THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

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 Suggestive Material

Directed by: Taika Waititi

Written by: Franco Escamilla, Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost

(based on the THOR comics by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins & Benedict Cumberbatch

THOR: RAGNAROK is the third THOR film and the seventeenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the exception of 2008’s THE INCREDIBLE HULK, THOR was easily the weakest origin story in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. THOR: THE DARK WORLD served as an entertaining sequel, but couldn’t reach the heights of the rest of MCU’s second phase of films. THOR: RAGNAROK is easily the best THOR yet (not exactly high praise) and is a highly entertaining mythological superhero romp. While I don’t think this third THOR is nearly as awesome as some folks have been making it out to be, there’s loads of fun to be had and it’s a big step up in quality from the rest of 2017’s MCU offerings (including the vastly overrated SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING and the slightly underwhelming GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2).

Two years after the events in THE DARK WORLD, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has discovered that his mischievous adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has taken over the home world Asgard and his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has been banished. While on the journey to bring his dear old daddy home, Thor discovers that an ancient prophecy is coming to light and it might spell doom for all Asgardians. Unfortunately, god of death Hela (Cate Blanchett) has returned and seems hellbent on conquering Asgard. All the while, Thor has wound up stranded on a junk planet in the clutches of the cruelly kooky Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). In order to save his people from destruction, Thor must fight his way through gladiator battles, unite with old friends and new faces, and find a way to stop the seemingly undefeatable Hela.

RAGNAROK follows the usual superhero formula and is fairly by-the-numbers in terms of its plot. There’s an evil bad gal who’s bent on world domination, an ancient prophecy that might be fulfilled, and a story arc that must be experienced by our main hero that causes him to grow even more powerful. However, THOR: RAGNAROK does something extremely well that the other THOR films only did occasionally well. It’s funny, really funny. Not just in scenes that feature Tom Hiddleston’s Loki (who still remains a charming fan favorite) either, but also in nearly every moment. RAGNAROK contains more laughs than pretty much any other MCU entry, with the sole exception being the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.

Viewers who watch RAGNAROK in search of other Marvel goodies will receive those in spades too because this plot also serves as the best HULK movie never made. To elaborate further, Thor’s entrapment on the junk planet is blended with the much celebrated PLANET HULK storyline. Hulk’s inclusion gives Thor another hero to relate to and shows that Hulk can star in a great movie that doesn’t need to involve all of the other Avengers. Also, the end credits scene promises serious stakes for the upcoming INFINITY WAR (which hits next May) and Benedict Cumberbatch squeezes in five minutes of (very funny) screen time as Doctor Strange. Tessa Thompson adds a fresh new heroine to MCU’s mix as the hard-drinking, harder-hitting Valkyrie, while Idris Elba doesn’t get receive much to do as Heimdall.

RAGNAROK mainly falters in its big antagonist. Cate Blanchett’s Hela looks cool as all hell. Her intimidating costume design and weaponized black spikes that fly from her body are pure eye candy. Sadly, that doesn’t translate into her as a character though, because she’s just another bland baddie who wants to take over the world. I found her slightly reluctant lackey Skurge (played by Karl Roden) to be a much more interesting character and his story arc (though familiar) was far more satisfying. Hell, I even felt that Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster was a far superior villain to Hela. Grandmaster had an odd kookiness to him and still came off as threatening, though simultaneously hilarious. I guess I’m saying that I wish Hela had been more interesting and that Grandmaster had even more screen time.

If you are a Marvel Cinematic Universe fan (and you should know if you are by the seventeenth film in the long-running franchise), then you’ll find a lot to enjoy in THOR: RAGNAROK. The by-the-numbers plot may be familiar, but the hilarious, colorful and spectacle-loaded execution kept me smiling from ear to ear as the entire movie played out. The film’s main problems arrive in Hela looking cool, but being rather bland. However, Goldblum’s Grandmaster is worth the price of admission alone. RAGNAROK also injects a few much-needed risks into the MCU that will likely pay off in big ways during INFINITY WAR. THOR: RAGNAROK comes highly recommended!

Grade: B+

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

The Top 15 Movies I Reviewed in 2016

List by Derrick Carter

2016 has been a crazy year both on film and in real life. I’ve reviewed just under 200 movies in the course of the last twelve months and for the most part, have fared pretty well in catching cool new flicks as well as crossing many revered classics off my cinephile “shame list.” As a result, my focus in 2016 wasn’t necessarily on catching every new film that graced the big screen and I instead went off whatever the hell I felt like watching/reviewing. Though I didn’t get as many reviews up during 2016 as I have in previous years (for a myriad of reasons), I do feel that For the Love of Celluloid sort of matured over the past twelve months and deeply appreciate the support of anyone who bothers to read my little movie blog.

Apologies if I briefly bore you with a technicality, but my year-end lists will now focus on first time watches in the course of the year and not specifically releases from the year. Without further ado, here are my fifteen favorite first time watches from 2016…

Honorable Mentions: If I hadn’t previously seen RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, THE SHINING, and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE before 2016, then they all would have easily made this list. ANTHROPOID, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, ZOOTOPIA, SAUSAGE PARTY, THE NICE GUYS, THE HANDMAIDEN and TRAIN TO BUSAN were all stand-out movies in this rather mixed bag cinematic year. SPIRITED AWAY, UNITED 93, and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY also barely scraped by in missing this list. So, what did make the list?…

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15. LADY SNOWBLOOD: Before getting into how much I love this movie, this film deserves some context. A local cinema pub runs monthly Kung Fu Movie Nights here and a buddy of mine occasionally drags me to them. I’m not a big martial arts aficionado and most of the movies I’ve seen at this pub have been entertaining and undeniably stupid. However, LADY SNOWBLOOD blew me out of the water. This was more than just a martial arts flick being shown in a cinema pub, but rather a beautiful, bloody revenge tale that carefully unwound its plot and sold its bad-ass heroine as someone to root for as she sliced and diced her way to vengeance. Featuring geysers of blood, gorgeous visuals, and a calculated delivery of fun, LADY SNOWBLOOD may likely go down as my favorite martial arts flick of all-time!

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14. THE INVITATION: Easily the best horror film that I saw this year, THE INVITATION is brilliant in planting the viewer on the edge of their seat for 100 minutes. The premise is simple. A man goes to a suspiciously casual dinner party held by his ex-wife. Through the course of seemingly mundane actions and a possibly paranoid protagonist, we are taken on a tense ride of two terrifying possibilities. This film does a fantastic job of keeping the viewer flip-flopping on their stance and trying to figure out the dark mystery behind the plot, which fully unleashes itself in a truly frightening third act. Don’t watch the trailer. Don’t read any long plot synopsis. If you want to be scared and appreciate a classy Hitchcockian sense of unease, then definitely go into this film as blind as possible!

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13. DREDD: When DREDD came out in 2012, I quickly wrote it off as a RAID rip-off in spite of the comic book source material. Having finally watched the film four years later, I realize just how wrong I was. Though it may resemble THE RAID on the surface, DREDD could not be any more different. This ultraviolent, highly entertaining and fully loaded sci-fi action extravaganza had me laughing and cheering from start to finish. The film doesn’t present its action in a gritty, heavily edited, shaky-cam style as attention to detail and beautiful lenses have been used to portray the gory chaos. I really hope that DREDD 2 eventually becomes a reality, because this needs to be a franchise!

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12. DOCTOR STRANGE: The Marvel Cinematic Universe has now been running for nine years and fourteen films. Though none of its installments have failed to entertain me (some far more than others), I wouldn’t call any of them perfect entertainment…until now. Telling the most inventive origin story thus far in the Marvel universe and simultaneously functioning as a mystical adventure, DOCTOR STRANGE is easily the best MCU movie yet! The acting is stellar, making the main character’s transformation from selfish jerk to courageous hero all the better as a result. The effects are mindblowing (not to sound cliché) and deliver some of the most memorable sequences to hit the big screen in quite some time. It’s like a magical acid trip had a baby with a superhero movie and I loved every second of it!

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11. THE BREAKFAST CLUB: Yes, I know. I hadn’t seen this movie before and was only pressured into watching it by a co-worker who kept bugging me about it. After finally caving in, I discovered why this John Hughes classic has so many fans and is widely considered to be one of the best films to come out of the 80’s. Revolving around five fleshed-out characters and skewing teenage clique stereotypes (that still exist to this day), THE BREAKFAST CLUB is equally funny as it is insightful. The film is a perfect balance of comedy and drama, resulting in an emotionally involving and beautiful story about how people are alike in spite of their differences. Maybe, in a world that’s so divided by differences and labels, we should all just kick back, watch this movie and remember that we can get along. I’ll never forget about this movie. Get it? That’s a reference to the song that plays during the end credits. Whatever, let’s move on…

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10. THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY: Yes, I know this is technically a miniseries, but you know what? This is my list and I don’t care. THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON is better than damn near every true-crime film I’ve seen in my lifetime. Featuring a bevy of great acting talent and more than guaranteed to push a few buttons on every viewer, this 10-part miniseries stays true to the facts and relives the “trial of the century” in painstaking detail. I was addicted to this show when it aired earlier this year and have since binge-watched it as a complete cinematic experience. When paired with ESPN’s excellent five-part documentary O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA, there isn’t much left to be examined about the O.J. Simpson case. If you are the least bit intrigued by true crime, then PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON is a must-see!

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9. DEADPOOL: Though this year had more than its fair share of disappointing superhero flicks, 2016 still managed to deliver two spectacular comic book movies. I loved DOCTOR STRANGE, but DEADPOOL might just be one of my favorite superhero movies of all-time (next to the DARK KNIGHT trilogy). This rowdy X-MEN spinoff did everything in its power to be entertaining as hell and milked the R rating for everything it was worth. Because of DEADPOOL’s massive success as an R-rated money-maker, I truly hope that more studios will realize older audiences will pay to see great R-rated movies on the big screen too. Not everything needs to be accessible to younger viewers and every demographic, DEADPOOL was refreshingly bonkers and the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater since MAD MAX: FURY ROAD!

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8. ON THE WATERFRONT: Another title that I crossed off my shame list this year, ON THE WATERFRONT never seemed that appealing to me. Sure, I had seen Marlon Brando’s contender speech out of context and heard the basic premise, but none of it sounded particularly special. This movie isn’t about a corrupt union and poorly-treated dock workers though, instead it’s a story about broken souls and a long walk to redemption. Marlon Brando’s performance is breathtaking as he disappears into the role of a tough guy with a soft heart. This film progresses naturally and doesn’t cheat out on its dangerous stakes, resulting in some very tense moments. The final minutes are unbelievably emotional as a simple dockside walk becomes a test of willpower and ultimately sums up the entire film. ON THE WATERFRONT is an emotional, brilliantly acted, and spectacularly written piece of art that deeply moved me!

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7. ANIMAL HOUSE: Here’s another movie I crossed off my shame list during 2016. I had never seen ANIMAL HOUSE before, though I was well aware of its reputation. No hyperbole, this film changed the face of movie comedies and opened the door for crass humor to hit the big screen in gross-out fashion. This movie has plenty of hilarious scenes and quotes, but taken within the film’s context, they become ten times funnier. The dark sense of humor in areas had me cackling while the many sex jokes easily contributed to the likes of AMERICAN PIE and SUPERBAD further down the line. Also, John Belushi was a comedic tour-de-force to be reckoned with. With jokes about sex, death, horses, chainsaws, beer, racial differences, impressions of zits, and much more, ANIMAL HOUSE truly is one of the greatest and wildest comedies of all-time!

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6. TRAINING DAY: Though it was released fifteen years ago, TRAINING DAY still seems frighteningly relevant in today’s world. Showcasing a dark underbelly of corrupt cops and street gangs, this film takes place in the space of 24 hours and sunk its hooks into me from start to finish. Ethan Hawke is a naïve protagonist (that’s kind of the point of the story) and we are forced to follow in his footsteps as he stands alongside one of my new favorite cinematic villains. Denzel Washington’s character is a beast and delivers one of the greatest movie monologues (for my money) of all-time in Detective Alonzo Harris’s street-side closing speech. Grim, gritty, and suspenseful the whole way through, TRAINING DAY is one of my new favorite movies!

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5. ARRIVAL: A beautifully crafted and mature piece of science fiction, ARRIVAL’s true brilliance didn’t fully hit me until the closing credits began to roll. This film takes the alien invaders trope and spins in a mature, realistic direction. Though this has already been done in films like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and CONTACT, I guarantee that it hasn’t been executed in the complex and thought-provoking manner that ARRIVAL delivers. Seemingly innocuous scenes take on whole new meanings when you realize the story’s true nature. The ending also guarantees that you won’t be able to watch this film in the same way upon a second viewing, much like Christopher Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE becomes a completely different movie once you’ve been wowed the first time around. ARRIVAL is a science fiction masterpiece and continues director Denis Villeneuve’s winning streak.

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4. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD: Despite stemming from a book that’s required in many classrooms and existing for decades as a beloved classic that’s cherished by countless film fans, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD somehow never made its way across my eyeballs before 2016. However, I now count it among the most emotional dramas that I’ve ever seen. This film tackles hard-hitting issues through the innocent eyes of a child in a coming-of-age tale crossed with a courtroom drama. Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch is outstanding and the rest of the cast put in stellar work as well. This profoundly powerful film deeply moved me and left me on the verge of tears with its beautiful conclusion. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a masterpiece!

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3. THE REVENANT: The film that finally won Leo an Academy Award, THE REVENANT is an amazing cinematic feat that was created by both madness and brilliance. Did Leo look like he just puked when biting into a buffalo liver? That’s because he did. Do these cast members look like they’re freezing their asses off? That’s because they are. Does it seem like these are real locations? That’s because the director shot in natural light and proceeded to put his cast and crew through a hellish outdoor shooting experience. Production accomplishments aside, THE REVENANT remains a riveting tale of revenge and survival in harsher than harsh circumstances. This film is a gritty, unforgiving, and awe-inspiring piece of cinematic art that has blown me away twice at this point and will continue to do so many times in the future. Also, this movie may have given me a fear of bears too.

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2. THE LOBSTER: The best love story I’ve seen all year belongs to a twisted dystopian dark comedy about a guy who’s forced to choose between finding a romantic partner or being turned into an animal. Sound weird? Oh boy, it is! Besides being strange all the way around, THE LOBSTER is also a wonderfully unique flick that’s equal parts charming and disturbing. This cinematic world felt like Terry Gilliam made a movie with David Lynch. The feelings this film gave me are almost impossible to properly describe as there really hasn’t been anything like it before. It’s a romance like no other and if you have a penchant for weird arthouse cinema, then I highly suggest that you watch THE LOBSTER at your earliest convenience…preferably with a significant other who’s also into awesome cinematic oddities.

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1. HIGH-RISE: So if you thought THE LOBSTER was an odd choice for this list, then brace yourself because I can see people flat-out hating my number-one pick. HIGH-RISE is one of the few movies to be adapted from the work of British science fiction author J.G. Ballard. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because David Cronenberg adapted his work into twisted romantic thriller CRASH. That’s the level we’re at here, folks. HIGH-RISE is a grim, darkly hilarious and disturbing tale about a high society that devolves into a bloody class war in the space of a forty-floor apartment building…and I absolutely friggin’ adored this film! I’ve watched it four times within the space of the year and plan on revisiting it many more times in the future. The stylish visuals, colorful characters, twisted story arcs, oddball humor mixed with darkly disturbing content, a suffocating atmosphere, and shocking social commentary blew me out of the water. I love this movie so much that I actually listened to the DVD commentary. It’s the first film to make me do that in years! Though it’s definitely not for everyone (see THE LOBSTER’s divisiveness and crank it up to 11), HIGH-RISE is my favorite movie of 2016 and makes me hope for more big screen adaptations of Ballard’s work.

2016 was a pretty insane year in a lot of different ways. Many movies disappointed me in the theater, but I still saw plenty of good and great films. I also crossed many titles of my cinephile “shame list,” though I still have many more to eventually get through. Here’s hoping for an even better 2017!

HENRY IV (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 4 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: Richard Eyre

Written by: Richard Eyre

(based on the plays HENRY IV Part 1 and HENRY IV Part 2 by William Shakespeare)

Starring: Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, Simon Russell Beale, Julie Walters, Alun Armstrong, Joe Armstrong, David Bamber & Niamh Cusack

William Shakespeare is regarded as one of the greatest writers in history for many good reasons. This playwright coined tons of new words, reshaped the English language as we know it, and told timeless tales of tragedy, comedy and love. His histories are usually regarded as his less interesting works, but that didn’t stop BBC from creating a series of TV movies titled THE HOLLOW CROWN. Featuring big names like Jeremy Irons, Tom Hiddleston, and Benedict Cumberbatch, this series has invigorated new takes on centuries-old material. Shakespeare was not without a few stinkers in his career (e.g. ANTHONY AND CLEOPATRA) and HENRY IV Parts 1 and 2 are among those. Even with a talented cast and stand-out production values, HENRY IV is a strictly middle-of-the-road affair due to an unfocused narrative…courtesy of William Shakespeare’s original text.

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Decades after dethroning Richard II (seen in the previous HOLLOW CROWN movie), an aging Henry IV (Jeremy Irons) finds himself plagued by a series of problems. Tensions are brewing between Wales and Scotland, all while the noble Percy family plots a rebellion against the king. As if bloody chaos wasn’t enough to upset Henry IV, his son Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston) has become a drunken belligerent who hangs out in poor taverns amongst the trashier sects of society. Henry IV wishes to bring peace to his country, squash the violent rebellion and prepare his delinquent son for the crown. This is all easier said than done and begins to take a toll on the ailing Henry IV’s health.

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The title of Shakespeare’s play is HENRY IV, but the narrative focuses on every character who isn’t the titular ruler. This means that Jeremy Irons’ terrific performance takes a backseat to everyone else…who all happen to be less interesting characters. The only possible exception is Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal (a.k.a. future Henry V), whose transition from delinquent troublemaker to responsible adult feels a tad rushed and unbelievable. Part of this might be attributed to writer/director Richard Eyre, but I’d say that most of it falls onto Shakespeare’s shoulders. This really isn’t one of his better histories or plays in general and it really shows.

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Back to less interesting characters. HENRY IV’s potentially complex villain is portrayed in a mostly bland way. Hotspur (Joe Armstrong) not only serves as an antagonist towards Henry IV, but also comes off as would-be rival to Prince Hal. We only know about the latter through one powerful speech early on, but that is damn near forgotten by the time Hal and Hotspur actually encounter each other face-to-face. HENRY IV Part 1 is mainly where all of the rebellion stuff comes into play, as these battles are mentioned only during a few passing scenes in Part 2.

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A prominent character in both HENRY IV plays/parts is Falstaff (played by an unrecognizable Simon Russell Beale), who is a pompous oaf and also serves as a bad influence for Prince Hal. This comic relief drunkard is beloved by certain generations of Shakespeare critics, but has rightfully lost a lot of popularity over time. That becomes apparent in this buffoon essentially being Shakespeare’s equivalent of Jar Jar Binks. He’s annoying, aggravating, and got on my nerves during every scene. To make matters even worse, he’s featured in a majority of Parts 1 and 2. Not even the stellar battle sequence is safe from his over-the-top delivery and silly antics. Part 2 sees Falstaff stealing half of the running time in a subplot that’s entirely separated from the rest of the play. It’s safe to say that a majority of HENRY IV’s problems, pacing issues, and dull patches are direct results from Falstaff’s presence.

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Even when he phoned it in, Shakespeare always knew how to entrance the ears with his masterful use of the English language. His dialogue is pure poetry and certain scenes stand out as highlights in an otherwise very tiring viewing experience. The fight between Prince Hal and Hotspur is made even more intense by the battle of insults and threats occurring alongside the swords and shields. One conversation in Part 2 between Hiddleston’s Hal and Irons’ Henry IV is the best scene of the entire movie though as it captures what this whole story should have been about from frame one…and what Shakespeare attempted to do, albeit in a half-assed way.

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As a whole, HENRY IV is one of Shakespeare’s lesser works and this movie adaptation doesn’t do anything particularly special to entice one to watch both parts. There are definitely highlight scenes, amazing lines of dialogue and a great backseat performance from Jeremy Irons. However, the potentially great villain is one-dimensional, far too much time is devoted to horribly annoying comical Falstaff, and the overall experience drags throughout. Unless you’re a diehard Shakespeare fan, I’d say that you’re better off skipping HENRY IV Parts 1 and 2 in THE HOLLOW CROWN series.

Grade: C

THE NIGHT MANAGER (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 6 hours 1 minute

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Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Olivia Colman, Tom Hollander, Elizabeth Debicki, Alistair Petrie, Natasha Little, Douglas Hodge, David Harewood & Tobias Menzies

John Le Carre is known for writing realistic, down-to-earth versions of 007 material. As opposed to explosions and gun fights, you’re more likely to watch people have intense conversations, sneak around, and occasionally murder in a Le Carre adaptation. This British author has found unexpected modern resurgence with the critically acclaimed TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, brilliantly executed A MOST WANTED MAN, and upcoming OUR KIND OF TRAITOR. One of Le Carre’s novels has recently taken a turn to the smaller screen with BBC’s THE NIGHT MANAGER. If you’re into Le Carre’s espionage stories and talky thrillers, you’ll likely enjoy this miniseries. If you’re not into either of those things, this six-hour slow burn might bore you.

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Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) is a former British soldier turned hotel manager. After one particularly stressful night, Pine finds himself in possession of sensitive documents that detail illegal arms dealings. With evidence of enough illegal weaponry to start a war and a desire to stop these international criminals, Pine finds himself recruited by bureaucratic Angela Burr (Olivia Colman). Pine’s top-secret mission is to change his identity, infiltrate a group of arms dealers, and expose them for everything they’re worth. This assignment puts Pine headlong into the path of “worst man in the world” Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), Roper’s attractive girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), and his loyal assistant Corkoran (Tom Hollander). A game of cat-and-mouse ensues as Pine attempts to gather evidence, expose secrets, and maintain his cover.

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A film adaptation of THE NIGHT MANAGER has tentatively been in production for two decades, with one version featuring a far younger Hugh Laurie in the role of Pine. Various writers and directors came to the conclusion that there was simply too much material to squeeze into a single film, which made a miniseries format much more alluring. I personally think that this novel could have been tidily compacted into one tense three-hour movie, but this longer small-screen NIGHT MANAGER is allowed much more time to develop its characters within its six episodes. This extra time also allows for subplots to receive more attention that might have otherwise been excised entirely in a big screen version.

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NIGHT MANAGER’s episodes frequently cut between Pine and Roper’s cat-and-mouse game and much quieter scenes of Angela Burr’s struggles to keep the operation afloat, in spite of corrupt higher-ups in Roper’s pocket. Herein comes a pacing struggle, because Burr’s storyline only starts getting interesting during the final two episodes. Nearly everything in the latter storyline feels slightly like filler and noticeably detracts a bit from the far more intense (and interesting) battle of wills/wits between Hiddleston’s Pine and Laurie’s Roper. This may have been the way that John le Carre’s novel played out, but what is written on the page doesn’t always translate well to the screen. That might be the case here.

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Uneven pacing aside, THE NIGHT MANAGER is compelling if only to watch Tom Hiddleston play a character unlike any he’s ever touched before and to see Hugh Laurie portray a truly despicable villain. Hiddleston’s Jonathan Pine may seem like a stereotypical English gentlemen, but an inner darkness begins to reveal itself as the episodes go on. One shouldn’t mistake Pine’s politeness for weakness, because this man is a well-dressed 007 type that isn’t above committing violent acts in the name of revenge and the greater good. A cunning oppositional force comes in Laurie’s Richard Roper. Roper is a believable villain in that he rarely gets his hands dirty, but is more than willing to pay other “lower” people to do that for him. Roper is an intelligent businessman who happens to be in the business of death and destruction, which makes him extremely dangerous. The calm way in which Laurie’s baddie dolls out threats makes him even more intimidating, because we know that he absolutely means and will commit to every word he says.

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Elizabeth Debicki is convincing as Roper’s naïve wife and unconvincing as a forced love interest for Pine. Their romantic affair feels like an afterthought, when it should have been treated as a major plot development. If less time had been spent on the U.K. political subplot, then that might have been an option. As much as I’m ragging on her far less interesting and filler-filled storyline, Olivia Colman is serviceable enough as Agent Burr (Pine’s boss). The real scene-stealer of the supporting cast comes in Tom Hollander as Corkoran (a.k.a. Corky). Corky is such a wicked scumbag and doesn’t bother to hide it. His confrontations with Hiddleston are among the best moments in the entire miniseries. He’s a perfect sidekick to Hugh Laurie’s already diabolical antagonist.

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NIGHT MANAGER’s production values are stellar across the board. From theme credits that intersperse weapons alongside wine glasses and chandeliers to the eloquently expensive look of every frame, it’s clear that there was a big budget behind this miniseries. The story spans across many countries, allowing for glamorous shots and detailed locations. NIGHT MANAGER isn’t all glam and glitz though, because the series is remarkably tense, even in moments that don’t particularly seem exciting. I didn’t realize how wrapped up I was in this story until we are given a suspenseful sequence in which Pine is faced with a matter of seconds to grab some key info…or be caught by Roper and his dangerous friends.

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THE NIGHT MANAGER is a realistic James Bond story, complete with style, suspense, and a cat-stroking villain to boot (minus the cat). Hiddleston and Laurie’s tense battle of wits/wills makes this miniseries worth watching, even if Olivia Colman and her generic U.K. subplot feel like they belong in a different series altogether. Hollander’s Corky also sticks out as one of the miniseries greatest highlights. THE NIGHT MANAGER will likely satisfy viewers who can find a tense conversation to be equally as thrilling as an explosive shootout.

Grade: B+

HIGH-RISE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Disturbing Images, Strong Sexual Content/Graphic Nudity, Language and some Drug Use

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Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Written by: Amy Jump

(based on the novel HIGH-RISE by J.G. Ballard)

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elizabeth Moss, James Purefoy & Keeley Hawes

A film adaptation of HIGH-RISE has been in the works for decades. The project passed through many hands and was originally thought to be unfilmable. Despite the odds being stacked against him, director Ben Wheatley took the reins of J.G. Ballard’s novel with a screenplay written by Amy Jump (who also happens to be Wheatley’s wife). It should be noted that I had read Ballard’s novel before walking into this movie and I was still taken aback numerous times by on-screen shocks, unforgettable moments, and a consistently uncomfortable tone. This oddball dystopian-ish sci-fi thriller is sure to gain a steady cult following over time, wind up the subject of many film theory essays, and serve as one hell of a unique ride!

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Searching for a fresh start in life, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) decides to move into the 25th floor of an illustrious high-rise apartment tower. The building is extravagant in its layout and has everything you could possibly want available within its walls. These accommodations include: swimming pool, roof garden, school, spa, gym, and even, a supermarket. There’s practically no reason to leave and after one man plummets to his death from the 39th floor, residents become more reluctant to venture into the outside world. A class system forms in the building, with the most powerful residing on the highest levels and the poverty-stricken surviving on the lower floors. As the tower deteriorates (frequent power failures, no running water, clogged garbage shoots), so do its residents. The high-rise becomes a forty-story battleground for a literal class war.

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HIGH-RISE’s script follows a handful of main characters through various levels, but disturbing deeds and darker than dark humor are equally present in a number of the film’s subplots. The lack of a consistent main story might turn certain viewers off. The film doesn’t give you a likable protagonist, but that’s sort of the point. This is basically LORD OF THE FLIES relocated to a high-rise apartment tower. Speaking of which, this movie’s atmosphere is unnerving in part because it feels like an alternate version of the ’70’s. Completing this illusion are a few tongue-in-cheek song selections, including two covers for ABBA’s S.O.S. (one of which is used to highlight an especially disturbing sequence). The detail put into every inch of the high-rise setting is breathtaking as it seems like you’re gazing into another world, one that’s simultaneously familiar and eerie. One might argue that the high-rise tower itself is the real star of the movie and sets most of the action in motion.

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Even though the main character is wealthy and has a medical degree, Tom Hiddleston plays Robert Laing as an everyman. He’s obviously supposed to represent the middle-class and doesn’t necessarily want to get involved with the ever-growing chaos in the building. However, we see his attitude slowly shift as the film moves forward, captured wonderfully in a particularly chilling montage. As Laing’s upstairs neighbor/love interest, Sienna Miller is great as single mother Charlotte Melville. This character wasn’t given too much thought in the novel and has more time dedicated to her here. The same can be said for the characters of lower-class pregnant mother Helen Wilder (Elisabeth Moss), snobby actress Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory), and sadistic top-floor resident Ann Royal (Keeley Hawes).

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Jeremy Irons is somewhat sympathetic as Anthony Royal, a top-floor architect who stands out from the horde of murderous aristocrats. The most memorable of these high-society monsters is gynecologist Alan Pangbourne, played to teeth-snarling perfection by James Purefoy. Finally, Luke Evans steals every scene he’s in as lower-level Richard Wilder, who becomes a literal social climber as he begins to scale his way to the top of the building. Wilder is arguably the film’s main antagonist and his frequent rage-filled outbursts are equally amusing and frightening to behold.

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The structure of HIGH-RISE can be split into two distinct halves. The first half slowly builds tension and unease, while developing the story’s many characters along the way. We see petty squabbles become borderline fist-fights and witness injustices between floors (lower levels suffer from power failures, rich dwellers have a fancy private elevator). Then we get the 39th floor incident (already mentioned in my summary) and things go to hell in a hand-basket. Charlotte notes that “It’s as if everybody suddenly decided to cross some line,” and she couldn’t be more correct. Viewers craving mayhem with manners will find their thirst quenched by sophisticated madness in the last hour.

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HIGH-RISE is not necessarily pleasant or easy to watch (nor should it be), but it’s entertaining, thought-provoking, wholly unique, and disturbing as bloodshed is treated with a casual indifference. A child calmly munches on corn flakes whilst watching a man brutally beat another man to death over a bucket of paint. People casually walk by a swimming pool littered with floating corpses. Hulking piles of garbage bags become prevalent in every shot as the building slowly falls apart and many residents decay along with it. Even though I had read the novel before watching this movie and knew what to expect, I was constantly being thrown for a loop in very good ways. HIGH-RISE is definitely not for everybody. People will love it and just as many people (if not more) will absolutely hate it. I imagine that fans of experimental and counter cinema will appreciate the dark genius of this film. I surely won’t forget my visit to the HIGH-RISE and plan on returning many times in the future.

Grade: A+

My Top 15 Films of 2015

List by Derrick Carter

2015 was a great year for cinema. So much so, that I’ve decided not to make a “Top 10 Films” of the year, but a “Top 15” instead. It should be noted that I haven’t seen every single movie that came out during the past twelve months. I’m one man after all and only pay money for and spend time on stuff that interests me. That being said, I reviewed 132 new releases during 2015. There are a few movies that I plan on covering and could have potentially made this list if I had seen them in 2015. These are: THE REVENANT, CAROL, ANOMALISA, and SON OF SAUL. The fifteen titles that did make the cut are flicks that I absolutely loved, plan on adding to my collection, and rewatching many times for years to come. I don’t expect everybody to agree with all of them, but hopefully I’ve recommended a couple of films that peak your interest.

Before getting into list itself, I feel a few honorable mentions are in order. BRIDGE OF SPIES showed that Steven Spielberg has not lost a shred of talent over the years. THE JINX proved to be a groundbreaking true-crime documentary that literally made history. Coming off a string of misfires, Melissa McCarthy delivered her funniest comedy yet in SPY. Finally, on the scary side of things, KRAMPUS is a great holiday horror-comedy that I plan on making an annual Christmas tradition and GOODNIGHT MOMMY is a freaky shudder-inducing little nightmare. Without further ado, I’ll move onto my favorite films of 2015…

15. Black Mass

15. BLACK MASS: Throughout the years, Johnny Depp has become a ghost of his former talented self, but delivered one of his best performances ever this year. He disappeared into the role Whitey Bulger and became a terrifying on-screen monster. The story is a complex one that couldn’t easily be told in the space of a two-hour film. Though I feel it would have been a modern crime masterpiece if 30 more minutes had been tacked onto the final third, director Scott Cooper did a phenomenal job portraying one of the most notorious gangster stories in American history. Depp isn’t necessarily the star of this movie as the rest of the cast is especially strong. Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, and many more round out a great ensemble picture. It might not be a modern GOODFELLAS, but I’d rank it as a modern CASINO. BLACK MASS is easily one of the best real-life gangster films to come out of the new millennium.

14. It Follows

14. IT FOLLOWS: In the vein of the original HALLOWEEN and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, IT FOLLOWS is one of the single scariest viewing experiences that I’ve had all year. I attended a midnight screening at Sundance and everyone was losing their minds in the theater over this film. While it only has a few big jolts, IT FOLLOWS manages to get under your skin and stay there. I found myself getting progressively more creeped out when I arrived home and couldn’t stop thinking about the film. What’s even better about this movie is how it took the more difficult and complicated route instead of merely becoming a supernatural slasher. Instead, the film lets a dread-soaked atmosphere float around the viewer…and like “it” does to the characters themselves, that feeling follows you around long after the end credits have rolled.

13. Going Clear

13. GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF: The best documentary that I watched all year, GOING CLEAR is a fascinating and disturbing look into the inner workings of Scientology. Covering the formation of this so-called “religion” (you won’t blame me for calling it a cult after you watch this doc) to the huge amount of controversy surrounding it to the systematic abuse of its followers and opponents, GOING CLEAR is a harrowing watch. The testimonies from former members of the church are both chilling and heartbreaking. Some masterful editing also allows for brief moments of humor, such as a cheesy Scientology music video and an improvised awards ceremony invented specifically for Tom Cruise. As I stated in my review back in March, GOING CLEAR would almost be ridiculous and amusing, if it weren’t so devastating and terrifying.

12. Hateful Eight

12. THE HATEFUL EIGHT: It might not be Tarantino’s best film, but I loved the hell out of the HATEFUL EIGHT! A far more contained story than Tarantino’s recent Oscar nominees, this is pretty much RESERVOIR DOGS set in the Old West with more suspense. Besides that familiar set up, Tarantino manages to milk a massive amount of tension from each scene leading up to many unexpected revelations, over-the-top gore, and sick humor. I was on the edge of my seat throughout, almost fell out of my chair laughing at one point, and left totally satisfied.

11. Kingsman

11. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE: Nobody expected this movie to be nearly as good as it was. The two best descriptions I can give KINGSMAN are that it’s either the KICK-ASS of spy movies or a very R-rated take on SPY KIDS. The film is wild, crazy, fast-paced and never takes itself seriously. In a year that’s been populated by plenty of superheroes, KINGSMAN is my favorite comic book adaptation of 2015. The church scene alone was one of the most jaw-dropping sequences I’ve sat through all year. The rest of the film is hugely entertaining and has the balls to take risks. KINGSMAN was definitely one of the biggest cinematic surprises I had all year, but it was upended by…

10. Gift

10. THE GIFT: This is the biggest surprise that I had in 2015. The trailer made it look like a generic thriller that had already been done a million times before. However, this can all be chalked up to bad marketing because Joel Edgerton pulled triple duty and put his heart into this well-crafted shocker. The film intentionally misleads the audience through various points before unleashing big bombshells upon them. The ending also left me speechless and contemplating it for days afterwards. This is one of those films that is pretty much guaranteed to generate a discussion with other film-loving friends. THE GIFT is not a predictable black-and-white thriller, but something much deeper and far scarier.

9. MI5

9. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -ROGUE NATION: The MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series has had its ups and downs. The first was good. The second was crap. The third was great. The fourth was fun. However, I don’t think anybody could have predicted that the fifth installment of this high-octane spy series would be the best of the bunch thus far. That was definitely the case as ROGUE NATION unleashed compelling high stakes, brought back old characters as if no time had passed at all, introduced a cool new ones, and had some fantastic set-pieces. In many ways (Bond girl, villain, secret evil organization), MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -ROGUE NATION was a far better Bond movie than the actual Bond movie we received this year.

8. Crimson Peak

8. CRIMSON PEAK: This gorgeously realized film feels like Edgar Allan Poe and Jane Austen penned a novel together and then Guillermo Del Toro adapted it to the screen. Those who go in expecting endless jump scares and a typical ghost story will find themselves either let down or elated by the film being a gothic romance that happens to contain some very frightening ghosts and thick horror elements in its story. Every frame of the film is beautiful to look at and atmospheric beyond belief. There are shots of this movie that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since I originally saw it and I believe it’s among the very best of Guillermo Del Toro’s filmography. Jessica Chastain is also a fearsome force to behold!

7. Spotlight

7. SPOTLIGHT: A tastefully made movie about one of the most disturbing cover-ups in recent history. SPOTLIGHT could have easily gone for shock value and went all out to demonize religion as a whole. Actually, that’s sort of what I was expecting it to do when I walked into the theater. Imagine my surprise at how restrained and respectful this film is. Aided by one of the most realistic looks at journalism that you’re bound to see on film, the movie packs in so much emotion without ever crossing the line into anything that possibly resemble shock value or cheap shots. Instead, the film asks tough questions, brings powerful performances to the screen, and leaves the viewer with a lot to chew on. This is one of the most important movies of 2015.

6. Macbeth

6. MACBETH: Shakespeare has been brought to the big screen in many ways by many different filmmakers. This beautiful, bleak take on the Scottish Play might just be my favorite Shakespeare movie thus far. With dialogue being delivered in a naturalistic manner and some creative licensing thrown into the centuries-old material, this version of MACBETH somehow improves upon the already perfect tragedy by adding unexpected context into the mix. Michael Fassbender is stunning as the title character, but it’s Marion Cotillard who steals the show. Lady Macbeth is actually made into a sympathetic character which is something that I felt could never, ever be accomplished in any take on the play. It’s also worth noting that this is definitely not a Shakespeare adaptation that will be shown in many high school classrooms, which is a very good thing indeed!

5. Sicario

5. SICARIO: In 2013, Denis Villeneuve wowed me with PRISONERS. In 2015, he returned with the complex cartel thriller SICARIO. A movie that never allows you to get comfortable in your seat or breathe normally throughout its entire running time, SICARIO is a grim, bleak, and depressing movie…and all the better for it. This thriller had a number of stand-out sequences, an intense beyond words finale being one of them. Villeneuve knew precisely when to merely imply the dark deeds occurring just beyond a locked door and when to casually showcase disturbing sights in broad daylight. Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin are all fantastic in their parts. It’s likely that SICARIO will keep you thinking about it long after you’ve finished watching it, but just be prepared for that as there’s no glimmer of happiness or hope to be found within a single frame of this film.

4. Ex Machina

4. EX MACHINA: One of the best pieces of thought-provoking science-fiction to come out in a long, long time, EX MACHINA is a brilliantly crafted beast of a film. I loved everything about it when I first watched it back in April. The performances from the leads (likable Domnhall Gleeson, robotic Alicia Vikander, and scary Oscar Isaac) make for a film that’s pretty much a three character play. The uniquely designed house/research facility is almost a character as well, because the sense of claustrophobia and steadily rising tension become damn near nightmarish by the final third. The effects are excellently rendered and the film gets even better upon repeat viewings (little details stuck out more during the second and third times that I watched it). The hauntingly beautiful soundtrack is just the icing on the cake for my fourth best film of 2015.

3. Room

3. ROOM: Difficult and immensely rewarding, ROOM is a drama like no other. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name (which in turn was inspired by a real-life kidnapping case), this film is tense and remarkably uplifting. Throughout the whole running time, the story walks a tightrope between being heartwarming and heartbreaking. It ultimately winds up with the best of both worlds as various audience members (including myself) were crying at various points throughout the film. As sad as it can be, I left feeling immensely uplifted by this beautiful movie about love and courage. Brie Larson (the frontrunner for Best Actress of 2015) and 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay (giving one of the best child performances that I’ve ever seen in my entire life) are both wholly convincing and believable. I cannot praise this movie enough. It’s amazing!

2. Inside Out

2. INSIDE OUT: A family film that’s made more for adults than it is for children, INSIDE OUT wound up being one of the most emotional theater experiences of 2015 for me (pun fully intended). Though it may look sweet, innocent and cute on the outside, the movie packs a lot of emotional truths that will hit older viewers far more than kids who just want to watch a cartoon. It’s also the biggest tearjerker that I saw all year (right next to ROOM). The film is just beautiful and encapsulates everything that life itself in brilliantly creative ways. It also has one of the most mature messages that I’ve ever seen in a children’s film. It’s not only my second favorite movie of 2015, but my favorite Pixar movie thus far!

1. Mad Max Fury Road

1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD: Director/writer George Miller had over two decades to craft his fourth MAD MAX movie to perfection and that’s exactly what he did! MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was easily one of the most adrenaline-pumping, kick-ass movies that I’ve ever experienced in a theater. I loved it so much that I saw it twice within four days on the big screen and it has enjoyed many repeat viewings since its home video release. Though some fans have joked that it’s simply a two-hour chase scene, the story manages to encapsulate far more than that. There are issues of gender, slavery, religion, etc. that all come up in subtle (sometimes, obvious), smart ways throughout the film. The movie never stops to deliver heavy-handed exposition to the viewer and gives enough details so we can simply figure it all out for ourselves. The visuals look incredible as this apocalyptic wasteland was wholly convincing, in no small part due to practical effects, dangerous stunt work, and subtle green screen effects. FURY ROAD has joined the rare breed of perfect summer blockbusters that includes the likes of ALIENS and TERMINATOR 2. Bravo!

2015 was a year that was packed full of releases. Some were amazing, some were good, and others fell lower on the cinematic totem pole. It’s definitely been one of the most interesting years for cinema and I look forward to seeing what 2016 has in store for filmgoers!

CRIMSON PEAK (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

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

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Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro

Written by: Guillermo Del Toro & Matthew Robbins

Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Emily Coutts & Leslie Hope

CRIMSON PEAK is being touted as a scarefest that’s full of ghosts, gore, and ghoulish delights. Marketing has suggested that moviegoers had best prepare themselves for something seriously terrifying. However, that’s slightly misleading seeing as Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film hearkens back to a more classical era of horror. Del Toro himself has described the film as more of a gothic romance than a straight-up horror film. The film is a slow-burning tale of love and bloody secrets. I think the best possible description that I could give CRIMSON PEAK is that this film feels like Edgar Allan Poe and Jane Austen wrote a story together and then Guillermo Del Toro filmed it. That should give you a general idea of what to expect when walking into the theater for this one.

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Edith Cushing is a young author and a bit of a social outcast among her peers. She’s an outspoken woman with strong opinions, a creative imagination, and the psychic ability to see ghosts. Those first two qualities gain her the admiration of Sir Thomas Sharpe, a businessman visiting from England. One thing leads to another and the two are soon joined together in holy matrimony. Sharpe then whisks Edith away to his isolated crumbling estate. The only other resident of the massive mansion is Sharpe’s strange sister, Lucille. As wonderful as her married life may seem, Edith suspects that Thomas and Lucille are hiding dark secrets. These fears are only strengthened when Edith begins to have run-ins with ghostly apparitions that seem to be stemming from the Sharpe household. Could these spirits have it out for Edith or are they trying to warn her of a greater danger?

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Guillermo Del Toro sure knows how to shoot a scene and he transforms CRIMSON PEAK into an overall gorgeous film. You could pause any scene of this movie and frame that still image as a work of art. It’s that visually stunning and amazing to look at. Needless to say that spooky atmosphere is at a definite all-time high in this film. The set design is insane and you feel that the Sharpe estate is a very real location, despite it being impossibly large and decrepit. Another addition to the scenery is constant red clay on the ground, which gives the illusion that the characters are walking on fresh blood at various points in the film.

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Speaking of which, Del Toro has a slow build to his classical screenplay (which hearkens back to an era of Hollywood horror when jump scares weren’t needed every five minutes), but never neglects to embrace his R rating. He fought tooth and nail to get his R-rated horror film and we see evidence of that in some of the bloodier scenes. It’s not as if the movie is a gorefest, far from it, but we do get messy moments that easily earned the rating on violence alone. The ghosts themselves look creepy as hell. I’m usually against the use of CGI for roles that could be filled by actual performers, but I loved how Del Toro created these contorting, decayed spirits. Each ghost had a unique look and there are a number of really scary sequences that got big reactions out of me.

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As far as the performances go, there are four main cast members to speak of. Mia Wasikowska fills the role of Edith Cushing well. She plays her protagonist as a smart woman with a slightly naïve romantic side. However, she has enough brains to know when something strange might be going on behind her back. Charlie Hunnam is mostly swiped to the sidelines, but makes a strong impression as a doctor with the hots for Edith. Tom Hiddleston (mainly known for playing Loki and being the sexiest man alive for women everywhere) disappears into the charming Thomas Sharpe. Hiddleston plays the character as a charismatic romantic lead with a few skeletons in his closet. He also has really terrific chemistry with Wasikowska, especially during the romantic scenes in the first act. Arguably, the best performance comes out of Jessica Chastain as the mysterious Lucille Sharpe. Chastain’s Lucille comes off like a frightening force to be reckoned with as she can be charming and funny during some moments, while intense and scary during the very next scene.

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Horror fans who go into CRIMSON PEAK expecting non-stop terror and gore might leave utterly disappointed. However, viewers who dig a slow-burn, old-school approach to their scary stories will find a whole lot to love here. I don’t have a single complaint with this entire film. The imagery is phenomenal, the story is well-written (even when you have a good idea where it might be going), the scares are…well, scary and the film has a gothic horror approach that we rarely see taken in modern horror these days. CRIMSON PEAK isn’t simply a ghost story. As Edith says early on when describing one of her books, it’s a story that happens to have ghosts in it.

Grade: A+

THE AVENGERS (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 23 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action throughout, and a mild Drug Reference

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Directed by: Joss Whedon

Written by: Joss Whedon

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

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany & Powers Boothe

In the history of cinema, there’s never been anything quite like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Through various origin stories and connections, Marvel released a number of films (IRON MAN, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, IRON MAN 2, THOR, and CAPTAIN AMERICA) with the intentions of leading up to a massive epic AVENGERS movie that comic book geeks never thought they would receive in their wildest dreams. While the films leading up this 2012 summer blockbuster ranged in quality, THE AVENGERS fast became a critically acclaimed blockbuster that ranked as one of the biggest money-makers in the history of film. Everybody loved this movie and most still do, but I don’t fawn over it as much as everybody else seems to. THE AVENGERS is hugely entertaining, but far from perfect thanks to three problems.

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Top secret organization S.H.I.E.L.D. is experimenting with the Tesseract (an infinity stone) and find themselves in a bit of trouble. The evil Loki has come to our world with the goals of using the infinity stone for evil and dominating all of mankind. It’s up to special agent Nick Fury to assemble a ragtag group of superheroes to form the Avengers. They might not get along with each other, but this team of heroes is here to save the day. It’s Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow, and Hawkeye vs. Loki and his army of intergalactic conquerors.

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The biggest pleasure of watching THE AVENGERS is to see this group of Marvel superheroes interact with each other. You get to watch as Iron Man gets into arguments with Captain America and forms a friendship with the Hulk. There’s also Thor being aggressive towards everyone as well as the entire S.H.I.E.L.D. team being wary of Bruce Banner to much comic relief. Seeing as these characters have been developed through separate movies (save for Black Widow and Hawkeye), there’s no real need for extra character development. It’s a cast of actors slipping right back into their established roles with ease. Black Widow is a good character on her own, but Hawkeye is underdeveloped (though that’s mainly the result of a plot device in the first 5 minutes).

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The biggest drawback character is Loki as the main villain. He’s already been given his time to shine as the bad guy in THOR, but we’re expected to find him just as interesting in THE AVENGERS (having already seen Thor beat his ass once already). While Tom Hiddleston is funny in the role, he just isn’t that great of a threat for the Avengers. The rest of the baddies are a bunch of faceless aliens that really aren’t given much of a purpose other than to be beaten by the Avengers. For a movie that was set up as an action-packed superhero extravaganza from beginning to end, AVENGERS takes an awful long space of time just focusing on the team members squabbling with each other on their floating S.H.I.E.L.D. base. It’s as if this movie that was clearly setting itself up as a fanboy’s wet dream decided to take a break in order to build supposed tension and that doesn’t really work out in the movie’s favor.

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As far as the spectacle itself is concerned, AVENGERS looks huge and feels epic. The action set pieces are entertaining and it’s a blast to watch this well-known group of mismatched heroes working together in a climax set across the streets of New York. There are plenty of one-liners, fights, and explosions to go around. Everything looks great with one problem and it’s a big one. The Hulk is really cheesy. Mark Ruffalo is quite good in the role of Bruce Banner, but the CGI monster that he turns into looks pretty silly compared to everything else around him. It’s possible that we’ll never see a Hulk who looks perfectly rendered because, well, the Hulk isn’t that great of a hero to begin with. However, even the Hulk from 2008’s INCREDIBLE HULK was a lot better than this green Ruffalo-resembling creature. It doesn’t distract from any of the awesome scenes featuring the other heroes, but he’s pretty dumb looking by himself. That being said, a scene between him and Loki is pure gold.

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Overall, THE AVENGERS is a lot of fun. That being said, it’s far from a perfect movie. Hell, there are even films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that have managed to outdo this one (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY). The running time is bit too long and the design of Hulk looks pretty silly. Also, we’ve seen Loki before and I wish they could have given us a better villain. With all these things in mind, THE AVENGERS is a highly entertaining comic book film that delivers the goods. I do think it’s a bit overrated, but there’s hope that AGE OF ULTRON could manage to one-up this in every possible way.

Grade: B+

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