PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Strong Brutal Violence, Language and some Drug Use

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Directed by: Lexi Alexander

Written by: Art Marcum, Matt Holloway & Nick Santora

(based on THE PUNISHER comics by Gerry Conway, Ross Andru & John Romita, Sr.)

Starring: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Julie Benz, Colin Salmon, Doug Hutchison, Dash Mihok & Wayne Knight

After the financial success of 2004’s THE PUNISHER, it seemed like a sequel was inevitable. Thomas Jane was primed and ready to go, but a long-stalled production and numerous script rewrites caused him to walk away. Lionsgate decided that it would go the Sony SPIDER-MAN route before that was even a thing and turned WAR ZONE into a full-blown reboot as opposed to a follow-up to the first film. For those keeping score at home, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE is the third attempt to kick off a Punisher franchise. As one might expect, history repeated itself and now Frank Castle has flown the coop to Netflix. WAR ZONE seems to be the most polarizing Punisher film out there. Some people love it for its carnage-laced lunacy, while others consider it be a bastardization of the heavily armed anti-hero. I fall somewhere in the middle.

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Years have passed since Frank Castle’s family was gunned down in a mob hit. Frank secretly survived the attempt on his life though and turned to a bloodthirsty vigilante lifestyle. Armed to the teeth with guns, bombs, and knifes, Frank Castle has become The Punisher. Over the past five years, the Punisher has been systematically wiping out large mob figures. Frank’s latest attempt to take out a crime family has gone awry. By gone I awry, I mean that the Punisher has accidentally gunned down an undercover FBI agent and left one psychotic gangster (nicknamed Jigsaw) horribly disfigured, but alive. While the Punisher considers possible retirement, the FBI forms a task force to take Frank down and Jigsaw plots a gruesome revenge.

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Out of the three PUNISHER films, WAR ZONE is by far the best looking of the bunch. The visuals are colorful as lots of neon colors are used and a slick atmosphere hovers over practically every scene. The film is also insanely violent beyond belief. With the exception of a couple of noticeably bad computer effects (some cheap-looking fire and fake squirting blood), the violence is very well executed (pardon the pun) with lots of practical effects being utilized. Frank doesn’t spare anyone that he doesn’t have to. We see faces punched into a pulp, limbs blown clean off, impalements, necks being broken, and, of course, lots of bullets flying every which way. Stuntwoman-turned-director Lexi Alexander certainly seems to be having a blast behind the camera as her vision of the Punisher is the goriest version to hit the screen yet.

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If only the plot was up to the same level of creative violence on display, because this storyline feels disappointingly generic. We’ve seen this storyline used before in other comic book adaptations before WAR ZONE and it seems like it was the Punisher’s turn to play out the familiar by-the-numbers formula. As Frank Castle, Ray Stevenson is more entertaining to watch than droopy-eyed Dolph Lundgren, but lacks the charisma and likability of Thomas Jane. He’s an okay action hero, but I never felt like I was watching the Punisher. The two characters (an obsessed cop and a straight-laced FBI agent) on the anti-Punisher team are fun to watch, but seem to be constantly forgotten in the proceedings. Their presence does lead to the film’s single funniest bit of dark comedy in the film though, which I kept replaying and it made me laugh every single time. Also on the sidelines are Wayne Knight making the most of what he can in the role of a weapons dealer and Julie Benz playing a typical damsel-in-distress.

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As far as villains are concerned, WAR ZONE has two very colorful baddies and a lot of bland side thugs. The two main antagonists are Jigsaw and his cannibalistic brother, Loony Bin Jim. These two are entertaining enough to watch in moments, but can be obnoxious in chewing the scenery. Dominic Cooper (300) is hidden under layers of make-up as Jigsaw and plays a purposely exaggerated Brooklyn gangster with a very ugly mug. That’s about all there is to this villain. One scene in which he tries to recruit fellow gangsters is over-the-top, but his final moments are his best scenes in the film. Doug Hutchinson (Percy from THE GREEN MILE) plays Loony Bin Jim with a deranged delight. Though his character can occasionally be grating alongside Cooper’s Jigsaw, he receives some of the film’s more disgusting moments.

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PUNISHER: WAR ZONE is about as over-the-top and ridiculously gory as a PUNISHER movie can possibly be. It lacks the brooding tragic nature of the Thomas Jane adaptation, but remains consistently entertaining as a blood-soaked B-movie with an A-movie’s production values. The film’s slick look, insane amounts of violence, and professional direction make it worth a watch, even if the performances, plot, and silly moments can be annoying. For me, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE is snuggled comfortably in between the ’89 Lundgren B-flick and ’04’s origin story. There’s nothing really wrong with that as all three PUNISHER films can be enjoyed for entirely separate reasons.

Grade: B-

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

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

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Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

BASIC INSTINCT (1992)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 8 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Sensuality, and for Drug Use and Language

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Directed by: Paul Verhoeven

Written by: Joe Eszterhas

Starring: Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, George Dzundza, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Denis Arndt & Leilani Sarelle

Paul Verhoeven has made a name for himself by directing three well-known sci-fi blockbusters (ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL, STARSHIP TROOPERS), but he also has a penchant for thrillers. The most famous of these is BASIC INSTINCT, an erotic mystery that has generated controversy over the years and earned a notorious reputation for its graphic sex and violence. Two decades have done little to damper this film from being a bloody, sexy thriller that’s well worth the time of anyone who enjoys a dark neo-noir.

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A famous rock star has been murdered in the middle of a sexual encounter. Nick, a detective with a troubling cocaine habit and a loose trigger finger, has been assigned to the investigation. The hardened cop suspects that the victim’s girlfriend, author Catherine Tramell, might be the murderess. His suspicions are only heightened when he finds that Catherine’s friends have a nasty habit of dying, which she promptly uses for material in her best-selling novels. To try to catch her in the act and gain potential evidence, Nick begins an affair with Catherine. However, he’s wading into very dangerous waters as he’s become the main character in Catherine’s latest book.

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Though Verhoeven has a few thrillers in his filmography, BASIC INSTINCT seems like an erotic throwback to the films of Hitchcock and early De Palma (who was echoing Hitchcock). Unlike those early classics and 70’s thrillers, Verhoeven is able to get away with an insane amount of sensuous sex and graphic violence. The opening scene immediately sets the tone as we see the rock star in a rousing moment that ends with a shocking stabbing. I’m sure this scene got a lot of gasps and shocked reactions upon its initial release and it’s just as effective today. The murderess is kept in a dim-light so we don’t fully know if Catherine is the killer. In this way, Verhoeven doesn’t reveal his cards all at once and leaves a numerous twists for the viewer. This isn’t a simple cut-and-dried mystery that you can completely predict as other suspects and clues do pop up throughout. One revelation midway through surprised the hell out of me.

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As far as characters go, Michael Douglas could have been a completely unlikable prick in the wrong hands. Through some filmmaking magic, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven make Nick into a sympathetic detective with huge problems. Douglas plays Nick as a damaged protagonist who is trying to do the right thing. In this case, that involves solving a grisly mystery and getting romantically involved with the main suspect. As the potential murderess in question, Sharon Stone shines as Catherine. She perfectly blends sexy and danger into a single character. This is probably one of my favorite femme fatales to ever grace the big screen. You never really know about her, but you have sneaking suspicions of what she might be capable of. The only way to find out if she’s a manipulative psycho is to watch the film until the very last shot.

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To finally address the elephant in the room, BASIC INSTINCT has some of the best sex scenes to ever see the light of day in any mainstream movie. What’s great about these moments is that they’re not meant to be purely sensuous. They don’t only exist for eye candy, but have a lurking suspense hovering over them. The opening scene graphically showed us what this movie is capable of in the heat of the moment. As a result, I was half expecting a gruesome murder to take place in any number of these sex scenes (one of which had me on the edge of my seat multiple times). The body count in this movie is not limited to one person either and the bloody violence is executed in a way that’s reminiscent of Del Palma. Verhoeven knows when to show murder and when to merely hint at it for a better shock.

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The plot of BASIC INSTINCT is not perfect as one scene near the climax relies on the viewer suspending their disbelief for a few minutes. The conclusion that follows this minor plot hole made me ignore it as a minor complaint. Containing two great characters and a memorable story that keeps you on the edge of your seat, this is one of the best thrillers to come out of the 90’s. BASIC INSTINCT is as erotic as a passionate kiss and as sharp as the tip of an ice pick.

Grade: A

HERCULES (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

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Directed by: Ron Clements & John Musker

Written by: Ron Clements, John Musker & Barry Johnson

Voices of: Tate Donovan, Josh Keaton, Danny DeVito, James Woods, Susan Egan, Rip Torn, Bobcat Goldthwait & Matt Frewer

It happened. I had been on such a good streak for a while and I finally stumbled across some misguided nostalgia from my childhood yet again. I vaguely remember seeing HERCULES at the drive-in. I was six years-old at the time, Disney movies were pretty much the only films that I was able to see on the big screen. At the time, I loved this film. This was on repeat at my house after it hit its VHS release. Having watched this Disney take on mythology for the first time in a solid decade, I can safely say that I really don’t like this film anymore. I’ve heard people complain about HERCULES for Disneyfying Greek mythology or misrepresenting certain parts of the legend of Hercules. Neither of those are my complaints with this movie, instead my problems with Disney’s version of HERCULES stem from it feeling far too rushed with little to no character development, the dusty pop culture references, and interchangeable musical numbers. 1997’s HERCULES is a big mixed bag.

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Zeus and Hera have given birth to a new Greek god named Hercules. The baby has immeasurable strength and is loved by every god on Mount Olympus. However, the ruler of the underworld, Hades, decides to kill Hercules in order to secure an evil future plan for the control of Mount Olympus. The assassination attempt goes sour and Hercules winds up as a Demi-God. As an awkward misfit with superhuman strength, the teenage Hercules discovers his true identity and trains under the guidance of Phil to become a hero. Hoping that his good deeds will eventually earn him a place back in Mount Olympus, Hercules winds up falling for frequent damsel-in-distress Meg and draws the attention of Hades, who is more than a little pissed to find that Hercules is still alive.

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The biggest problems with HERCULES become apparent in the first five minutes of running time. We are introduced to the Muses who sing a gospel themed tune prologue about titans and gods. The song is forgettable and forced. The pacing of the prologue feels overly rushed and doesn’t give the viewer enough time to gander at the images being presented on the screen. It doesn’t get much better from that point, because the Muses reappear to sing more gospel tunes about Hercules’s progress throughout. Even when the Muses aren’t part of a musical number, the songs from Hercules (the best of the bunch, but only okay), Phil (way too forced) and Meg (a simplistic song about being in love) are pretty mediocre for the most part. The pacing of this film is messy. It feels like the filmmakers tried to cram all of the Hercules story into the space of 90 minutes while focusing too much on pop culture references.

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Since the script feels like it’s rushing by way too fast, this doesn’t exactly leave much room for character development. We get the whole conflict of a teenage Hercules in the space of 5 minutes and it’s mainly played up as a tired joke. I couldn’t feel much for Hercules, because he’s simply the bland hero. While Meg definitely has more attitude than your typical helpless damsel in distress, she’s not exactly likable and you might wonder what Hercules sees in her. Meanwhile, Danny DeVito is simply shouting his lines as Phil. James Woods’s Hades is the only character in HERCULES that I actually liked. The casting decision was pretty genius and he plays the God of the Underworld as a slick, slimy jerk with deadly intentions. He’s simply a blast to watch, but his moments (much like everything else in this film) pass by far too quickly. Though Hades is a solid villain, his two demon sidekicks, Pain (Bobcat Goldthwait) and Panic (Matt Frewer), perform a tired slapstick routine for the entire movie.

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If there’s anything that I can honestly praise in HERCULES, aside from James Woods playing Hades, it would be the animation style itself. The songs might be forced. The characters might be bland. The movie might move at a pace that’s too fast for its own good. In spite of all of these things, 1997’s HERCULES looks cool. There’s a combination of CGI and traditional animation on display. It blends together quite well, especially in a sequence when Hercules faces off against a many-headed Hydra. The odd animation style is creative and I liked it a lot. It’s really a pit that it’s being wasted on such a mediocre script.

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HERCULES has two qualities that could possibly make it worth recommending to certain people. You have James Woods playing Hades. That would sell me on morbid curiosity alone. The animation is really unlike anything that Disney has done before or since. It’s a very odd look and I enjoyed the visuals a lot. However, that doesn’t nearly make up for bland characters, shaky pacing, and forced musical numbers. I didn’t like HERCULES, but not because it put an overly Disney spin on Greek mythology. Instead, it’s simply because I found the film to be a mixed bag with two good qualities and a lot of bad ones. Overall, HERCULES is on the lower end of Disney’s animated spectrum (not including direct-to-video sequels, of course).

Grade: C

TO DIE FOR (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexual Content, and for Language

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Directed by: Gus Van Sant

Written by: Buck Henry

(based on the novel TO DIE FOR by Joyce Maynard)

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, Illeana Douglas, Alison Folland, Dan Hedaya & Wayne Knight

TO DIE FOR, inspired by the insane true story of Pamela Smart, is a weird movie to say the least. Gus Van Sant takes the basis of a wicked crime and manipulative villainess, then adds a mockumentary approach that doesn’t quite mesh well with the story being told. A blending of darkly comedic elements, quirky stylistic choices, and a sinister edge make for an oddball little film that just happens to be inspired by a real-life sociopath. TO DIE FOR is unique, weird, and one-of-a-kind…but also a tonal mess.

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Since her childhood, Suzanne Stone has always wanted to be the center of attention on TV. This goal-oriented, go-getter with delusions of grandeur won’t let anything get in the way of her career…and that includes her bartender husband who just wants to live a simple life as a restaurant owner with Suzanne by his side. Stone’s career as a small town weather girl and media consultant at a high school are not enough as she dreams of being a national news anchor for CNN. This leads her to recruit three teenagers to kill her husband which has unpredictable consequences for everyone involved.

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Gus Van Sant’s mockumentary approach hinders TO DIE FOR’s tension in a lot of ways. We are told upfront through newspaper articles in the opening credits what Suzanne Stone has done and therefore nothing is left to be much of a surprise. The film too often focuses on unneeded “interviews” with the characters in which they talk about a scene and then we see that exact moment play out. It diffuses any ounce of good suspense that could have been built. I can’t help but imagine that TO DIE FOR might have played much better as a traditional narrative, but there’s also a scathing satirical view (about how the media sensationalizes crime and killers) that’s hard to ignore as well. Danny Elfman’s whimsical score works perfectly during key moments, but can also be very distracting. There are fantastic stylistic choices throughout in framing, colors, and a climactic scene that works flawlessly in spite of all the problems surrounding the rest of the film.

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For every negative that can be said about TO DIE FOR, I don’t think anybody can fault Nicole Kidman’s stellar performance as the deluded narcissistic Suzanne Stone. If there’s one reason to watch this movie, it’s definitely Kidman’s portrayal of this sociopath woman with no identifiable moral compass and no problems in hurting other people to get her way. On the opposite end of the spectrum, everyone else in this film feels like they’re from a totally different movie. Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck and Alison Folland all play stereotypical dumb teenagers and that’s about it. Matt Dillon doesn’t do much to sell his nice guy husband, who comes off as an annoying idiot…which is probably not the direction that Van Sant originally hoped for. It helps if the viewer feels sympathy towards the victim in a murder case, even if that person wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. TO DIE FOR is populated by a whole lot of irritating characters with the exception of Kidman’s charismatic psycho-bitch.

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TO DIE FOR left me with a lot of mixed feelings. On one hand, the story here is really interesting. On the other, suspense is compromised multiple times by the mockumentary approach that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense by the end of the film (there are a couple of plot holes). There’s a Danny Elfman score that works in some scenes, but ruins others. Nicole Kidman gives a stellar performance as a well-fleshed out femme fatale, but everyone else feels wooden or clichéd. Overall, TO DIE FOR is a severely mixed bag that’s worth watching once if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

Grade: C+

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