COLOSSAL (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language

Directed by: Nacho Vigalondo

Written by: Nacho Vigalondo

Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson & Dan Stevens

I’ve been holding off on reviewing COLOSSAL for a while now. The main reason for that is because this film is so strange that it’s hard to accurately sum up what makes it so enjoyable and refreshing for me. I know there are people who completely hate this film and I understand why they might feel that way. However, I dug the hell out of COLOSSAL for being the best bizarre little dramedy combined with a kaiju film that I’ve ever seen. This movie has monsters, laughs, and feels. What more could you possibly ask for from one-of-a-kind Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo (who’s also known for TIMECRIMES, so-so thriller OPEN WINDOWS, and the only good segment in V/H/S: VIRAL).

Gloria (Anne Hathaway) has sunk to an all-time low in her life. She’s struggling with alcoholism, her lack of a job, a recent break-up with her frustrated boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens), and, to cap it all off, she’s moved back to her depressing hometown. Things aren’t all bad though, because she’s reconnected with her long-lost childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) and he owns a bar. There’s also been a recent appearance of a giant monster terrorizing South Korea, but that couldn’t have anything to do with Gloria’s return to her hometown, right? Well, actually, Gloria is somehow connected to this monster and the resulting antics spiral out of control as she discovers that millions of lives rest in her hands.

First and foremost, COLOSSAL works as a comedy-drama about a gal who’s trying to maintain control of her life and battle her personal demons. That might not be the sentence you expect to hear when describing a giant monster movie, but it’s definitely the descriptor that fits COLOSSAL. This film really functions on Gloria, her tepid relationships with men, and her struggle to overcome her problems. Meanwhile, there’s a monster terrorizing South Korea, but this evolves into something funnier and stranger as it moves along.

This film wouldn’t be funny, compelling or oddly heartwarming if it weren’t for Anne Hathaway’s performance in the leading role of Gloria. Hathaway plays a walking mess of a person who’s just trying to keep her shit together, while not entirely succeeding at that goal. As much as I could see her big character flaws, I cared about Gloria and wanted her to overcome her issues. Some actors and actresses don’t really know how to properly play drunk and instead come off as obnoxiously pretending that they’re wasted, but I believed Hathaway’s performance. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if she was downing shots between her takes and I mean that in the best way possible.

On the supporting side of things, Jason Sudeikis makes a big impression here. Though he’s primarily known for comedies and COLOSSAL is technically a sci-fi comedy, Sudeikis gets room to flex his dramatic chops and Oscar is the most serious character that I’ve ever seen him play. I hesitate to say more, but Sudeikis becomes a force to be reckoned with in this film and I was surprised to see this performance coming from him. Dan Stevens occasionally pops up as Gloria’s concerned ex-boyfriend, who’s not exactly a jerk and yet has jerk-like qualities. I wish that Stevens role had been bigger, because the wrap-up to a certain plot thread would have felt more significant if he had more screen time. Also, Tim Blake Nelson is a welcomed presence as one of Oscar’s best friends and Austin Stowell is fast forgotten is a potential love interest.

Though it was made on a relatively small budget for a giant monster flick (15 million), COLOSSAL packs in great special effects. The creature design is unique and the news footage of it terrorizing Seoul is fun to watch. Director Nacho Vigalondo knows when to show the audience the chaos and when to leave it to our imagination. The less-is-more approach to certain scenes probably came from budget constraints, but these bits are effective in letting the viewer’s mind fill in the blanks. Sometimes, the mere suggestion of something combined with a few lines of dialogue can have more of an effect than showing tons of action.

If I have any complains about COLOSSAL, they stem from a couple of plot holes and the screenplay’s occasionally unfocused nature. It felt like the film was going to do more with Dan Stevens, Tim Blake Nelson, and Austin Stowell, and then completely forgot about them at points. Also, there’s an attempt to explain what’s going on and this explanation raises more questions than answers. Even with those problems in mind, COLOSSAL is a very fun, entertaining, and original flick. The comedy-drama elements are the main thrust of this story, with the monster stuff serving as a compelling twist on material that you’ve likely seen executed in many other comedy-dramas. This results in a cinematic oddity that’s thoroughly enjoyable and unique. If this sounds up your alley, then I highly recommend checking out COLOSSAL.

Grade: B+

DONNIE BRASCO (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Strong Graphic Violence, Pervasive Strong Language, brief Nudity and Sexuality

Directed by: Mike Newell

Written by: Paul Attanasio

(based on the book DONNIE BRASCO: MY UNDERCOVER LIFE IN THE MAFIA by Joseph D. Pistone)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Al Pacino, Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, Anne Heche, James Russo, Zeljko Ivanek, Gerry Becker, Andrew Parks, Robert Miano, Brian Tarantina, Rocco Sisto, Tim Blake Nelsen & Paul Giamatti

Based on an incredible true story, DONNIE BRASCO is a mafia movie that contains A-list talent, loads of suspense, and pretty much everything that fans of gangster cinema could ask for. This film was acclaimed during its 1997 theatrical run by both critics and audiences (making four times its budget back), and was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards. Though it doesn’t quite stack up to the pillar of Scorsese’s 90s gangster films (GOODFELLAS, CASINO), DONNIE BRASCO is a must-see for mob movie fans.

In a top-secret operation, FBI agent Joseph Pistone (Johnny Depp) has gone undercover as jewel thief “Donnie Brasco.” When “Donnie” attracts the attention of low-life enforcer Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino), Joseph gains a position to take down one of the biggest crime families in the nation. This operation puts Joseph in a very dangerous spot as he’s forced to get down and dirty with these wiseguys, while constantly taking measures to maintain his cover. Soon enough, Joseph seems enraptured with his newfound criminal lifestyle…to a point where the FBI is concerned about his well-being and his wife (Anne Heche) realizes that he’s turning into “one of them.” Lots of suspense, mafia-related hijinks, and questionable morals follow as “Donnie” tries to complete his operation and escape with his life.

DONNIE BRASCO is different from other notable 90s gangster films because so much of it hinges on the Joseph’s undercover operation. There’s constant tension as the viewer wonders whether some blunder from a passing FBI agent or an unplanned event will unmask “Donnie’s” true identity. Even though we know that Pistone lived to write the memoir that inspired this film, DONNIE BRASCO keeps us on the edge of our seats. There’s something to be said about that quality alone. One intense moment comes early on as “Donnie” refuses to take his shoes off in a Japanese restaurant (because he has a wire hidden in his shoe)…only to result in a restaurant employee being beaten to a pulp. Another tense bit comes in “Donnie” being spotted by an air-headed coworker, while he’s standing right next to made-man “Sonny Black” (Michael Madsen). Small moments like these add even more danger to the proceedings.

As for the mafia material, DONNIE BRASCO carefully sets up details about the inner workings of the crime family. We learn what certain terms mean (“a friend of mine” or “a friend of ours”) and the signs that someone is about to get whacked (when you get “sent for”). These details are explained to the audience (as Pacino’s “Lefty” reveals them to Depp’s “Donnie”) and then pop up in the proceedings throughout. There are tense rivalries that make their way into the plot, while a few factual details have been switched up to provide a more tragic conclusion (though the real-life ending to this tale was bittersweet). Don’t expect loads of gun fights and blood, but DONNIE has its violent spots. One notable set piece comes in a shocking, though oddly satisfying execution sequence.

Despite the mafia driving this story forward, DONNIE BRASCO is at its most powerful when it examines the relationship between “Donnie” and “Lefty.” This plot element is beautifully executed as Johnny Depp and Al Pacino show wonderful chemistry on the screen. Depp’s “Donnie” is a convincing gangster and the way he snaps at the FBI (who almost get him killed on numerous occasions) causes the viewer to sympathize with him. Though he’s more famous for playing two iconic gangsters (Michael Corleone in THE GODFATHER and Tony Montana in SCARFACE), Al Pacino disappears into his role as “Lefty.” Pacino turns this cold-blooded contract killer into a somewhat tragic figure, who shows a nice side to “Donnie” and becomes his best friend.

Though DONNIE BRASCO nails most of its material and builds a strong relationship between Pacino and Depp’s characters, the film slightly drops the ball in two areas. The first of these is the passage of time in the story. The real life “Donnie Brasco” operation took place over the course of six years and the film neglects to fill us in on these dates. It’s not necessarily crucial to the story, but it felt like this film’s plot took place over the course of a year (tops)…which was probably not the case at all.

The second area where DONNIE BRASCO has problems is the turbulent relationship between Joseph and his worried wife. I felt like this entire subplot was a little too scattered. During one scene, Joseph’s wife is telling him how much she hates him and goes as far as to change their home number so he can’t call his kids. Then a few scenes later, she’s sympathetic towards his plight and madly in love with him for no apparent reason. It felt like a few scenes were deleted between this character’s shift into concern. This messy subplot neuters the would-be emotional impact of Joseph’s final family scenes.

Despite a couple of nagging narrative flaws, DONNIE BRASCO is a fantastic film that’s sure to sink its hooks into fans of gangster stories. The performances from Al Pacino and Johnny Depp warrant a watch by themselves, besides the stellar turn from Michael Madsen as an underdog mob boss. This film is unlike many of the mafia movies I’ve sat through, due to its strong focus on a heartfelt relationship between two very unlikely friends and a constant air of suspense from the undercover operation. If this sounds up your alley, then I highly recommend checking out DONNIE BRASCO!

Grade: A-

THE SOUND AND THE FURY (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: James Franco

Written by: Matt Rager

(based on the novel THE SOUND AND THE FURY by William Faulkner)

Starring: James Franco, Jacob Loeb, Joey King, Tim Blake Nelson, Loretta Devine, Ahna O’Reilly, Scott Haze, Seth Rogen, Danny McBride & Logan Marshall-Green

William Faulkner’s work has been notoriously difficult to adapt onto the screen. While his stories are about being human and life itself, his stream-of-consciousness style has confused countless readers and seems impossible to properly translate into film format. Enter literature-lover James Franco and his ambition. Franco tried to adapt Faulkner in 2013’s AS I LAY DYING and he attempts to adapt one of Faulkner’s most acclaimed novels in THE SOUND AND THE FURY. There’s effort being put into this project, but it’s wasted with amateur directing, a bland tone, and bad acting. There are highlights in Franco’s cinematic version of Faulkner, but these are few and far between.

Like the novel it’s based upon, the film is split into non-linear chapters (four in the book, three in the movie as it combines the third and fourth sections). We follow the Compson Family in early 20th-century Mississippi. The family has suffered hardships in the past and is about to fall into complete disarray. We watch the family’s fall from grace from the perspectives of the three Compson sons: mentally challenged Benjy (James Franco), intellectual Quentin (Jacob Loeb), and scumbag Jason (Scott Haze).

In discussing this film, I need to break down the (few) positives and (many) negatives of each chapter. In the first segment, James Franco clearly didn’t listen to Robert Downey Jr.’s sound advice from TROPIC THUNDER and proceeds to go “full retard” as Benjy. Franco fearlessly thrusts himself into the role of this mentally challenged man and the results are cringe worthy to say the least. He dons a set of fake teeth, drools all over the place, and proceeds to ass-bite a small child. God, I wish I was making that last part up.

To be fair, the first section of Faulkner’s novel is often regarded as damn near incomprehensible and Franco tries to do the same thing here with his camera. The film frequently cuts to pretentious shots of Benjy cradling his face in curtains and screaming in a hospital bed…for no apparent reason other than the film being “art.” A child’s whispery voice fills in the narration of this character’s inner monologue, mostly repeating the line about how his sister Caddy (Ahna O’Reilly) smells like trees. This was kind of cool at first (as someone who had to read the novel in college), but it grows mighty annoying and laughably pretentious over the space of 30 minutes.

The second chapter fares much better as Jacob Loeb proves himself to be a capable enough in the role of deeply depressed Quentin, whilst Tim Blake Nelson’s Compson father drunkenly waxes poetic about time and water. The second section’s best scene involves Quentin confronting his sister’s scummy ex-boyfriend Dalton (Logan Marshall-Green). This entire sequence seems like it was ripped straight out of Faulkner’s book. However, the rest of Quentin’s perspective frequently meanders and makes him into a downright unlikable guy, by ignoring the only heartwarming piece of his story from the novel for no apparent reason.

The third/final chapter is much more straightforward and coherent as we follow scumbag Jason, played to over-the-top levels by Scott Haze. The appearance of Haze’s Jason resembles a villainous cartoon character. This segment certainly isn’t aided by obvious age make-up on Janet Jones or distracting cameos by Seth Rogen (as a telegram operator) and Danny McBride (as the town sheriff). At least, Joey King is believable as Jason’s defiant niece and Loretta Devine is well-cast as the family’s put-upon house servant.

This final segment is also a remarkably weak way to end the film, though I’d actually blame that upon the source material. I’m having a really hard time finding many nice things to say about Franco’s adaptation of THE SOUND AND THE FURY. It’s long, tedious (only occasionally capturing the spark of what makes its source material work so well), and directed rather poorly. There are dull stretches where the viewer will find themselves checking their watch and Faulkner fans will simply be waiting for the next event to occur. Even if you’ve read Faulkner’s celebrated book, this mostly lifeless cinematic version of THE SOUND AND THE FURY probably won’t do much for you. I’d say avoid this film and let’s hope that Franco doesn’t attempt to adapt any more of Faulkner’s work to the screen.

Grade: D

FANTASTIC FOUR (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence, and Language

FFour poster

Directed by: Josh Trank

Written by: Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater & Josh Trank

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

Starring: Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey & Tim Blake Nelson

Can I just say it? FANTASTIC FOUR seems to be one of Stan Lee’s lesser creations. At least, it really seems to be this way on film. If you don’t believe me, let’s tally up the previous cinematic adaptations. There was a TV movie in the early 90’s that was apparently so embarrassing that it has remained unreleased to this day. Clips of this film online reveal that, yes, it is as bad as they say it is. In 2005, we were treated to a mediocre adaptation that didn’t really do much of anything plot-wise. Somehow, that film was granted a better-but-still-bland sequel in 2007 that also featured the Silver Surfer and a CGI cloud they claimed was Galactus. Now we have a 2015 reboot that has a talented director (his previous film was 2012’s CHRONICLE) and a solid cast. You might think that the end result would be, at the very least, watchable. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the most boring, pointless, and stupid comic book movie that we’ve seen in over a decade.

FFour 1

Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm, and Victor Von Doom have been recruited by a scientist to work on the world’s first teleportation device. This machine doesn’t teleport things across our world. Instead, it’s actually a gateway into another dimension. When the project is completed and human trials are ready to begin, the government tries to take the invention (and credit) away from the team of geniuses. In a drunken stupor and aided by Ben Grimm (Reed’s childhood friend), the team take a quick impromptu voyage to the other dimension with disastrous results. The side effects are super powers. Reed can stretch his body in an elastic-like way. Sue can turn invisible. Johnny can set himself aflame and fly. Meanwhile, Ben has been transformed into an orange rock-monster. Together these friends must come to grips with their newfound abilities and stop the evil Dr. Doom from destroying our world.

FFour 2

My brief synopsis just gave more credit to this film than any of the performances. Not one of the cast members look like they care about the film they are making. The character development is damn near non-existent as well. Miles Teller has been great in the past (e.g. WHIPLASH), but is utterly bland as Richard. Kate Mara has been great in the past as well (e.g. HOUSE OF CARDS), but seems bored out of her mind as Sue. Noticing a pattern here? Michael B. Jordan plays the Human Torch as a pouty child and makes me yearn for the days when pre-CAPTAIN AMERICA Chris Evans played Johnny. Meanwhile, The Thing doesn’t even seem to fit in with the rest of these characters. Tim Blake Nelson also pops in for a quick paycheck as a typical government agent. The only over-acting in this dreary affair comes from Reg E. Cathey as Franklin Storm (Sue and Johnny’s father). His acting was so over-the-top and clichéd that I had to restrain myself from cracking up during serious scenes that featured him.

FFour 3

The special effects in FANTASTIC FOUR are nowhere near as prestigious as a budget of 120 million would suggest. In fact, the CGI quality here looks like it’s from the horrible days of SPAWN and GODZILLA (the 1998 bomb with Broderick). The other dimension doesn’t look convincing in the slightest. When Mr. Fantastic stretches his body out, it appears like a scary abomination from some Asian ghost movie. The problem here is that we’re supposed to like him and think he’s cool. Meanwhile, The Thing appears to be one of last year’s Shrek-like Ninja Turtles covered in orange rocks. He’s still better than the Human Torch, who appears to have been brought to life with unconvincing half-rendered CGI. Honestly, the best special effects involve the Invisible Woman…because she’s invisible (ba dum ching).

FFour 4

You might notice that I’ve yet to describe Doctor Doom (the main villain). That’s because this movie doesn’t utilize him until the final 20 minutes of running time. Toby Kebbel plays Doom and his motivations are seemingly nothing more than being a pompous jerk. I mean, why would you actually want a villain with a clear-cut motivation or personality? Doom’s powers include crappy CGI, blowing up people’s heads SCANNERS style (with less gore, because it’s PG-13), and inconsistently electrocuting one character so they can deliver clichéd motivational last words. The plot seems to be made entirely of set-up and then throws Doom in for the final scenes…because we need a villain. The biggest problem with this film aside from everything else is that this FANTASTIC FOUR sucks the fun and color out of what should have been a goofy, entertaining movie. Nobody is going into FANTASTIC FOUR looking for a serious, intense sci-fi film. The story doesn’t allow for that and a darker tone only makes the whole film depressing and dull.

FFour 5

FANTASTIC FOUR is less than fantastic. From the lack of fun to lazy performances, everything about this movie just feels wrong. It’s a boring, awful failure of a film. This type of epic cinematic disaster seems to exist for internet critics to rip apart scene-by-scene and analyze everything that’s wrong with it. Honestly, I prefer the 2005 and 2007 films over this boring mess. 2015’s FANTASTIC FOUR feels like it’s relying on clichés, bad writing, and cheap special effects from late 90’s superhero bombs. It’s a distinct step backwards for superhero cinema. This FANTASTIC FOUR is easily the worst superhero movie we’ve received since 1997’s BATMAN & ROBIN. Heed my warning.

Grade: F

THE HOMESMAN (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Sexual Content, some Disturbing Behavior and Nudity

Homesman poster

Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones

Written by: Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald & Wesley Oliver

(based on the novel THE HOMESMAN by Glendon Swarthout)

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, James Spader, Hailee Steinfield, Tim Blake Nelson & William Fichtner

On paper, THE HOMESMAN sounds like a cinematic recipe for success. This is a dark Western with a cast full of A-list talent and an interesting premise behind it. I was quite excited to watching this promising film and that makes the lackluster end result so much more underwhelming. There are good qualities in HOMESMAN, but the film betrays its characters and wastes a solid period setting. By the time the credits roll, the whole experience feels pointless and dreary.

Homesman 1

In pioneer populated Nebraska, three women have gone insane. Mary Bee Cuddy is a spinster (woman past the typical age of marriage) with an independent attitude. She bravely volunteers to take the three crazy women to Iowa, in spite of scorn from those around her. Before Mary can begin her journey, she comes across George Briggs, a claim jumper about to be hanged. Mary frees George in exchange for his services in aiding her journey. The territory is filled with bandits, harsh elements, and Indians. George and Mary must face overwhelming odds to get these three mentally damaged women to safety…as well as themselves.

Homesman 2

Tommy Lee Jones directs, co-writes, and acts in this Western. He pulls off the role of George with a passable performance. Jones doesn’t necessarily make this character his own though. This “bad man with a good heart” type of character is a familiar stereotype. Hilary Swank is another story. She seems to be trying way too hard as Mary. When she says certain comic relief lines, they feel stiff and lifeless. However, when she tries to be deadly serious (including an over-the-top bit of sobbing), she becomes unintentionally laughable and not convincing in the slightest. James Spader is a welcomed presence, but barely has any screen time. Tim Blake Nelson also seems suited to his one-scene scumbag, but comes off as wildly cartoonish…again, eliciting unintentional laughs from a scene that should be intense. Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, and William Fichtner are forgettable as brief side characters. Meanwhile, the crazy women themselves aren’t given enough personality to resemble actual people as opposed to human cargo.

Homesman 3

In spite of all the flaws, THE HOMESMAN gets a couple of things right. The music is good, as in it feels like it belongs to a far better film. There is also attention to details of the time period that can be cool, though the overall production values resemble a made-for-TV movie. Aside from mixed acting and so-so technical work, THE HOMESMAN really drops the ball in the screenplay department. The script is based on a 1988 novel that I haven’t read, but this plot feels very disjointed and muddled. There is a character decision about halfway through that betrayed everything that was shown up until that point. There’s also a nasty streak of the story being dark merely for the sake of being dark. We already understand that the Old West was a dangerous and rough time, but this film feels the need to do things just for unnecessary shock value. This is especially notable in James Spader’s sleazy character. He’s one of the best things about this movie, but his scenes feel like they were only added for edginess and pointless violence.

Homesman 4

Westerns are a tough sell, especially in this day and age. I appreciate certain aspects about THE HOMESMAN, including a few well-executed scenes, a solid soundtrack, and two good performances. However, I can’t help but be let down by the forced bleakness (which didn’t add much to the story), an overall unfocused narrative, and poor performances that seemed as if everyone is trying too hard to sell themselves in a role as opposed to bringing an actual character to life. THE HOMESMAN is disappointing to say the least.

Grade: C-

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