THE SNOWMAN (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Grisly Images, Violence, some Language, Sexuality and brief Nudity

Directed by: Tomas Alfredson

Written by: Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan & Soren Sveistrup

(based on the novel THE SNOWMAN by Jo Nesbo)

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Val Kilmer, J.K. Simmons, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ronan Vibert, Chloe Sevigny & James D’Arcy

There were plenty of reasons to look forward to THE SNOWMAN. Martin Scorsese produced it. Tomas Alfredson (who directed one of the best vampire films ever in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN) directed it. This movie was based on an acclaimed novel that tons of people love and it’s regarded as a very scary book. Also, look at that cast! Just look at that cast! This should have been a great movie. The key phrase there being “should have been,” because THE SNOWMAN is one of the biggest disappointments in quite some time. Everything you’ve heard is true. This film is terrible.

Detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) is on the trail of a mysterious serial killer, known as “The Snowman Killer.” This psycho gained this rather goofy nickname because he builds snowmen of his victims. He also cuts his victims up into little pieces with razor-sharp cord, but he also builds snowmen. So, the snow-related quality just stuck out more than his graphic dismemberment, I guess? With the help of newbie recruit Kathrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), Harry Hole must stop the Snowman Killer before the murderer strikes somewhere personal. All the while, there are flashbacks to seemingly unrelated events and a conspiracy theory about Norway trying to host the Winter Sports World Cup.

THE SNOWMAN is a trainwreck in nearly every aspect, but I’ll get the positives out of the way and state what qualities I enjoyed upfront. The cinematography is great. The Norwegian locations are cool to look at (pun fully intended). Also, there are brief effective scenes scattered throughout this film too, but these are mostly small bits that are unconnected in the grand scheme of things. I really liked a moment when the Snowman Killer was right in front of Harry’s face and he didn’t even know it, but the audience knew it and the director still managed to keep the murderer’s identity a secret in that scene. This was a truly great moment in an otherwise crappy film.

Now that I’ve given my minor praise, it’s time to dig into why this film doesn’t work. The first reason for why THE SNOWMAN doesn’t work actually comes from a troubled production that recently concluded with the film’s director stating that there are about 15 minutes of major script pages that were never even filmed. This means that there are scenes literally missing from this movie, which consequently results in baffling character decisions and last-minute plot revelations that don’t make a lick of sense. I know that the source material is widely acclaimed and I cannot even imagine what pain the novel’s fanbase will endure when they sit down to watch this clichéd, confused mess of a movie.

The second reason for why THE SNOWMAN doesn’t work is heavily tied to the first reason: a talented cast of A-list performers are trying their best and, yet, this incoherent jumbled film doesn’t make any of their characters worth remembering. It’s also a juvenile comment to make, but Harry Hole is an incredibly stupid name for the protagonist of a serious serial killer thriller. Was Hugh Jass already taken? What about I.P. Freely? Okay, I’ll stop harping on this one. Many of Michael Fassbender’s decisions don’t make a lick of sense and he makes big revelations that just sort of pop out of nowhere with no rhyme or reason. Also, J.K. Simmons is completely wasted in the role of a useless would-be important character. Val Kilmer also shows up for five minutes of embarrassingly bad flashbacks as a seemingly unrelated detective who was also after the Snowman Killer in the past. The only cast member who seems somewhat believable is Rebecca Ferguson.

As far as the film’s suspense goes, there isn’t much to be found at all. There are a couple of effective moments (ala scenes in which we see how close the Snowman Killer is to Fassbender’s Harry Hole), but everything else is a tedious slog to get through. The film can’t even nail its gory, graphic violence. A shaky-cam fight scene is filmed in such an incoherent fashion that it took me a full minute to realize who suffered a life-altering injury and how the hell that even happened. A shotgun blast and a half-blown-off head is rendered with godawful CGI that looks like it belongs in a Syfy Channel original movie. There are also long stretches where no bodies pile up because Fassbender’s Harry Hole is on the trail of a Winter Sports conspiracy…because that’s what we came to this serial killer thriller to watch, right?

THE SNOWMAN is the kind of cinematic disaster that one can pick apart scene by scene, analyzing what’s wrong with nearly every moment and observing what could be done to improve the overall film. I’m sure that the 15 minutes of unfilmed scenes also had a distinct factor to play in THE SNOWMAN’s shockingly shoddy quality. While the cinematography and locations are pretty to look at and there are a couple of effective bits, THE SNOWMAN is mostly a long bore to get through. Instead of being on the edge of their seats, viewers will likely be checking their watches to see how much more time is left in this endurance test of a grisly thriller. Don’t be fooled by the trailers, the cast, the premise, or the praise for the (undoubtedly) superior source material, THE SNOWMAN isn’t worth your time or money.

Grade: D

ATOMIC BLONDE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences of Strong Violence, Language throughout, and some Sexuality/Nudity

Directed by: David Leitch

Written by: Kurt Johnstad

(based on the graphic novel THE COLDEST CITY by Antony Johnston & Sam Hart)

Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones & Bill Skarsgard

In MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, Charlize Theron proved that she could be a bad-ass action star. In stylish spy thriller ATOMIC BLONDE, an adaptation of the graphic novel THE COLDEST CITY, Theron steps away from the sidelines and into the main role. Many reviews and a lot of early word-of-mouth have called this flick a “female JOHN WICK” and that’s quite a poor comparison. If you’re expecting gun-fu from start to finish with ridiculous high stakes, you may find yourself occasionally bored by ATOMIC BLONDE. However, it will likely blow away folks who enjoy unpredictable, adrenaline-pumping espionage thrillers that are packed with action, sex, and a killer soundtrack of well-chosen 80s hits. ATOMIC BLONDE is pretty friggin’ great in those respects and lands as one of 2017’s best action films so far.

After an MI6 agent is killed in Berlin and “The List” of secret agents winds up missing, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is assigned to recover “The List” and assassinate a mysterious traitor known as Satchel. Once in Berlin, Lorraine immediately finds herself immediately beset by murderous KGB agents, a French lesbian spy (Sofia Boutella), an eccentric contact (James McAvoy), and a politically turbulent climate (during the final days of the Berlin Wall). As Lorraine investigates her fellow spy’s murder, the whereabouts of “The List,” and the possible identity of Satchel, the bullets fly and bodies pile up.

Judging ATOMIC BLONDE strictly from its premise, this spy-thriller doesn’t sound all that original. However, the film’s execution, pacing that starts off slow and then throws a barrage of unexpected twists during the second half, and constant balls-to-the-wall style make this film well worth watching. I am kind of shocked by how much I enjoyed this movie. I was expecting just another fun action flick and I received a smart, suspenseful, and violent spy-thriller. Again, don’t expect a female JOHN WICK (like the marketing and countless reviews have compared this to) and your expectations will be appropriately geared towards what ATOMIC BLONDE offers.

Charlize Theron does a fantastic job of kicking ass and taking names as Lorraine. This BLONDE heroine is smart, sexy, and always tries to be step ahead of those who want her killed, though her mistakes add considerable intensity to certain moments in the latter half. James McAvoy is fun as her colleague David Percival, capturing a quirkiness and a hard-to-read nature as the viewer suspects that he’s not quite telling our protagonist everything that he knows. John Goodman and Toby Jones are enjoyable to watch as two interrogators, while Sofia Boutella adds extra sexiness as the aforementioned French lesbian spy.

ATOMIC BLONDE’s success also derives from telling a been-there-done-that premise in a fresh way. This film’s cinematography looks amazing (with lots of bright neon colors) and the 80s soundtrack just might have the best song choices of 2017 (arguably better than BABY DRIVER‘s never-ending feature-length playlist). The film’s narrative is constructed in a non-linear fashion with flashbacks and flash-forwards to and from Lorraine’s eventual interrogation about her Berlin mission. This allows for the film to feel like it’s constantly moving, even during the slower moments of character development and clues revolving around possible double-crossings (after all, there is at least one rogue agent afoot).

In terms of action, ATOMIC BLONDE excels in these moments. Accompanied by kick-ass 80s pop and alternative songs (lending authenticity to the 1989 setting), these scenes have steady camera work (none of that shaky-cam bullshit) and believable choreography. The action ranges from shoot-outs to beat-downs to car chases. No two action scenes are alike and the stakes are established early on, making these sequences even more gripping as a result. I especially like how the characters get worn out by their frequent confrontations. One of this film’s best fight scenes features Lorraine and a thug stumbling around as they try to go at each other. It makes sense that they would be tired, because they were both just thrown down two flights of stairs and had already taken blows from each other. Yet another moment (unforgettably set to ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry”) has a guy struggling to get a knife out of his back and it feels cringe-inducingly brutal.

ATOMIC BLONDE’s only big flaw comes from the final 10 minutes packing in possibly one twist too many and then not giving the viewer time to fully digest the new revelation. Still, this film is so damn entertaining from start to finish for a variety of reasons. The performances are great from every cast member and the entire film sheds its cliché-sounding premise through clever non-linear storytelling, kick-ass action sequences, and sheer style. Don’t expect ATOMIC BLONDE to be “the female JOHN WICK” and do expect it to be a smart, suspenseful spy-thriller. On those grounds, this flick is an absolute blast!

Grade: A-

ANTHROPOID (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and some Disturbing Images

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Directed by: Sean Ellis

Written by: Sean Ellis & Anthony Frewin

Starring: Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan, Anna Geislerova, Harry Lloyd, Toby Jones, Charlotte Le Bon & Detlef Bothe

ANTHROPOID is a film that kind of snuck up out of nowhere for me. I wasn’t aware of this movie’s existence until last month, when I saw the trailer in front of THE INFILTRATOR. Though it may only be in select theaters at the moment, ANTHROPOID is worth seeking out. The film accurately depicts one of the less talked-about events from World War II. The movie is a grim, emotionally turbulent and depressing tale about unwavering courage and the bravery to do what is right…even when that’s the most difficult thing to do.

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The year is 1941 and the place is Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Jozef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) are two members of the resistance. Reinhard Heydrich (Detlef Bothe) is Hitler’s third-in-command, stands as the leader of Nazi forces in Czechoslovakia, and was the main mastermind behind “The Final Solution.” With the help of a handful of surviving resistance members, Gabcik and Kubis enact their mission: Operation Anthropoid. After months of planning and blending in, Gabcik and Kubis will attempt to assassinate Heydrich. Thousands of lives will be lost whether the mission fails or succeeds, so the resistance throws caution to the wind and tries to kill one of the most powerful Nazis in World War II.

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ANTHROPOID can be split into two distinct sections, both of which combine for one powerful experience. The film’s first half is all about planning, build-up and the two main resistance members trying to blend into “normal” occupied Czech life. This section allows the characters to develop. We see their personalities, sympathize with their plights, and are utterly horrified by the conditions surrounding their once proud homeland. The first half also packs in plenty of nail-biting tension as resistance members try to evade very close calls.

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The film’s second half is where all hell breaks loose. I won’t spoil whether or not the assassination succeeds (as I didn’t know the exact details walking into this film), but I will say that you see the attempt and the hellish aftermath. There’s lots of chaos, fiery action and borderline nightmarish imagery. ANTHROPOID is a very dark film and the powder keg explodes all throughout its second half, bringing plenty of desperation, emotionally harrowing scenes, and a finale that I won’t soon forget. Don’t expect to walk away from this movie with an upbeat attitude. It’s a grim viewing that left me feeling like I’d been punched in the gut.

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Of course, none of the proceedings would do much without characters worth caring about. ANTHROPOID has that base covered too. The criminally underrated Cillian Murphy gets time to shine in the spotlight as Jozef Gabcik, a complex hero who’s tough as nails and delivers seriously heartbreaking moments as the film moves along. I haven’t seen much of Jamie Dornan (other than in the unintentionally hilarious FIFTY SHADES OF GREY), but he proves himself to be a more-than-capable performer as the young, headstrong Jan Kubis.

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Charlotte Le Bon and Anna Geislerova play Marie and Lenka, two women who start off as aids and become bigger characters as the plot progresses. The mature relationship of Jozef and Lenka contrasted against the youthful ideas about the “romance” of war seen in Jan and Marie’s love makes for an interesting watch during the film’s slower points. The distinctly talented Toby Jones plays a resistance contact who becomes embroiled in the assassination. The believable dynamic between all of these main characters brings a greater emotional impact when all hell breaks loose.

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ANTHROPOID was filmed in the actual locations where Operation Anthropoid took place, which lends a further sense of authenticity to the factual historical-thriller. Some details have been stretched for the film, but the facts are kept 95% intact, which is more than many other sensationalized “true story” war movies. I’m not going to lie and say that ANTHROPOID is a good time at the movies, because it’s not necessarily “entertaining” or “fun.” This movie is downright hard to take in places, but remains amazing all the same. Whether it be for a mostly authentic retelling of a lesser-known WWII tale or for a powerful war-time thriller, ANTHROPOID is more than worth a watch. This is one of 2016’s best films thus far!

Grade: A+

TALE OF TALES (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sexuality, Nudity, some Violence and Bloody Images

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Directed by: Matteo Garrone

Written by: Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone & Massimo Gaudioso

(based on the PENTAMERONE by Giambattista Basile)

Starring: Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, John C. Reilly, Toby Jones, Shirley Henderson, Hayley Carmichael, Bebe Cave & Christian Lees

Three Italian fairy tales serve as source material for director/writer Matteo Garrone’s beautifully grim English-language debut TALE OF TALES. Despite its whimsical sense of imagination, this fantasy is strictly for adults only as lots of gruesome violence and seedy sex are prevalent in the seemingly simple storylines. This is an anthology, so I will briefly review each tale on its own merits before summing up my thoughts on the film as a whole. What remains consistent through all three tales are breathtaking production values and stunning visuals. Lots of real Italian castles and unique locations were used throughout the filming process. The atmosphere of TALES is a brilliant mix of whimsical humor and dark violence throughout. Without further ado, I’ll make my way onto the tales themselves…

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THE QUEEN: In the kingdom of Darkwood, a selfish Queen (played by a remarkably cold Selma Hayek) only wishes for a child and shows absolutely no affection towards her husband (John C. Reilly in an unusually straight-faced role). When a mysterious necromancer arrives at the castle, the royal couple are given a magical alternative method of conceiving. As with most morality tales, things don’t quite go according to plan. This story takes a few enjoyably dark twists and turns as it goes along. It seemed like multiple fairy tales were combined into a single tale and somehow didn’t overwhelm the narrative. The conclusion leaves a bit to be desired though, because it comes and goes so quickly that the viewer is left scratching their head. The lack of a solid ending slightly diminished what might have otherwise been the best story in this anthology. B

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THE FLEA: In the kingdom of Highmountain, a quirky King (Toby Jones) becomes fascinated by a flea that grows to enormous size. Meanwhile, princess Violet (Bebe Cave) longs to get married and see the world outside her father’s walls. Little does she know that her father’s obsession with the gigantic parasite will offer her a way out of the castle, but not in a “happily ever after” way. This fairy tale is my favorite of the three. It perfectly balances the mixture of fantasy and horror that the movie seemed to be aiming for. This segment constantly shifts as the narrative becomes darker, but also manages to maintain a PRINCESS BRIDE sense of whimsy. Though Toby Jones is great as the borderline insane King, the best performance comes from fresh-faced Bebe Cave as Violet. She’s a cross between Disney princess and slasher final girl, which is a winning combination in my book. If the other two stories had measured up to this tale’s quality, then TALE OF TALES would be a potential masterpiece. A

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THE TWO OLD WOMEN: In the kingdom of Stronghold, the lustful King (played by a wonderfully smarmy Vincent Cassel) tries to quench his sexual appetite through countless orgies and one night stands. He may have finally found a future Queen when he hears lovely singing from a nearby cottage. The beautiful voice actually belongs to one of two elderly sisters. This would-be romance (in which the King attempts to woo his love through a wooden door) results in trickery and abuse between the sisters…and there’s also a bit of magic involved. I love the ideas behind this story, but feel that a couple of important scenes were missing. This is especially true of the final moments. While the ending itself is a perfect way to cap off this dark fairy tale, there were a couple of incomplete scenes before it arrived. The occasionally distracting jumps in narrative keep this story from being as stellar as THE FLEA. As a result, this is the second-best of the three tales. B+

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As you might have guessed from the plot descriptions, you’ll want to keep the kiddies away from these cinematic fairy tales. If you’re hungering for a fantasy that contains dark themes, morality tales, creatively horrific visuals, and a sense of wonder, TALE OF TALES will more than likely satisfy your craving. The special effects, visuals, and acting are great and I never quite knew where these twisted fairy tales were heading, in spite of their familiar set-ups. Though a couple of narrative stumbles that keep it from perfection, TALE OF TALES is a wonderfully weird creation that should satisfy fantasy and horror fans in equal measure!

Grade: B+

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence, Gunplay and Action throughout

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Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Written by: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

(based on the CAPTAIN AMERICA comics by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson & Toby Jones

The first wave of the Marvel Cinematic Universe mainly consisted of origin stories to lay ground work for THE AVENGERS. Since the studio has gotten all of those background stories (that seemed to follow the same general formula) out-of-the-way, there’s a new creative freedom that’s come with the latest Marvel sequels. The writers seem to be allowed more room to take bigger risks. This ups the stakes to huge levels for each new superhero release in this long-running series (this is the ninth installment of the MCU canon). IRON MAN 3 easily surpassed its two predecessors. THOR: THE DARK WORLD was a giant step up from a film that was so-so to begin with. Now, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER reaches the levels of being the best stand-alone MCU superhero movie and second only to THE AVENGERS in this cinematic world. This film wisely plays out like a conspiracy thriller that just happens to have superheroes.

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Steve Rogers (a.k.a. Captain America) has been taking on mission after mission to help the good cause of S.H.I.E.L.D. However, he’s still struggling to adapt to the modern world, especially when his old love lays wasting away in a nursing home and all of his other friends are buried six feet deep. His latest mission to subdue armed pirates that took S.H.I.E.L.D. agents hostage is a success, but there’s something underhanded going on. A superhuman assassin, known only as Winter Soldier, is in Washington D.C. with an assignment to kill. As Captain America and Black Widow investigate, deadly secrets are unearthed. There’s something bigger going on than either of them anticipated and they simply don’t know who they can trust.

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That’s about as much as I can give in a vague outline, because the multiple twists and turns take the story in terrifically exciting (as well as sinister) directions. The script does a fantastic job of keeping the viewer off their guard and I was riveted throughout the entire film, especially as things went further down the rabbit hole into truly unexpected areas. There are plenty of daring ideas incorporated and nice call-backs to the original film. Unlike THOR: THE DARK WORLD or IRON MAN 3, you really need to have seen the first film (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER) to pick up on a lot of details interwoven into the complex story.

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As with most of the cast seen in THE AVENGERS, these actors and actresses truly have become their roles. Scarlett Johanssen is Black Widow and nobody will be able to replace her as the character. Chris Evans is, most definitely, the noble Captain America. It’s not always easy to love the boy-scout type of hero on a team of other more colorful superheroes (e.g. Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Hemsworth), but Evans sold me on this man being a courageous guy worth rooting for. Captain America has now become my favorite member of The Avengers. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish, but I’ll be looking forward to seeing Captain America the most in the upcoming AVENGERS sequel. Other appearances from the previous entry include Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Sebastian Stan coming back in a big way, and Toby Jones (who was probably my favorite reincorporated character, you’ll know why when you see how they bring him back into this installment).

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A couple of newcomers make their way into THE WINTER SOLDIER as well. Anthony Mackie (PAIN & GAIN) appears a fellow veteran and a character who will hopefully be essential in AGE OF ULTRON. Mackie’s portrayal of Sam Wilson (a.k.a. Falcon) provides a best friend for Steve Rogers. Both Rogers and Wilson served in war, albeit different time periods, but have a chemistry as good friends who can confide in each other. Robert Redford plays the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. and I especially like his reasoning for joining the cast. He said that he “wanted to experience this new form of filmmaking that’s taken over where you have kind of cartoon characters brought to life through high technology.” That’s a good way of putting it, because THE WINTER SOLDIER is basically a terrific superhero cartoon translated to the big screen in live-action form and that’s not a knock against it in the slightest.

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The action scenes themselves (there are plenty) are beyond exciting to watch. The finale continually ramps up the tension with every given moment. It kept me (and the entire auditorium of viewers) literally on the edge of our seats in excitement. The effects look amazing. This is no surprise given the high-caliber quality we’ve come to expect from Marvel, but they are still extremely cool to behold. No scene feels wasted or pointless, the pacing keeps things at a brisk momentum. I was captivated from beginning to end, which is even more impressive given the films over-two-hour run time. My one nitpick comes in a bit of a gap that equips a certain character a very specific item (that could be seen as a plot hole by some), but that comes with the superhero movie territory (e.g. the gripe of how did Batman got back into Gotham in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES?).

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER stands tall as the second-best movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series and as the best standalone hero story featured in that line of films. For a ninth(!) entry in a long-running franchise, this shows just how phenomenal these superhero movies have gotten. Risks are taken. Stakes are raised to incredible heights. Surprises wait around every corner. Fight scenes will keep the viewer on edge. With one minor nitpick aside, I absolutely loved THE WINTER SOLDIER! It’s a summer blockbuster that’s arrived a month early. Definitely see this one on the big screen, especially if you love the Marvel superheroes!

Grade: A

BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: Peter Strickland

Written by: Peter Strickland

Starring: Toby Jones, Cosmo Fusco, Antonio Mancino, Fatma Mohamed, Salvatore Li Causi, Chiara D’Anna & Tonia Sotiropoulou

Pretentious is a word that I try to avoid using in my reviews, because it implies a lot of things. Using it can bring the automatic assumption that I find the director to be trying to hard to be artsy. It also implies that the viewers who like this film “get” the movie more than the average Joe. I cannot stress how many times I’ve seen people attack one another on message board for disliking something made by Lars Von Trier (or other insert arthouse director here) or some film that was clearly meant for a select few by saying that they didn’t “understand” it. BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is a movie made for those who worship Italian horror films. Sadly, I am not one of those people. I prefer plot over style and BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO doesn’t make a lick of sense by the conclusion. This might wind up delighting fans of SUSPIRIA and other Italian 70’s horror flicks though.

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Gilderoy has flown to Italy for his new job as a sound engineer. He didn’t know that he’d be working on a graphic horror film about witches, goblins, and satanic rites. Horrified by the prospect of making sounds for gory kills, sexual torture, and other disturbing acts, he is naturally stressed out. The demanding producer is lingering over the set, the movie’s director is an eccentric nutjob, and Gilderoy finds himself a fish out of water. Insanity may be creeping in and in the end, the viewer is left to interpret what it all means.

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Toby Jones isn’t your normal leading man and he takes center stage here as the timid Gilderoy. Jones does a great job of getting the viewer to sympathize for him. We feel as out-of-place as he is in this foreign land, even though we never leave the sound studio. However, Toby Jones is the one of the two reasons this film is not a complete failure. Every other cast member ranges in either being melodramatic or over-the-top menacing. To make matters worse, the final third throws what feeling we have for Gilderoy out the window in some final scenes so puzzling that it makes one wonder what the director was thinking, instead of what the audience is meant to take away from this incomplete mess of a film.

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Every single time BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is heading to into effectively creepy territory, it seems to ignore the potential of a solid scary moment and shifts back to the characters interacting with each other at the sound studio. Pointless scenes of phone calls, sound mixing, and conversations about the film (which we never see a single frame of in one of the few wise decisions from director/writer Peter Strickland). I counted one scene that worked fantastically and the mood it set was never once revisited again.

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Some may compare BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO to something from the likes of David Lynch or Dario Argento. While I am not a giant fan of the latter, I found this film to be trying way too hard to be something uniquely weird and also holding on too hard to the reality of working in the sound studio. It was like two very different films (both of which could have been interesting on their own merits) were constantly battling with each other on the screen. For more than half of the film, the scenes revolve around Gilderoy’s growing stress at his new job for this disturbing film. On the other hand, we get some hints at madness before the movie takes an incomprehensible turn in the final 15 minutes (which reminded me of Rob Zombie’s attempt to be artsy in the conclusion of THE LORDS OF SALEM) and somehow still managed to bore the ever-living hell out of me.

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BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO is a divisive movie to say the least. Judging from the rave reviews (Fangoria) and the hate-filled rants (Bloody-Disgusting) that litter the internet about this film, it will continue to be that way. I fall squarely on the side of the fence that hates this film, but if you dig on something like SUSPIRIA or Argento’s style-over-substance approach this might fit in your wheelhouse. It just didn’t do anything positive for me (save for one creepy scene about an hour into it).

Grade: D-

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, some Frightening Images, Thematic Elements, a Suggestive Situation and Language

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Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Written by: Simon Beaufoy & Michael Arndt

(based on the novel CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones, Willow Shields, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, Amanda Plummer & Jeffrey Wright

I should preface this review with saying that I am not a fan of the first HUNGER GAMES. I found it to be bland, silly, and a total rip-off of the superior-in-every-way BATTLE ROYALE. It wasn’t a terrible movie, but it was far from a good or even serviceable one. This being said, my expectations for CATCHING FIRE were nil when it was first announced. I thought this series was going to become another TWILIGHT SAGA full of half-realized ideas, boring characters, and a squealing teenage girl fan base. There was something about the previews that suggested this would top the original though. Having now seen it, I would place CATCHING FIRE is in the same category as THOR 2. They’re both superior to their mediocre first installments and wind up being enjoyable in their own right.

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Taking place shortly after the events of THE HUNGER GAMES, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark are both reeling from the horrific games they both participated in. They are also selling their fake romance for the cameras in order to keep themselves alive. With the menacing President Snow watching her every move, Katniss tries to show how “real” her love for Peeta is, but this is not enough. The 75th Annual Hunger Games is here and the rules have changed. Instead of new tributes being selected from each of the 12 Districts, the tributes will be previous champions of the Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta find themselves in a new arena with all kinds of threats, including the hardened killers they are fighting against. Can they survive this new breed of game?

Catching Fire 2

Jennifer Lawrence is great as Katniss Everdeen, a character that wound up being purely one-dimensional in the first installment. Josh Hutcherson is equally as good as Peeta, whose actual affection for Katniss is going unnoticed by her. As far as the other characters go, everybody else isn’t given as much time as I would have hoped. Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks reprise their roles and so does Donald Sutherland. A welcome new addition to the group is Philip Seymour Hoffman as the game maker (an awesome replacement for the position that wooden Wes Bentley filled in the predecessor). Jena Malone, Amanda Plummer, and Jeffrey Wright also show up as former victors of the Hunger Games.

Catching Fire 3

The build up to the actual Hunger Games themselves is about as long as the first film’s (nearly 50 minutes or so). In this case, the build up is earned. We see how traumatized Katniss is and I thought this was an intelligent element to throw in this series. The Games had consequences and they are shown to the audience in creative ways. The slow, steady pace that shows the potential impending doom for the protagonists makes for an intense experience for the first third. Little details are thrown in about the competition that Katniss and Peeta will be facing off against and this had a lot of promise. The use of outside elements (dangerous creatures, contained disasters, and an arena with a very special layout) make for some very exciting sequences.

Catching Fire 4

Not all is perfect though. It’s clear that the film was shying away from some of the payoff to keep the PG-13 rating. Seriously, what’s the point of having a character with sharpened fangs if you never show her use them? Some of the CGI is a bit iffy. The shoddily animated baboons are infinitely better than those poor excuses for dogs in the original film though. The government that runs the Hunger Games themselves is sloppily run and there are a few plot holes to be found. The ending is also loaded with plenty of bombshells dropped in the last 10 minutes that will leave fans eager for November 2014 to arrive with the MOCKINGJAY PART 1 (since every franchise seems willing to milk their movies for every possible cent).

Catching Fire 5

In the end, THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is a winner. It’s not fantastic or terrific, but it’s very good and plenty of fun. The tension exists far more here than in the sub-par original. The cast do well with what they’ve been given (in some cases, it’s not much) and the movie delivers on being a creative piece of Science Fiction. If you’re looking for an amazing movie based on intelligent Sci-Fi, then watch the far better ENDER’S GAME. If you dug the first HUNGER GAMES (which I didn’t like) or are willing to give this series one more chance, then THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is a sequel that outdoes the original in every possible way. It’s far from amazing, but it’s very good. Recommended!

Grade: B

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