JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action

Directed by: Zack Snyder

Written by: Chris Terrio & Joss Whedon

(based on the JUSTICE LEAGUE comics by Gardner Fox)

Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciaran Hinds, Amber Heard & Billy Crudup

To put it lightly, the DC Extended Universe has gotten off to a rocky start. 2013’s MAN OF STEEL was passable enough. I really enjoyed it the first time around, but its many flaws stuck out like a sore thumb upon a second viewing. BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE was a massive disappointment that had a few positive qualities and suffered from tons of problems. I thought SUICIDE SQUAD was big dumb fun, but it definitely fell short of its potential. Only this year, did the DCEU produce its first great film in WONDER WOMAN. I was hoping that JUSTICE LEAGUE might keep some of that greatness going, but I was sadly mistaken. JUSTICE LEAGUE is only a mere step above the lackluster BATMAN V SUPERMAN in disappointing mediocrity.

After experiencing apocalyptic nightmares of a monstrous future and encountering a few aliens, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) is determined to gather a team of superpowered individuals. With Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) by his side, Bruce attempts to recruit the reclusive Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the overly eager/super speedy Flash (Ezra Miller), and the half-man/half-machine Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Alien military officer Steppenwolf (played through a motion capture performance by Ciaran Hinds) is trying to collect three all-powerful “mother boxes” in order to bring about the destruction of our world. Only this newly formed “Justice League” of heroes can possibly hope to stop him…but they’ll need help from someone else. Hint: his real name is Kal-El (Henry Cavill) and he’s buried six feet underground.

JUSTICE LEAGUE suffers from many of the same problems that plagued BATMAN V SUPERMAN. One of those problems being that Warner Brothers seems to be trying to rush the DC Extended Universe. Instead of taking the time to deliver movies for Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash, we’re introduced to them in this film. While this might delight diehard DC comic fans who know this material inside and out, this is a bit underwhelming for newcomers to these certain superheroes. I knew next to nothing about Aquaman or Cyborg when I walked into this movie and I still knew very little about them when the end credits began to roll.

This complaint isn’t meant to discredit any of the cast members’ performances though, because they all seem to be mostly trying. Jason Momoa (who I mainly know from GAME OF THRONES) gets a lot of laughs as Aquaman and turned this lame excuse for a comic book hero into someone who I’m excited to see more of in his own movie (which is currently scheduled for next December). Gal Gadot is still awesome as Wonder Woman and receives the best scene in the film as she thwarts a terrorist plot in her introductory sequence. Ben Affleck remains well-cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jeremy Irons is perfect as sassy butler Alfred. Also, the role of Superman still fits charismatic Henry Cavill like a glove. Also, Amy Adams briefly pops up as gal pal Louis Lane and Diane Lane is also briefly here as Superman’s grieving mother.

One performance that’s been getting a lot of warm reception from audience members and fans, but left me rather cold is Ezra Miller as the Flash. While many people seem to find the Flash’s quick quips and one-liners to be hilarious, I found Miller’s Flash to be far more annoying than he was funny. If we’re going for sheer laughs and charisma, I thought Momoa’s Aquaman easily topped him in pretty much every way. Also, you’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned Ray Fisher’s Cyborg yet, that’s because his “tortured soul” character is altogether forgettable. Fisher tried to get as much as he could out of him, but his performance felt (dare I say it) robotic in the worst way possible.

A huge problem in JUSTICE LEAGUE comes from the lame antagonist. I watched JUSTICE LEAGUE right after sitting through THOR: RAGNAROK and while I didn’t like Hela as a villainess, she was a hell of a lot more interesting than Steppenwolf. On the heels of a well-developed cinematic universe for Marvel (that will stretch to over 20 movies before its completed), this rushed-to-production DC Extended Universe’s Steppenwolf feels like a low-rent version of Thanos. I realize that DC has its own “Thanos” in the form of Darkseid, but the idea of collecting three all-powerful boxes to bring about the end of the world seems a bit dusty on the heels of the constant “infinity stones” in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (and even that occasionally got old). Steppenwolf is a bland, boring, and lame villain who has a glowing axe, a metal helmet, and a few horns…and that’s about all there is to his character.

JUSTICE LEAGUE’s biggest issues stem from mixed bag pacing and sloppy storytelling. When the titular Justice League are kicking generic alien ass on the big screen, it’s big dumb fun. I enjoyed the film’s action scenes, but there are far too few of them. By the time that JUSTICE LEAGUE has finally fixed the mistakes committed by BATMAN V SUPERMAN (like killing off a major superhero in the second film of a franchise and leaving no real emotional impact), nearly 3/4ths of the film has already passed. Again, DC diehard fanboys might be head-over-heels in love with their story arcs finally hitting the big screen, but this simply doesn’t function as a cohesive film.

At the end of the day, JUSTICE LEAGUE should have been great. This should have been a major tentpole film that arrived after establishing origin stories and prepping audiences to finally see their beloved superheroes uniting on the big screen. Instead, this is a team-up film that’s arriving as the fifth installment in a franchise that’s only properly established two(!) of its six main characters. JUSTICE LEAGUE is the depressing result of what happens when a studio wants to bank on fandom, but doesn’t make the time or effort to carve out a proper franchise. JUSTICE LEAGUE should have been great and instead, it just exists.

Grade: C

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, and brief Suggestive Material

Directed by: Taika Waititi

Written by: Franco Escamilla, Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

STANDOFF (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language throughout

Directed by: Adam Alleca

Written by: Adam Alleca

Starring: Thomas Jane, Laurence Fishburne, Ella Ballentine, Jim Watson & Joanna Douglas

I would have probably skipped out on seeing STANDOFF, if it hadn’t been for a fellow movie reviewer friend (Matt Reifschneider at Blood Brothers Reviews) recommending it. With a good deal of skepticism, I decided to sit down to what I fully expected to be a silly B-movie. Color me surprised, because STANDOFF is a damn good thriller. The premise is simple, but engaging. The dialogue is occasionally cliched, but the over-the-top acting keeps the viewer entertained. Even though this film isn’t brimming with action, the plot’s tension is constant. All of these positive qualities (and flaws) combined make for a surprisingly solid indie flick.

Bird (Ella Ballentine), a 12-year-old girl, is visiting a graveyard with her aunt. In order to kill some time, Bird is taking random pictures and she unwittingly snaps some shots of sadistic hitman Sade (Laurence Fishburne) executing a job. Sade sees that the little lady has witnessed his latest hit and gives chase, with the intention of offing the kid. Luckily, Bird comes across the country home of depressed war veteran Carter (Thomas Jane). Carter and Sade both fire off a bullet into each other and retreat to different floors of the house. Carter is protecting Bird upstairs and Sade is trying to find a way to kill them from downstairs…and, now, we have a movie.

STANDOFF’s title is not misleading in any way, shape, or form, because 95% of this movie is a tense standoff between Jane and Fishburne. This simple premise seems like it could have easily given way to boredom or become ridiculously unbelievable after a certain space of time, but STANDOFF keeps its tension rolling with new revelations and clever character development. Most of this movie is made up of a verbal battle of wits between a grizzled antihero and desperate (and deadly) hired killer. It’s almost like a mini-Western that’s set within the space of a single house. If that idea interests you, then you’ll likely enjoy this film.

STANDOFF was clearly made with budgetary constraints. I’d wager that a good portion of this film’s price-tag was spent on securing Jane and Fishburne for their roles, and then locating a house that would serve as a good location. First-time director Adam Alleca (who originally wrote this screenplay while he was in college) wisely uses the production’s limitations to strengthen STANDOFF’s small-scale storytelling. Details about Carter’s past are verbally pieced together by Sade and the viewer discovers more about both characters from these interactions. We see what a complete murderous scumbag Sade is (after all, he’s trying to kill a little girl) and we discover that Carter is already a damaged person.

STANDOFF’s atmosphere has an almost stage play vibe (in a similar vein to Quentin Tarantino’s HATEFUL EIGHT), because it’s set in a single location with a small cast of characters. I could easily envision this as a play before it was a movie, but that’s a positive quality as this would have been a great play to sit through. The constant interactions between Jane and Fishburne are a blast as both actors straddle the line between being entertainingly over-the-top and dramatically sound. At the end of the day, I bought both of these characters as realistic and also enjoyed that there was an exaggerated edge to both of them. Two smaller supporting characters also happen across the house, but their roles make up about ten minutes of screen time. This is mostly a cat-and-mouse game between Jane and Fishburne.

STANDOFF’s weaknesses arrive in a handful of lines that sound cliched. Though Ella Ballentine seems like a convincing child actress for the most part (she was great in THE MONSTER), she’s handed some hokey dialogue. Also, there are a couple of dumb character decisions made on the part of Sade. One specific scene asks the viewer to make a big logical leap that this desperate hitman is also pretty stupid and doesn’t recognize an open opportunity when it’s standing right in front of his face. These flaws keep STANDOFF from being a great movie, but it still remains as a damn fine thriller…especially from a first-time filmmaker.

If you’re looking for a hidden gem (of which there are too many to count in the modern overcrowded film market) and enjoy single-location thrillers, then STANDOFF will satisfy your cinematic cravings. Laurence Fishburne’s crazed villain and Thomas Jane’s gruff antihero are both a blast to watch. The single location serves as a tense setting for a bloody battle of wits. Though this film isn’t top-tier indie fare or near perfect filmmaking, STANDOFF is very entertaining stuff. This one comes surprisingly recommended!

Grade: B

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent and Sexual Content, some Graphic Nudity and Language

Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos

Written by: Yorgos Lanthimos & Efthymis Filippou

Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone & Bill Camp

Yorgos Lanthimos has been recently known for his bizarre dark romance/comedy THE LOBSTER, one of my favorite films from last year. So I was more than a little excited when I found out that his next project was a psychological horror trip. Having finally seen THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER on a screen near me, I can safely say that I love this movie. DEER is a mixture of unnerving beauty, disturbing storytelling, grim hilarity, and haunting horror. If Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Michael Haneke had a coke-fueled orgy and decided to collaborate on a film, the end result would look a lot like THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER.

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Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a cardiologist who seems to have it all. He lives in a great house, has a rewarding career, and cherishes his loving family: wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), teen daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and young son Bob (Sunny Suljic). Steven has also taken awkward teenager Martin (Barry Keoghan) under his wing, but this friendship takes a dark turn as it appears that Steven’s family has somehow been cursed by Martin’s mere presence. To say anything further, would be delving into spoiler territory and I don’t want to do that…because KILLING OF A SACRED DEER is one hell of a freaky ride.

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When I say that DEER is a disturbing horror film, that’s not to imply that there’s a lot of bloody violence or nightmarish plot twists. On the contrary, KILLING’s story is simple, extremely simple, and yet viciously effective. This script puts the viewer into Steven’s headspace and poses a tense question of what the viewer might do in a similar unthinkable scenario. The film also flourishes with an unusual visual style that immediately throws off the viewer’s perception. Lanthimos shoots certain scenes in a way that makes the background seem exaggeratedly large and the characters appear smaller. This weird use of wide shots naturally generates an uneasy mood.

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Besides its foreboding cinematography, KILLING OF A SACRED DEER also (pun fully intended) kills in its script and characters. Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman are especially good as the doctor and his concerned wife, while Raffey Cassidy serves as the couple’s oddball daughter. Meanwhile, Barry Keoghan (who had a small role in DUNKIRK) is fantastically creepy as Martin. I’ll remain vague on the plot’s nasty bits, but this simple story evokes a lot of tension out of its characters and their increasingly desperate decisions.

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KILLING doesn’t spell specific points for the viewer and lets us interpret certain actions for ourselves. As a result, I found specific moments to be morbidly hilarious and other audience members seemed deeply disturbed by them. SACRED DEER is a movie that will impact different viewer’s sensibilities in profoundly different ways, but still remains just as scary and haunting for everybody who digs on twisted cinematic oddities. I was impressed at how well the film balanced its scenes of family drama, darker than dark laughs, and bleak horror. These varying tones are combined in a way that feels special, in a similar way to the director’s previous arthouse genre mash-up THE LOBSTER.

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My sole complaints about KILLING OF A SACRED DEER are minor nitpicks involving the soundtrack and an unnecessary epilogue. A lot of this film’s soundtrack is atmospheric, moody and seems to echo similar notes to the chilling score from Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING. However, there are spots where SACRED DEER’s music almost seems to overpower scenes in a distracting manner. While moments without dialogue make sense to include the loud horror-sounding score, there are points where it nearly drowns out the dialogue. This may have been an intentional filmmaking choice, but it’s a distracting one.

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DEER has one hell of a memorable movie moment during its finale. It’s a sequence that will surely be on the minds of every audience member long after the film has concluded and will likely get brought up in damn near every spoiler-filled conversation. It would have been the perfect shocking final note to conclude on, but the film ends with an unnecessary epilogue that spans out for an extra three minutes and feels like it just didn’t belong. This might be a personal preference, but I would have much rather gone out in a stunned silence that followed the memorable moment right before the epilogue.

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THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER isn’t quite up to the same level as last year’s THE LOBSTER. However, it’s not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. I’d argue that it’s pretty fucking fantastic, though it suffers from an occasionally loud score and an unnecessary final three-minute epilogue. If you are into dark, twisted, psychological horror flicks, then you’ll definitely find something to love here. Sometimes, all you need is a simple scary story told in a compelling way that’s not without a sick sense of humor. KILLING OF A SACRED DEER executes that in twisted elegance.

Grade: A-

BATMAN VS. TWO-FACE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 12 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Action, some mild Language and Suggestive Content

Directed by: Rick Morales

Written by: Michael Jelenic & James Tucker

Voices of: Adam West, Burt Ward, Julie Newmar, William Shatner, Steven Weber, Jim Ward, Thomas Lennon, Lynne Marie Stewart, Jeff Bergman, Wally Wingert, William Salyers & Sirena Irwin

Last year, DC failed to deliver any great live-action superhero films. BATMAN V SUPERMAN was a disappointing chore, SUICIDE SQUAD was dumb fun (though a lot of people really didn’t like it), and, even, the animated KILLING JOKE suffered from big problems. A pleasant surprise came in the form of BATMAN: RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS. While most Batman stories are brooding, dark and serious, CAPED CRUSADERS was a refreshingly fun return to the campy 60s BATMAN (complete with voices from the original cast). I was excited to discover a sequel recently hit home video, especially as it seems to serve as an appropriate swan song for the late Adam West. BATMAN VS TWO-FACE is a step beneath its predecessor, but remains goofy fun nonetheless.

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After an experimental machine (guaranteed to remove all of the evil from Gotham’s supervillains) backfires, district attorney Harvey Dent (voiced by William Shatner) is hideously disfigured and turns into the evil duality-obsessed Two-Face. Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) have seemingly endless fights with Two-Face, but their most recent one has ended with Harvey Dent as a seemingly changed man…complete with his old face back. However, Two-Face somehow seems to still be running rampant in Gotham. Could another villain be trying to terrorize and frame Harvey or might there be something stranger occurring? It’s up to the caped crusaders to save the day before Gotham is turned into a bunch of half-scarred lunatics.

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As BATMAN VS TWO-FACE began, it seems to be appropriately hearkening back to the 60s BATMAN series. From the cheesy opening credits to the sheer light-hearted mood, the film is silly entertainment that’s absolutely appropriate for the entire family. The fights are complete with on-screen words (like “Pow!” and “Whack!”) and it’s impossible to take any of this seriously, which is part of the point. However, there are annoying spots where that 60s style seems to be forgotten. A fight without the iconic on-screen words feels drastically out of place and seems to have been missing these funny bits as a massive oversight.

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As far as the voice cast is concerned, Adam West and Burt Ward are having a blast in their original roles of superhero and sidekick. Burt Ward is especially hilarious as Robin this time around, while West’s Batman attempts to gets a more dramatic story arc as he tries to salvage his friendship with Harvey Dent. Julie Newmar is fun as Catwoman and Lee Meriwether receives an amusing cameo. RENO 911’s Thomas Lennon is sadly underused in the role of Chief O’Hara, and Steven Weber gets in a few lines as Alfred.

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The voice cast’s newest addition is William Shatner in the dual-role of Harvey Dent and the gravely-sounding Two-Face. Shatner’s distinct vocal mannerisms are pretty easy to recognize, though that’s part of why his inclusion as Two-Face is so damn fun. The film also squeezes in lesser villains like Bookworm and King Tut, but doesn’t seem to have nearly as much fun with the Riddler, Joker, and Penguin this time around. Also, the presence of both Dr. Harleen Quinzel and Dr. Hugo Strange feel like afterthoughts.

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Though I have praised a lot about BATMAN VS TWO-FACE, this film falls noticeably short in the areas of writing and pacing. The first CAPED CRUSADERS was ridiculously fast paced, constantly upped its silliness, gleefully mocked the more serious incarnations of Batman, and was creative from beginning to end. It was difficult to predict exactly where that film’s plot was heading, which led to it being completely engaging. TWO-FACE’s storyline is far more predictable. There are also stretches where the pacing lags and the movie threatens to overstay its welcome, even though it runs at only 72 minutes in length.

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Even though BATMAN VS TWO-FACE is a noticeable step down from its refreshingly wacky predecessor, it contains goofy fun for those enjoy the sillier side of Batman. This film also seems like a good note for Adam West’s final film, because he kept doing what he loved up until his final days (being the “Light Knight” as opposed to the “Dark Knight”). It’s sad that we won’t see any more CAPED CRUSADER animated features (you simply can’t replace Adam West’s voice as Batman), but it’s great that both of these animated renditions of the 60s BATMAN series even exist. If you enjoyed the first CAPED CRUSADERS, you’ll likely enjoy this one too. Just lower your expectations a bit and you’ll have a good time!

Grade: B