SUBURBICON (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language and some Sexuality

Directed by: George Clooney

Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney & Grant Heslov

Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe, Glenn Fleshler, Megan Ferguson, Jack Conley, Gary Basaraba & Michael D. Cohen

SUBURBICON is a film that sounds great on paper. You have a talented cast starring in a darkly comedic period piece that was scripted by the Coen brothers (two master writers/directors who excel at pretty much everything they touch). Unfortunately though, this script has been floating around since the 80s and director/writer George Clooney took a stab at reconstructing the crime-comedy to include some rather forced social commentary. The resulting cinematic mess tries too hard to be quirky and attempts to do to many things at once, resulting in a movie that won’t completely satisfy anybody.

In 1959, the small town of Suburbicon seems picture perfect. However, things are not as nice as they appear on the surface. Clean-cut family man Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) finds his life upended when two robbers break into his house and kill his wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Julianne Moore). Trying to move on with their lives, Gardner invites Rose’s twin sister Margaret (also Julianne Moore) to move in and curious son Nicky (Noah Jupe) begins to suspect that all is not right with his father. Meanwhile, an African-American family has moved into this all-white neighborhood and supposedly caring neighbors begin to show their racist true colors.

SUBURBICON’s biggest problem is a direct result from its troubled production. Apparently, this final product was the melding of two unrelated scripts. One of which is the aforementioned crime draft from the Coen brothers and the other was a drama based on the real-life experiences of the Myers family (a black family who moved into an all-white neighborhood in the 50s and faced endless harassment from their neighbors). The result mixes together about as well as milk and vinegar, which is to say not at all. There are two very tonally different movies in the space of SUBURBICON’s 105-minute running time and neither of them are particularly satisfying.

This film is at its best when it’s in full quirky murder-mystery mode. There are a few scenes that could only come from the twisted imaginations of Coens. My favorite moments easily belong to an over-the-top Oscar Isaac as a suspicious insurance investigator. However, he only pops in for two scenes that equal a grand total of 10 minutes. Matt Damon’s final bits of screen time are also great in a twisted way. There is occasionally good stuff within SUBURBICON. It just gets drowned out by the film’s overly familiar messy tonal shifts and a predictable narrative that seems like a lesser version of FARGO…but in the 1950s. The murder-mystery storyline also drags to the point where most of the interesting developments occur during the final third…as opposed to being a slow-burn tale that increasingly builds suspense.

SUBURBICON’s more dramatic side could have potentially served as its own serious film. However, it feels like a complete afterthought that just happens to take up a lot of screen time in this would-be dark comedy. Many of the Mayer family’s (not so subtly named after the real-life Myers family) scenes are appropriately upsetting. You’ll likely get angry at the racism on display, but it just seems so out-of-place in this film. These scenes belong in a different movie of an entirely different genre. A mixture of racially charged drama and murder-filled satirical comedy just wasn’t meant to be.

One positive highlight of the less-than-positive mess that is SUBURBICON comes in high production values that showcase a stylized view of the 1950s. Even if the more macabre moments rub you the wrong way (to me, they were the most redeemable bits of the film), you can’t deny that SUBURBICON looks good. It also makes this film’s poor performance at the box office stick out even more. If SUBURBICON were executed correctly, this might have wound up as one of the best films of last year and a potential Oscar contender. Instead, this is a mish-mash of uneven tones that don’t go together and will leave a lot of people disappointed. Good acting (the performers weren’t the problem in this film) and a handful of memorable moments aside, SUBURBICON is a huge misfire for Clooney and the Coen brothers (who clearly allowed their script to fall into the wrong hands).

Grade: C-

FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Gore, Language and Nudity

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Directed by: Robert Rodriguez

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Ernest Liu, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, Tom Savini & Fred Williamson

FROM DUSK TILL DAWN is damn near impossible to classify into one genre. Robert Rodriguez delivers action-packed moments with adrenaline-pumping vigor that call back to the finer scenes of his Mexico trilogy. Quentin Tarantino’s snazzy dialogue supplies a ton of laughs and memorable lines that find myself quoting on a weekly basis. This crime-thriller’s first half is tense as a hostage situation becomes a bit of an oddball bonding experience. This horror-comedy’s second half delivers gore-soaked mayhem and the ugliest vampires you’ve ever seen. FROM DUSK TILL DAWN may not be the best vampire film ever made, but it’s definitely my favorite vampire movie!

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Seth (George Clooney) and Richie Gecko (Quentin Tarantino) are fugitive brothers heading for Mexico. In an effort to avoid the cops, the screwed-up siblings take an RV-driving family hostage. Ex-pastor Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel), his daughter Katherine (Juliette Lewis) and son Scott (Ernest Liu) reluctantly cooperate with the Gecko brothers and wait for a morning rendezvous at secluded strip club “The Titty Twister.” What appears to be a tense hostage situation winds down with alcohol and then transforms into a gory fight for survival as the Titty Twister staff reveal themselves to be hungry vampires who feed on bikers and truckers. With hundreds of bloodthirsty monsters craving a snack, the Gecko brothers, the Fuller family and a few other survivors barricade themselves inside the strip club and try to live through the night!

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FROM DUSK TILL DAWN is a great party movie. The first half plays like a tense crime-thriller and the second half is a crazy horror-comedy, but the sense of fun remains constant through the entire running time. The film unloads its full bloody potential as soon as the vampire strippers pop up midway through, but that doesn’t lessen the first half by any stretch of the imagination. If nothing else, DUSK’s first half devotes time to developing the colorful characters before they are thrown into a fanged fray. This makes certain deaths more satisfying or sad, because we’ve come to either despise or love these people for the scumbags/badasses they are.

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George Clooney is clearly having a blast in his first major Hollywood role as the charismatic, dangerous Seth Gecko. Clooney’s presence helps sell big goofy fun mixed with 100% cool confidence. Acting alongside him is a creepy Quentin Tarantino in a very disturbing role, which is further amplified by the fact that he also wrote the screenplay and was totally cool with acting like a perverted lunatic…as long as he got to touch some feet. Tarantino gets both laughs and cringes in equal measure as unhinged psycho sibling Richie. Harvey Keitel is great as a ex-pastor who finds his faith tested in a way he never imagined and Juliette Lewis makes the most of her role as his rebellious daughter. Meanwhile, Ernest Liu doesn’t really do much as Keitel’s inexplicably Chinese son (never explained, but I assume he’s adopted).

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The supporting characters don’t show up until the crew step through the Titty Twister doors. Tom Savini is more than memorable as the aptly named Sex Machine, equipped with an unforgettable weapon. Former football player/martial artist/Blaxploitation star Fred Williamson is absolutely badass as Frost, a Vietnam vet who’s more than prepared to take on a few vampires. Speaking of which, the vamps themselves feature some recognizable faces. Danny Trejo does his usual thing as a scowling bartender. Selma Hayek is sexy as hell as show-stopping stripper Santanico Pandemonium. Cheech Marin shows up in three different roles (one of which is a vampire bouncer who’s not above some cheesy puns).

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The script is not without a few inconsistencies (Keitel’s priest’s so-so struggle with faith and varying amounts of screen time in the vampire transformations), but the sense of gory entertainment and high energy pretty much make up for the narrative problems. The practical effects are outstanding, while most of the CGI (mainly bats and melting bodies) is intentionally cheesy and kept to a minimum. The kills range in creativity, with truly inventive weapons being used and cool vampire demises. Hearts are ripped out, tables are used as improvised stakes, holy water comes into play, etc. DUSK’s vampires are among the ugliest that I’ve seen, resembling snakes, rats, and bats.

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FROM DUSK TILL DAWN may not be the smartest vampire story (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN probably takes that title) or the most technically well-made bloodsucker flick, but it remains my favorite vampire movie for its sarcastic sense of humor, colorful characters, insane gory fun, and sheer entertainment. When I see this film airing on TV, I always find myself watching it to the end like an unwritten personal rule. It’s a bloody blast from start to finish and cannot be clearly lumped thrown into one genre. Look at that director/writer team! Look at that premise! Look at the cast! Look at those effects! What’s not to love?

Grade: A-

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Suggestive Content and Smoking

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Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum, Alison Pill, Christopher Lambert & Clancy Brown

The Coen brothers make unique movies. You can automatically tell if you’re watching a Coen brothers film from the offbeat dialogue, awkward humor, or quirky characters. Something about their filmmaking and screenwriting is instantly recognizable. HAIL, CAESAR! is their latest film and its an oddball comedy that satirizes Hollywood’s Golden Age in hilariously weird fashion. Featuring a cast full of A-listers who seem to be having the time of their life on set and using a screenplay that’s impossible to predict, HAIL, CAESAR! is the kind of film that reminds me why I love movies to begin with and the sheer beauty (and questionable studio politics) within the industry itself.

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Eddie Mannix is a Hollywood fixer for the illustrious Capitol Pictures. The studio’s biggest film of the year is HAIL, CAESAR! (think BEN-HUR), a biblical epic featuring the biggest movie star: Baird Whitlock. However, something strange has occurred on the set. Whitlock has gone missing and a ransom note reveals that this is a kidnapping set to the tune of a $100,000 ransom. Mannix tries to track down Whitlock, while other cinema-related shenanigans break out in the studio. DeeAnna Moran (based on Esther Williams) is pregnant with a child out-of-wedlock, while marble-mouthed Hobie Doyle (think John Wayne crossed with Kirby Grant) has been called as a last-minute replacement in a classical drama. Mannix rushes to find complex solutions to all of these dilemmas in the space of a single stress-filled day.

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HAIL, CAESAR! is both a love letter to classical Hollywood cinema and a merciless riff on it. It makes for a film that’s hugely entertaining, captivating, and hilarious to watch from start to finish, even if you’re not necessarily familiar with the old-fashioned material that the Coens are lampooning. The entire audience in my theater was cracking up throughout the entire film at the oddball humor, goofy twists, and utter silliness of the story. The film is very light-hearted, but also carries profound writing in Mannix having his own personal arc/revelation develop during the course of the story.

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The visuals are shot in vibrant colors that illuminate off the screen and the film’s sets are elaborate. It’s hard to believe that the Coen brothers were able to recreate the 50’s in such detail on a meager budget of 22 million (which is nothing compared to most big films today). This is the kind of movie that I want to pause scene to scene in order to notice the smaller touches placed throughout each frame (movie posters at the studio, household appliances, etc.). HAIL, CAESAR! is a gorgeous film to look at and you can never fully predict where its story will head next. I kept wishing that Mannix’s various jobs and the amusing studio problems would go on long past the end credits.

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Performances from the cast are top-notch. Their colorful characters were inspired by Hollywood icons of the past and could easily serve as main protagonists in their own individual films. Josh Brolin landed the leading role as Eddie Mannix (based on the real-life “fixer” of the same name) and plays the part to perfection. Mannix is not without his flaws (he has a tendency of slapping certain problems away), but he’s a fascinating character to watch. I particularly enjoyed his personal story arc (which I won’t spoil here) that evolves over the varying degrees of chaos he endures in a single day’s time.

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George Clooney is hilarious as the overacting Baird Whitlock and receives some of the funniest moments of the entire film, but Alden Ehrenreich steals every scene he’s in as Hobie Doyle. His interplay with Ralph Fiennes’s frustrated director is utterly hysterical to behold. Channing Tatum also gets an equally hilarious moment to shine in a musical number (which had me laughing to the point of tears). Also worth mentioning is Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists (inspired by Hedda Hopper).

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HAIL, CAESAR! pays tribute to and simultaneously nails studio politics in a nutshell. This includes the Coen brothers shining amusing lights on: religious leaders critiquing potentially offensive content in films, disastrous last-minute studio casting decisions, intense production difficulties, multiple behind-the-scenes antics (that aren’t entirely unbelievable), early tabloid journalism, and certain controversies of the time. The films within this film are spot-on parodies of specific genres (musicals, biblical epics, dialogue-heavy dramas, and westerns). Though I do wish that certain subplots had received more screen time (we get a couple of plot points explained away via exposition dialogue), HAIL, CAESAR! is a unique and completely hilarious cinematic experience. This is the first great film of 2016!

Grade: A

SPY KIDS (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Action Sequences

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Directed by: Robert Rodriguez

Written by: Robert Rodriguez

Starring: Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, Danny Trejo, Alan Cumming, Tony Shalhoub, Teri Hatcher, Robert Patrick, Cheech Marin, George Clooney, Mike Judge & Richard Linklater

The 90’s gave birth to many talented new filmmakers. One of these names was Robert Rodriguez. With two violent westerns and an R-rated vampire comedy behind him, it seemed a bit odd that the next step in Rodriguez’s career would be making a children’s film. However, he wowed audiences and critics alike with SPY KIDS. This is a film that I have fond memories of watching multiple times during my childhood. I saw this film in theaters and owned the VHS tape (back in the day when they were still making those), so I was a bit hesitant to revisit this film with so many years having passed me by since I last viewed it. I was expecting my memories to be overly nostalgic and the actual movie to be a potential disappointment. However, that was not the case at all. SPY KIDS has aged fantastically over time and remains a quality dose of family entertainment that provides fun for both adults and children alike. Color me pleasantly surprised.

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Ingrid and Gregorio Cortez are far from your typical married couple. They were originally rival spies hired to eliminate each other, but they fell deeply in love instead. Soon enough, they got hitched and had two kids. Now raising their children, Carmen and Juni, these married former spies find themselves out of their element in domestic life. Any average filmmaker could have stopped there and called that the plot, but Rodriguez continues by having Ingrid and Gregorio abducted during one last mission by a madman. It’s up to young Carmen and Juni to thwart a super villain’s dastardly plans (which involve robot assassins) as well as rescue their parents.

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There are a number of reasons why SPY KIDS stands high above most of the recent live-action efforts masquerading as family entertainment. The biggest of these is the stunning amount of creativity on display. Robert Rodriguez clearly had a distinct vision of how he wanted to tell this story, when to incorporate humor and how to combine multiple character arcs. Most of the laughs come from good old-fashioned humor on display. I couldn’t point out any moments of innuendo and there was only one potty joke (which is brushed off casually as Rodriguez giving the obligatory obvious poop joke that we all saw coming). In the wrong hands, SPY KIDS could have been an easy, overly familiar kid-friendly spin on 007 (think AGENT CODY BANKS). Instead, this film seems intent on entertaining everyone and it accomplishes that goal in style.

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What makes SPY KIDS even more enjoyable is the talented cast. Antonio Banderas (known for playing typically darker action heroes) and Carla Gugino (who later went on to star in R-rated comic book adaptations like SIN CITY and WATCHMEN) play against their usual characters as two spies who are out of their element as parents. This provides a lot of jokes that adults will latch on to. Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara, both newcomers at the time, star as brother and sister: Carmen and Juni. Though they can be wooden at times, they come across as likable protagonists worth rooting for. Other familiar faces show up in Danny Trejo (playing their Uncle Machete…get it?), Robert Patrick (as a briefly seen baddie), Cheech Marin (as an undercover agent) and George Clooney (in a brief, but very funny cameo). The best casting decisions come in Alan Cumming and Tony Shalhoub as the main villains. Cumming plays his evil mastermind as sort of a demented Dr. Seuss type who also happens to run a nightmarish kids’ show (think a cross between YO GABBA GABBA and TELETUBBIES). Shalhoub is the power-hungry Minion who becomes increasingly concerned that his boss is more obsessed with his TV program rather than the actual evil plan at work.

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SPY KIDS runs under 90 minutes and feels perfectly paced as a result. There’s a lot of stuff happening in every scene and not a wasted frame. There are also two story-arcs distinctly aimed at adults and children. The adults will connect more with the two former spies dealing with the stresses of starting a family and kids will connect with the sibling story-arc about the importance of family, though the latter can definitely be appreciated by older viewers as well. The action scenes are brought to life through mostly good effects that combine CGI and practical work (including mutated kid’s show mascots and robotic guards made entirely of thumbs). It’s downright whimsical and enjoyable all the way through.

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I am definitely surprised at how well SPY KIDS holds up over a decade later. The story is creative, the characters are all fleshed out, and the humor is likely to connect with viewers of all ages. While most live-action family fare in the new millennium has struggled to find that nitch for both adults and children, Robert Rodriguez walked that tightrope with 2001’s SPY KIDS. This film manages to bring solid entertainment that can be appreciated by viewers who want something creative and deliberately silly. Give it a look and you’re likely to have a lot of fun.

Grade: B+

TOMORROWLAND (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action Violence and Peril, Thematic Elements, and Language

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Directed by: Brad Bird

Written by: Damon Lindelof & Brad Bird

Starring: Britt Robertson, George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn & Keegan-Michael Key

Disney has milked four (soon to be five) movies out of their pirate ride and one (soon to be two) film(s) out of their haunted mansion. TOMORROWLAND (a section at Disneyland as opposed to a single ride or attraction) seemed like an odd choice to adapt into a film on from the beginning. However, a lot of folks (including myself) were getting stoked when they saw that Brad Bird (RATATOUILLE, THE INCREDIBLES) was directing and co-writing this project. The marketing material has sold itself as a spectacular futuristic adventure. In spite of the commercials, this isn’t all jet-packs and robots. In fact, there’s a message at play that’s heavy-handed to say the least. I’m really mixed on how present my thoughts about TOMORROWLAND, because I really loved the first half of this movie…then it fell apart in the second half.

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Casey is an optimistic teenager with an interest in science. She’s constantly sabotaging a construction site near her house that’s tearing down a NASA launching pad and as a result, winds up getting arrested. A stranger has taken notice of Casey’s ambition and gives her a mysterious pin. When holding this pin, Casey is transported to the futuristic dimension known as Tomorrowland. However, the pin has a time limit on it and soon runs out of power. In an effort to solve the mystery of what Tomorrowland is and how she can visit it again, Casey tracks down former boy-genius Frank Walker. However, their potential trip to the other dimension lands them in hot water as they might not exactly be welcomed with open arms into this other world…

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TOMORROWLAND is not what’s being advertised as and that’s a very good thing during the first half of this film. There’s a significant amount of time devoted to developing both Casey and Frank (through various flashbacks) as our mismatched protagonists. Britt Robertson makes Casey an instantly likable character who sticks out from her peers. George Clooney plays Frank as a reluctant hero who sees potential in Casey, but is also dealing with emotional baggage of his own. Then there’s the young actress Raffey Cassidy who plays a cool character that I won’t reveal any details about in this review (no spoilers). These are three likable heroes/heroines who aren’t given the massive adventure that they deserve with a script that’s mostly front-loaded.

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Parents going into this expecting the clean-cut likes of CINDERELLA might want to be cautioned, because TOMORROWLAND takes some ballsy risks for a PG-rated kids movie. There are a few cool action scenes that involve human-looking robots being torn apart and one particular shot made me laugh a bit out of the shock that I was seeing this violent visual in Disney movie. The effects are pretty amazing and the main sequence in the beginning of Casey visiting Tomorrowland stands out as the best scene in the whole film. I was whisked away with her into this land of magic and whimsy and I wanted this movie to maintain that vibe, but it didn’t. As ambitious and exciting as the journey of getting to Tomorrowland is, the film loses a lot of steam once our heroes actually arrive in the futuristic city. If you’re expecting jet-packs and robots everywhere as well as massive sequences through this other dimension, you’re likely to be disappointed. The script drags in the second half to a degree where most kids will likely be bored and the plot seems to be making itself up as it goes along from that midway point.

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There are plot holes and vague revelations found in the second half that construct an overly familiar story, which makes the whole movie feel that much more disappointing. At various points throughout the film, Disney also seems to be referencing itself way too much. A scene in the opening takes place in a specific Disney ride and I had to roll my eyes a bit. Then there’s a bunch of distracting STAR WARS nods in an otherwise fun action scene down the line. It’s almost as if Disney is reveling in their new acquisition on-screen before Episode VII even hits in December. Hugh Laurie is usually a solid actor, but he plays one of the blandest villains in Disney history. His character just isn’t that interesting, has confusing motivations, and ultimately, I didn’t care about him or find him the least bit threatening. To top it all off, there’s an obvious message being thrown at the viewer over and over during the final third that comes off as extremely cheesy and overly preachy. When we have three monologues repeating the same points, I kind of wanted to yell in the theater “Alright, we understand! Now, can we just move this along, movie!”

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Aside from a few reboots, Disney really hasn’t had a great live-action film hit the big screen in quite some time. I had high hopes for TOMORROWLAND and it certainly is an ambitious movie. I truly loved the first half of this film and thought the character development was handled well. However, the second half suffers from plot holes, a lame villain, preachy monologues and an underwhelming finale. If this entire movie had been as fantastic as the first half was, I’d consider TOMORROWLAND as a potential modern classic. As it stands, the imagination on display goes to waste in a muddled disappointment from Disney.

Grade: C-

SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT (1999)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Vulgar Language and Crude Sexual Humor, and for some Violent Images

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Directed by: Trey Parker

Written by: Tray Parker, Matt Stone, Pam Brady

Voices of: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Mary Kay Bergman, Isaac Hayes, George Clooney, Dave Foley, Eric Idle, Mike Judge

A common problem with turning a TV series into a movie is that the film version might wind up feeling like an extended episode of the show. Trey Parker and Matt Stone definitely have a knack for comedy. Their long-running animated comedy series SOUTH PARK has only grown in quality over the years. Each season comes funnier than the last. SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT was released midway through the third season of the popular animated satire. As a result, it feels as if Parker and Stone are trying too hard to push boundaries in their early years and only care about throwing as many outrageous things on the screen for the sake of being offensive. There’s social commentary in BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT that holds plenty of relevance to this day, but some of it gets bogged down in this feeling like an elongated episode of the series.

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It’s a beautiful Sunday morning in the quiet little mountain town of South Park. Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny are heading to the movie theater for the brand new Terrance & Phillip film. This popular flick is a heavily profane R-rated comedy from two Canadian actors and the boys are denied tickets due to the Restricted MPAA rating. They sneak in any way. Three hours later, they walk out with a whole new vocabulary of curse words and creative combinations of swearing. As any kid in this situation would, they unleash these newly learned phrases on their fellow peers. Soon every child across the country has seen the R-rated comedy that was never intended for children to begin with. The outraged adults look to blame anyone but themselves for their children’s misbehavior and Canada becomes their target. A war is brewing between the USA and Canada, all while the possibility of Hell literally rising on Earth is growing. It’s up to the band of potty-mouthed friends to save the day.

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One thing I’ve noticed about Parker and Stone’s humor is that it’s fantastic in small doses. Don’t get me wrong. I can and have watched episodes of SOUTH PARK for hours on end. Everything from the fifth season forward has been comedy gold. However, if too much time is spent on certain storylines, then the jokes wind up becoming tiresome and overstaying their welcome. A good example of this in the series is the three-episode story-arcs that come every few seasons. There are brilliant moments in each, but overall I kind of wish that these storylines would conclude faster than they do. This all being said, SOUTH PARK is a series loaded with crude humor and social commentary. There are points being made behind all the stupidity. In BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT, Parker and Stone tackle the hypocrisy of the MPAA Ratings board (apparently, this film had a long-running battle with the organization and received its final R rating only two weeks before the release) and freedom of speech. The jabs at the hypocritical organization and people looking for an easy scapegoat are more than a little well-deserved.

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The jokes range from hilarious to a little lame. The latter being shown in a homosexual relationship between Satan and Saddam Hussein. It’s supposed to be dumb, but I didn’t find it very funny. It was overplayed and the running gag just felt stupid. The biggest laughs come in the promising first third through some clever bits of dialogue and insults. You can almost feel the point where the movie begins to run out of steam and get dragged down from great to the level of alright. It’s not nearly as solid as you might expect walking into a SOUTH PARK movie. The same thing being said about jokes can also be said for the musical numbers. The series has quite a few songs, so does this movie. Some of these musical numbers come off as either trying too hard or not being that funny to begin with. The best songs also come in the first third of the film. BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT starts off really strong and concludes in a thoroughly mediocre way.

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I did enjoy the no-holds-barred approach being taken and the extreme lengths that some jokes would go to for a laugh. The war on Canada segments have deliberate echoes of wars past (including shipping off Canadian-born US citizens to death camps…I mean, happy camps). A few short-lived celebrity cameo voices are thrown in for good measure too (George Clooney appears for a few minutes as a doctor treating Kenny). Trey Parker and Matt Stone never seem afraid of pushing boundaries and taking risks. That’s exactly what they do every step of the way in BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT. Some of them pay off and others don’t.

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SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT is essentially just one long episode of the series. This idea may entertain some, but when I watch a movie based on a TV series, I expect a storyline slightly grander than what you might see on the small screen at home (e.g. THE SIMPSONS MOVIE). Rest assured, SOUTH PARK makes every possible use of its R rating from an absurd amount of profanity to graphic nudity and disgusting sexual innuendos. The plot needs some work though, especially with the lackluster final act. Parker and Stone have drastically improved their animated series since it’s inception over a decade ago, all while nailing satire in far more interesting ways (e.g. THE BOOK OF MORMON musical and TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE). SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT is a strictly fans only affair. Even then, some fans might just want to stick to watching half-hour episodes on TV.

Grade: C+

Derrick Carter’s Top 10 Films of 2013

List by Derrick Carter

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Trance, Ender’s Game, Simon Killer, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, Rush, Captain Phillips, Stoker, and Side Effects

10. Dallas Buyers Club

10. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB: This film may not be entirely true to the events that it’s based on, but DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is the kind of the movie that makes you re-evaluate just how you’re living your life once the end credits have begun to roll. Matthew McCounaghey and Jared Leto give two of the most heartfelt performances of the year. It’s not a movie that you’ll want to watch on repeat (mainly due to the fact that it’s a film about a man fighting an incurable disease and the war the FDA launches on him), but it’s certainly a powerful one. This is a movie that drained me emotionally by the end of the film, because I was feeling the same frustration at the injustice of how the characters were being treated. Excellent film and I’ll be surprised if both Leto and McCounaghey don’t get Oscar nods.

9. Maniac

9. MANIAC: 2013 was a fantastic year for cinema, but it was a bit of a pathetic year for the horror genre. The best wide-released horror flick was YOU’RE NEXT (which is missing from this list and isn’t even in my Honorable Mentions). There’s always independent and foreign horror to satiate the need to be frightened. MANIAC is a remake that outdoes the original in every conceivable way, whilst also adding the element of seeing the entire film literally through the eyes of a serial killer. What could have wound up being a cheap gimmick becomes a wholly disturbing and chilling experience that will leave you struggling to get a good night’s sleep for a long time after.

8. Place Beyond The Pines

8. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES: There are gripping stories, moments that shock you, and conclusions that leave you emotionally devastated. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES contains all of the above in a narrative that could be seen as almost an anthology format. It’s a story that follows three different characters that are forever shaped by the choices of someone else. Tragedy is one of the most accurate words I can pick when describing this film. Also, it should be noted that the final moments of the film (fueled with a haunting score) had me crying like the first time I saw AMERICAN HISTORY X.

7. Frozen

7. FROZEN: It seems like ever since Disney switched to the computer animation format, they lost the spark of what made their former efforts so magical. Gone were the musical numbers. The sense of timeless fairy tales seemed to be replaced with potty humor and pop-culture references. Recent films like TANGLED and PRINCESS AND THE FROG tried to recapture that flame that gave Disney films like THE LION KING and BEAUTY & THE BEAST. Somehow, against all odds, FROZEN winds up being the best Disney film in about two full decades. The songs are catchy and have stuck with me since my viewing experience. The script also gives memorable characters, while mocking certain Disney clichés and delivering a timeless, wonderful tale. FROZEN is truly something special!

6. American Hustle

6. AMERICAN HUSTLE: Capturing the essence of the 70’s from set designs, costumes, a very cool soundtrack, and Bradley Cooper’s unforgettable perm, AMERICAN HUSTLE told an intense and very entertaining crime story without ever delving into the ultra-violence that the subgenre usually contains. It was a bold move on the part of David O. Russell, but he’s crafted a fantastic film that let the A-list cast run loose and wild to my delight. This is a movie about people double-crossing each other and by the time everything begins hitting the fan, it’s unlikely that you guessed much of what was in store for you as a viewer (including one very neat cameo).

5. Gravity

5. GRAVITY: You can’t get much more epic than the setting of space itself and that’s exactly the canvas that director/writer Alfonso Cuaron (who held off on directing this film until technology was advanced enough to get across his vision) uses for this tale of survival. It’s spectacle, but cinema comes in many forms. It’s not all about important statements, human drama, character studies, or entertainment. Sometimes, a film just needs to be a ride and this is what GRAVITY was. A huge roller-coaster of a movie and I enjoyed it as such. It’s been a tad overhyped at this point, but GRAVITY still remains on my top 10 of 2013!

4. Worlds End

4. THE WORLD’S END: The final part of the “Cornetto” trilogy (also consisting of SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ) is my favorite of the comedic trifecta. Some human drama is thrown into this sci-fi comedy which makes for some unexpectedly emotional moments (much like in SHAUN), which in turn make the laughs that much more heartier. Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright have closed off their so-called trilogy in grand style and though it’s sad to see it come to a close, I can’t imagine a better way to conclude the so-called Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy. Jokes are brilliantly set up in advance and the chemistry between the cast is so convincing and enjoyable to watch that you may even forget there are robots that show up later on (I certainly did).

3. Prisoners

3. PRISONERS: Few movies have ever made me as uncomfortable as this one did. I was uneasy for the entire running time and for good reason, PRISONERS quietly builds suspense and keeps itself one step ahead of the audience. It’s unflinching in its violence, but also shows restraint when it needs to. Some of the more shocking moments in the film come as to what’s implied rather to what’s shoved into the viewer’s face. This script was supposedly passed around from many directors and tons of different casting choices. The end result is so flawless that it makes one wonder if how it even would have stood a chance with anybody else involved. Heartbreaking, intense and concluding in the most provocative way possible. PRISONERS is the best thriller I’ve seen since Fincher’s GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.

2. Wolf Of Wall Street

2. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET: Give Leo the award. Just give Leo the award already! The man is proving himself to be a chameleon of acting (in the same way Gary Oldman is). In THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, Leonardo DiCaprio skillfully slips into the skin of drug addicted, sex addicted, all-around rich scumbag Jordan Belfort. Far from an unpleasant watch, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is easily the most entertaining film I’ve seen in all of 2013. I haven’t laughed harder at a movie all year (the scene involving Leo and Jonah Hill high on Quaaludes is one of the funniest movie scenes I’ve ever seen in my life). The three-hour running time seems to rush right past, showing the best pacing I’ve seen in a movie this length. Overall, just see it. I loved this movie and it’s one that I plan on buying the moment it hits home video!

1. 12 Years A Slave

1. 12 YEARS A SLAVE: It’s pretty surprising that there’s never been a proper film depicting the horrors of slavery until 2013 (ROOTS doesn’t count). This is a heartbreaking movie that tore my emotions apart and had myself (along with a sold-out movie theater) crying heavily during multiple points in the film. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is the kind of film that you never forget once you’ve seen it. It will stick with you and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes required viewing during History classes for its unflinchingly realistic look on the dark stain in American history. The acting from everyone is top-notch, as is every single aspect with this film. I can’t say that I enjoyed this movie at all, because it’s not made to be enjoyed. It does show one man’s struggle to retain his humanity and survive a 12-year-long period in slavery. Hard to watch, but ultimately rewarding in many ways, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is a masterpiece through and through!

BURN AFTER READING (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Language, Some Sexual Content and Violence

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Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Starring: John Malkovich, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons

The Coen brothers have a unique filmography to say the least. Mostly covering dark thrillers and quirky comedy, they have never made what many would consider a normal movie. This is a total blessing. BURN AFTER READING came at a bit of a bad time for them. They were fresh off the heels of the Best Picture winner NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and this was the next film…a dark comedy that really has no real plot to speak of. In fact, this is more of a series of connected events than an actual story and they received a lot of flack for this. This was a bit unfair to the movie itself, seeing as everyone was comparing it to the best of the siblings’ work. BURN AFTER READING is hysterical in most respects, even if it leaves something to be desired.

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Osbourne Cox is an alcoholic former CIA agent with an explosive temper. Katie Cox is his demanding unfaithful wife. Harry Pfaffer is a former body-guard and Katie’s secret lover, despite being a married man enjoying getting a run whenever he can. Linda Litzke is a woman obsessed with bettering herself through plastic surgery while also working at the gym, where the fitness crazy Chad Feldheimer also works. While there are slight circumstances that connect all of these people, their lives are about to collide in horribly hilarious and darkly violent ways that may lead to the untimely deaths of a few of them and other awful fates for the others.

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I don’t exactly want to reveal anything further about the plot, because the less you know, the more you’ll enjoy this movie. It’s a comedy of errors on an epic scale. This is much like the same kind of oddball comedy that the Coen Brothers previously dished out in RAISING ARIZONA and THE BIG LEBOWSKI, although this time the stakes are more grisly and violent. The colorful cast of characters make for a massively entertaining experience. Much like THE BIG LEBOWSKI offered an excuse for Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and John Turturro to act like immature lunatics, BURN AFTER READING brings in a class of serious performers (including George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, and the always kooky John Malkovich) to act like insane people. It’s a blast to watch

Burn After 3

The non-existent narrative, despite working wonders, also gives off some sense that the film is wandering without a sense of purpose or even a coherent storyline. The running time feels a bit too long in the tooth for a “plot” of this structure or lack thereof. It’s an oddball quirky dark comedy that fulfills its requirement of making the viewer laugh a lot, but also leaves something to be desired. This is the equivalent of the Coen brothers bringing the closest thing we’ll get to popcorn-crunching entertainment from them.

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It feels like it’s missing something integral to making it an A-grade movie, but it seems like the narrative itself may be the cause of this problem. The rushed climax also may not suit everybody’s taste, but I found the final scene to be the funniest moment in the entire film. In the end, it’s a weird slice of entertainment delivered by the esteemed Coen brothers. That’s worth far more than many modern so-called comedies…

Grade: B+

GRAVITY (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Perilous Sequences, some Disturbing Images and brief Strong Language

Gravity poster

Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron

Written by: Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron

Starring: Sandra Bullock & George Clooney

Little under two months ago, I said that I wouldn’t be surprised if PRISONERS wound up being my favorite film of 2013. Having seen GRAVITY, I’ll now say that PRISONERS has some tough competition. GRAVITY is unlike anything you’ve ever seen on film before. Think carefully about how long films have existed and now, tell me you’re not the slightest bit intrigued. I was entranced from the beautiful opening shot to the intense finale. It’s a wondrous work of art, plain and simple.

Gravity 1

The plot follows Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski in the vast endless universe that is space. Their shuttle is hit by debris and winds up in pieces. Suddenly, the two sole survivors of a crew (that began with five) find themselves floating in the starry skies that were once so amazing to behold. The situation is dire, as their suits are running out of oxygen and the two must use every single resource available (not many, to be honest) to find a way to make it back to Earth (if they don’t fry re-entering the atmosphere). A task that becomes more dangerous as the debris is constantly circling around the earth.

Gravity 2

Though most of the sets were mainly composed of green screen effects, GRAVITY looks absolutely astonishing and feels real. In one moment, I was gripping the sides of my armrests and in the next, I was getting teary-eyed as the exasperated Ryan was finding her every effort to survive this ordeal becoming more difficult. George Clooney is a guy who cares about films as art, despite what some of his projects have shown (he is still ashamed of BATMAN & ROBIN to this day). He’s instantly likable as Matt Kowalski and does everything in his power to keep the two of them alive. He also frequently reassures Ryan that they’ll be okay.

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The real star of the film is Sandra Bullock though. She gives the best performance of her career and I will be surprised if it doesn’t garner her any nominations come awards season. I’m sure that there are some scientific mistakes that certain people will be more than happy to point out to the casual viewer. However, there was only one I noticed enough to annoy me and it was explained in a solid way. Films can be amazing, mind-blowing pieces of entertainment as well as stunning pieces of art. GRAVITY does both perfectly.

Gravity 4

Even though some bits of dialogue are given revealing more about a past tragedy in Ryan’s life, the film never once leaves the sides of the characters. We don’t get cheap flashbacks or scenes showing a devastated NASA group trying to figure out if anybody has survived the debris. Instead, we stay with the characters and it makes for an even more intense film, especially after one heartbreaking scene in particular.

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Director/co-writer Alfonso Cuaron paints a story with the biggest canvas ever: outer space. The sets (or lack thereof) make for an adventure that you’re not likely to ever forget. Boasted with two amazing performances and top-notch special effects, GRAVITY never once cheats the viewer on anything. It doesn’t run at a real-time pace, but you’ll find yourself tensing up all the way through. My arms were sore after seeing the movie from all the times that I clenched up. It’s an thrill-ride, but a beautiful and astounding one at that. As much as the word is overused, it applies to this film. GRAVITY is an epic masterpiece!

Grade: A+

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