CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of Violence, Action and Mayhem.

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Directed by: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

Written by: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

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

Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Holland, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Bruhl, Martin Freeman & Marisa Tomei

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is the thirteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has hit varying degrees of quality throughout the years. While a couple of MCU installments have been disappointing, none of them have been downright bad and Captain America currently has the best entry with THE WINTER SOLDIER. CIVIL WAR is very much a CAPTAIN AMERICA film and never loses sight of that, but also happens to feature most of the Avengers and even introduces a few new faces into the mix. With all of these characters, lots of action, and a fast-paced narrative, CIVIL WAR is a hugely entertaining ride for superhero fans!

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Set a year after AGE OF ULTRON, we open with a handful of the Avengers botching a mission to wrestle a biological weapon away from havoc-wreaking terrorist Crossbones (Frank Grillo). In the chaos, some innocent civilians are accidentally killed. This disaster results in 117 countries coming together to establish the Sokovia Accords, which would give the United Nations control over the Avengers. While Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and other Avengers (Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany) see this as a bittersweet necessity, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and the remaining Avengers (Anthony Mackie, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen) find themselves at odds over the potentially unethical side to this political deal. When Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) re-emerges, the Avengers literally fight amongst themselves and Captain America discovers that other dangerous forces are also at work.

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Seeing as this cast of characters contains a whopping twelve superheroes and ten of those are returning faces, I’m only going to mention my personal points of interest so we’re not here all day. It was nice to see Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) receive better treatment here than they got in ULTRON, while Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) delivers a stand-out moment that generated thunderous applause from the audience in my theater. The already established rivalry between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers becomes even more heated and fists are thrown. CIVIL WAR does a fantastic job of forcing the viewer to understand the two differing points of views and sympathizing with both of them. There were multiple moments where I was emotionally confused as to who I was rooting for, because I loved these characters so much and didn’t want to see either of them get hurt (let alone by each other). You’ll probably have your loyalties tested and I was certainly switching sides during a couple of key scenes.

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CIVIL WAR also introduces two hotly anticipated superheroes into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these being: Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). I didn’t know much about Black Panther walking into this movie, but enjoyed seeing this clawed hero in action during a handful of stand-out moments, including one very tense chase. As the third big-screen incarnation of Spider-Man, Tom Holland is far and away the best Peter Parker we’ve seen yet. Besides a great-looking suit and trademark webbing, Holland’s version of Spidey is armed with the perfect amount of quips and a smart-aleck sense of humor. Though he has a short amount of screen time (three scenes), Holland definitely stands out as one of CIVIL WAR’s biggest highlights and I’m very excited to see him  take center stage in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.

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CIVIL WAR falters when it comes to the antagonists, because all three of them are undeveloped. William Hurt reprises his role as a bland government official who sees the Avengers as a potential threat and wants to exert some form of control over them. Frank Grillo shows up for a glorified cameo as Crossbones, which was a disappointment when you consider the character development he received in WINTER SOLDIER. I won’t say much about Daniel Bruhl’s character for fear of spoilers, but I will say that the film dishes out little details about him until one big exposition dump. While I liked his character’s motivation and plan, these were both revealed in a heavy-handed manner that opened up a few minor plot holes.

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One of CIVIL WAR’s most impressive qualities is that it never comes close to overstaying its welcome. This is the longest movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and never feels like it. Packing twelve heroes into one script might signal a potential overcrowding problem, but that is far from the case here. Even brief side characters receive their time to shine. CIVIL WAR gives me faith that the Russo brothers will pull off INFINITY WAR with more skill than Joss Whedon utilized in the overlong and overcrowded ULTRON. My only other complaint with this third CAPTAIN AMERICA outing is evident in earlier scenes, which rely on quick editing and annoying shaky-cam that slightly obscure the action. These problems are quickly remedied during the second half, when the camera becomes steadier.

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is my third favorite film of the thirteen established Marvel Cinematic Universe entries thus far (falling behind WINTER SOLDIER and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY). Early action scenes and underdeveloped antagonists keep the film from reaching perfection, but the sheer amount of hero on hero conflict and strong writing cement CIVIL WAR as another winner for both Marvel and Captain America. You probably already know if you’ll be seeing this film and it’s bound to be one of 2016’s biggest money-makers (if not the biggest). It’s great to see a summer blockbuster that relies on more than special effects and fan service. CIVIL WAR contains both of those, but they happen to be executed with smart storytelling and emotional weight behind them. In the end, that makes a world of difference.

Grade: A-

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal Violence, Graphic Sexuality, Nudity, Language and some Drug Use

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Directed by: David Cronenberg

Written by: Josh Olson

(based on the graphic novel A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE by John Wagner & Vince Locke)

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Peter MacNeill & Stephen McHattie

David Cronenberg made waves with his unique brand of body-horror (SHIVERS, THE BROOD, VIDEODROME) and a number of dark psychological thrillers (DEAD RINGERS, CRASH, SPIDER). This filmmaker seems most comfortable when he’s making difficult films that are sure to be a hit on the art-house circuit, but won’t likely connect with the general public. However, Cronenberg has also crafted a handful of mainstream hits. Next to his remake of THE FLY, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE just might be his most accessible movie. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, VIOLENCE isn’t a bloody shoot-em-up from start to finish as its name implies, but rather a dark drama with spurts of graphic bloodshed. Those expecting a simple action thriller will find themselves disappointed, while those hoping for something deeper will be rewarded.

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Tom Stall has made a good life for himself in a small peaceful Indiana town. He is a loving husband, a devoted father to his two children, and runs a little restaurant. One night, everything changes when two convicts attempt to violently rob Tom’s diner. With quick reflexes and a steady trigger finger, he kills both men. This has him lauded as a local hero by the townsfolk and news, but Tom is the quiet type and neither wants credit, nor the attention. There might be a reason for Tom’s reserved manner about the incident as some shady people, including a dead-eyed man, show up claiming that Tom is actually someone named “Joey.” As the Stall family’s encounters with these threatening men begin to reach a frightening peak, it’s clear that Tom might not actually be who he says he is.

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HISTORY OF VIOLENCE is definitely a story with pulp conventions. As a result, there are some clichés (e.g. a kid being used as collateral), bits of cheesy dialogue, and the plot doesn’t exactly head in areas that we couldn’t correctly guess from miles away. However, the way that David Cronenberg treats this familiar material makes all the difference. More an examination of violence rather than just another action-oriented gangster tale with gun fights and explosions, there’s a dark emotional honest core at the center of VIOLENCE. The film takes its time to examine not just the restaurant incident’s effect of Tom (who’s slowly becoming a more confrontational individual), but also how his teenage son’s escalating conflict with a bully as well as Edie, Tom’s wife, watching her picture-perfect life crumbling around her.

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As Tom Stall, Viggo Mortensen transforms into a small town guy with a dark secret. Once his character’s shadowy past comes to light, Mortensen does a brilliant job in showcasing Tom’s (or is it Joey’s?) darker side in a natural way that doesn’t feel out-of-place in the context of the story. Maria Bello is excellent as Tom’s wife and not simply a damsel in distress, but a woman faced with a life-changing revelation and must make difficult decisions as a result of that. In the villains department, the movie showcases great talent. Stephen McHattie (the smallest of the bad guys) has a memorable three-scene role as the thug who holds up Tom’s diner. Ed Harris is downright frightening as the dead-eyed man who’s stalking the Stall family. William Hurt doesn’t reveal himself until the final third of the film, but more than makes up for that with a sinister performance.

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Though it’s far more restrained than those expecting a blood-soaked action flick might hope, Cronenberg delivers graphic gory visuals in his real-world approach to the pulpy material. When someone gets a bullet through their skull, we get a brief shot of their face blown halfway to hell and them choking on their blood. In another instance, someone’s nose is beaten to a gory crater. These scenes definitely don’t make up a majority of the story, which is all about build-up and the effect that these violent incidents are having on the lives of the Stall family, but they exist. The only moment that really felt exaggerated and silly to me was an unrealistic sex scene that comes right the hell out of nowhere during the second half. Otherwise, Cronenberg executes this somewhat clichéd material with a steady hand, heavy atmosphere, and careful attention to detail.

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A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE might disappoint some people in not being a violent action-packed tale from start to finish, but instead being a dark slow-burn drama with shocking bursts of bloodshed. Cronenberg might not have made a straight-up genre picture or psychological head-trip this time around, but he told a story that seems all too frightening and relevant in our current times. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE examines just how thin the barrier between a calm simple day and bloody chaos really is, as well as the life-shattering effects that violence can have on both victims and perpetrators.

Grade: A-

TUCK EVERLASTING (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some Violence

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Directed by: Jay Russell

Written by: Jeffrey Lieber & James V. Hart

(based on the novel TUCK EVERLASTING by Natalie Babbitt)

Starring: Alexis Bledel, Jonathan Jackson, Ben Kingsley, William Hurt, Sissy Spacek, Scott Bairstow, Amy Irving & Victor Garber

I still remember studying TUCK EVERLASTING in Elementary School. Though I only read the book once, it had enough of a lasting impact to stick in my mind. What’s really surprising is that this acclaimed children’s book has only been adapted into film twice. There was a 1981 little-known flick and this 2002 Disney version. As with many book-to-film adaptations (especially those backed by Disney), changes have been made to the source material. TUCK EVERLASTING hearkens back to a riskier time for live-action Disney fare. This may not be as dark as SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES or WATCHER IN THE WOODS, but there’s definitely a more sinister side to this fairy tale. Ironically enough, TUCK EVERLASTING is more likely to entertain adults and preteens, than many kids. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. Don’t go in expecting a cutesy, glowing fantasy that’s safe for the entire family. Rather, expect a fairy tale with a dark side, high concepts and deep questions.

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The time is 1914. Winnie Foster is a 15-year-old girl smothered by her rich parents. Winnie’s overly protective mother wants her daughter to be a “proper” woman, but Winnie just wants to explore the world around her. After a particularly nasty argument between child and parent, Winnie gets lost in the woods surrounding her family’s house and stumbles upon a teenage boy drinking from a mysterious spring. The boy is Jesse Tuck and the spring happens to be the fountain of youth. Worried that she will reveal the life-giving spring, Jesse’s family decides to “kidnap” Winnie. As she spends time with this family of four, Winnie begins to fall for Jesse. Meanwhile, a menacing stranger is on the hunt for the immortal Tuck family…and their life-giving water.

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The plot initially seems like a fairly straightforward fantasy-romance, but deeper themes about what it means to be alive and impending death also permeate through this story. There’s a fantastical atmosphere hovering over every frame. For the most part, the cast really sell their characters. I haven’t seen her in many notable roles, but Alexis Bledel is great as Winnie. Sissy Spacek and William Hurt, though underused, are perfectly cast in the roles of Jesse’s parents. Scott Bairstow is a scene-stealer as Jesse’s brother who sees eternal life as much more of a curse than a blessing. However, Jonathan Jackson is mighty bland as Jesse and takes on the role of a character who is probably the second most important person in the story. Jackson’s wooden delivery turns the character of Jesse into only a bland romantic lead and nothing else. This also results in would-be chemistry between himself and Bledel feeling totally unconvincing. The romance is rushed, but there isn’t a terribly long amount of time dedicated to it. Running at only 90 minutes, TUCK EVERLASTING has a lot of material to get through in a short amount of time.

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Despite my last comment about TUCK EVERLASTING running at only 90 minutes, there are a couple of moments that do drag. These are definitely the romantic scenes between Winnie and Jesse. The opening 15 minutes or so feel very rough as well with choppy editing. Things get much smoother once Winnie actually meets Jesse, though there are two distinct moments of clichéd slow-motion. A more sinister quality can be much appreciated with Ben Kingsley filling in the role of evil villain. He isn’t given as many scenes as one might hope, but Kingsley brings a higher quality to the film for every minute that he’s on the screen.

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TUCK EVERLASTING is far from perfect, but amounts to wholly enjoyable time well spent. An unusually mature tone makes TUCK a nice change of pace from the overly safe typical live-action Disney fare that we see so much of these days. The romance is forced thanks to a bland performance, but more serious and interesting parts of the story remain firmly in tact…creative licensing aside. TUCK EVERLASTING is not as potentially great as it could have been, but it’s the best film adaptation we can hope for (until someone eventually tries to give the material a third cinematic attempt).

Grade: B

THE HOST (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Sensuality and Violence

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Directed by: Andrew Niccol

Written by: Andrew Niccol

(based on the novel THE HOST by Stephenie Meyer)

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Max Irons, Jake Abel, Frances Fisher, Chandler Canterbury, Diane Kruger, William Hurt & Emily Browning

In the vast recesses of young adult adaptations, I doubt I’ve run across one that is crammed full of mind-boggling stupidity as THE HOST. Based on a novel by Stephenie Meyer (author of the TWILIGHT saga), the premise is basically INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS with romance thrown in. We all know that the one thing that terrifying science-fiction/horror movie needed was more sweeping shots of people kissing. That’s exactly what THE HOST delivers in a film that misses every opportunity of creativity thrown at it. This is all coupled along with one-dimensional characters and convoluted plot twists that come right the hell out of nowhere. This is a really dumb movie and there’s no way of avoiding that.

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In the not too distant future, the human race is nearly extinct. A parasitic race of aliens, Souls, have invaded human bodies and are using them as their own. Melanie (Saoirse Ronan) is a young girl who has become the latest host of one of these Souls. The particular alien inhabiting her is called Wanderer. Much to Wanderer’s dismay, Melanie is not completely absent from her now taken-over body. Her consciousness is trapped inside her controlled form and unable to communicate to anybody except for Wanderer. A Seeker (form of authority in this newfound society) has become suspicious of Wanderer’s behavior and is planning on exterminating Melanie’s body, but the alien parasite and Melanie’s consciousness work together in order to find the remaining family that she comes from. Some romance ensues between Wanderer/Melanie and two different boys (Jared and Ian), all while the threat of the Seeker finding her increases and the paranoia of the survivors in the colony grows. That’s about the best I can sum up this premise.

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One might not be expecting too much from THE HOST and rightly so. Stephenie Meyer is a piss-poor writer (having read about a third of the novel this film is based on and giving up on it). The book took far too long to get going, but a two-hour movie would most likely have a better pace. It does, but the problem lies within the convoluted plot and wooden acting. To be perfectly honest, things don’t make a whole lot of sense. The viewer isn’t given a whole lot of character development. With Andrew Niccol penning the script and sitting in the director’s chair, some significant deviations were made from the source material. Even with these changes, Niccol didn’t see fit to flesh out these characters further. They come off as one-dimensionally as Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. Therefore the motivations behind these people/aliens seem specifically driven, but a few turns come later on in the plot that get completely far-fetched and downright confusing. Coincidences and delayed decisions induce a lot of eye-rolling. It’s a poorly constructed plot to say the least.

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As far as the acting goes, nobody gives anything close to resembling a halfway decent performance. Saoirse Ronan is hollow as both Wanderer and the mostly disembodied voice of Melanie. The love interests are nothing more than pretty boys cast for their looks. The most capable actor here is William Hurt as Melanie’s uncle Jeb and he’s the most likable character, which isn’t saying much as Jeb is pretty much a redneck stereotype. The trailer also showcases some action scenes, of which there’s only one real one in the entire film (about halfway through). In fact, the conflict between Wanderer/Melanie and the Seeker is so half-assed in its conclusion that it makes every scene featuring the two feel entirely pointless. The visual scheme is ugly to begin with and the dull settings don’t necessarily make things any better. The effects are also worthy of a Syfy Channel film.

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The biggest compliment I can give THE HOST comes in it being far more fast paced than the novel it’s based on. That one attribute doesn’t make it a good, decent or even tolerable film though. It’s a stupid story with bad characters and an infuriating conclusion. THE HOST is somehow even worse than the TWILIGHT SAGA. At least those films had some sort of continuity and made more sense within their universe, despite how silly things got. THE HOST is terrible all around!

Grade: F

CHANGING LANES (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language

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Directed by: Roger Michell

Written by: Chap Taylor, Michael Tolkin

Starring: Ben Affleck, Samuel L. Jackson, Toni Collette, Sydney Pollack, Richard Jenkins, William Hurt, Amanda Peet, Dylan Baker

Is it really so strange to think that a simple road rage can escalate into something even more dangerous? There have been plenty of six o’clock news stories that began with road rage and ended with someone being either injured or killed in the street. CHANGING LANES is a thriller revolving around two very different men whose lives literally collide on the highway and the rapid downward spirals they both take. Featuring a big name case (even at the time) and clearly made with a substantial budget, the film was a box office success and praised among critics. Now that over a decade has passed, it seems like it’s been forgotten in the annals of cinematic history. Although I wouldn’t say it’s a great movie, as it does have some big flaws, it is a decent enough and (at times) unconventional thriller.

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Gavin is a cutthroat successful lawyer. Doyle is a recovering alcoholic. Both men are headed to the courthouse for entirely different reasons. Gavin has to get some files there in order to avoid being sued and Doyle has a hearing for joint custody of his children. After an accident leaves Doyle’s car totaled, Gavin writes a blank check and drives off without even giving the poor guy a ride to the same building he was already going to. Quickly discovering that he left an important file on the side of the road with Doyle, Gavin tries to get the document back. This is difficult, because Doyle is intent on teaching this hotshot lawyer a lesson in ethics. Ironically, this results in a dangerous feud between both men doing horrible things to make the other’s life as miserable as possible.

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CHANGING LANES is remarkable in its buildup to the actual collision itself. The viewer is introduced to both Gavin (Ben Affleck) and Doyle (Samuel L. Jackson). Affleck is usually hollow, but every once in a great while, he puts in a decent performance. Gavin is one of these cases. Samuel L. Jackson is the real standout of the entire film. I felt for the character of Doyle. The sheer amount of frustration he was experienced permeated through the screen and into my own emotions. Needless to say, I was on Doyle’s side the whole way, but other viewers may feel differently. This may be thrown into the same type of character battle as HARD CANDY, meaning that viewer’s may be manipulated into switching sides on more than once. In this respect, an interesting conversation among fellow film buffs might be why you were rooting for who at what point in the film.

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There are plenty of familiar faces in the supporting characters as well. While Toni Collette (THE WAY WAY BACK), Richard Jenkins (KILLING THEM SOFTLY), and Dylan Baker (TRICK ‘R TREAT) show up through Affleck’s storyline, the only real memorable side-character of note in Jackson’s life is his sponsor played by William Hurt (MR. BROOKS). Hurt also delivers the best piece of dialogue in the entire film. You’ll know it when you see it. However, there is one character whose appearance is damn near pointless and that’s Gavin’s seemingly emotionless wife played by Amanda Peet. This actress can range from good to terrible, depending on which movie you’re watching her in. She’s just plain wooden in CHANGING LANES. Some might argue that’s the point of her character, but I feel the purpose she appeared in two scenes for would have been more impactful, if she had more of an emotional range.

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The premise of CHANGING LANES is a great one and could make for a fantastic movie. This is the case for the first hour, then things steadily begin to strain credibility and go over-the-top. The running time is much longer than it should have been. As stated before, the plot is gripping for the first hour and then it significantly overstays its welcome. Just when the film should be at the highest peak of intensity, it decides to wax on about philosophy and how thin the line that separates ethics from chaos is. If the film had saved maybe one intense dialogue for the ending or used the significant one that William Hurt goes on about, that would have been more than enough. Instead, the message is as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face.

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CHANGING LANES begins with a bang and concludes with a whimper. To make matters worse, the ending is tied with a little bow on top that felt out-of-place in the story that had been taking place for the past 90 minutes. Samuel L. Jackson is great as a character unlike many others he’s played. Affleck is better in this film than all of the roles that have earned him the rotten reputation he has among the general public. The real problems come from the overlong running time and the not-so-subtle repeated moral of the story. CHANGING LANES would have been great as a tighter film that stayed true to the tone of the first hour. Instead, it’s a decent watch, but it’s not one that I’ll be adding to my collection. Worth a rental.

Grade: B-

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