KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, and for brief Strong Language

Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Written by: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein & Derek Connolly

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary & John C. Reilly

KONG: SKULL ISLAND is the eighth film starring the titular giant ape and the second film in Universal’s newly established MonsterVerse (the first was 2014’s GODZILLA). SKULL ISLAND isn’t the tragic view of KING KONG that we’ve already seen in the 1933 classic and Peter Jackson’s overblown remake, but instead is simply a giant monster adventure. SKULL ISLAND is not without a few major flaws, but it’s pretty entertaining nonetheless. If you want to see some crazy creatures, witness giant beasts laying the smackdown on each other, and watch a lot of people die in horrible ways, then KONG: SKULL ISLAND is a fun two-hour-long ride.

The year is 1973. The Vietnam War is coming to an end and times are changing. In an effort to cash-in on the chaotic state of things, would-be crackpot William Randa (John Goodman) secures funds to lead a dangerous mapping expedition to an uncharted island. The mysterious Skull Island is rumored to be a place where myths and science collide. His team of adventurers includes: British tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), Army Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), Photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and a ragtag group of soldiers/scientists. Unfortunately, flying through a turbulent storm to get to Skull Island is easier than leaving Skull Island. The group of mismatched folks soon find themselves battling deadly wildlife, including one pissed-off, building-sized monkey.

SKULL ISLAND nails the most important part of a giant monster movie: the monsters! This film has lots of cool scenes and stand-out sequences of ferocious beasts going at it. This includes: folks being heartlessly killed, monsters fighting people (including a fantastic early confrontation between Kong and a group of helicopters), and monsters fighting each other (in multiple scenes). SKULL ISLAND doesn’t take the less-is-more approach to its creatures that Gareth Evan’s GODZILLA reboot had and it hugely benefits from it. We see lots of chaos and violence, and it sure is fun! The adrenaline-pumping action scenes are sure to make viewers giddy and will likely elicit vocal reactions from a theater audience.

The film has a big silly vibe to it as well and delivers wholeheartedly on that. A great soundtrack (of old-school hits) keeps the energy up during the slower moments of characters traveling and building some possible means of escape. The atmospheric visuals look great, while there are wisely chosen clips of archive footage incorporated into the opening credits (showcasing the passage of time) and there’s even a unique style to the title cards. There was clearly lots of attention to detail in the making of this film, including: the beautiful environments (a mix of Vietnam, Hawaii, and Australia), a flashing camera bulb in a monster’s stomach, and minute facial expressions on Kong’s stern mug.

The look of this rebooted Kong is unique and imposing. He basically has the appearance of a pissed-off gorilla, but not a monster (e.g. the 1933 original and Peter Jackson’s remake). Other beasties populate Skull Island too. Some of these have small memorable moments (like a water buffalo or strange insects, one of which is pure nightmare fuel), while others play a bigger role in the proceedings. Some pterodactyl-like birds felt a little too silly. However, bone-headed lizards that serve as the film’s primary antagonists (showcased in the trailers as “skull crawlers”) aren’t as scary as they could have been, but provide some tense scenes nonetheless. This is especially true of one battle-like encounter, between the surviving humans and a hungry Skull crawler, in a gassy graveyard.

SKULL ISLAND’s problems come in the form of one-note characters. There are lots of folks that venture to Skull Island and therefore, lots of people are going to die. However, the film briefly sets each of these folks up with an obligatory prologue scene and not much else. I wasn’t expecting thoughtful development on every single character, but it would be nice if we cared a little more about a few of them. When shocking deaths occurred, I didn’t feel like there was much of a loss and just thought the visuals/death itself was cool.

Tom Hiddleston gets by on his own charming merits, while Brie Larson is good enough as a peace-loving photographer. John Goodman has a strong set-up and then is sort of brushed to the side as a background character. Samuel L. Jackson is alright as a pissed-off colonel and actually became rather annoying in the proceedings (which seemed intentional). John C. Reilly is enjoyable as the comic relief. Meanwhile, Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham and Thomas Mann are serviceable as Vietnam soldiers thrown into a new kind of jungle. John Ortiz has a bit of a comic relief role, but they also try to give him a sensitive side. This backfires as I didn’t feel a thing for this mixed bag character. The same can be said for Jing Tian and Corey Hawkins as two scientists.

People usually don’t go to a giant monster movie and expect to see strong characters. Instead, you’re going for the monsters. KONG: SKULL ISLAND more than delivers in that department as we see lots of cool creatures, straight-up monster brawls, and people being killed in neat ways. It would have definitely been a better film if the viewer actually cared about the people being eaten, but it isn’t a huge detriment seeing that the style and fun factor definitely work here. KONG: SKULL ISLAND will likely satisfy the craving for big dumb fun and not much else.

Grade: B

WARCRAFT (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Extended Sequences of Intense Fantasy Violence

Warcraft poster

Directed by: Duncan Jones

Written by: Charles Leavitt & Duncan Jones

(based on the video game WARCRAFT by Blizzard Entertainment)

Starring: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Robert Kazinsky, Daniel Wu & Clancy Brown

Based on the hugely popular computer games, WARCRAFT has been touted as the first possibly good video game movie. Though there’s already one great video game film in existence (SILENT HILL), WARCRAFT is guaranteed to please fans of the source material and serves as a decent fantasy-adventure for newcomers. My brother (a big WARCRAFT fan) and I (who knew nothing about the games) saw this movie in a packed Thursday night showing. As a video game movie geared towards a loyal fanbase, the movie seems to work phenomenally with its target audience and had tons of Easter eggs (as I discovered from research and big laughs from the theater audience). Taken purely as a film, WARCRAFT is a decently entertaining and somewhat cheesy fantasy-adventure.

WARCRAFT, Travis Fimmel, 2016. © Universal Pictures /courtesy Everett Collection

The orc world of Draenor is dying and its green-skinned inhabitants are desperate to find a new home. Orc shaman Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) uses the fel (dangerous black magic that feeds on life) to open up a massive portal into Azeroth, a realm that’s home to humans, warlocks, elves, and dwarves. As violent raids spread across the Azeroth, military commander Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel) tries to find a way to stop the invading green menace. With the help of mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), guardian wizard Medivh (Ben Foster), and King Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), Lothar forms an uneasy alliance with rebel orc chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell) in order to stop Gul’dan’s sinister life-sucking magic.

Warcraft 2

Sporting a price tag of 160 million dollars, WARCRAFT relies on a lot of special effects to bring its fantastical world to the big screen. I’d wager that the visuals are 90% computer-generated. We see expansive castles, blackened canyons, hordes of hulking orcs, other creatures, and various forms of magic. Nearly every bit of the film’s CGI looks great, but truly shines in its exciting battle sequences. Not every special effect looks stellar though, because there are cheesy shots of life force being sucked out of helpless victims. Another silly moment comes in a shadowy figure whose presence is never fully explained. Still, when taken on a sheer spectacle, WARCRAFT is fun.

Warcraft 3

The orcs are brought to life through motion capture performances. Toby Kebbell (who already worked through motion capture in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) is great as the reluctant Durotan and mainly serves as our protagonist on the orc side. Robert Kazinsky is good enough as Durotan’s second-in-command Orgrim Doomhammer. Daniel Wu is one-dimensional as the evil Gul’dan, while Clancy Brown does well as his vicious second-in-command Blackhand. Paula Patton is the best orc character as half-breed Garona Halforcen, whose story arc proves to be one of the film’s biggest highlights.

Warcraft 4

As far the humans go, Travis Fimmel takes the lead as Lothar. Other than the TV series VIKINGS, Fimmel hasn’t really done much of note, but that he’s a reasonably charismatic lead. Fimmel’s likability and humor make his character’s arc feel more special than it probably is. Dominic Cooper is bland and forgettable in the role of King Wrynn. He’s a stubborn leader and that’s about all there is to his character. The two main wizards are entertaining in completely different ways. Ben Schnetzer’s Khadgar provides comic relief and plays a very important role in the overall story. Meanwhile, Ben Foster’s Medivh seems like a drug addict who’s addicted to a pool of magic. He constantly needs to recharge after casting big spells, which leads to one of the film’s most intense scenes.

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In terms of storytelling, WARCRAFT is slow and convoluted at the start (quickly jumping between three major locations within the first ten minutes), but quickly picks up the pace and becomes more enjoyable as it goes along. The special effects are mostly great, save for a couple of cheesy moments. The good performances also far outweigh the bland ones. The battle sequences are easily this movie’s biggest highlights, but I was also interested in how the story would play out. WARCRAFT is a fun flick and nowhere near deserving of the intense backlash it has been receiving from most critics. Fans of the games will likely enjoy it far more than uninitiated moviegoers, but it’s a decently entertaining summer blockbuster nonetheless.

Grade: B-

BLACK MIRROR Season 1 (2011)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 35 minutes

BlackMirror1 poster

Starring: Rory Kinnear, Lydia Wilson, Daniel Kaluuya, Jessica Brown Findlay & Toby Kebbell

Charlie Brooker is a modern-day Rod Serling. Fueled by wild imagination and passionate about a variety of social issues, BLACK MIRROR is essentially a much darker version of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Despite having only seven episodes to its name (available on Netflix, who renewed the series for a third season), this dark science-fiction anthology has cemented itself as an unforgettable series that not only entertains but is simultaneously brilliant and challenging. Though I’d only rank one story as a full-blown masterpiece, BLACK MIRROR’s first season is all-around great as each tale is memorable in its own way. Without further ado, I’ll get onto the episodes/stories themselves…

1. National Anthem

THE NATIONAL ANTHEM: This first visceral episode plays out a bombastic premise with grim seriousness. Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) is in an unthinkable situation. The princess (Lydia Wilson) has been kidnapped and her captor is demanding an unusual ransom. Instead of asking for cash, the kidnapper wants Michael Callow to perform a disgusting sex act on live TV with a pig and has uploaded the ransom video to YouTube. I won’t say anything else about the plot itself other than commentary about social media and attention-grabbing news are both front and center. Charlie Brooker wrote this episode, not knowing that it actually had a few real world ties to U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron. When confronted with this information, he responded that he didn’t know he was making a “documentary.” In this sense, you might see how frighteningly accurate this episode actually is, despite the sickening premise that seems insane and silly on the surface. Satire at its most disturbing! A

2. Fifteen Million Merits

FIFTEEN MILLION MERITS: The first season’s best episode is a glimpse into an all-too-believable future in which people live in underground cubicles, are content to waste their merits (money) buying virtual items, eating artificial food, and obsessing over Hot Shots (a reality competition, a la American Idol and X Factor). Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) is a slave who’s sick of not being able to hold onto anything real. One day, he discovers something beautiful in fellow slave Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay). Bing spends all of his money (15 million merits) getting Abi an audition on Hot Shots…and I won’t say anything else about the plot. This episode’s world is built and explained to the viewer in interesting ways that feel completely natural, but the romance between Bing and Abi truly shines. The ending has sparked something of a debate between fans as certain elements are purposely left ambiguous. Whichever way you read it, I felt this episode was a soul-crushing masterpiece and could have easily filled its own feature. A+

3. Entire History of You

THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF YOU: In a future where nearly everyone is able to record and replay memories, Liam (Toby Kebbell) is obsessing over whether or not a work presentation went well. His day doesn’t get much better as a dinner with his wife’s friend (Tom Cullen) becomes painfully awkward. Liam begins to suspect that his spouse (Jodie Whittaker) might be hiding something and goes through a few memories to discover a horrifying truth. This is the most predictable episode of the first season and ironically, it’s the only script that wasn’t penned by series creator Charlie Brooker, which may have had something to do with it. Still, there’s enough creativity and Toby Kebbell puts in a solid performance to keep the viewer hooked. In comparison with the other two stories, it feels a tad too familiar and simply doesn’t measure up. That doesn’t mean this episode is lacking or particularly disappointing as it definitely entertains and has a cool twist ending (complete with obvious social commentary), but remains the weakest of the three episodes. A-

4 Overall

Much like the original TWILIGHT ZONE, BLACK MIRROR is entertaining, twisted and has something insightful to say with each episode. The first season’s stories range from disturbing (NATIONAL ANTHEM) to deeply emotional (FIFTEEN MILLION MERITS) to cruelly ironic (THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF YOU), but they all match each other in being equally challenging and offering no easy answers. Don’t expect to walk away from BLACK MIRROR feeling upbeat and cheerful, because it’s not that kind of series. Instead, Charlie Brooker’s BLACK MIRROR is some of the most intelligent and meaningful science-fiction (especially on the small screen) that we’ve been given in quite some time.

Grade: A

My Bottom 10 Films of 2015

List by Derrick Carter

During the past two years that I’ve run this website, I have created a “Best of” list at the end of each December. I neglected to make a “Worst of” list because of my misguided belief that I shouldn’t further shame the films that I’ve already ridiculed with negative reviews. In 2015, things have changed and I’ve decided (at least for this year) to make a Bottom Films list to go along with my Top Films list. 2015 was a great year for films overall, but also had more than its fair share of flops. The following movies made me want to pull my hair out in frustration and weep quietly in the theater for having wasted money. Before I post my Top Films of 2015, I decided it would only be appropriate to get my picks for Bottom Films of 2015 out of the way first.

There were ten movies this year that wasted precious hours of my life that I’ll never be able to get back. Before getting into those, I’ll begin with a few dishonorable mentions. 2015 brought me two very shitty found footage horror flicks in AREA 51 and THE GALLOWS. Though it was marginally better than its predecessor, INSURGENT was still a hot mess of every recent young adult novel combined. THE TRANSPORTER: REFUELED came off like just another bland, generic action flick, making the Statham predecessors look like DIE HARD in comparison. HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2 was a piss-poor follow-up to one of my favorite comedies of this past decade. Finally, PAN was a letdown on pretty much every level. I mean, Blackbeard sings Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Captain Hook fights a kung-fu warrior. Enough said. None of those aforementioned films are on my bottom ten though. So, without further ado, let’s move onto my picks for ten worst films of 2015:

10. Blackhat

10. BLACKHAT: Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Once upon a time, Michael Mann made masterful films like MANHUNTER (the first adaptation of RED DRAGON), HEAT (the awesome pairing of De Niro and Pacino), and COLLATERAL (one of my all-time favorite thrillers). Mann’s latest thriller, about an international hunt for a dangerous hacker, seemed like it could be a relevant and exciting fun time at the movies. However, I was fighting to stay awake when I sat through this endurance test in an auditorium populated by a total of six other attendees. BLACKHAT is boring and when it’s not boring, it’s stupid beyond belief. One of the dumbest scenes of the year occurs in the final third of this film in which Hemsworth duct tapes magazines around his chest to create a make-shift bullet-proof vest. I think that scene speaks volumes for the film by itself.

9. Hellions

9. HELLIONS: I managed to catch three movies at this year’s Sundance film festival. Two of those were quality horror films and nestled in-between them was this abomination. The initial set-up sounds like a feature-length version of the final segment from TRICK ‘R TREAT. A girl is terrorized by demonic trick-or-treaters on Halloween night. I was hoping for something weird and spooky, seeing as the director behind this film created the unconventional zombie flick PONTYPOOL. HELLIONS is definitely weird, but not in a good way. A misguided attempt to shoot in infrared makes everything appear pink. The acting is wooden. The story goes nowhere and becomes incomprehensible after the first 20 minutes. At the very least, the film is so bad that it’s funny, but not enough to recommend this low-budget disappointment.

8. Lazarus Effect

8. THE LAZARUS EFFECT: For some reason, half of the movies on this list are horror films. That wasn’t intentional, especially since it’s been a pretty good year for the genre. However, THE LAZARUS EFFECT is about as generic and confused as a genre film can get. The premise is cool and sounds like a modern-day take on FLATLINERS. However, the screenplay just cannot decide which direction it wants to take with the material. Is this movie about hell and demons? Is it supposed to be a Frankenstein-like science gone wrong tale? Is the main villainess supposed to be the horror equivalent of Lucy from LUCY? Apparently, it’s all of these things…plus a string of cheap jump scares and a group of insufferably annoying characters.

WOMAN IN BLACK 2

7. THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2: ANGEL OF DEATH: The first of four sequels on this list, WOMAN IN BLACK 2 was the first official wide release of 2015…and what a crappy release it was. I actually dug 2012’s WOMAN IN BLACK  as a spooky little ghost movie and hoped that this sequel would be more of the same. The ghost who kills children is practically handed a plate of potential victims and then does nothing remotely interesting with them. The visuals give a look of an atmospheric ghost story, but cheap jump scares and a bland script make this the epitome of everything wrong with modern big-budget horror movies.

6. Joe Dirt 2

6. JOE DIRT 2: BEAUTIFUL LOSER: Confession time. I like the first JOE DIRT. I really do. It’s a stupid, crude and moronic flick, but I enjoy it as a fun guilty pleasure. For whatever reason, I was sort of looking forward to this straight-to-Crackle sequel. Aside from three decent chuckles, the film is a long laughless slog of a sequel. It seems content to merely reference the original film, instead of tell its own white-trash story. The film moves from bad set-piece to bad set-piece for nearly two hours(!) before ending in the biggest cop-out conclusion imaginable. Not even an endless supply of buffalo wings and beer could make this film enjoyable.

5. Contracted 2

5. CONTRACTED: PHASE 2: A follow-up to 2013’s better-than-expected body-horror flick, this sequel was clearly made as a cheap cash-in for the small audience that enjoyed the original. CONTRACTED 2 is shoddily written and badly directed by people who clearly had no interest in the original film and it shows. Despite running at only 78 minutes, the experience feels agonizingly long. The first CONTRACTED was an interesting body-horror take on an overpopulated subgenre, while this sequel is just another terrible low-budget zombie flick. CONTRACTED 2 also has the balls to put in two end credits scenes that are clearly setting up for PHASE 3. Count me out!

4. Seventh Son

4. SEVENTH SON: Studio delays and February release date aside, I was hoping that SEVENTH SON would be entertaining. I wasn’t expecting high art, but I was expecting something watchable. My hopes and middling expectations were bashed to pieces by a lame fantasy that was dull as dirt. This flick stands alongside CIRQUE DU FREAK, ERAGON, and THE SEEKER as one of the worst young-adult adaptations to ever hit the big screen. Jeff Bridges is damn near incomprehensible as the drunk monster-killer, while Oscar winner Julianne Moore should be embarrassed for playing the cheapo looking evil witch. The effects try to be ambitious and cool, but come off as boring and unconvincing. This movie proves that a guy killing monsters can somehow be made boring. Yet another potentially cool young-adult film series bites the dust.

3. Mortdecai

3. MORTDECAI: Johnny Depp has a moustache and goofy teeth. Isn’t that funny?!? No? Well, that’s too bad, because the makers of this film seem to think it’s a riot. Based on a series of British comedic novels, MORTDECAI very well might be the worst film that Johnny Depp has ever starred in…which is quite a feat in and of itself. This bland caper comedy unsuccessfully tries to mimic a PINK PANTHER sense of humor, but doesn’t get any of it right. The laughs are dusty. The performers look like they want their scenes to be over as fast as humanly possible. If the movie had been about Paul Bettany’s bodyguard character, it would have been far funnier and more original. 2015 was a year that featured one of Johnny Depp’s best performances (BLACK MASS) as well this being his worst.

2. Human Centipede 3

2. THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 3: FINAL SEQUENCE: I didn’t walk into HUMAN CENTIPEDE 3 with high expectations. I liked FIRST SEQUENCE and disliked FULL SEQUENCE. The FINAL SEQUENCE of the ass-to-mouth trilogy was set in a prison, starred the main villains from the first two films, and aimed for a comedic meta-approach to the material. It would be nice if we actually got a human centipede before the final 20 minutes of the running time. Up until that point, the viewer is subjected to a various list of on-screen atrocities which include a jar of clitorises being devoured, someone raping a kidney, a graphic castration and the list goes on. I can appreciate shocksploitation (I really enjoyed Eli Roth’s GREEN INFERNO), but HUMAN CENTIPEDE 3 executes all of its gory gusto with the production values and “talent” of a basement porno. What could possibly be worse than this film?…

1. Fantastic Four

1. FANTASTIC FOUR: FANTASTIC FOUR is the worst superhero movie that I’ve ever seen. This dark, gritty reboot of the goofy comic series makes the 2005 and 2007 films look like classics in comparison. To be honest, this movie doesn’t feel like a movie at all, but rather a 125 million dollar excuse for Fox to keep the franchise rights away from Marvel Studios…which is appropriate because that’s why this movie was made in the first place. I enjoyed the director’s previous effort (CHRONICLE) and like a number of the performers here (Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Toby Kebbell), but there’s no excuse for the unbelievably terrible quality of this film. FANTASTIC FOUR is a complete and total failure. I’d rather sit through BATMAN & ROBIN, ELEKTRA, and CATWOMAN in a marathon from hell than ever endure a repeat viewing of this movie ever again.

Here’s hoping for less bad movies in 2016…

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

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, and brief Strong Language

DawnApes poster

Directed by: Matt Reeves

Written by: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

Starring: Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Andy Serkis, Judy Greer, Toby Kebbell

I never loved the original PLANET OF THE APES series. Originally based on the French novel by Pierre Boulle and scripted by TWILIGHT ZONE creator Rod Serling, the 1968 film may be a noted classic in the science fiction genre, but plays out like a feature-length TWILIGHT ZONE episode. Plenty of sequels followed and a slightly underrated remake by Tim Burton attempted to jump-start the franchise again. When Fox announced a reboot/prequel in 2011, it seemed like this project was doomed from the start. After all, how can you make a solid story out of a scenario that we all know ends in such a nihilistic fashion? RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES surprised everyone and was one of the best films that the 2011 summer season had to offer. DAWN has the same end result. Not only is this one of the year’s best summer blockbusters (so far, it’s on the same level of X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST for me), but one of the best films of 2014 so far. Who knew it could happen?

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, Andy Serkis, 2014. ph: David James/TM and ©Copyright Twentieth

A decade after the Simian flu (released in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) has wiped out most of humanity, Caesar and his fellow apes have formed a civilization of their own. Contact with humans has been nonexistent, but that’s about to change. A group of survivors in the crumbled remains of San Francisco are desperate for a power source to communicate with the outside world and their only hope lies in a dam near the ape village. A man named Malcolm and a small group try to form a peaceful co-existence with the apes to get the power supply running in a few days’ time. Forces on both sides push things in negative directions. Tensions rise between and within both simians and humans. Needless to say that you already know where things wind up in PLANET OF THE APES and this is one step closer to that horrible fate.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, from left: Kirk Acevedo, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke, Kodi

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a story that doesn’t follow any specific formula that could be considered predictable from frame one, but has just enough familiarity to make everything being viewed play out in an enjoyable “I think I know where this might be going” way. The entire experience is a blast a kin to something like (it’s already been mentioned in plenty of other reviews and there’s definitely a strong case to made for it) the original STAR WARS trilogy. Running at just over two hours, not one solitary moment drags or is included for merely being filler. DAWN is exciting and (for me, at least) the best APES film so far in the franchise. Effort, care and heart was thrown into every frame on the screen. That’s what brings out true cinematic gems (not cashing in on the brand name of some nostalgic toy/cartoon from the past, trying to launch a new series to sell toys, or treating your audience like idiots). DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES has the stuff to go down in film history as a phenomenal summer blockbuster that will delight future generations to come.

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Obvious parallels and power struggles are viewed in both the ape and human societies. I liked the inclusion of this and that it wasn’t too understated either. It showed that both sides in this ongoing battle have their faults. In the human society, the struggle is between Malcolm (played very well by Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (the ever-talented Gary Oldman). Though this battle of wills isn’t necessarily given a huge amount of screen-time, the main focus is where it should be: the apes themselves. That’s part of what made RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES so unexpectedly amazing. Returning to the front lines is Andy Serkis (reprising his Caesar role) and it’s been said everywhere else, but I’d just like to echo the sentiments that this man deserves an Oscar nomination. It’s a motion capture suit performance, but you can see his work in the body language and facial expressions of Caesar. A welcome addition is Toby Kebbell (who I mainly know as Johnny Quid in ROCKNROLLA) as the menacing Koba. Koba appeared in the first film as a memorable part of Caesar’s revolution and has a huge part to play here.

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The effects of the apes themselves (which was quite good in the first one) is even more stunning this time around. These CGI-animated animals look very real and in some cases, frightening. The action scenes don’t fill every minute of running time. In fact, there are a handful of them (a few of them lengthy), but every second has meaning behind them. The terrifically exciting finale has upped stakes to huge degrees as everything plays out in an exhilarating way. DAWN is made of compelling storytelling with spectacular effects, solid acting, and I felt like watching it all over again the minute it ended.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, Andy Serkis, 2014. ph: David James/TM and ©Copyright Twentieth

The closing minutes of DAWN aren’t necessarily filled with hope, as we all know where things eventually wind up, but turn out infinitely satisfying nonetheless. I can’t find a single complaint that I can level at DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. It’s one of the best movies of the year. I’m also glad that this is going to bank and that another film is due in 2016. It fills me with joy when films like DAWN and X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST do well at the box office. It’s a sign that intelligent, carefully constructed summer blockbusters still have a place in the movie scene. They always will. Fox packed a surprising one-two punch with X-MEN: FIRST CLASS and RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES in 2011. They did with the same this year and hopefully, will deliver with another knockout in 2016. Films like DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES will last in the same way that the original STAR WARS trilogy, BACK TO THE FUTURE, E.T., and other celebrated summer blockbusters have stuck around. This is a perfect movie all around!

Grade: A+

THE COUNSELOR (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Graphic Violence, some Grisly Images, Strong Sexual Content and Language

Counselor poster

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Cormac McCarthy

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Dean Norris & Toby Kebbell

Last year, Ridley Scott showed that he could still direct with the awesome and underappreciated PROMETHEUS. In 2007 and 2009, Cormac McCarthy had two of his stunning novels adapted into award-winning movies. One would hope that a collaboration between these two would turn into an instant classic. The first-rate cast also raises expectations even higher. With a huge amount of talent, also comes the minimal percentage chance that it might be a huge letdown. Sadly, THE COUNSELOR is the biggest disappointment I’ve had in 2013.

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The film follows a man simply referred to as The Counselor. He’s a lawyer who’s made the split second decision to get involved in a one-time drug deal with his best friend, Reiner, and a philosophizing middle man, Westray. The Counselor is deeply in love with his girlfriend, Laura, who seems to be willfully naïve to the darker nature of the man she loves. After an execution is carried out and the drug shipment (worth 20 million) is stolen, The Counselor and his friends find themselves with prices on their heads. Fearing for the life of himself and his girlfriend, The Counselor tries to find some way to fix the ever bleak situation, but there’s something more devious at play.

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It’s not fair to call THE COUNSELOR an outright failure, because there are moments of absolute brilliance sprinkled in through some of the film. It’s scenes like these that reveal just how fantastic this movie could have been. Cormac McCarthy’s script is a mess that’s riddled with plot-holes and unnatural dialogue. One could argue that THE ROAD and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN also had cryptic dialogue spoken throughout, but in those movies the words were insightful. In THE COUNSELOR, it feels like everybody’s saying a whole lot of nothing. To add insult to injury, the final minutes of the movie are also revealed early on in the blatant foreshadowing given by Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt.

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Speaking of the cast, I don’t know what Ridley or Cormac did, but not a single person puts in even a  serviceable performance. This is made even more upsetting by the cast list itself. Michael Fassbender is usually incredible in any performance he gives, but he’s wooden as the unnamed Counselor. Javier Bardem is flat and given nothing in particular to do. Brad Pitt also shows up for about five scenes in total and doesn’t really add anything to the movie at all. Penelope Cruz is merely the love interest and that’s about it. The worst cast member is Cameron Diaz. She’s good in comedies, but in a serious role, Cameron Diaz delivers the stilted dialogue with a laughably over-the-top performance.

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Dean Norris (frequently shown in the previews) appears in a total of one throwaway scene, Toby Kebbell also shows up in an equally pointless moment. That’s the real sin of the movie. It feels like a movie that’s 90% filler. It’s dark, but also dull. The fate of The Counselor himself and Pitt’s Westray are some of the highlights of the film, along with a grisly moment on a deserted highway and a tense shootout. These are great scenes in an otherwise unsatisfying movie. The final scene is anti-climactic and reveals just how much of the movie is riddled with nonsensical decisions. The plot-hole that drives the escalating violence forward is also far too large to overlook.

In THE COUNSELOR, Ridley Scott seems to be trying to emulate a Tony Scott movie and Cormac McCarthy tries to recapture the magic of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. They both miss by a country mile.

Grade: D

THE EAST (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Elements, Violence, some Disturbing Images, Sexual Content and partial Nudity

East poster

Directed by: Zal Batmanglij

Written by: Zal Batmanglij & Brit Marling

Starring: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Aldis Hodge, Danielle Macdonald, Hillary Baack & Patricia Clarkson

In his second feature film, Zal Batmanglij is demonstrating a talent for creating smart and interesting movies that rely heavily on characters for story. Zal’s directorial debut was SOUND OF MY VOICE, a film that I really dug until the too-rushed too-vague ending. It felt like he had run out of money on that film and had to end it sooner than he wanted to, which was probably not the case…but you never know. Here Zal is given enough of a budget to have a relatively big-named cast and make a film that feels complete in every way.

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We begin with an announcement from an anarchist group, calling themselves “The East.” They say they’ve targeted three large corporations that profit by stepping on the poor and using unethical practices (creating drugs with awful side effects, dumping waste in public water, etc.) and will attack them in carefully executed ways. Sarah Moss, an undercover investigator, is assigned to make her way inside The East. She will see how they operate, uncover their plans, and ultimately find a sense of meaning in this anarchist group. Her morals and loyalties are both tested and the ever-present threat of The East finding out who she actually is begins to tighten.

East 2

Co-written by director Zal Batmanglij and actress Brit Marling, THE EAST sprung from an interesting research process. Apparently, both Batmanglij and Marling lived a “Freeganism” summer in 2009. They bought nothing, lived off no money by dumpster diving for perfectly healthy discarded food (something that is thrown away all the time) and slept in abandoned houses, while hopping trains to travel. This experience lead both of them to incorporate these elements into the characters in THE EAST and gave them insight into a totally different way of living.

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The script makes the smart decision of putting a possible political and social message aside to tell a story about characters, their decisions, and moral dilemmas. THE EAST could have easily been seen as “a hippie piece of propaganda” and instead it’s a wildly original compelling thriller. There is an increasing amount of solid suspense that ramps up as the film goes along and a few unexpected twists along the way that take the story in new interesting directions.

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My single complaint with the movie is that the first 30 minutes leave the viewer a little lost. We understand that The East is an anarchist group and that Sarah is supposed to infiltrate them, but the process of finding The East themselves is a tad silly. Luckily for Sarah and the audience, it worked in the film’s favor eventually. Other than this portion of the movie, both Batmanglij and Marling have constructed a unique thoroughly enjoyable thriller.

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The acting is fantastic across the board. Not a single bad or shaky performance in the fairly large cast. Speaking of which, I was surprised to see some of the names here. Toby Kebbell (Jonny Quid from ROCKNROLLA) takes a sympathetic turn as the group’s doctor (of sorts) with personal vendetta against a medical company that left him unstable. Patricia Clarkson shows up in a few key scenes as Sarah’s superior with some ulterior motives involving a few of the companies targeted. Shiloh Fernandez (who was amazing in DEADGIRL and so-so in RED RIDING HOOD) plays a character unlike any he’s ever touched. Ellen Page was a wild card for a while, but her character eventually turned out to be one of the best. Alexander Skarsgard knocks it out of the park and finally Brit Marling continues to prove that she’s one of the best little-known actresses working today.

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The conclusion of THE EAST pulls heartstrings and tests the viewer’s side, along with Sarah’s. It’s a polarizing ending that will divide audiences right down the middle. Personally, I thought it closed off in the best way possible. I didn’t predict it. In fact, I thought the film was headed in a complete opposite direction, but THE EAST is a film that will leave you thinking about it long after it’s over. The mark of a truly great film.

Grade: B+

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