jaw-dropping sequences of psychedelic head-trips, vibrant colors that look like a rave went to outer space, and an amazing INCEPTION/MATRIX-like battle through New York City that currently stands as one of my favorite action scenes of the decade. This movie is phenomenally trippy and cool the whole way through. Even visuals that might seem cheesy when taken out of context (a giant floating head, spirits leaving their bodies, etc.) all work perfectly within the film’s storyline and with the added weight of the characters inhabiting them. The film’s climax has also reinvigorated my love for superhero movies as a whole. I was slightly fatigued by the massive number of comic book movies hitting the multiplex in the past few years, but DOCTOR STRANGE has ignited the childlike spark inside of me and makes me crave the upcoming Marvel films now more than ever!

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DOCTOR STRANGE is easily my favorite movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It incorporates tons of complicated elements through a smartly written script and mind-blowing spectacle. The characters are all great, even if not all of them receive a ton of screen time. The humor works fantastically and never overshadows the film’s more serious moments. The action is exciting and adrenaline-pumping. The magical aspect delivers some of the most creative, head-trippy imagery to hit theaters in all of 2016! This is big entertainment done right in every conceivable way!

Grade: A+

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Suggestive Content and Smoking

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Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Alison Pill, Christopher Lambert & Clancy Brown

The Coen brothers make unique movies. You can automatically tell if you’re watching a Coen brothers film from the offbeat dialogue, awkward humor, or quirky characters. Something about their filmmaking and screenwriting is instantly recognizable. HAIL, CAESAR! is their latest film and its an oddball comedy that satirizes Hollywood’s Golden Age in hilariously weird fashion. Featuring a cast full of A-listers who seem to be having the time of their life on set and using a screenplay that’s impossible to predict, HAIL, CAESAR! is the kind of film that reminds me why I love movies to begin with and the sheer beauty (and questionable studio politics) within the industry itself.

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Eddie Mannix is a Hollywood fixer for the illustrious Capitol Pictures. The studio’s biggest film of the year is HAIL, CAESAR! (think BEN-HUR), a biblical epic featuring the biggest movie star: Baird Whitlock. However, something strange has occurred on the set. Whitlock has gone missing and a ransom note reveals that this is a kidnapping set to the tune of a $100,000 ransom. Mannix tries to track down Whitlock, while other cinema-related shenanigans break out in the studio. DeeAnna Moran (based on Esther Williams) is pregnant with a child out-of-wedlock, while marble-mouthed Hobie Doyle (think John Wayne crossed with Kirby Grant) has been called as a last-minute replacement in a classical drama. Mannix rushes to find complex solutions to all of these dilemmas in the space of a single stress-filled day.

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HAIL, CAESAR! is both a love letter to classical Hollywood cinema and a merciless riff on it. It makes for a film that’s hugely entertaining, captivating, and hilarious to watch from start to finish, even if you’re not necessarily familiar with the old-fashioned material that the Coens are lampooning. The entire audience in my theater was cracking up throughout the entire film at the oddball humor, goofy twists, and utter silliness of the story. The film is very light-hearted, but also carries profound writing in Mannix having his own personal arc/revelation develop during the course of the story.

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The visuals are shot in vibrant colors that illuminate off the screen and the film’s sets are elaborate. It’s hard to believe that the Coen brothers were able to recreate the 50’s in such detail on a meager budget of 22 million (which is nothing compared to most big films today). This is the kind of movie that I want to pause scene to scene in order to notice the smaller touches placed throughout each frame (movie posters at the studio, household appliances, etc.). HAIL, CAESAR! is a gorgeous film to look at and you can never fully predict where its story will head next. I kept wishing that Mannix’s various jobs and the amusing studio problems would go on long past the end credits.

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Performances from the cast are top-notch. Their colorful characters were inspired by Hollywood icons of the past and could easily serve as main protagonists in their own individual films. Josh Brolin landed the leading role as Eddie Mannix (based on the real-life “fixer” of the same name) and plays the part to perfection. Mannix is not without his flaws (he has a tendency of slapping certain problems away), but he’s a fascinating character to watch. I particularly enjoyed his personal story arc (which I won’t spoil here) that evolves over the varying degrees of chaos he endures in a single day’s time.

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George Clooney is hilarious as the overacting Baird Whitlock and receives some of the funniest moments of the entire film, but Alden Ehrenreich steals every scene he’s in as Hobie Doyle. His interplay with Ralph Fiennes’s frustrated director is utterly hysterical to behold. Channing Tatum also gets an equally hilarious moment to shine in a musical number (which had me laughing to the point of tears). Also worth mentioning is Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists (inspired by Hedda Hopper).

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HAIL, CAESAR! pays tribute to and simultaneously nails studio politics in a nutshell. This includes the Coen brothers shining amusing lights on: religious leaders critiquing potentially offensive content in films, disastrous last-minute studio casting decisions, intense production difficulties, multiple behind-the-scenes antics (that aren’t entirely unbelievable), early tabloid journalism, and certain controversies of the time. The films within this film are spot-on parodies of specific genres (musicals, biblical epics, dialogue-heavy dramas, and westerns). Though I do wish that certain subplots had received more screen time (we get a couple of plot points explained away via exposition dialogue), HAIL, CAESAR! is a unique and completely hilarious cinematic experience. This is the first great film of 2016!

Grade: A

TRAINWRECK (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexual Content, Nudity, Language and some Drug Use

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Directed by: Judd Apatow

Written by: Amy Schumer

Starring: Amy Schumer, Tilda Swinton, Bill Hader, John Cena, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn & LeBron James

Romantic comedies aren’t exactly the kind of films that can majorly change over time. You have two people who fall in love with each other before encountering turbulence in their relationship that threatens to separate them before eventually reuniting and rekindling their affection for each other. It’s a well-known, often-used formula that’s associated with rom-coms and chick flicks. While TRAINWRECK doesn’t buck that decades-old trend, it happens to be directed by Judd Apatow (the man behind KNOCKED UP, one of my favorite rom-coms) and was penned and stars Amy Schumer. So with a hard R rating and crude sensibilities, TRAINWRECK should more than please couples who enjoy dirty-minded comedy with a soft side. It’s that sort of movie.

TRAINWRECK, Amy Schumer (left), 2015. ©Universal Pictures

Ever since she was a child, Amy was hammered with the idea that monogamy wasn’t realistic. As result, Amy has grown into a loose, heavy-drinking, drug-using writer working for a tabloid magazine. She’s never had a committed relationship, because she never thought that lifestyle was for her. This all changes when she’s assigned to write an article on sports doctor Aaron. Aaron is the polar opposite of Amy. He’s a conservative, nerdy guy and hopeless romantic. Somehow, Amy and Aaron hit it off well during an interview and go out for dinner. Dinner turns into drinks and drinks turns into sleeping together. Aaron has fallen head over heels for Amy and she’s trying to cope with the fact that she’s finally found someone she loves. That’s the set up and it’s not exactly hard to guess where the film goes from there, but it’s highly entertaining to watch.

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TRAINWRECK isn’t exactly immune from clichés of the rom-com formula, but openly mocks them as it goes along. The screenplay is especially impressive seeing that it’s the first actual full-length narrative that Schumer has written as her past work consists of skits and stand-up comedy. It definitely helps if you like her material (and I do) as her crude sense of humor and talent both translate well onto the screen. The movie throws in a lot of fun plot details and manages to get a lot of mileage out of them. A ton of laughs come from Amy’s job at the Tabloid magazine (especially her mentoring an oddball intern) and frequent conversations with a homeless man on her street. As crude and lewd as TRAINWRECK can be, the film has a definite sweet side as well. A lot of the movie hinges on Schumer’s performance and she brings her character to the screen very well. In other hands, this character could have been downright despicable and unlikable on all fronts. However, we realize she’s a damaged woman with a lot of baggage. Watching her journey is an enjoyable experience, even when you don’t agree with her actions.

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As far as the rest of the cast goes, everyone else delivers in their parts. Bill Hader (who has been on a roll lately with THE SKELETON TWINS and INSIDE OUT) plays Aaron as someone we can sympathize with. While he’s not so much of the focus of the film as Amy is, the two have good chemistry together as a couple. Meanwhile, LeBron James is hilarious as an exaggerated version of himself. Brie Larson is great as Amy’s polar opposite sister and Mike Birbiglia is well-cast as said sister’s husband. I was surprised by John Cena’s performance. I haven’t seen him in much (besides the godawful MARINE), but Cena impressed as Amy’s ultra-sensitive beefcake fling. He’s not a huge character, but makes the most of every scene he’s given. The biggest problem in TRAINWRECK comes with pretty much every Apatow comedy of late. The running time is too long. It’s not enough to dissuade anybody from watching this movie, but there are scenes that definitely could have been removed entirely and nothing would be missed (e.g. one useless montage and an “intervention” scene that only serves as an excuse for a few cameos). It feels like TRAINWRECK definitely could have benefitted from more time in the cutting room.

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TRAINWRECK is a dirty-minded, foul-mouthed rom-com with a heart of gold. Much like KNOCKED UP, the movie feels very honest in spite of its unavoidable clichés. Amy Schumer’s script is well-written and her performance is dramatically different from what you might expect from her. The film is definite date-night material for couples who happen to love Schumer’s comedy. You could do far, far worse in the chick flick department. Dare I call TRAINWRECK the best chick flick I’ve seen in a long time. I think I shall. If it sounds up your alley, give it watch!

Grade: B+

My Top 10 Films of 2014

List by Derrick Carter

2014 has been a solid year for cinema. As with every film critic (freelance or professional), there comes a time of decision-making as to what the best movies of the year were. This list is all opinion based (like my reviews) and I can understand why people might not (and probably won’t) completely agree with every choice. In deciding how to rank my top 10 of the year, I noticed there was an equal amount of independent/foreign fare and big studio hits. This was unintentional, but is a nice detail that highlights how balanced this year really was for cinema all around.

Before I get into my actual list, it bears mentioning that I have not seen/reviewed every single film from this year (I plan on covering FOXCATCHER, INHERENT VICE, and AMERICAN SNIPER eventually). I’m only one man after all, so my selections come from the films that I’ve watched and reviewed this year. That all being said and without further ado, here are my 10 favorite films from 2014!

Honorable Mentions: BOUND BY FLESH, UNDER THE SKIN, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, FURY, THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2, and A MOST WANTED MAN

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10. BIG BAD WOLVES: I wasn’t terribly impressed with Aharon Keshales’s and Navot Papushado’s directorial debut, RABIES. BIG BAD WOLVES serves as a drastic improvement. At first, the story seems relatively simple. However, the diabolical screenplay toys with the viewer in injecting a pitch-black sense of humor that works wonderfully and a dark tone that isn’t the slightest bit funny. Things aren’t as simple as they originally appear and a haunting conclusion ensures that this film will stick with you. I originally saw/reviewed it in January and it has held up on multiple viewings throughout the year. If you’re up for a disturbing tour-de-force of horror that defies expectations, BIG BAD WOLVES should be on your radar!

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9. THE LEGO MOVIE: On New Year’s Day, I was chatting with a friend about how much I thought THE LEGO MOVIE was going to suck. This concept seemed doomed from the beginning and I was reluctantly dragged to the theater at the urging of my younger siblings. In all of 2014, I have never been so happy that I was so wrong about a film! Blending meta-elements, rapid fire jokes, and a hilarious storyline, THE LEGO MOVIE is 2014’s biggest surprise! The animation (which appears to combine stop-motion and computer graphics) is stellar. Tons of jokes are present so that it takes multiple viewings to catch every little piece (pun intended) that the movie has to offer. LEGO MOVIE is not only the best family film of 2014, everything about it is awesome!

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8. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST: The X-MEN movies have a good vs. bad ratio of 5 to 2. Those are fantastic odds for any blockbuster series. DAYS OF FUTURE PAST delivered the best entry in the mutant saga to date. This much-anticipated comic book storyline was fantastically brought to life by returning director Bryan Singer. In lesser hands, FUTURE PAST could have become a standard blockbuster with the gimmick of time travel used to combine both casts of the franchise. Instead, this film was a delight to sit through for myself and many film goers this past summer. Easily the best comic book film since Christopher Nolan graced the silver screen with his take on Batman. Definitely count me in for APOCALYPSE in 2016!

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7. NIGHTCRAWLER: Scarier than any true horror film that I saw in all of 2014, NIGHTCRAWLER is a truly disturbing movie. Disappearing completely into the main character of Lou, Jake Gyllenhaal delivers an award-worthy performance that creeped me out to the point where I was wriggling in my seat as he manipulated everyone around him. In a sense, Lou is a vampire sucking the moral decency out of everyone he comes across. As a dark, disturbing, and unflinching masterwork, NIGHTCRAWLER serves as cinematic nightmare that I can’t wait to revisit in the near future.

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6. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: This was the summer blockbuster that delivered on every possible level. It had grand action and amazing effects (those monkeys look so real), but also incorporated them into a smart story and complicated characters. While RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was a huge surprise for everyone, DAWN has cemented itself as my personal favorite APE movie. DAWN blended spectacle and a fantastic plot so perfectly that it makes me shake with anticipation for the newest upcoming APES film (Summer 2016). Having seen RISE and DAWN, I’m more than prepared to bow down to our future primate overlords. This movie rocked!

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5. THE RAID 2: I watched the original RAID at its Sundance premiere and thought it was an impressive action flick, but a tad overrated in the end. This exhilarating sequel pulls out all the stops to one up the original in every possible way. While APES blended spectacle with an intelligent story, RAID 2 blends an intense gangster thriller with mind-blowing action scenes. I was exhausted by the end of this film and that’s the biggest compliment I can give any action movie. Each fight scene has its own unique spin so none of them blended into one another. A few that stick out in my mind are a prison yard fight, one of the most intense/realistic car chases that I’ve ever seen, and a stunning confrontation between two highly skilled, deadly men. Those are just a few of the phenomenal sequences that this epic-length modern action classic has to offer. It plays like THE DEPARTED had a baby with a Bruce Lee movie. It’s friggin’ nuts and I loved every second of it!

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4. WHIPLASH: How do you turn a protégé story about a young man trying to be a successful drummer into a nail-bitingly thriller? Apparently, you get Damien Chazelle to write and direct it. Though he is a young newcomer, Chazelle struck gold in this fantastic and deep drama. I didn’t like Miles Teller before watching this movie and now appreciate that he has some serious acting chops on him. J.K. Simmons, usually a side character or background actor, is given room to be the most intimidating antagonist that I saw in a film all year. He plays a conductor, but Simmons is downright scary as hell and entertaining to watch at the same time. Well shot, well written, well acted, and all around well constructed, WHIPLASH is a masterpiece!

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3. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: The evening that I spent watching this magical film was an enchanting experience. Evoking a sense of classic comedies and a fairy tale color palette, Wes Anderson’s GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL sucked me into its oddball world from the first frame. Ralph Fiennes’s Gustave H. and Adrien Brody’s villain had me breaking into hysterical laughter throughout this whole film. Besides the humor, there’s a unique sweetness to BUDAPEST as well as a compelling storyline (background happenings reward repeat viewings). GRAND BUDAPEST is sincere in its story, humor, honest emotions, and ridiculous nature. Cinematic heaven!

GONE GIRL, from left: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, 2014. ph: Merrick Morton/TM & copyright ©20th

2. GONE GIRL: Going into 2014, there was one film that I was highly anticipating. That was David Fincher’s adaptation of the best-selling mystery, GONE GIRL. The novel is acclaimed, for good reason, of having a nasty sleight of hand that trips up the reader’s preconceived notions. Fincher masterfully transfers that level of Hitchcockian suspense onto the screen in this deeply disturbing and haunting thriller. I didn’t spoil anything in my review and I won’t spoil anything here either. If anyone does try to give away the plot, slap them in the face before they can give away any detail. Though it’s really your fault for having not seen this film yet. Go see it! Seriously! It’s the smartest, entirely compelling and most intense thriller that I’ve seen all year. Once you’ve seen GONE GIRL, you’ll know why everyone is raving about it so much.

BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE), (aka BIRDMAN), Michael Keaton, on set, 2014. /TM

1. BIRDMAN or (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE): What do I even say about this film? When I saw the trailer for BIRDMAN, I felt iffy on it. This looked to be a quirky comedy that could potentially be good, but might rely far too much on the gimmick of having a washed-up former superhero actor playing a washed-up former superhero actor. Nevertheless, I walked into the movie theater hoping for a good flick. In less than 10 minutes, I was under the film’s spell. This wasn’t just good or funny, this was fantastic and amazing. Telling the story in a stylistic choice that appears to be caught in one take (through various hidden cuts) and containing some of the best performances that this entire year had to offer, BIRDMAN is an extraordinary piece of cinema. I’ve bad-mouthed Michael Keaton for a couple of crappy movies he did earlier this year, but his performance really is something to behold in this film! There’s never been anything quite like BIRDMAN before and there’s never going to be anything quite like it again. BIRDMAN is perfection!

2014 was a solid year and produced a lot of phenomenal films. I hope 2015 is even better!

SNOWPIERCER (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language and Drug Content

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Directed by: Bong Joon-Ho

Written by: Bong Joon-Ho & Kelly Masterson

(based on the graphic novel SNOWPIERCER by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand & Jean-Marc Rochette)

Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-Ho, Go Ah-Sung, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris & Alison Pill

Though it’s the adaptation of the 1982 French graphic novel, most people will compare SNOWPIERCER to the recent Sci-Fi blockbuster ELYSIUM. The film is just as subtle in its social commentary of class warfare taken to a violent extreme and is also set in an post-apocalyptic wasteland where the rich are large and in charge. I described ELYSIUM as a film that could easily have starred Arnold Schwarzenegger in his heyday, but the same cannot be said of SNOWPIERCER. This is a more confident, far more developed, infinitely more creative and an all around better film on every conceivable level. Bong Joon-Ho’s English-language debut is not without some noticeable flaws, but this is one Science Fiction story that will linger in my mind for some time to come and practically demands repeat viewings from the entertainment value alone.

SNOWPIERCER, Chris Evans, 2013. ©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

Eighteen years in the future, a second ice age has set in and life on Earth is extinct. That is except for the lucky passengers of the “rattling ark.” An engineering genius named Wilford constructed a massive train, powered by an eternal engine, that travels across the entire world. The train is a self-contained ecosystem that sustains human life with no expiration date. Of course, with all of these people crammed aboard from various walks of life, a natural class system is adopted. The rich live in the front cars and enjoy a glamorous lifestyle. The poor are crowded together in the tail of train, living in horrible conditions, and dying young. A few small revolutions have already taken place and failed. Curtis is a man stuck at the back of the train with a plan for a successful rebellion against the powerful dictating the train. Everything is intricately set into motion for this new revolution to take place. Of course, the elite will fight against these lower class in order to keep their wealthy status intact. Needless to say that conflicts ensue and a group of “tail hicks” traveling to the engine room at the front of the train is no easy task.

SNOWPIERCER, Jamie Bell, 2013. ©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

SNOWPIERCER is helmed by visionary Korean director Bong Joon-Ho (his other work including such films as monster movie THE HOST and the critically acclaimed mystery MOTHER). Some problems can be seen early on in the frozen landscape setting looking a bit iffy in a crucial moment and one action scene indulging in incoherent shaky camera work. Luckily, these problems don’t rear their ugly heads again. The production design on every set is very well done and sucks you into the dire world that these characters inhabit. Every car is set apart from the previous one and I felt like I was on board making my way across the entire train as lives were lost with each step of the way. This is an intense film to say the least.

SNOWPIERCER, John Hurt (left), 2013. ©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

Occasionally, there are a few missteps later on. Some attempts at humor feel forced and there is a minor nagging detail that was far-fetched (even given the world this movie takes place in). The villains also come off as ridiculously evil. It’s almost cartoonish how wicked they get and it worked in the favor of me hating them, because I was rooting for certain antagonists to die in the most painful way imaginable. Every actor delivers a strong performance with the exception of Tilda Swinton. She plays one of the more notable villains and I hated her with every fiber of my being, but she was going far over-the-top. Even Jodie Foster’s character in the aforementioned ELYSIUM with all of her scenery-chewing was subtle compared to Swinton’s ridiculous portrayal of an already despicable character.

SNOWPIERCER, Tilda Swinton, 2013. ©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

Given those notable faults, there are certain scenes in SNOWPIERCER that are nothing short of brilliant. One monologue that Chris Evans gives reminded me of the same emotional weight that Quint’s speech had in JAWS. Another scene within a classroom contained a lot of dark humor that worked wonders. One extended fight/chase/fight sequence spanning several train cars between a calm baddie and the group was awesome. With every silly moment that doesn’t quite work, there are five more well executed scenes that make up for it. It’s not that the viewer won’t notice a few nitpicky things, but everything else is so gripping you probably won’t be too bothered by it. Some plot revelations near the end are ingenious and to say anything more on them would be criminal.

SNOWPIERCER, Chris Evans, 2013. ©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

SNOWPIERCER is far from a masterpiece or a new classic, but it’s bursting with tension and awesome level of well-realized creativity. The pacing never lags and I have no clue as to why the Weinsteins wanted to trim 20 minutes out of the final cut. Director Joon-Ho doesn’t go overly crazy in the bloodshed department, but doesn’t shy way from graphic violence that is essential to the story being told. The social commentary is as subtle as ELYSIUM, but the story and execution could not be more different. There are a few minor bumps, but this is a thoroughly enjoyable rollercoaster ride of a movie!

Grade: B+

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, some Sexual Content and Violence

GBH poster

Directed by: Wes Anderson

Written by: Wes Anderson

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Lea Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson & Tony Revolori

Wes Anderson has gained a reputation over his career for unique style and an oddball sense of humor. Anderson’s newest film carries an air of sophistication and the logistics of a cartoon. Layered with quirky sensibilities and having a genuine heart at the center, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is my favorite film of the year thus far! This already has a spot reserved on my Best of 2014 list. The entire affair is an absolutely entrancing experience of wonderful magic that only phenomenal filmmaking can bring.

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Beginning in the present, a young girl visits a memorial and reads a book by a character known simply as “The Author.” The film then cuts back to the 1980’s to find the Author describing a trip he made in the 1960’s. Flashing back to the 1960’s, we see a younger Author meet the elderly owner of the once prestigious/now rustic Grand Budapest Hotel. This elderly fellow relates the tale of how he came to own the Grand Budapest. So to break this down we open with a narration within a book that takes us to a flashback that then takes us to another flashback. Instead of coming off as convoluted in the slightest (as it almost certainly would have in any other film), this technique offers satisfying bookends to the main story at hand. Speaking of which…

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Set in the 1930’s, the main plot (e.g. the elderly owner’s story) is the tale of a famous concierge and his loyal lobby boy. The concierge is Gustave H., a philosophical and poetic gentleman, who takes to romancing many of the rich elderly (blonde) women who frequently visit the hotel. The lobby boy is Zero, a refugee from a less fortunate country, who has found a fatherly figure and devoted friend in Gustave. After Madam D (a former lover of Gustave) is found murdered, a priceless painting (titled Boy With Apple) is left in the possession of the two. Unfortunately for Gustave, something sinister is afoot and he’s been framed for Madam D’s death. Zero must rise up to the occasion, band together with Agatha (love of his life and candy-maker), and prove Gustave’s innocence!

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From the onset, there are many things unusual about THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. Model work was done for the landscape shots and the film has a candy-colored sensibility in nearly all of the sets. Everything has been put together with care and attention to detail. In its most unusual opening, the viewer is sucked into the oddball world of this story. A thick atmosphere covers the whole thing like frosting on one of Agatha’s cakes. The amazing soundtrack adds even more flavor and perfectly encapsulates the tone of the movie. It should also be noted that the frame ratio of the film changes based on the time period the film is currently in. For example, its widescreen (2.35:1) in the present day, goes down to 1:85 when the Author is relating his story, and goes to traditional 1:33 for Zero’s tale. Purposely executed, this added yet another sense of wonder to an already amazing film.

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The film sports a large cast of big names. Some of these notable actors only appear for a minute or two, but their presence was a nice touch. Tony Revolori doesn’t have a long list of titles to his name, but delivers as young Zero. It’s easy for the viewer to sympathize with his bad history and root for him to overcome the odds to get his beloved mentor back. Speaking of which, Ralph Fiennes is simply brilliant as Gustave H. This character goes from waxing poetic to fowl-mouthed ruffian in the blink of an eye. Though the character might have come off as a quirky scumbag in any other film, Fiennes makes him into lovable guy. There’s certainly something to be said for that. Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe both appear as villains. Brody is hysterical as the ill-tempered fascist son of Madam D. His off-the-cuff profanity is only outweighed by Gustave’s frequent outbursts. Dafoe is a quiet, intimidating, leering man whose fashion sense includes a constant pair of brass-knuckles. Last but not least, Saoirse Ronan is Agatha. Though her character isn’t devoted nearly as much time as Gustave or Zero, she’s an essential part of the film.

Budapest 5

As the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end. This was the case when the end credits began to roll on GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. The film is a true crowd-pleaser in every sense of the term. The humor is hilarious, but there’s also an unspoken sentimental factor that doesn’t truly reveal itself until the final moments. In some comedies, this might be uncalled for or felt forced. In GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, every emotion is genuine and absolutely earned. The best way of describing the magic and wonder this film holds is by saying it’s an adult story set in an absurd fairy-tale landscape. Walking out of the darkened movie theater, a nearly overwhelming wave of awe washed over me from the whole adventure I had just gone through with a colorful cast of characters. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is phenomenal and nothing short of a masterpiece!

Grade: A+

BURN AFTER READING (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Language, Some Sexual Content and Violence

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Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Starring: John Malkovich, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons

The Coen brothers have a unique filmography to say the least. Mostly covering dark thrillers and quirky comedy, they have never made what many would consider a normal movie. This is a total blessing. BURN AFTER READING came at a bit of a bad time for them. They were fresh off the heels of the Best Picture winner NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and this was the next film…a dark comedy that really has no real plot to speak of. In fact, this is more of a series of connected events than an actual story and they received a lot of flack for this. This was a bit unfair to the movie itself, seeing as everyone was comparing it to the best of the siblings’ work. BURN AFTER READING is hysterical in most respects, even if it leaves something to be desired.

Burn After 1

Osbourne Cox is an alcoholic former CIA agent with an explosive temper. Katie Cox is his demanding unfaithful wife. Harry Pfaffer is a former body-guard and Katie’s secret lover, despite being a married man enjoying getting a run whenever he can. Linda Litzke is a woman obsessed with bettering herself through plastic surgery while also working at the gym, where the fitness crazy Chad Feldheimer also works. While there are slight circumstances that connect all of these people, their lives are about to collide in horribly hilarious and darkly violent ways that may lead to the untimely deaths of a few of them and other awful fates for the others.

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I don’t exactly want to reveal anything further about the plot, because the less you know, the more you’ll enjoy this movie. It’s a comedy of errors on an epic scale. This is much like the same kind of oddball comedy that the Coen Brothers previously dished out in RAISING ARIZONA and THE BIG LEBOWSKI, although this time the stakes are more grisly and violent. The colorful cast of characters make for a massively entertaining experience. Much like THE BIG LEBOWSKI offered an excuse for Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and John Turturro to act like immature lunatics, BURN AFTER READING brings in a class of serious performers (including George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, and the always kooky John Malkovich) to act like insane people. It’s a blast to watch

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The non-existent narrative, despite working wonders, also gives off some sense that the film is wandering without a sense of purpose or even a coherent storyline. The running time feels a bit too long in the tooth for a “plot” of this structure or lack thereof. It’s an oddball quirky dark comedy that fulfills its requirement of making the viewer laugh a lot, but also leaves something to be desired. This is the equivalent of the Coen brothers bringing the closest thing we’ll get to popcorn-crunching entertainment from them.

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It feels like it’s missing something integral to making it an A-grade movie, but it seems like the narrative itself may be the cause of this problem. The rushed climax also may not suit everybody’s taste, but I found the final scene to be the funniest moment in the entire film. In the end, it’s a weird slice of entertainment delivered by the esteemed Coen brothers. That’s worth far more than many modern so-called comedies…

Grade: B+

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