THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout and some Sexuality/Nudity

Directed by: James Franco

Written by: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber

(based on the book THE DISASTER ARTIST by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell)

Starring: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Allison Brie, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron, Hannibal Buress, Andrew Santino, June Diane Raphael, Nathan Fielder, Brian Huskey, Sharon Stone, Paul Scheer & Jason Mantzoukas

Is it possible to make a great movie about the making of one of the worst movies ever made? Well, Tim Burton already did something along those lines with 1994’s ED WOOD. Now, James Franco has done something similar in 2017’s THE DISASTER ARTIST. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name, THE DISASTER ARTIST chronicles the true story behind the making of THE ROOM, which is widely considered to be one of the worst films of all-time. THE DISASTER ARTIST could have been a hilarious romp that mercilessly took down a weird individual and his passion project. Instead, THE DISASTER ARTIST is hilarious, poignant, and heartfelt! This is a movie about following your dreams…even if those dreams fail miserably.

The year is 1998 and the place is San Francisco, California. Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is a 19-year-old aspiring actor who has trouble emoting in his performances. That all changes when Greg meets strangely accented weirdo Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). Wiseau is fearless in his acting methods, but have a shred of talent in his performances. When Greg and Tommy fail at the seemingly impossible battle to make it big, Tommy decides to write and direct his own movie…with Greg as one of the leading stars. What results is the bafflingly inept production on one of the worst films ever made and a failure so spectacular that it just might be considered a success in its own baffling way.

James Franco has directed films before and none of them seem to be any good. The most recent Franco-directed effort that I sat through was his disappointing adaptation of William Faulkner’s THE SOUND AND THE FURY. I was a bit hesitant that Franco was at the helm of this project, but he thankfully proved all my better judgement wrong. THE DISASTER ARTIST is fantastic and Franco seems like the perfect person to bring it to the screen. Besides the real-world Los Angeles atmosphere that the film evokes, Franco pulls double-duty and plays the role of Tommy Wiseau. To put it bluntly, Franco’s Wiseau impression is pitch-perfect. He has all of the mannerisms down and the unique way of speaking (complete with his unique laugh). Franco nailed this performance!

THE DISASTER ARTIST’s supporting cast sports a bevy of big talent, including Franco’s younger brother Dave in the role of Greg. Though it might be odd to have two brothers acting alongside each other as unrelated characters, this illusion is completely convincing. Dave Franco plays Greg as a level-headed guy who just happens to be friends with the world’s biggest weirdo and has a good heart. Though this film is about the making of THE ROOM, the friendship between Greg and Tommy is the main focus of THE DISASTER ARTIST. Conversations between them range from funny to occasionally intense, as the production brings out serious anger in a few crew members (Greg included).

Other recognizable faces include celebrity cameos and big names in supporting roles. Seth Rogen is especially hilarious as a script supervisor who tries to help Tommy out, but is constantly blindsided by the director’s ego-driven decisions. Paul Scheer is notable as a pissed-off director of photography and really gets his time to shine in the film’s darkest moment (involving an outburst during the filming of one of THE ROOM’s many gratuitous sex scenes). Josh Hutcherson is also quite funny as Philip Haldiman (who played the creepy teenage-ish Denny) and Jacki Weaver gets one great monologue as aged actress Carolyn Minnott (who played Lisa’s cancer-stricken mother).

THE DISASTER ARTIST is likely to win over fans of THE ROOM by injecting some semblance of sense into the sheer incoherence of that film’s final cut. There were lots of scenes in which I immediately thought “Okay, now that part of THE ROOM makes a little more sense.” These moments come as early as the beginning when we see Tommy and Greg watching REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, admiring one line that gets repeated in one of THE ROOM’s most memorable moments. We also see how certain on-set decisions directly affected the entire flow of that film’s insanity. Why did Mark try to throw someone off a roof? Why did Johnny throw a water bottle in a fit of rage? Why does Tommy Wiseau’s hair look like it’s constantly wet? All of these mysteries and more are answered in the course of THE DISASTER ARTIST’s 103-minute running time.

The biggest reason why THE DISASTER ARTIST works is because it’s a story about somebody following their dreams and doing something they love, even if they are absolutely terrible at it. This film captures the love for THE ROOM, whilst also showing the connection that someone can have with their own artistic material. THE DISASTER ARTIST is sure to delight THE ROOM’s cult crowd, whilst also serving as a fantastic piece of filmmaking for moviegoers who enjoy great dramas and comedies. This film is about friendship, ambition, failure, and unexpected success. THE DISASTER ARTIST is just as genuinely moving as it is hilarious. This is one of the best films I’ve sat through in 2017!

Grade: A+

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence, some Language and brief Suggestive Comments

Directed by: Jon Watts

Written by: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers

(based on the SPIDER-MAN comics by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko)

Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr., Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier & Tony Revolori

After years of battling for the rights and fans craving Spider-Man’s inclusion in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Sony and Marvel finally teamed up to deliver (at least) two SPIDER-MAN movies set within the MCU. The web-slinging superhero’s introduction was a highlight in last year’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR and I was hoping that Marvel might deliver a (second) SPIDER-MAN reboot that could actually work. While SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is a fun, light-hearted piece of superhero fluff and wisely doesn’t retread origin material that’s been done twice over, this sixteenth movie in the MCU isn’t quite up to the level of its competition.

After aiding Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) in fighting Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is anxiously awaiting his next official mission with the Avengers. However, school comes first and Parker finds himself dealing with the angst that plagues most teenagers. Eager to prove himself to Iron Man, Spider-Man jumps at the chance to take down new high-tech supervillain Vulture. Things get complicated though as this adolescent Avenger seems to be out of his league against Vulture and is running on thin ice with Tony Stark…and there’s also the upcoming Homecoming dance. What’s a teenage superhero to do?

In its second phase and during its third phase, Marvel Studios seems more willing to take risks and mix different genres with the typical superhero formula. For example, WINTER SOLDIER was a fantastic conspiracy thriller with a superhero, both GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY films were space operas with superheroes, DOCTOR STRANGE was a mind-bending fantasy with a superhero, and ANT-MAN was a heist-comedy with a superhero. SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is very much a coming-of-age tale…with a superhero. Sometimes, this works, but other times it feels overly familiar and doesn’t nearly seem as exciting or fun as it should be.

This might be fatigue from seeing two other incarnations of SPIDER-MAN within the span of 10 years, but I blame most of this film’s problems on overused tropes (from both the superhero and coming-of-age genres). None of the fault falls on the shoulders of Tom Holland, who’s playing the youngest version of Peter Parker that we’ve seen yet and convincingly brings the ambitious do-gooder, smart-ass side of Spidey to the screen. Though I still hold a soft spot in my heart for Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man and I thought that Andrew Garfield drastically improved his performance in his second outing as the crime-fighting wall-crawler, Holland just might give Maguire a run for his money in future films (as the character grows up and the stories evolve).

On the supporting side of things, Jacob Batalon earns a lot of laughs as Peter’s geeky best friend Ned. Zendaya is half-heartedly thrown aside as Peter’s bland love interest. Even worse than the unbelievably forced romantic angle is Tony Revolori being miscast as Flash. Instead of a jock bully who wants to beat Peter’s brains in, Flash has been made over into a pompous, rich kid, “king of the nerds” type of tormentor and it simply doesn’t work. Hannibal Buress and Martin Starr make appearances as Peter’s naïve teachers, while Marisa Tomei is fun as Aunt May. Also, it’s impossible not to enjoy watching Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, even though he only gets about fifteen minutes of screen time.

HOMECOMING’s best quality comes in Michael Keaton’s Vulture. Instead of being your typical supervillain, Vulture’s motivation is sympathetic and his progression of evil has a moral compass. These character traits make Keaton’s baddie into one of the most interesting Marvel villains we’ve received thus far, even if his first action scene with Spider-Man is ruined by incoherent quick editing and shaky cam. The rest of the encounters are fun to watch, especially a conversation between the two of them in a car. Also, a mid-credits scene reveals yet another moment that make Keaton’s Vulture into a more complex villain…who deserved more than this by-the-numbers script. The same can be said of Shocker (played by Logan Marshall-Green and Bokeem Woodbine) who mostly stands around and only gets one solid fight scene that’s over far too quickly.

Every major problem with SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING comes from predictable writing and overused clichés. Coming-of-age stories have been done to death nearly as much as superhero movies, so combining those two genres doesn’t exactly give the filmmaker or (six!) writers a lot of originality to work with. This feels like a safe made-by-committee superhero movie, which could have been the direct result of Sony and Marvel working together. Still, there’s enough entertainment, good acting, and laughs to make SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING worth a tepid recommendation. HOMECOMING is your average fun superhero movie and your average fun teenage coming-of-age tale…and it’s the fourth best SPIDER-MAN film thus far (behind SPIDER-MAN 2, SPIDER-MAN, and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2).

Grade: B-

THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Rude Humor and Action

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Directed by: Clay Kaytis & Fergal Reilly

Written by: Mikael Hed, Mikko Polla & John Cohen

(based on the video game ANGRY BIRDS by Rovio Entertainment)

Voices of: Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, Peter Dinklage, Kate McKinnon, Sean Penn, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key & Blake Shelton

I wasn’t expecting THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE to be great. After all, this film is based on an addicting cell phone app. That’s the current state of the film industry though, where a TETRIS trilogy gets greenlit and an EMOJI MOVIE is currently in production. I watched ANGRY BIRDS with hopes that it might be serviceable family entertainment. Not up to Disney or Pixar standards, but somewhere along the lines of a lesser DreamWorks film. I was horribly mistaken. THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE is one of the worst animated films I’ve seen in a long time and it’s not like this film doesn’t have good production values behind it either. ANGRY BIRDS features a talented voice cast and has solid animation, but the script is offensively lazy and a large portion of the jokes fall flat.

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On the aptly named Bird Island, easily infuriated Red (Jason Sudeikis) has been sentenced to anger management. In this frustrating program, the red flightless bird reluctantly befriends speedy Chuck (Josh Gad) and explosive Bomb (Danny McBride). Red’s anger management classes encounter unexpected turbulence when a mysterious ship arrives, filled with green pigs. The pigs are led by charismatic leader Leonard (Bill Hader), who quickly becomes popular in the bird community. However, Red becomes suspicious of these pigs and is written off as paranoid by his fellow feathered citizens. Soon enough, the outcast trio of angry birds become the only hope for Bird Island’s unhatched eggs.

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To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t exactly sold on ANGRY BIRDS being a film from the get-go. The marketing was lame, but I heard a few surprisingly positive reviews and the animation looked good. This film was made by Finnish company Rovio Entertainment, the very same company that made the ANGRY BIRDS app to begin with, and currently holds the record for the largest budget in Finnish film history. Apparently those investments paid off for them, because this film banked at the box office and there’s already a sequel in the works. Why am I discussing the production of this film, rather than the qualities of the movie itself? Well, those details seem remarkably more interesting than anything I can really say about this dull slog of wasted animation.

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The film’s story seems to be making itself up as it goes along, with many filler scenes before the all too brief conflict between angry birds and green pigs. This film seems like an origin story for the ANGRY BIRDS universe, but forgets part of why that game was so enjoyable in the first place. You’re launching birds at evil green pigs to retrieve eggs. This movie takes over an hour before it finally reaches that point, not that it necessarily would have been better to watch birds vs. pigs for an hour of screen time. What I’m getting at is that THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE runs way too long. This film could have easily been shortened by 20 or 30 minutes and it would have made for a less painful experience.

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The film’s talented voice cast is completely wasted on bottom-of-the-barrel potty humor and pop culture references. Both of those can be well-executed in kid’s films, but ANGRY BIRDS drops the ball numerous times. There’s a forced SHINING reference with two pigs, a Calvin Klein ad with a pig, cholesterol jokes and plenty of substituted profanity (e.g. “Peck my life” and “Shell yes”). Are we laughing yet? Well, if those don’t do it for you, surely you’ll be rolling in the aisle from lame bird puns, a sequence of a snot-nosed bird flying through the air and smearing mucus everywhere, butts being thrown into other birds faces, and an elongated pee joke that’s already been spoiled in the trailer. It’s a wonder that THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE wound up hitting 3,932 theaters, because this thing feels like it should be debuting direct-to-video in Redbox and discount Wal-Mart bins.

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Are there any redeeming qualities to ANGRY BIRDS? Well, two adult-aimed jokes are genuinely clever and the animation is fun to look at. I’m not going to pretend like I’m the target audience for THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE, because I’m clearly not. However, THE LEGO MOVIE also sounded stupid in theory and wound up being one of the best films of 2014. It’s possible to make any idea, regardless of how idiotic and stupid it sounds, into a great or fun film, if there’s enough talent, effort and love thrown into the project. THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE is not that kind of movie. Instead, this lazy cash-grab will probably occupy bored children for 97 minutes, but likely won’t do much for teenage viewers and adults.

Grade: D

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 27 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Action and some Rude Humor

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Directed by: Chris Renaud & Yarrow Cheney

Written by: Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio

Voices of: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Bobby Moynihan, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Steve Coogan, Albert Brooks & Tara Strong

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS is one of the biggest box office hits in an otherwise lackluster summer movie season. Honestly, is anyone surprised about this film’s success? After all, the adorable teaser trailer has been attached to almost every major theatrical release since last July (when it premiered in front of MINIONS). SECRET LIFE OF PETS is sure to appeal to animal lovers, pet owners and children who want to sit through a goofy cartoon. However, it isn’t anything special. Instead, this animated film is slightly above average thanks to stellar animation and a few big laughs, but falls victim to a number of irritating problems.

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Max (Louis C.K.) is a terrier living with his loving owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). They’ve got a sweet relationship together and that becomes strained when Katie adopts large shaggy Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Max and Duke don’t get along, much to Katie’s naivety. The escalating feud between them eventually gets the two canines lost in New York City. To make matters worse, Max and Duke are being pursued by a group of anti-human animals led by psychotically adorable bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart). While Max and Duke desperately try to find the way back to Katie’s apartment, Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) and a group of her friends attempt to rescue Max. This leads to a bunch of animal hijinks, ridiculous moments, and a sentimental heartwarming message. You know. Everything you’d expect in a children’s film.

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Family entertainment can be absolutely fantastic. Just look at the Disney Renaissance, a few of DreamWorks’ more original efforts, and pretty much every Pixar movie before 2011. Illumination Entertainment is clearly trying to set itself up as a tentpole for animated kids’ films. With MINIONS being a monster hit last summer, I’d say they’ve cemented that reputation at the box office with SECRET LIFE OF PETS. This film currently holds the sixth-largest animated debut, the sixth-highest July weekend debut, and the fourth-biggest opening weekend for Universal Studios. Monetary success aside, SECRET LIFE OF PETS is a somewhat bland, forgettable tale that pretty much rips off TOY STORY and replaces the toys with pets.

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The film’s stellar animation should be commended in being vibrant, colorful and far exceeding the quality of its sloppy script, but the cast of characters range from being hilarious to 100% forgettable. Unfortunately, Max and Duke fall into the latter category. They’re pretty much Woody and Buzz in dog bodies, but without any of the charisma or chemistry that made those two characters so fun to begin with. A handful of supporting players wind up stealing the show and deliver far more laughs than the two leads. The biggest stand-out is definitely Snowball, who is cute to look at and raving mad underneath his fluffy white appearance. Kevin Hart was a perfect choice for this role and lets his voice go hilariously over-the-top with glee and frequent mood swings.

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There are a few other noteworthy side characters. Another highlight is Gidget, who becomes determined to find Max after watching a cheesy soap opera. Albert Brooks voices Tiberius, a hawk who’s constantly trying to keep his predatory instincts in check around the other animals. The hungry expression on this bird’s face during some of the smaller scenes makes for a few chuckles. Steve Coogan’s hairless cat Ozone is quite underused, but has two good scenes nonetheless. Finally, Dana Carvey voices elderly basset hound Pops and has one of the best jokes in the entire film. The same cannot be said of the bland canines voiced by Bobby Moynihan and Hannibal Buress as well as an apathetic cat voiced by Lake Bell.

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In spite of clocking in under 90 minutes (counting credits), PETS has frequent dull patches where the momentum runs thin and laughs are absent. The humor in PETS really excels when it’s pointing out little observations about pets and their human companions. Two montages (one in the opening, another in the closing minutes) are sure to tug at the heartstrings of anyone who’s ever owned a pet of any kind. These two sequences were beyond cute and made me want to play with my dogs as soon as I got home from the theater. SECRET LIFE OF PETS is bland in its main characters, has shaky pacing, and shamelessly rips off the TOY STORY trilogy. Still, the vibrant animation, jokes that do work, and colorful side characters make PETS into a fun, though underwhelming, experience that is far more likely to entertain children than parents.

Grade: B-

DADDY’S HOME (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Elements, Crude and Suggestive Content, and for Language

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Directed by: Sean Anders

Written by: Brian Burns, Sean Anders & John Morris

Starring: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini, Scarlett Estevez, Owen Wilder Vaccaro, Thomas Haden Church, Hannibal Buress & Bobby Cannavale

Like any other big comedic actor, Will Ferrell has gone through highs and lows. His highs have been hilarious (TALLADEGA NIGHTS), hugely entertaining (MEGAMIND), and surprisingly emotional (STRANGER THAN FICTION). His lows have been bland (GET HARD), disappointing (ANCHORMAN 2), and outright terrible (BEWITCHED). DADDY’S HOME made a splash in last year’s box office and is now Will Ferrell’s highest grossing live-action film. That’s a bit depressing, because this lame comedy is nowhere near Ferrell’s best and actually falls near the bottom of his output. DADDY’S HOME is confused about whether or not it wants to be light-hearted family friendly comedy or the usual crude PG-13 Ferrell fest. The film’s tone suggests the former, while the sex/penis jokes suggest the latter. As a result, DADDY’S HOME is a dull mess that isn’t really aimed at anyone in particular.

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Brad Whitaker (Will Ferrell) is a dorky stepfather, who’s overly polite and a total pushover. Despite being happily married to his wife Sara (Linda Cardellini), Brad’s stepchildren Megan and Dylan are understandably reluctant to accept him as their dad. Just when doors seem to be opening up between Brad and the kids, they receive a phone call from their biological father Dusty (Mark Wahlberg). Through a misunderstanding, Dusty invites himself to visit for a week and Brad begins to engage in a full-blown “dad off” between himself and Dusty. Wild and crazy antics ensue, except they really don’t because these jokes feel a bit tame, far-fetched, and outright stupid.

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DADDY’S HOME reveals a big problem in its first ten minutes. Brad seems like a sociopath, even though the movie is trying to portray as a lovable clumsy doofus. Through his opening narration, Ferrell’s stepfather protagonist all but directly tells us that the main reason he even married Sara was because she had kids. Remember, we’re supposed to be rooting for this guy. The script also goes too far in showing us what a geek Brad is. Of course, he works at a slow jazz radio station. Of course, he has uncomfortable conversations with his boss. Of course, he keeps misunderstanding what his step-kids want from him. He’s a dork…but ain’t he lovable? Yeah, not really.

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That’s not to say that Mark Wahlberg’s character is likable either, but at least Dusty is set up as one-dimensional antagonist from the start. The film’s characters act like he has charisma that simply wasn’t evident to me and then slowly pulls back layers to reveal Dusty’s true intentions…like they weren’t obvious from the start. The underhanded tactics that Dusty uses make him completely unlikable, but Brad and Sara still keep him around out of misguided reasons. Even when Dusty invites a random guy (played by Hannibal Buress) to start living with the family, they still allow him to stay in the house…because the film wanted it that way. Dusty also accompanies Brad to work and warms up to his boss…solely because the script called for it.

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Many events in this movie only occur because the script called for them and not out from believable character decisions or a natural story flow. I know these might sound like dumb complaints for a PG-13 Will Ferrell comedy, but there has to be a level of consistency to make any story work. TALLADEGA NIGHTS was far funnier (I truly love that movie) and has more believability than DADDY’S HOME. This bland comedy simply moves from crude set-piece to even cruder set-piece and also tries to maintain a family friendly atmosphere by having the story bring would-be heartfelt messages into the final third. This mix doesn’t work because it’s not well written, particularly funny and the characters are all unlikable scumbags.

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At the end of the day, DADDY’S HOME is bland, forgettable, and not particularly funny. Adding insult to injury, this film tries to shoe-horn in a forced message about what it truly means to be a family and constantly feels like a jumbled mish-mash of two very different movies. To make matters even worse, the wife and children are merely regulated to game pieces that will be won by either scummy Wahlberg or sociopathic Ferrell. Even if it weren’t already a tonally confused mess, DADDY’S HOME would be seen as reprehensibly stupid, unfunny, and intelligence-insulting comedy thanks to a sloppy script. DADDY’S HOME might just be down there with BEWITCHED as one of Ferrell’s very worst films.

Grade: D

THE NICE GUYS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Sexuality, Nudity, Language and brief Drug Use

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Directed by: Shane Black

Written by: Shane Black & Anthony Bagarozzi

Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Murielle Telio, Keith David, Kim Basinger & Beau Knapp

If you only read the synopsis for THE NICE GUYS, it sounds like a dark crime-thriller. You’d be wrong in this assumption though, because this movie is written and directed by Shane Black. He’s the guy behind movies like LETHAL WEAPON, THE LAST BOY SCOUT and KISS KISS BANG BANG. In short, Shane Black seems to have a knack for making action clichés feel fresh, creating great characters, and incorporating lots of laughs into otherwise tense plots. THE NICE GUYS combines a neo-noir thriller and a buddy cop comedy into one hugely entertaining creation. Driven by a compelling mystery, riding on the shoulders of strong characters, and boosted by a 70’s atmosphere, THE NICE GUYS is a blast!

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Los Angeles, 1977. Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is an enforcer, willing to beat anyone to a pulp…as long as he’s being paid to do so. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is an inept private investigator, who isn’t above scamming his clients and getting drunk in the morning. Healy and March cross paths due to a strange girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley). What begins as a simple missing person case quickly escalates into a conspiracy connected to a porn star’s mysterious death and murderous criminals. Soon enough, Healy and March are working together, dodging bullets, screwing up, and trying their best to get to the bottom of a complicated, dangerous mystery.

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THE NICE GUYS masterfully balances two very different genres. The film’s mood frequently shifts between laugh-out-loud hilarious to tense thriller territory, but never once feels like a mess. This multi-genre tone may sound difficult to execute, but Shane Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi make it look easy. Lots of laughs come from the undeniably witty dialogue, but there are over-the-top visual jokes too (e.g. a cigarette smoking bee). These moments are utterly ridiculous, but never seem to distract from the danger at hand. When this story gets dark, it gets downright bleak. This screenplay packs in a lot of surprises and one twist left me stunned for a solid five minutes.

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Besides having an excellent script, THE NICE GUYS also showcases one of the best actor pairings in recent memory. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling have great chemistry and play off each other in ways that feel completely natural. Each brings their own sense of comedic timing to the mix, but both are able to balance seriousness in their characters. March is a bumbling jerk with a drinking problem, but has genuine goodness in him and cares deeply for his daughter. Crowe is a hardened guy trying to do the right thing, but occasionally does very bad things along the way. NICE GUYS doesn’t pretty up these characters’ flaws or make light of them, which makes the serious moments work and the many humorous moments even more amusing.

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THE NICE GUYS follows the structure of a buddy cop comedy, but purposely goes out of its way to not follow the typical conventions of that formula. On a side note, there’s something to be said for a film that includes a child sidekick and does so in a way that’s not annoying in the slightest. This character is Holly, March’s daughter, and is played to perfection by Angourie Rice. Holly is able to see the goodness in both of these men and doesn’t hesitate to point out their problems. As a result, teenage Rice manages to steal a few scenes away from Gosling and Crowe.

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There is one exception to the story’s mostly non-conventional nature and that comes with a bit of revealing exposition. A couple of obvious clues give away surprises before they’ve fully been revealed. Every audience member might not immediately catch onto to these telegraphed bits, but one scene seems a bit too heavy-handed in laying them out for the viewer. However, THE NICE GUYS more than makes up for this with some of the most unlikable villains that I’ve seen in a long time. I was rooting for these bad guys to get seriously hurt as tense confrontations played out and the movie doesn’t disappoint in bloodletting as the comeuppances are beyond satisfying in their over-the-top violence.

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The 70’s atmosphere and great soundtrack are merely icing on the cake. THE NICE GUYS juggles multiple genres, rides on well-developed characters, and is bound to get you laughing. It’s simultaneously hilarious and suspenseful, which are two words that you don’t often hear in describing one film. The chemistry between Gosling and Crowe is perfect! I sincerely hope that we get to spend even more time with them in a potential sequel. If you want a mystery that doesn’t skimp on the suspense and a comedy that will keep you laughing from start to finish, THE NICE GUYS lives up to its title in being nice…and then some!

Grade: A

NEIGHBORS 2: SORORITY RISING (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Crude Sexual Content including brief Graphic Nudity, Language throughout, Drug Use and Teen Partying

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Directed by: Nicholas Stoller

Written by: Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O’Brien, Nicholas Stoller, Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg

Starring: Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ike Barinholtz, Carla Gallo, Kiersey Clemons, Beanie Feldstein, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse & Selena Gomez

2014’s NEIGHBORS wound up being one of Seth Rogen’s better comedies in recent years. Mixing juvenile dick jokes with a smart script and well-developed characters, that film was an instant box office hit. Where there’s financial success, a sequel is likely in development. Sure enough, two years have passed and now we have NEIGHBORS 2: SORORITY RISING. Most comedy sequels try way too hard to replicate the original’s success. NEIGHBORS 2 definitely treads old ground, but does so with the heart that made the first film enjoyable to begin with.

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Set two years after the first film, Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) now have a two-year-old daughter, are pregnant with a second child, and have entered a 30-day escrow on selling their house. Before they can sign the final paperwork, the couple make a horrifying, all-too-familiar discovery: a hard-partying sorority has moved next door. Kappa Nu, led by rebellious Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz), wants to stick it to a sexist system and has no intention of toning down their drunken bashes. Mac and Kelly’s former strategies of neighborly warfare against the fraternity are no use against Kappa Nu, because the sorority sisters have entirely different methods of messing with the couple. Mac and Kelly need help and that’s when former frat leader/wild card Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron) comes back into their lives.

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Running at a brisk 92 minutes, NEIGHBORS 2 juggles three storylines. The main attraction is, of course, the territorial war between a desperate couple and the drunken sorority. SORORITY RISING does a decent job of introducing slightly new twists and executing fresh gross-out gags. One act of vandalism is simultaneously disgusting and hilarious, especially when one character points out the hypocrisy of another person’s reaction to it. This sequel’s main plot runs very similar to the first film, repeating familiar beats, but remains entertaining nonetheless. Smaller storylines come in Teddy wanting to be valued by his mature former frat brothers and Kappa Nu’s rebellion against a system stacked against them. These subplots attempt to inject heart into the crude proceedings and reach mixed degrees of success.

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Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Dave Franco, Ike Barinholtz, and Carla Gallo slip right back into their characters with ease. Rogen and Byrne are especially funny as the desperate couple, whose situation is far more dire this time around (their lives and money are actually at stake). Efron and Franco expand on their solid bromance that was already established in the first film. Barinholtz and Gallo receive a few memorable moments as side comic relief, though their parts in this sequel are far smaller than they were in the original film.

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The Kappa Nu neighbors are played by Chloe Grace Moretz, Kiersey Clemons, and Beanie Feldstein. Moretz has already made a name for herself and starred in films that range all over the map in quality. As Shelby, she’s allowed to return to R-rated, profanity-laced territory that marked her most famous role (Hit Girl in KICK-ASS). Moretz’s sorority leader is fun to watch and makes a formidable antagonist for Mac and Kelly. Clemons and Feldstein are less well-known and both receive a handful of comedic highlights. Clemons does well as Shelby’s best friend, while Feldstein is a former straight-laced student reveling in drugs.

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NEIGHBORS 2 occasionally struggles in its pacing. Because the film is juggling three separate plots (while the original had two), it doesn’t exactly give itself enough wiggle room to milk the maximum level of laughs out of its premise. You can spot scenes in the film’s trailers that don’t appear in the movie at all, which leads me to believe that there’s about 10 minutes of footage on the cutting room floor. These excised moments might have made the film more cohesive as Hannibal Buress’ Officer Watkins makes a return in this sequel, but it’s only for one throwaway joke…while the trailer shows him in a deleted scene that went to another chaotic level. In one surprising improvement, this sequel actually had a better conclusion than the original film. The final minutes balance out a sweet level of parenthood/sisterhood/brotherhood and maintain a good amount of crude jokes. It was a good last note to go out on in an otherwise decent movie.

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NEIGHBORS 2 is very much a repeat of the first film, but adds some new twists to keep things entertaining. The pacing stumbles a bit and as a result, this sequel will most likely be forgotten within a week’s time. On the positive side of things, Chloe Grace Moretz, Kiersey Clemons and Beanie Feldstein are great new antagonists and have a compelling subplot of their own. In the end, NEIGHBORS 2 isn’t nearly as bad as other recent comedy sequels (e.g. HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2, TED 2), but doesn’t reach the heats of the original and feels like a mere rehash (think slightly better than HORRIBLE BOSSES 2). If you liked the first NEIGHBORS, then you’ll likely enjoy NEIGHBORS 2 to some extent.

Grade: B-

SLEEPWALK WITH ME (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Sexual Content and brief Language

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Directed by: Mike Birbiglia

Written by: Mike Birbiglia, Ira Glass, Joe Birbiglia & Seth Barrish

Starring: Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, Carol Kane, James Rebhorn, Cristin Milioti, Aya Cash, David Wain & Kristen Schaal

If you’re a fan of Mike Birbiglia’s stand-up, then you’ll most likely be a fan of SLEEPWALK WITH ME. This self-depreciating comedian has a way about making his everyday occurrences and downbeat life experiences into something that you can both laugh about and sympathize with. Birbiglia manages to transfer that quality into his directorial debut in which he stood behind the camera, co-wrote the script (basing it off his own life), and acted in the role of the main character. There’s a genuine and soft-spoken honesty in SLEEPWALK that feels refreshing and wholly enjoyable. It might not be for everybody, but if you like laughs with a dose of sad reality, then you’ll probably enjoy SLEEPWALK WITH ME.

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Matt Pandamiglio is a struggling stand-up comedian trying to carve a solid career out of making people laugh. Through much failure and a side job as a bartender, Matt is slowly making his way up the comedy totem pole. This is coming at a price though. Due to a huge amount of anxiety, Matt finds himself suffering from severe sleepwalking spells that are getting increasingly worse. His stress mainly stems from his own struggling relationship with long-time girlfriend Abby, which has been placed on especially rocky waters by a recent wedding in the family. Matt finds himself turning his relationship struggles into laughs on the stage, but also finds himself on a venture of self-discovery.

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Mike Birbiglia is playing himself as Matt Pandamiglio. Every experience, bit of storytelling, and joke on the screen is coming from Birbiglia’s own life and stand up. He’s shared these stories on stage before and proven himself capable of telling them in a highly entertaining manner. While that works perfectly on the stage, one may have their doubts about Birbiglia breaking into the cinematic medium. However, this stand-up comedian turned director/actor has managed to incorporate his subdued style of humor in a way that lends well to this visual storytelling format for the most part. There are bits and pieces of dialogue that were clearly meant to get a laugh, but don’t necessarily translate as well onto the screen (though they’re hilarious in his stand-up). Matt isn’t exactly the most likable character, but he’s a realistic and compelling one in spite of his faults (which he clearly addresses from beginning to end).

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SLEEPWALK WITH ME really deserves kudos on the realistic stance in how it approaches the life of a stand-up comedian. For every big name that breaks into the mainstream or even gains a cult following, there are hundreds of little folks who will never be successful in a career of making people laugh. Just YouTube comedians and you’re bound to hit at least a thousand names that you’ve never heard of before and will likely never hear from again. Mike Birbiglia isn’t exactly a huge tour-de-force on stage, but he’s made his way into some well-earned success. He also knows what its like to be living from community college gig to 30 minute set at a small bar and he brings these experiences into his screenplay. Besides being about sleep disorders and the life of a comedian, SLEEPWALK also tries to be about a shaky relationship. This aspect is the weakest of the three covered. It’s not as if there’s anything terrible or remarkably bad about it, but some scenes feel a bit forced (such as Abby apathetically trying to pick out a wedding dress or a closing monologue).

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If you like Mike Birbiglia, you’ll like SLEEPWALK WITH ME. The film manages to be funny with total honesty that’s bound to be appreciated by filmgoers and (I’d imagine) comedians alike. Most of Birbiglia’s material translates well into the cinematic form, though there are a couple of near-miss jokes. The REM sleep disorder stuff is well-executed as is the life of a struggling comedian trying to break out, but the relationship angle feels a tad forced in places. SLEEPWALK WITH ME has a target audience and will definitely satisfy that demographic. I can also see this playing well with fans of independent dramedy. I recommend this film. If you like it, you might also enjoy Birbiglia’s stand-up album titled SLEEPWALK WITH ME that chronicles his actual real-life story behind this film.

Grade: B

NEIGHBORS (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Language, Strong Crude and Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, and Drug Use throughout

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Directed by: Nicholas Stoller

Written by: Andrew J. Cohen & Brendan O’Brien

Starring: Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Dave Franco & Christopher Mintz-Plasse

Never in my wildest dreams have I imagined a comedy that would headline both Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, yet here we are in 2014 and this film is guaranteed to be a comedy hit of the summer. NEIGHBORS makes no qualms about the kind of movie it is. It’s earns its R rating with glee and frequently relies on profanity, bodily functions, and dick jokes. What one might not expect is that the film often does so with fleshed-out characters and a smart script. The story is raunchy, but oddly sweet in some respects. The film is also very, very funny! Paced at a perfect 96 minute running time, this is a great film to kick back, relax and get some huge laughs out of.

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Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) are two college sweethearts making that awkward transition into the real adulthood. They own a cozy house and are the proud parents of an adorable baby girl. The house next door is up for sale and the couple are curiously watching potential buyers/new neighbors. What they don’t expect is a fraternity populated with tons of “brothers” showing up to buy the place. After seemingly getting off on the right foot with the frat president Teddy (Zac Efron), things take a turn for the worse after Mac calls the cops with a noise complaint on their loud next door neighbors. The tides turn and any possible chance of a friendly relationship with the frat is severed. With the college boys making their life a living hell at every turn (vandalizing property and blasting loud music every night of the week), Mac and Kelly bring on a full-scale domestic war upon the heads of these punks…which escalates to insane heights.

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For the ridiculous levels that things spiral out of control, NEIGHBORS has remarkable skill with its characters. Not every joke revolves around the ludicrous circumstances between the couple and the frat. Plenty of scenes revolve around the couple themselves coping with the unexpected stress of parenthood. Quite a few moments also showcase the inner workings of the fraternity. It’s also worth noting that the frat house occupants aren’t played off as one-joke stereotypes. There are some typical traits associated with these characters, but the bromance between Zac Efron and Dave Franco’s characters seemed genuine. Some very good points are made about generational gaps and the stigma that comes with growing up. It’s not like the film was profoundly deep or anything along those lines, but the story was painted with a layer of reality that made everything so much funnier than it already was. As a couple, Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne have believable chemistry. They equally balanced being immature idiots and concerned parents. Every one of these touches ultimately made nearly every character compelling in their own way.

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NEIGHBORS does frequently resort to crude jokes to get laughs. They are lots of sex jokes, dick references, and a scene involving breast milk that is frankly quite disgusting. Things aren’t all about the shock value though. The film never lowers itself as just a cash-in for idiots who still laugh at their own farts. There are a lot of clever interactions between the couple and the fraternity. Where the film stumbles a bit comes in the final minutes. It seems like the story had been told and the film was ready to end, but that the filmmaker and writers didn’t know how to close it out. Instead of remaining consistent with the same energy that was present for the entire movie up to that point, the film seems to lose some steam. It ultimately winds down on a silly note that had good intentions, but didn’t necessarily leave me completely satisfied. As a side note, some scenes on display in the trailers/TV spots aren’t in the film at all. They are sure to appear in the eventual Unrated version, but it’s kind of misleading to throw those into the marketing (even the most recent commercials).

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Nobody is expecting NEIGHBORS to be high art and it isn’t. This is the kind of R-rated comedy that someone heads into with the expectations of getting some solid laughs at immature antics. There are plenty of those on display, but the script doesn’t settle at that point and carves out some well-developed characters as well. The movie is equally as clever as it is crude. I highly enjoyed NEIGHBORS for what it was and recommend the film to fans of Seth Rogen comedies. It’s definitely in your wheelhouse if you’re a fan of that charismatic man-child (I am one of those fans). These are some NEIGHBORS worth visiting.

Grade: B+

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