BRIGHT (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: David Ayer

Written by: Max Landis

Starring: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Lucy Fry, Edgar Ramirez, Ike Barinholtz, Happy Anderson, Dawn Olivieri, Matt Gerald, Margaret Cho & Brad William Henke

Whether or not you’ve actually seen it, you’ve likely heard something about Netflix’s BRIGHT by now. This fantasy-crime film is the streaming service’s first attempt at huge blockbuster entertainment (sporting a budget of around 90 million dollars) and quickly became one of the most-watched programs in Netflix history. BRIGHT left a lot of polarized reactions in its wake, with some people outright hating it and others calling it a fun gem. I fall somewhere in the middle. This film has surprisingly great moments alongside heavy-handed attempts at obvious social commentary. Without further ado, let’s get into the nitty gritty of why BRIGHT isn’t as bright as it thinks it is.

In a world much like our own, except it’s also populated by orcs, elves, and fairies, Daryl Ward (Will Smith) is a human police officer who’s wary of his orc partner Jakoby (Joel Edgerton). A few months ago, Ward was shot on the job by an orc and he currently believes that Jakoby might have let the suspect go out of orc brotherhood ties. When the mismatched pair of police officers come across a grisly crime scene, they find quiet elf girl Leilah (Lucy Fry) and a magic wand (the equivalent of a wish-granting nuke). Word soon hits the streets that the human-orc pair are in possession of the magic wand. This means that Ward and Jakoby are running for their lives from corrupt cops, gun-wielding gangsters, brutal orcs, and a mysterious group of stab-happy elves. Also, there’s something about a vague prophecy, but you can likely guess where that is going.

Credit where credit is due, BRIGHT has well-shot action sequences. Though the film’s first third is slow and filled with groan-worthy moments (more on those in a minute), the last two-thirds run at a non-stop fast pace as soon as the wand comes into play. Director David Ayer knows how to competently shoot action scenes and that talent still comes across in this film…as silly and cliched as the material might be. The visuals are slick and it’s clear that a lot of money was poured into this project. This is Netflix’s biggest production so far and it shows. With a sequel already greenlit, it’s obvious that the company was impressed by what Ayer was able to pull off.

Even though it drops the ball on numerous occasions, BRIGHT contains a few creative concepts that are a lot of fun. The idea of a magic wand as a weapon of mass destruction sounds silly, but fits right into this over-the-top crime-ridden fantasy world. The idea that fairies are treated as insect-like pests and that stereotypes are attributed to thuggish orcs and aristocratic elves is dumb fun. However, BRIGHT really falters in its half-assed world building because certain developments are just plain confusing. Apparently, the Alamo did happen and SHREK still exists in this world…despite there being orcs, elves, magic, and clearly forces that are larger than humans. Is SHREK the equivalent of a really racist cartoon to these orcs? Inquiring minds (mostly my own) want to know.

BRIGHT gets really sloppy in its not-so-subtle social commentary, which is heavy-handed beyond belief. David Ayer has made powerful statements in past films. TRAINING DAY dove into horrifying corruption in law enforcement and how gangs can hold a code of their own to protect moral people in the right circumstances (highlighted by the powerful final moments that will forever be burned into my mind). FURY dove into the unrelenting terror of World War II and just how hopeless combat must have seemed for soldiers (regardless of how much brotherhood they felt during battle). BRIGHT basically tries to dive into what TRAINING DAY did, but nearly rips off parts of the former in many key moments. One particular scene seems directly lifted from TRAINING DAY’s intense, unforgettable final third of TRAINING DAY…but with orcs are involved and a magic wand.

As the supposedly racist cop who actually seems like a flawed (decent enough) protagonist, Will Smith elicits a few laughs and delivers enough charisma in his performance. Joel Edgerton (hidden under layers of make-up and bad CGI) fumbles with his part as the dorky orc officer. Part of the reason for my annoyance with Edgerton’s orc comes as a direct result of the character himself. However, other complaints come from Edgerton’s wooden delivery of certain lines. It’s like he knows that this is ridiculously stupid and just needed a quick paycheck (hopefully to pave the way for better films like his underrated directorial debut THE GIFT).

At the end of the day, BRIGHT is about as predictable as films can get. As soon as a supporting character delivers obvious exposition (and then is immediately forgotten about afterwards), the viewer can accurately guess one huge “surprise” in the final act. This plot development feels like a further slap in the face to the viewer, aside from the fact that this film runs at two hours and easily could have been trimmed by around 30 minutes. BRIGHT really drops the ball in its misguided attempts at social commentary (racism is signified by a childish “Kick Me!” sign on an orc’s back), sloppy world building, paper-thin characters, and piss-poor writing. The pace is fast, some of the spectacle looks good, and the action scenes are fun. However, the positives and negatives balance each other out for a strictly apathetic middle-of-the-road experience. Nothing more, nothing less.

Grade: C

SUICIDE SQUAD (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Violence and Action throughout, Disturbing Behavior, Suggestive Content and Language

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Directed by: David Ayer

Written by: David Ayer

(based on the SUICIDE SQUAD comics by John Ostrander)

Starring: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Cara Delevingne, Karen Fukuhara, Adam Beach, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood & Ben Affleck

SUICIDE SQUAD has been one of my most anticipated films of 2016. It should be mentioned that I wasn’t exactly sold on Jared Leto’s Joker and strongly disliked BATMAN v SUPERMAN. Still, there was something about this supervillain team-up film that had me stoked! The marketing was great and showcased crazy energy that would be essential for a movie like this. Though generally negative reviews have gotten this third DC Extended Cinematic Universe entry rated lower than BATMAN v SUPERMAN on Rotten Tomatoes, I had a blast watching SUICIDE SQUAD. The film isn’t free of flaws (all of which I’ll discuss in a moment), but it also has a lot of things to like! So far, this is my favorite installment of the new DC Cinematic Universe.

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In response to the world’s growing superhuman phenomenon, government operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles a team of very bad people who she believes can do some good. This secret task force, dubbed the Suicide Squad, is led by hard-headed veteran Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) with sword-wielding Katana (Karen Fukuhara) at his side. Under Flagg’s command are: psycho-clown Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), sharp-shooter Deadshot (Will Smith), human torch El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), drunken bloke Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), human-reptile Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and grappling expert Slipknot (Adam Beach). This ragtag team of supervillains must work together if they wish to save the world from the evil Enchantress (Cara Delevingne).

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The main quality that sets SUICIDE SQUAD apart from tons of other superhero films is that these protagonists are out-and-out supervillains. These characters committed horrible crimes in their past and don’t necessarily feel bad about any of the evil things they’ve done. Instead of saving the day for the right reasons and out of the goodness of their hearts, these bad guys wish to regain their freedom and aren’t above contemplating plenty of ways to murder Flagg and escape. Instead of being a story of good vs. evil, SUICIDE SQUAD is all about bad vs. worse.

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As far as the team members go, there are definite stand-outs, cool supporting characters and disappointingly glorified cameos. The best performances come from Margot Robbie as fan favorite Harley Quinn and Will Smith as Deadshot. Both of these Batman villains have never been featured in a live-action blockbuster before and they make a grand big-screen entrance here. Margot Robbie remarkably encapsulates every mannerism that Harley Quinn has in the comics and cartoons, while also doing a perfect voice for the character. Will Smith actually gains a bit of sympathy as Deadshot by playing the assassin as a loving father who happens to earn money from heartlessly executing people.

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Jay Hernandez delivers unexpected humanity as former gangster turned peaceful pyro El Diablo. This character was given more development than the other supporting characters thanks to a well-executed tragic backstory. El Diablo’s reluctance to engage in violence makes him an interesting character to watch. Meanwhile, Jai Courtney brings his best performance yet (not exactly high praise) as comical Captain Boomerang. This character got the biggest laughs out of me, even more than Harley Quinn. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Killer Croc doesn’t get much to do aside from looking cool in the background. Meanwhile, Viola Davis is solid as amoral Amanda Waller and Joel Kinnaman is likable enough as Rick Flagg.

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Though it’s a lot of fun and very entertaining, SUICIDE SQUAD has major problems in two big areas: the villain and the editing. Concerning the former, Enchantress is cool to look at. The constant special effects surrounding her, the mindless drones she controls, and the magical havoc are all very neat to the eyes. However, her motivation is nothing more than the typical world domination that we’ve already seen plenty of times from other supervillains, especially in the past couple of years (e.g. Ultron, Dr. Doom, and Apocalypse). In the end, she’s a generic villain with an awesome look.

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As for the sloppy editing, that’s a direct result of Warner Brothers’ desperation after BATMAN v SUPERMAN slightly underperformed at the box office. In an effort to combat the possibility of SUICIDE SQUAD flopping and disappointing more people, multiple cuts of this movie were made and then glued together in the messy theatrical version. This isn’t annoying to a degree where the movie is outright terrible or bad, but it’s definitely noticeable. For instance, Viola Davis gets five seconds of voice-over narration in the prologue and never receives any more throughout the entire running time. In a far more egregious decision, every Joker scene seems butchered or totally excised from the film. I still can’t tell you what I honestly thought of Jared Leto’s new take on the clown prince of crime, because I’ve less than five minutes of screen time from him.

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Even with its undeniable problems taken into consideration, SUICIDE SQUAD remains a thoroughly enjoyable summer movie filled with energy, cool visuals and humor that works. It’s a crazy comic book flick that definitely could (and should) have been better, but functions on being fun and entertaining! I’ll take that over dull, dreary and bloated any day of the week!

Grade: B

INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Destruction and Violence

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Directed by: Roland Emmerich

Written by: Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich

Starring: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, Randy Quaid, Margaret Colin & Vivica A. Fox

Though it’s simply a dumb popcorn flick, INDEPENDENCE DAY caused shock waves in the cinematic world that resonated years after its initial release. This summer blockbuster kicked off the “tradition” of tentpole movies being marketed during the Superbowl, also birthed a trend of large-scale disaster films and science fiction epics that took up theater screens through the late 90’s, and showcased groundbreaking special effects. Besides causing all of those latter effects, INDEPENDENCE DAY broke records and became one of the biggest movies of the 90’s (in box office terms). While the story is flimsy, the characters are thin, and there’s an undeniable cheesiness to the entire film, INDEPENDENCE DAY rocks in terms of entertainment and spectacle. I am surprised by how well it has stood the test of time. This is 145 minutes of pure fun!

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July 2, 1996. A massive UFO approaches Earth. As millions of Americans prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July and people around the world go about their daily lives, something very threatening waits on the horizon. The question of whether or not we’re alone in the universe has been answered in a massive way. A group of huge spaceships surround the world and it appears that these aliens don’t come in peace. Fiery craters erupt. Famous landmarks are reduced to ash. A large amount of the planet’s population is lost. Still, hope emerges when various individuals from different backgrounds come together to take these aliens down!

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Fighter pilot Steve Hiller (Will Smith) takes to the skies, while his girlfriend (Vivica A. Fox) and her son (Ross Bagley) make their way across a hopeless landscape of destruction. President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) attempts to do all he can with different tactics and combat strategies, but at the end of the day his inspirational words may be the most powerful weapons of all. Computer geek David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) desperately searches for a technological way to stop the spaceship’s powerful shields. Meanwhile, redneck Russell Casse (Randy Quaid) tries to keep his children safe. These characters will all encounter one another in different ways and they will have to face seemingly impossible odds if they wish to save the day…and Earth as we know it.

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Though it’s over two hours long, there’s hardly a dull moment in INDEPENDENCE DAY. The first scene kicks off with the massive approaching spacecraft and the President being informed about the extraterrestrial situation. Though the characters are mostly thin in that there’s a President, a geek, the geek’s ex-wife, a pilot, the pilot’s family, a drunken redneck, his family, and a few other side characters, there are moments that try to develop them further…even though these scenes mostly show how these people connect to one another. This large cast’s three main standouts are easily Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman. However, Judd Hirsch, Randy Quaid, Vivica Fox, and Margaret Colin all receive a substantial amount of screen time as well.

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During its slower scenes and so-so attempts at character development, INDEPENDENCE DAY remains entertaining thanks to a sense of humor and the impending threat of giant alien ships hovering over major cities. Once the action kicks in, the film has copious amounts of large-scale destruction, intense battles, and lots of alien lore. The film could have simply left its plot at aliens attacking the Earth and humans being unprepared…but still saving the day regardless. Instead, past urban legends, conspiracy theories, and strange occurrences in our country’s history serve as fun plot points.

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Director/co-writer Roland Emmerich wisely decides to keep the aliens in the dark for a majority of the film’s running time. We see lots of UFOs, but know little about their intergalactic inhabitants…until one annoying comic relief character pops in to throw a ton of exposition at the viewer. We’re about halfway into the action before we get a long look at one of these freaky tentacled beasties. Their appearance is reminiscent enough of the “little green men,” but also incorporates small creative details. There’s actually a jump scare in this movie that still holds up perfectly. Even after showing us the otherworldly menace, Emmerich doesn’t seem to revel much in the hordes of invading aliens. We mostly get glowing ships and flying spacecraft.

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INDEPENDENCE DAY weaves multiple storylines in and out of each other and thus creates a large-scale feeling, even if all of the main characters happen to live in one nation and the threat spans across the entire planet. There’s a definite patriotic feeling going strong through this movie and it revels in moments of people from different backgrounds uniting as one force. As cheesy as that may be, it’s something to be praised. Bill Pullman’s inspirational speech near the film’s finale still serves as a genuinely powerful moment in a movie that’s basically about aliens shooting green light at earthlings.

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INDEPENDENCE DAY has plenty of clichés and silly moments, but those ultimately become part of the fun. The characters are thin and the plot is predictable, but that doesn’t really matter when the entertainment factor is amazingly strong and the spectacle still wows audiences today. I happened to catch INDEPENDENCE DAY on the big screen right before its sequel and there were plenty of cheers, applause and laughs to be had from modern audience watching this film over two decades after its original release. The film is definitely flawed and far from perfect, but it’s so damn enjoyable that you might not even care. Simply put, INDEPENDENCE DAY is a silly B-flick that was given A-level spectacle and fun. There’s something oddly inspiring about that in and of itself.

Grade: B+

FOCUS (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

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

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Directed by: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa

Written by: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa

Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, B.D. Wong, Rodrigo Santoro, Robert Taylor & Gerald McRaney

The marketing for FOCUS made the film out to be a disaster. First, there was definite confusion over exactly what genre this film fit in. Is it a romance? A comedy? A crime caper? All of the above? Then there was a lack of a clear plot evident in a trailer as well as Will Smith starring in a role that seemed to allow him to be over-the-top one-liner spewing Smith that we already know far too well. I don’t know what film the trailers for FOCUS were advertising, because the movie I sat through was far better than it originally looked. FOCUS is a throwaway crime-romance, but it also happens to be fairly enjoyable while it lasts.

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Nicky Spurgeon, a professional con artist, meets Jess Barrett, an amateur thief, at a bar one night. After hitting it off through her failed attempt at stealing from him, Nicky takes Jess under his wing to show her the ropes of how to properly con someone. It is the dawn of the Superbowl, which ensures lots of potential suckers will be together in one place to prey on. Nicky, Jess, and the rest of his crew plan on pulling off some big cons, which might blow up in their faces. What I’ve described could have been the entire plot of the film, but it only serves as the premise for the first half. The second half radically shifts into a different storyline with the same characters in Argentina. While the film is entertaining, this unfocused narrative is one of the main problems I have with FOCUS.

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The script revolves around a group of con artists and their expensive exploits, but there is a clear romantic angle front and center. This is actually where FOCUS gets most of its strength. Will Smith and Margot Robbie have great chemistry together that comes across in their characters. Though he’s become known for playing over-the-top action heroes, Nicky is actually Smith’s best role in years. He’s an anti-hero, but also has enough good qualities surrounding him that you can’t help but root for him. Meanwhile, Jess is just as compelling and Margot Robbie brings her to convincing life. She can be naïve and foolish, but I loved the character of Jess as well. In the big bad department, this criminal couple get mixed up with a variety of dangerous people including an eccentric Chinese gambler, a wealthy billionaire (played especially well by Rodrigo Santoro), and said billionaire’s paranoid body-guard. All three of these antagonists are enjoyable in their screen time, but don’t necessarily take up as much of the film as they probably should have.

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The biggest problem with FOCUS is the dual narrative that’s split right down the middle of the running time. This feels like two scripts got shoved into one movie and while neither of those scripts is necessarily bad, they don’t flow well together with only a “Three years later…” tag connecting them. FOCUS’s screenplay doesn’t only suffer from lack of a steady storytelling pace, but also from a couple of far-fetched moments that bring significant plot holes. Characters try to explain these logic gaps to the audience with weak excuses, but I wasn’t buying them. There’s one twist too many by the conclusion that had me rolling my eyes.

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A definite style and confidence is present though. The crime scenes are well executed with huge laughs in how elaborate the cons are. FOCUS felt like it was in the same vein as OCEAN’S ELEVEN and I could definitely see that target audience eating this film right up. The glossy cinematography looks beautiful, including one early scene in snow-covered streets and the latter half set in gorgeous Buenos Aires. The soundtrack works half of the time (with a certain Rolling Stones song used to great effect) and going into downright distracting territory during other moments.

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FOCUS is a decent crime-romance that suffers from narrative problems and a couple of plot holes. The film’s overall style and chemistry between the leads save it from being mediocre. There are many scenes that do work in this film and I can’t say that I was ever mad or bored at any point (even though there is a pretty dumb twist in the final 10 minutes). For fans of crime capers or those looking for a good date movie, FOCUS should work just fine.

Grade: C+

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