THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Rude Humor and some Action

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Directed by: Chris McKay

Written by: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern & John Whittington

Voices of: Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Mariah Carey, Jenny Slate, Susan Bennett, Billy Dee Williams, Hector Elizondo, Conan O’Brien, Jason Mantzoukas, Doug Benson, Zoe Kravitz, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Adam DeVine, Eddie Izzard & Seth Green

The first of three new LEGO movies, THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a spin-off for the popular DC superhero from 2014’s surprisingly awesome THE LEGO MOVIE. Will Arnett has returned to reprise the vocal work for Lego Batman/Bruce Wayne and this film is set entirely within the Lego DC Universe. Filled to the brim with comic book references and call-backs to other movies, LEGO BATMAN never takes itself seriously at all and yet still manages to throw in a touching message about family and friends. Though not as great as its LEGO predecessor, THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is the best DC Comics movie to hit nationwide theatrical release in years. This is a delight for parents, teenagers, and Batman fans who enjoy a good laugh.

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In Lego Gotham City, orphan-turned-superhero Batman (Will Arnett) enjoys wearing black, playing loud music and fighting crime. He’s always saving the day, but has never let anybody else into his life…other than faithful butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes). After Batman foils the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) yet again and hurts the evil clown’s feelings, the villain hatches an ingenious scheme for revenge. Meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson) has stepped into her dad’s shoes as chief of police and has enacted a new “it takes a village, not a Batman” approach to fighting crime. Also, Batman has taken young boywonder Robin under his reluctant parental wing. The real challenge Batman has to face though…is overcoming his fears about family.

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Will Arnett’s Batman was easily one of the funniest parts of THE LEGO MOVIE and he brings everything that fans loved about that character into a feature-length running time. Though this film has a handful of slow moments that drag, Arnett’s comedic timing and purposely brooding voice frequently rescue the story from being “too much of a good thing.” The rest of the voice cast is stellar as well, with Michael Cera delivering some of the biggest laughs as lively, no-pants-wearing Robin. Tons of Batman’s rogue gallery make appearances too, including a lot of C-grade baddies that provide giggles from their mere cameos. My two favorite side villains were Catwoman (who’s constantly saying “mew mew”) and Bane (who’s adopted the strange, but awesome-sounding voice from 2012’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES). Zach Galifianakis also shines in the most sensitive portrayal of the Joker that you’ve ever seen, making for an evil supervillain that throws tantrums like a depressed ex-girlfriend.

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It should come as no surprise that THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is chock-full of movie, TV and comic book references. There are so many jokes within the first five minutes that it seems impossible to catch them all in one viewing. From signs that cheering citizens are holding to bits of dialogue that directly tie into certain films to full-blown footage used from every big-screen Batman in history, there are tons of laughs and in-cannon material here to satisfy diehard Batman fans. The film also throws tons of references towards DC comics in general, featuring cameos from Justice League members and familiar places from Superman’s stories. Even still, the references don’t stop there because there are unexpected non-cannon characters that have a big part to play in the proceedings. I won’t go into detail, but I was grinning ear to ear for a majority of the action-packed climax.

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LEGO BATMAN MOVIE’s message isn’t exactly original, but seems perfectly suited to the nature of Batman’s character and how we’ve seen this character explored in past versions of the material. The film’s lively visuals explode off the screen, looking like stop-motion even though they are actually the result of highly-detailed computer animation. As clever, entertaining and downright fun as LEGO BATMAN is, the plot encounters a few dull stretches. These mainly come in the second act, where we need to see certain things develop. In writing my summary of this film’s story, it struck me that LEGO BATMAN juggles four different subplots and tries to bring them together as a cohesive whole. The script does a solid job of this for the most part, but occasionally meanders as it brings these storylines together. Still, the pay-off, countless references, sheer entertainment value, and never-ending sense of humor are all well-worth the price of admission.

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If you’re a fan of 2014’s THE LEGO MOVIE or any incarnation of Batman, then THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a must-see! I imagine that DC Comics fans will have a field day with the sheer amount of references, tie-ins, and clever writing; all while kids are having a blast watching Lego Batman run around on the screen. I saw LEGO BATMAN in a sold-out movie theater that was filled with families and an apparent birthday party going on the front two rows. At no point, during any minute of the running time, did a child begin crying or a bratty kid act out in any way. That’s almost unheard of, at least for me. Everybody was glued to the screen and that’s a major feat for any family film. Though the pacing isn’t perfect, but THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a ton of fun! Sometimes, that’s all you need!

Grade: B+

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours

MPAA Rating: R for Intense Sequences of Violence throughout, and for Disturbing Images

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Directed by: George Miller

Written by: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy & Nico Lathouris

Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoe Kravitz & Abbey Lee

In 1980, a crazy little Australian revenge-thriller called MAD MAX made it to American shores as a midnight movie. It gained a fast cult following and spawned a sequel titled THE ROAD WARRIOR. The second entry upped the ante on every possible level and become one of the best action films in the history of cinema. Then studio interference screwed up the third entry (BEYOND THUNDERDOME) which had a solid first half and then devolved into a family friendly Peter Pan-esque mess by the end. About thirty years have passed and creator George Miller has finally brought his fourth MAD MAX movie to the screen. With 150 million backing it, this is the most expensive MAD MAX yet and every single dollar is on the screen. In FURY ROAD, George Miller has demonstrated that he has more imagination and kick-ass action in his little finger than a majority of young whippersnappers working these days. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is amazing!

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Functioning as both a reboot and a sequel, we find Max (former cop turned vigilante loner) as a shell of his once-human self. He relies purely on his instinct of survival, but even that isn’t enough to protect him from a violent cult-like community (called the Citadel) who capture him as a slave. When Furiosa (a female warrior) betrays Immortan Joe (the self-proclaimed religious leader of the Citadel) by rescuing a group of brides (kept as his breeders), Max is strapped to the front of a car as a would-be hood ornament/blood donor to one of Joe’s pale-skinned soldiers sent out to capture Furiosa. A sand storm hits and Max escapes from his predicament, only to join Furiousa and her group of escapees. If any of them have a hope of escaping Joe’s clutches, they must fight or die.

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With nearly three decades, it’s clear that George Miller had plenty of time to plan his return to stellar post-apocalyptic form. Every vehicle, character, and set piece is well thought out and elaborately constructed. Miller introduces everything in a way that doesn’t completely spell out anything for the audience, but let’s them see a system in action and learn from it (e.g. the warrior’s suicide rituals, a massive pulley system, and the use of humans as living blood bags). Miller clearly wasn’t worried about going too off the rails in his demented creativity, because this movie starts off insane and only gets crazier from that point forward. Kudos to a man who can pull off a lunatic wielding a flamethrower guitar and making it totally fit within the confines of the movie. Also, the landscapes may be sparse (aside from the canyon city that is the Citadel), but they look stunning. I especially liked how the night scenes appeared in pure blue lighting.

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Tom Hardy serves as a more-than-worthy replacement in Mel Gibson’s shoes as Max. It doesn’t seem like a single characteristic has changed despite a different face in the role. He’s a survivor who isn’t afraid to kill, but also has a heart of gold that slowly comes out of its shell over time. Serving as a fantastic companion is Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. This one-armed warrior ranks among the strongest female badasses to ever grace the silver screen (right alongside the likes of Ellen Ripley from ALIENS and Sarah Connor from TERMINATOR 2). Theron is compelling from the very first scene and ends up as one of the best characters to come out of the whole series. The brides also serve as more than damsels in distress too as they do everything in their power to help fight bad guys and protect their rescuers. Nicholas Hoult gives his best performance yet as Nux (the aforementioned pale-skinned soldier). The villains are also uniquely and delightfully insane.

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Running at two hours, FURY ROAD is the longest MAD MAX movie yet, but manages to feel perfectly paced all the way through. A majority of the film is action, but it’s all beautifully rendered action. You’ve pretty much seen nothing like the scenes in this movie before. It’s all about the brilliant execution of the carnage and mayhem! What’s really neat is to see an action film that’s loaded with scenes that feel like they’re really happening. I don’t know how many cars Miller had built and destroyed for this movie, but I’d wager there were a lot of them. If you can imagine the sheer madness of ROAD WARRIOR’s finale stretched for two hours and never getting boring, you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head as to what watching FURY ROAD feels like.

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It’s not hyperbole to call MAD MAX: FURY ROAD one of the very best summer blockbusters in a long, long time. This movie is gloriously insane and extremely well-crafted! The heroes and heroines are fleshed out and worth rooting for, with main figure of the latter being one of the single best female characters that I’ve ever seen. The levels of creativity and imagination are through the roof. George Miller just schooled pretty much every wannabe action filmmaker who only rely on explosions and computer effects to make films. In FURY ROAD, the characters are developed, the stakes are high and the action gets your adrenaline pumping like no other. It’s said that if this film does well at the box office, there are already sequels lined up. If those future films are anywhere near as excellent as FURY ROAD, bring on more high-octane madness! Go see this movie on the big screen! You’ll be spending your time wisely and it deserves your money and support!

Grade: A+

INSURGENT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Violence and Action throughout, some Sensuality, Thematic Elements and brief Language

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Directed by: Robert Schwentke

Written by: Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman & Mark Bomback

(based on the novel INSURGENT by Veronica Roth)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Octavia Spencer, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet, Mekhi Phifer & Ashley Judd

I was not a fan of DIVERGENT. That movie felt like an overly derivative mess that didn’t have a satisfying story, was filled with bland characters, and lowered even further by a cliché-ridden script. I really, truly hated DIVERGENT. So why am I reviewing INSURGENT? Apparently, I’m a glutton for punishment and asked people on Facebook if they wanted me to keep covering the series until its conclusion. They said yes, so here I am. INSURGENT is slightly better than DIVERGENT. It’s shorter, doesn’t waste time with unnecessary set-up, and manages to smuggle in a couple of cool action scenes. However, new problems arise in really stupid plot developments and eye-rolling moments that give Edward and Bella some competition for most unconvincing couple of the new millennium.

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When last we left the land of DIVERGENT, Tris’s parents had been killed, the fabric of an unstable class system was in question, and our group of fugitive heroes had escaped from the clutches of the evil Jeanine. Tris, Four (Tris’s lover), Peter (Tris’s nemesis) and Caleb (Tris’s brother) are hiding out in peaceful territory, but soon find themselves being ruthlessly chased by Jeanine and the Dauntless. It turns out that Jeanine (or as someone has referred to her, Female President Snow) has recovered an important artifact that can only be opened by a powerful Divergent. As Tris’s few surviving loved ones are threatened, this teenage heroine discovers that she’s the only hope of opening this artifact. That’s pretty much the plot right there. There are action scenes and encounters with other Factions, but INSURGENT has about as much going on as DIVERGENT did plot-wise. It’s familiar and basic stuff that’s made to look overly complicated and unnecessarily convoluted.

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INSURGENT thankfully doesn’t bother giving us a flashback set-up sequence, but still packs in plenty of young-adult clichés all over the place. The characters remain hollow and the cast appears to know that they’ve moved on to bigger things since DIVERGENT. Shailene Woodley (FAULT IN OUR STARS) is a one-note action heroine as Tris and still manages to garner plenty unintentional laughter on occasion, but also looks bored with the material she’s been given. Ansel Elgort is a woeful coward stereotype and doesn’t get a significant amount of screen time. Naomi Watts and Kate Winslet both seem present only to pick up an easy paycheck, though Blanchett gives the best performance of the whole film. The biggest blow comes in Miles Teller as the lame comic relief character who mainly serves as a convenient trigger for two plot points. Teller has recently come off of the amazing WHIPLASH and I couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy for starring in this sequel.

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INSURGENT’s visuals look good and more focus is placed on the post-apocalyptic world this time around. The ideas are still dumb and overused, but watching a crumbling futuristic society was slightly more interesting than watching a teenage girl try to become a member of a club…I mean, Faction. Though there isn’t an abundance of them, INSURGENT has good action scenes. I was enjoying myself during a shoot-out, a well-done chase scene and simulations that are the best scenes in the film. This being said, there are still lots of unintentional laugh-out-loud bits. My favorite of which involved Four yelling at someone “My name is Four!” and walking away from a dinner table like a pouty brat who constantly whines about nobody understanding them. In all honesty, that might be a portion of the film’s target audience though.

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The bad doesn’t stop there as the script feels downright lazy. This was based on a novel and I understand that part of these story problems birth from unoriginal source material, but there’s no excuse for how poorly written some of this stuff is. For example, there’s a huge plot point hinging on what’s inside this artifact and this is frequently brought up throughout two hours. When it’s ultimately revealed, it’s very underwhelming (not that I was expecting much to begin with) and insulting to the viewer. The discovery also more than reminded me a little of a certain other young-adult adaptation that came out last September, where that reveal also felt like a cop-out. I rolled my eyes so much during INSURGENT that I bordered on a possible hazard of vision problems.

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Going off the last note of INSURGENT, I’m really not sure what else of this story needs to or can be told. This opinion stems partially from just how bad these first two movies have been, but also because I really don’t think there’s much more of a story left to tell (let alone for TWO more films!). Seeing as HUNGER GAMES is ending this year, the young-adult void has been momentarily filled by the DIVERGENT series and THE MAZE RUNNER, though I’m really looking forward to the upcoming I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER. INSURGENT manages to be a miniscule hair above DIVERGENT in running time, but it’s just as convoluted and poorly executed as the first film. Now I’ll just go back to pretending that this series doesn’t exist until ALLEGIANT: Part 1 (of course!) hits next March.

Grade: D

DIVERGENT (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 19 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Violence and Action, Thematic Elements and some Sensuality

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Directed by: Neil Burger

Written by: Evan Daugherty & Vanessa Taylor

(based on the novel DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ansel Elgort, Ray Stevenson, Kate Winslet, Zoe Kravitz, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn & Ashley Judd

The vast well of material found in young adult fiction has been used a lot in the past few years. Since TWILIGHT was coming to a close and HARRY POTTER ended a decade-long reign at the box office, studios have been searching for the next big franchise to target the teenage demographic. THE HUNGER GAMES has become the new champion, but that isn’t stopping big budget attempts to start new film series out of any middle-school-oriented novel that comes out. Take for example the latest in this trend, DIVERGENT. Despite some shaky looking promotional material for this film, I was optimistic that it might be a good flick. After all, the book was so immensely popular that people had to be seeing something in the material. This all being said, DIVERGENT is a jumbled mess of scrambled parts from other (mostly more successful) plots that we’ve seen in the last few years.

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In a dystopian future, Chicago is the city left standing. The general population is separated into five separate groups (ala THE HUNGER GAMES) to keep the peace. Each citizen goes through a test that shows them which group best suits their personality. Tris is the teenage daughter in a family that belong to the vegan/hippie faction of society. Upon taking the test, it turns out that she’s a Divergent. This label is placed on individuals seen as a threats because they test positive for all five factions. Tris keeps this to herself and decides to join the law enforcement faction. This tests both her physical endurance and her mental strength. Bullied by some and facing the possibility of winding up factionless (e.g. homeless), Tris goes through rigorous training to find a place in her new faction. She also falls in love with Four (one of her trainers). The two do their best to avoid suspicion of Tris’s Divergent nature as an escalating war is on the horizon between factions.

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The ideas behind the plot of DIVERGENT aren’t bad ones. We’ve seen many of these clichéd scenarios in recent years (e.g. THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS, THE HOST, ENDER’S GAME, BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, I AM NUMBER FOUR, etc.). It’s the construction of the whole affair that’s a convoluted mess. In THE HUNGER GAMES series, ENDER’S GAME, and (hell, even) THE HOST, the dystopian future was explored just enough to satisfy the curiosity of the viewer. In DIVERGENT, the script seems focused on the wrong elements of the story. This is a dystopian society, but there are still tattoo parlors in underground dwellings (I almost laughed out loud when I saw this). A lot of things don’t make any sense in this world recovering from a supposed apocalyptic war. To add insult to injury, a whole lot of sappy pop songs make up the soundtrack. What else can you expect from a film whose target demographic is teenage girls?

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I would equate a majority of DIVERGENT to the recent adaptation of ENDER’S GAME. Imagine if that film had been based purely on Ender’s training for the war and hadn’t had a satisfying payoff. That’s exactly what DIVERGENT does and why it fails at being compelling. You could have summed up half of the film in 10 or 20 minutes. Even a montage would have been more satisfying. The movie adaptation feels that every single stage of Tris’s training is essential to watch. This makes for an over-two-hour running time that feels far longer than it should in every possible way. This might make for a compelling read, but as a film there’s plenty of editing that was needed. It’s not interesting to watch a teenage girl train for most of a movie where far more exciting events felt glossed over in the final third.

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The less said about performances and character, the better. Some tired clichés are used in the fast-paced ridiculous climax of the film. In fact, one of them is used twice (with unintentionally hilarious results). There are also discussions of politics and a deeper meaning that isn’t nearly as deep as some people claim it is. The message of how dangerous conformity can be was hammered in frequently. There were about three speeches (two of which were delivered from a scenery chewing Kate Winslet) preaching about the evils of free will and human nature. Had it not been for the giggling overly excited teenage girls in the packed auditorium, I was tempted to yell at the screen “We get it! Be more subtle!” That is the kind of film DIVERGENT is though. It’s the kind of movie that has its target audience cheering during so-called fight scenes, clapping as the end credits roll, and one girl notably yelled “Yes!” when a predictable kiss came. It’s successful in that sense, but that doesn’t make it a good movie!

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Perhaps, I might be optimistic in INSURGENT (coming out next year, because Lionsgate is pumping this franchise without even knowing how successful it will wind up being). After all, I liked CATCHING FIRE a whole lot more than the first HUNGER GAMES. In the first 30 minutes, I thought that DIVERGENT was a decent enough flick rounding about a C+. By about an hour in, that grade had been lowered to a C-. By the time the melodramatic, downright terrible film concluded it was at a…

Grade: D

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