Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Bloody Images, Language and some Sexuality

Directed by: Alex Garland

Written by: Alex Garland

(based on the novel ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer)

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, Sonoya Mizuno & David Gyasi

Going into 2018, ANNIHILATION was easily one of my most anticipated films of the year. Besides a high concept premise and a very intriguing trailer, the main reason for my excitement came from the presence of director/screenwriter Alex Garland. This man helmed one of my favorite science fiction films of the past decade: EX MACHINA. Needless to say, I was more than a little eager to see what his sophomore directorial effort would look like. While I won’t claim that ANNIHILATION is perfect and on the same level as EX MACHINA (for a couple of reasons that will soon become clear), this is a damn fine combination of arthouse storytelling,  thought-provoking science fiction, and disturbing horror!

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist struggling with serious grief. A year ago, her soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) disappeared on a top-secret government mission. Lena’s trying to mentally cope with the harsh reality that he might be dead, when a near-comatose Kane randomly shows up at her door. One strange conversation and a nosebleed later…and Kane is whisked away to an unknown government facility. Because they can’t have any witnesses, Lena is held at the facility with him and (in an effort to save her dying husband) volunteers to venture into the strange shimmering area where her husband originally went. Biological nightmares, thick tension, and bizarre Lovecraftian horror ensues.

ANNIHILATION is a strange beast of a film. The trailer sold it as something far more straightforward than it actually is. The narrative is spun in a non-linear fashion that flashes forward to a surviving Lena relating her tale to a group of baffled government officials, shows us what occurred within “The Shimmer,” and also flashes back to Lena’s relationship with her husband. In less talented hands, this approach might have wound up as a cheap cop-out that spoils key moments early on. In Alex Garland’s hands, it’s a brilliant way of piecing together a weird cerebral puzzle for the viewer.

This film nails its smart science-fiction and grisly horror in equal measure. I won’t go into specific details, because one could easily spoil some of the film’s huge twists. The scariest horror bits easily belong to encounters with a heavily mutated bear. There is one sequence in the film that might very well rank in my scariest movie scenes of all-time. You’ll definitely know it when you see it and an aftermath conversation makes that moment ten times more chilling. ANNIHILATION also knows when to keep its monsters in the shadows and when to showcase them in their crazy mutated glory.

This film isn’t a simple creature feature though, because there is other disturbing stuff happening within “The Shimmer.” Some details are given in scientific conversations that confirm worst fears and elaborate on grim theories. The film never feels the need to specifically spell everything out for the audience though and it expects you to use your brain while watching the strange story evolve. ANNIHILATION’s final third contains one of the biggest “holy shit” moments that I’ve seen in recent years. This revelation will likely result in many debates about the film’s open-to-interpretation ending. One of the story’s most terrifying concepts is glimpsed early on (The Shimmer seems to cause memory loss), but is never returned to again. Fully utilizing this concept might have pushed things further into nightmarish territory and made the film even smarter. Sadly, it was completely abandoned for a more straightforward-ish narrative.

As far as the acting goes, things get a bit mixed in the performances. Natalie Portman is good as the main character who’s clearly struggling with grief and all sorts of newfound knowledge. This causes her to react in complicated ways during certain scenarios. Oscar Isaac doesn’t receive a ton of screen time, but makes a big impact in what he delivers. Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny are serviceable as the supporting scientists. The weakest performance comes from Jennifer Jason Leigh. While some viewers might potentially argue that the bland acting was just in relation to her character, I’d argue that it was just bland acting and this particular character felt wooden as a result of it.

ANNIHILATION nails its storytelling, delivers cool spectacle, and brings forth nightmarish images that will likely flash before my eyes when this movie gets mentioned in casual conversations. The film delivers many amazing qualities (especially in its horror concepts being utterly terrifying and its sci-fi ideas being absolutely brilliant). However, the film occasionally drops the ball in a couple of missed opportunities (one concept is completely abandoned and one key performance is hollow). If you dig strange deliberately paced science-fiction and otherworldly Lovecraftian horror, you’ll find a lot of love in ANNIHILATION.

Grade: A-


Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, Sexual References and some Violence

Directed by: John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein

Written by: Mark Perez

Starring: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Michael C. Hall, Jeffrey Wright & Danny Huston

There were reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic towards GAME NIGHT. The reasons to be optimistic came from the clever premise, hilarious promotional material, and talented leads. The main reason to be pessimistic came from the fact that this was a big studio comedy being released during February, which is typically considered only slightly less worse than January for studios dumping films they don’t believe in. However, GAME NIGHT turns out to be a wildly entertaining ride that you should see in a packed theater filled with other people who are also laughing their asses off. I had a great time watching this very funny film!

Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are two competitive gamers…who also happen to be husband and wife. During one night every week, Max holds a game night for their adult friends and they all have a great time hanging out together. When Max’s more successful show-off brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) comes to town, the game night changes in a strange new direction because Brooks has hired an interactive murder-mystery company to liven things up. However, the game becomes all too real when two actual gangsters break into Brooks’ home and abduct him. Thinking it’s all part of the game, Max, Annie, and their friends find themselves in over the heads…and things get crazier from there.

GAME NIGHT makes no qualms about what it is. This is an adult-oriented comedy that has a fantastic premise. Nothing more, nothing less. While the film does indulge in crass language and occasional crude humor, a lot of laughs result from jokes that aren’t crude for the sake of being crude. Instead, GAME NIGHT actually puts thought into its script and this results in a constant sense of fun. The running gags are great too as certain jokes find themselves not only recurring, but evolving between different characters. My favorite of which easily involves a suspicious police officer neighbor (Jesse Plemons) who has a rather distinct way of wording things. Seriously though, Jesse Plemons steals every scene he’s in and arguably walks away with the entire movie in his pocket.

The rest of the cast contains no slouches either. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams have fantastic on-screen chemistry together. Aside from Plemons, they receive arguably the funniest scenes in the film. My favorite sequence has them playing with a loaded gun (which they think is a toy) and I was giggling the whole way through it. Billy Magnussen is fun as a dim-witted friend Ryan, while Sharon Horgan is well-cast as his date Sarah (using her brains to make up for Ryan’s stupidity). Plenty of laughs also result from a running joke between Lamorne Morris’s Kevin and Kylie Bunbury’s Michelle, a married couple having a rough night in their relationship.

Aside from good jokes, GAME NIGHT contains some (dare I say it) actual suspense in its execution. There are lots of twists and turns woven throughout the plot. Some of these revelations you can see coming from a mile away. Others arrive as legitimate shocks that result in both laughs and gasps. Even though one subplot is pretty damn predictable (anybody with half a brain can figure out how the sibling rivalry angle will wrap up), other surprises result in a couple of unexpected cameos that further liven up the already fun film.

It also helps that GAME NIGHT looks fantastic. The visuals are slick and the film stylizes its establishing shots with miniatures. This causes cars and houses to look like pieces on a board game. This effect isn’t employed to a distracting degree either, but serves as a cool way to transition from certain scenes. There were even audience members that pointed out “that was a cool shot” or commented that they “loved the use of miniatures” by the time the film had concluded. The camera also occasionally pulls neat tricks during the more action-oriented sequences that make these moments stick out from the regular dark comedy moments.

Overall, GAME NIGHT is a very entertaining, clever, and hilarious time at the movies. The actors all bring their A-game. Although the film has one very predictable subplot, there are plenty of unexpected twists to accompany the many laughs. It’s also worth noting that the film contains some of the best running jokes that I’ve seen in years, which evolve over the course of the film along with the characters. If you want to have some good laughs (and who doesn’t, these days), give GAME NIGHT a watch. This is one of the better R-rated comedies to come out in a long time and comes highly recommended.

Grade: B+


Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Violent Images

(Arabic with English subtitles)

Directed by: Ziad Doueiri

Written by: Ziad Doueiri & Joelle Touma

Starring: Adel Karam, Kamel El Basha, Rita Hayek, Camille Salameh & Diamand Bou Abboud

In our turbulent modern world, we’re constantly seeing sad stories of people being inhumane to each other for senseless reasons. Things like race, religion, country of origin, gender, and so on are frequently talking points in dividing folks, instead of bringing them together. I’ve never been to Lebanon and am not entirely familiar with that country’s history. That being said, THE INSULT (a Lebanese drama that is currently in the running for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards) has ideas and themes that are universal. Though the film isn’t perfect, THE INSULT is an emotional story that hammers in the notion that we need to stay connected as humans and not let differences divide us.

On a sweltering summer day, Palestinian refugee Yasser (Kamel El Basha) is working as a construction worker and notices a broken gutter from a high-level apartment leaking onto his workers. Being a nice guy and wanting to do what is best for both parties, Yasser fixes the gutter for free…only to have the Lebanese Christian resident Tony (Adel Karam) furiously smash apart the newly installed pipe. Peeved by the situation, Yasser simply calls the angry man a “fucking prick” and moves on with his day. However, Tony demands an apology and proves to be a stubborn person. Things between Yasser and Tony escalate, long-buried biases make their way to the forefront, insults become assaults, and their ensuing court case becomes a national focal point. All the while, hatred and kindness rages in the hearts of both men.

THE INSULT’s first third is fantastic storytelling in how it establishes the characters, escalates their conflict in a way that feels natural, and pretty much demands emotional responses from viewers. As the film moves forward, the characters of Yasser and Tony are revealed not to be simple cut-and-dry hero or villain. Instead, the film shows that they both lead complicated lives and their backgrounds play into how they interact with each other. It might be easy for certain viewers to simply view Tony as an unrepentant jerk, but you get a sense that he’s hiding deep feelings and insecurities of his own. Also, Yasser has questionable past dealings of his own that complicate matters.

It’s kind of obvious that THE INSULT’s main themes are empathy and coexistence. The film excels when its presenting these themes in small moments or subtle deeds, like two opposing characters sharing similar opinions or someone stopping to help his supposed enemy fix a broken down car (in arguably the film’s best scene, with minimal dialogue). These themes are frequently hammered upon as the film shifts into a mostly straightforward courtroom drama with a couple of subplots. The narrative even throws a few surprising curve balls at the viewer during these courtroom scenes.

My main complaints about THE INSULT come from a couple of key scenes, one of which seemed like a cop-out excuse for a certain character’s actions. Even though the film has lots of praise-worthy qualities, INSULT occasionally veers into corny melodramatic territory. One specific moment seems like it was a cheap way to develop a character (teased in briefly glimpsed nightmare sequences) and an easy explanation for most of the decisions from this character. I feel that the film might have been far more effective if it hadn’t gone down this simple and easy route. I sadly have to remain vague for fear of possibly spoiling something, but you’ll know the scene when/if you watch this film.

As a whole, THE INSULT is a good film that has shining moments of greatness. The movie is at its best during little scenes and exchanges between characters that feel natural, believable, and (most of all) human. The plot falters when it attempts to justify a character’s point-of-view in a way that felt telegraphed from a mile away and (for lack of a better word) too easy. However, this is still an emotional drama that will leave you walking out on a high note. If that sounds like your sort of film, you’ll probably enjoy THE INSULT.

Grade: B


Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Prolonged Sequences of Action Violence, and a brief Rude Gesture

Directed by: Ryan Coogler

Written by: Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole

(based on the BLACK PANTHER comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker & Andy Serkis

BLACK PANTHER is the eighteenth(!) entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and final installment before the hotly anticipated INFINITY WAR hits in May. Superhero fans previously got a glimpse of Black Panther a couple of years ago when he showed up in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (which is easily in the top 5 best MCU films). Now, Black Panther has finally received an origin film…sort of? I mean, he was already Black Panther in CIVIL WAR, but he really becomes Black Panther in this film I think. It’s hard to explain, because even though BLACK PANTHER isn’t technically another Marvel superhero origin film…it certainly has the feeling of one. That’s not necessarily a compliment either.

In the hidden African kingdom of Wakanda (which is highly advanced thanks to an endless mine of vibranium – the strongest metal on earth), warrior T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has returned to take his rightful place on his deceased father’s throne. However, T’Challa/Black Panther also finds himself hot on the trail of international terrorist Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). T’Challa’s problems don’t stop there, because the newly crowned king encounters leadership difficulties and uncovers long-hidden secrets. To boot, a mysterious violent-prone villain Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) has somehow made his way into the Wakanda and intends to take it over. Things are hitting the fan and it’s up to Black Panther to save the day!

Even though it suffers from a motherload of superhero clichés, BLACK PANTHER benefits from an imaginative setting and really cool action scenes. Aside from a couple of baffling bits of shaky-cam (which seems to be a recurring issue in pretty much every Marvel film), BLACK PANTHER’s action sequences are terrifically exciting. My favorite scene is easily a car chase through the streets of South Korea and that’s preceded by a series of violent confrontations in an underground casino. One-on-one fights are also well choreographed, while an inevitable climactic showdown/battle nails its spectacle in crowd-pleasing ways.

Though he was a small part of CIVIL WAR, Chadwick Boseman really gets to shine as Black Panther here. Boseman’s protagonist is given some development and has a natural arc to follow. There is effort put into scenes that portray him speaking with his ancestors. The film does something similar to a lesser effect with the villain Killmonger. Although some people have praised Killmonger as one of the best Marvel villains so far, I’m a bit baffled by this reaction towards him. I felt like Killmonger could have been an awesome villain, but he just wasn’t given enough time to make a strong impression. His motives are sympathetic and his methods are monstrous. However, he only really gets 10 minutes of remarkable screen time in a movie that runs over two hours. I actually thought that Andy Serkis’s one-armed Klaue left more of an impression.

BLACK PANTHER contains a fair share of strong supporting characters with big talent backing them up. Angela Bassett, Forrest Whitaker, and Martin Freeman all have roles to fill. Freeman reprises his CIA agent from CIVIL WAR, but gets more to do in this outing. Meanwhile, Letitia Wright serves as hit-or-miss comic relief. Some of her jokes earn laughs and other bits feel like she’s just referencing memes for the sake of referencing memes (including a cringy “what are those!?!” line). Lupita Nyong’o fills the role of obligatory love-interest/former flame. However, Danai Gurira is a complete bad-ass as the head of an all-female secret service and is a definite highlight of the action scenes.

Not all is good in BLACK PANTHER though. I already mentioned the forgettable villain, who felt like the victim of wasted potential. However, BLACK PANTHER’s story is very basic for lack of a better word. If you’ve seen five superhero films (it doesn’t matter which five), you’ll likely be able to predict every single scene, revelation, and beat of the film before it happens. The script sloppily sets up obvious plot points and feels like it’s spoon-feeding the viewer. In other words, it’s treating the audience like a bunch of morons. This is especially true of a 20-minute chunk where Black Panther takes a backseat in his own movie, while the supporting characters drive the film forward. This reminded me of how Ultron was railroaded for about half of his AGE in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

At the end of the day, the mind-blowing amount of critical acclaim for BLACK PANTHER seems unwarranted. There are positive qualities. Chadwick Boseman and most of the cast put in strong performances. The action scenes are mostly fantastic, with some annoying shaky-cam aside. The villain has a cool backstory and motivation, but unfortunately feels underdeveloped and wasted. Mostly, BLACK PANTHER suffers from being too damn predictable and generic. This is an entertaining movie, but you’ve seen this plot many times before. BLACK PANTHER Is a fun superhero story, but let’s hope that Marvel does better in their upcoming entries.

Grade: B

FAR CRY 3 (Xbox 360)

Review by Derrick Carter

The marketing for FAR CRY 3 sold it as “SKYRIM with guns.” Though this comparison drew skeptical ire from many gamers, it’s an accurate description of how this open-world first-person shooter functions both in gameplay and plot. Much like other first-person shooters, FAR CRY 3 allows the player to upgrade certain skills/weapons to cater towards their preferred gameplay approach. FAR CRY 3 essentially lets the player do whatever the hell they want to…only to eventually come back to the story when it best suits their needs. Whatever your approach might be, FAR CRY 3 is an awesome achievement in the world of video games and an energetic lunacy-filled ride to boot.

Jason Brody and his rich young friends were skydiving over the tropical Rook islands. However, things went wrong when they accidentally wandered into pirate-infested territory. Jason and his naive pals were taken prisoner by the psychotic pirate leader Vaas…and it’s up to the newly escape Jason to rescue his friends. Of course, to do this, Jason will need to use lots of weapons and open many cans of whoop-ass. Also, Jason isn’t exactly in the best mental state either…so expect hallucinations to follow him throughout this bullet-filled, blood-soaked adventure.

FAR CRY 3 ventures into seriously dark territory and the sheer amount of insane characters might throw certain players who just want a light-hearted shooter for a loop. The game gets the player emotionally involved in Jason’s mental and physical struggles. The opening minutes of gameplay showcase executions and a sickening human trafficking ring as you escape into the jungle. It’s intense and things don’t necessarily let up much from that point onward as other crazed characters make their way into the mix…and you stack up a body count that goes well into the triple-digits.

Besides functioning as a first-person shooter that allows you to dish out merciless violence onto people who definitely deserve it, FAR CRY 3 also requires the player to take advantage of its open world by hunting animals in order to craft upgraded gear. While this may sound like it’s merely a side option, you pretty much have to upgrade your gear as the game moves forward. Eventually you’ll get sick of only being able to carry 2,000 dollars in your wallet and be more than willing to dive into the shark-infested ocean so you can carry 6,000 dollars. Hunting becomes quite the intense ordeal too as tigers, leopards, boars, dingos, and (the aforementioned) sharks can easily take you down if you’re not careful.

In keeping with the open world environment, there are tons of side quests that involve rescuing hostages, killing specific pirates, and hunting animals that are causing a ruckus on certain parts of the island. There’s also a definite satisfaction that comes with scaling every radio tower (the game’s equivalent of puzzles where you can fall to a most painful death) to reveal new pieces of the huge map. That same satisfaction comes with liberating outposts to conquer hostile territory. Each outpost can be taken by the players own approach, meaning that you can quietly kill everybody out without even firing a bullet or you can blow everything (and many reinforcements) to kingdom come. No two outposts are alike either, which requires you to carefully plan your strategy beforehand.

As for the campaign missions, FAR CRY 3 ensures that you’re never doing the same thing twice. Some critics have complained that the game goes into first-person shooter clichés by including: stealth missions, hostage rescues, recovery missions, battles, etc. I found all of this to be terrifically exciting though and each mission naturally furthers the plot along. I wanted to keep playing this game to find out where things would go and to get the satisfaction of taking down an island full of vicious pirates. It also helps that the story has a distinct character arc for Jason as you watch him transform from wussy rich kid into hardened killer (who begins to love his newfound status as a murder-happy warrior). There are loads of nasty plot twists that put the viewer into uncomfortable situations, especially during the campaign’s final third. I’ll say it again. This is a dark game.

Of course, the action wouldn’t be worth much without some colorful villains that you love to hate. FAR CRY 3 dominates in that area too. Originally, Vaas (the main pirate baddie) wasn’t even supposed to be a character in the game, but the developers were blown away by actor Michael Mando’s audition. Vaas is easily the best villain in the game and has the most memorable scenes as he dives into insane monologues. You never know what this guy will do next and Mando knocks it out of the park in his performance. FAR CRY 3 doesn’t falter in its other big bads though. My personal favorite FAR CRY 3 villain is Australian hitman Buck. He puts Jason through bloody TOMB RAIDER-esque missions and has lots of disturbing implications hidden throughout his cut scenes. Meanwhile, crime lord Hoyt comes off as a cocky action movie villain.

My only complaints with FAR CRY 3 lie in the plot losing a bit of its energetic insanity after a certain character disappears from the mix, but it makes sense in the game’s overall plot. Tension moves from one area to another and Jason’s unstable mental state becomes a huge factor in the storyline. Boss fights take place in neon-lit hallucination landscapes, leaving the bloody aftermath as a glimpse of your actions…after you’ve taken down a bad guy. The campaign’s ending also has two distinct possibilities, both of them dark in their own ways. However, the bad ending is significantly worse than the “good” ending. It feels like the developers were deliberately punishing players who made a certain choice.

Overall, FAR CRY 3 is a damn near flawless open world first-person shooter. It allows you to craft much of your own story through the order you complete quests, taking the campaign at your own pace, and choosing different approaches in action. The thick tension, adrenaline-pumping action, beautiful landscapes, and colorful characters make this game a near masterpiece. FAR CRY 3 is a must-play for fans of open world gaming and first-person shooters.

Grade: A

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