THE RIDICULOUS 6 (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: Frank Coraci

Written by: Tim Herlihy & Adam Sandler

Starring: Adam Sandler, Terry Crews, Jorge Garcia, Taylor Lautner, Rob Schneider, Luke Wilson, Nick Nolte, Will Forte, Nick Swardson, Steve Zahn, Julia Jones, Danny Trejo, Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, David Spade, Jon Lovitz & John Turturro

Adam Sandler is a polarizing comedian. He was hugely successful in the 90s with recurring sketches on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and this was followed by a series of hit comedies (the best of which is easily HAPPY GILMORE). Somewhere around the mid-2000’s, the quality of Sandler’s output went downhill and he’s progressively gotten lazier and more unfunny as the years have rolled on. We’ve gotten to a point where studios have passed on Sandler’s ideas and he’s signed an eight-film(!) deal with Netflix. 2015’s THE RIDICULOUS 6 is the first of these eight straight-to-Netflix Sandler films, earning a whopping 0% on Rotten Tomatoes and breaking Netflix records as their most-watched film. While RIDICULOUS 6 isn’t Sandler’s worst movie, it’s definitely on the low end of his filmography.

Set in the Old West, the story follows Tom “White Knife” Stockburn (Adam Sandler). Tom never knew his father and was raised by a Native American tribe. One day, Tom’s deadbeat dad (Nick Nolte) inexplicably walks back into his life and is promptly kidnapped by an outlaw gang, led by fearsome murderer Cicero (Danny Trejo). In order to rescue his father, Tom begins robbing banks…only to realize that his dad had five other children with five other women. The gang of six misfit brothers sets off on an adventure that sees them stealing from various jerks, encountering historical figures, and ending up in (what else) an Old West gun fight. Meanwhile, about 1/4th of the jokes get laughs and 3/4ths fall flat.

Adam Sandler phones in his performance as White Knife. He seems to be trying to do a gruff Clint Eastwood impression, but lacks any charisma and the faintest bit of effort in this part. Sandler as a straight-man never should have been attempted in the first place, because he doesn’t seem fit for this part in comedy. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I might have preferred a more over-the-top, silly-voiced Sandler as the lead. Even more surprising is that Rob Schneider isn’t half-bad as the stereotypical Mexican brother and actually got a few chuckles out of me.

Delivering the worst performance in the film, Taylor Lautner is godawful as a high-pitched hillbilly. Nearly every moment he’s on screen is insufferable. Almost as bad as Lautner is Jorge Garcia (a.k.a. Hurley from LOST) who plays an incomprehensible mountain man. Luke Wilson and Terry Crews are also in this movie as the two other brothers and they don’t contribute much to the proceedings or laughs. Danny Trejo and Nick Nolte also show up, but are clearly phoning it in.

To its credit, THE RIDICULOUS 6 looks like it had a budget behind it. There’s only one scene of cheap CGI and that comes early on. The sets and cinematography are rather well done for a western comedy spoof, though I still much prefer Seth MacFarlane’s serviceable A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST over this. Two of RIDICULOUS 6’s main problem comes from its long running time and messy pacing. This film almost feels like an endurance test, because the story frequently meanders and there are many dull moments. If it ran at 90 minutes, this might have been far better. The first hour is dedicated to the brothers running into each other, following a predictable pattern of: the characters going to a location, meeting another brother, and then going to another location.

Three-quarters of the jokes in RIDICULOUS 6 are lame. This isn’t because they’re offensive and gross, but rather because they’re just plain lazy. The juvenile bits include: a donkey with explosive diarrhea, bestiality, farting, a fly getting castrated, charades for sex, and crude-sounding Native American names. Are we having fun yet? No, but what about a long musical number around a campfire that comes out of nowhere and lasts for nearly 5 minutes. Still not laughing, but what about half-assed cameo appearances from Vanilla Ice (as Mark Twain), David Spade (as Colonel Muster), Chris Kattan (as John Wilkes Booth), and Jon Lovitz (as a snobby rich poker player)? I wanted to laugh at Vanilla Ice playing one of America’s most celebrated writers, but they do nothing with it. The joke is simply him appearing as that character and nothing else.

Though I’m railing on this film’s flaccid excuses for humor, there are a handful of genuine laughs to be had. These are few and far between, but they do exist. Early cracks about the racism of the time made me giggle, while cross-eyed Steve Zahn gets a few good moments as a gun-toting hick. Steve Buscemi makes the most of his time as the small-town doctor/barber. Meanwhile, Harvey Keitel gets the darkest laugh of the entire movie and John Turturro is fantastic as the inventor of baseball (who makes up rules to avoid being beaten at his own game).

THE RIDICULOUS 6 is not Adam Sandler’s worst film because there are a few good laughs in this mess of a movie. That’s more than I can say about the likes of GROWN UPS and JACK AND JILL. A bloated running time and monotonous story take an unfixable toll on the proceedings, one that’s further hindered by a majority of the would-be jokes falling flat. I really hope that THE RIDICULOUS 6 winds up being the worst Adam Sandler straight-to-Netflix film, because this lazy and that in itself seems a little insulting to the Sandman’s fanbase.

Grade: D

TAXI DRIVER (1976)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Paul Schrader

Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, Leonard Harris & Peter Boyle

Widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all-time by critics, TAXI DRIVER cemented Martin Scorsese as one hell of a filmmaker and earned a fair share of controversy at the time of its release. The film is a character study of the darkest kind and takes the viewer into an unforgettable urban hell that’s guaranteed to make you feel unclean. This gritty, grimy crime-thriller is not a pleasant experience, but it certainly is an amazing one. Shining a light on places that society prefers to look away from, TAXI DRIVER is a seminal piece of 70’s cinema.

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Vietnam vet Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) can’t sleep. This insomniac has secured a job driving taxi cabs through all areas of New York City at night. While on the streets, he witnesses the dregs of society and wishes that a rain would wash the world clean. After failing to start a relationship with political activist Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), Travis soon decides that he wants his life to have a purpose. With his mental state quickly unraveling, the unhinged Bickle obsesses over two potential causes: rising Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) and teenage prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster).

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TAXI DRIVER doesn’t run on plot, but instead on the experiences of its titular main character. The film takes us into the mind of an increasingly paranoid, hate-filled Vietnam war veteran turned cabbie. Schrader’s screenplay was originally written with the mindset of giving a voice to someone he feared becoming and as a result, Travis Bickle isn’t exactly a likable protagonist. He’s an antihero, but one that you can’t fully root for because of certain motivations. One scene before the brutal climax keeps him drastically far from the graces of being a good person. Thus, TAXI DRIVER is an unnerving trip down the rabbit hole of a deranged driver.

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Robert De Niro (fresh off the success of THE GODFATHER: Part II and Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS) puts in some of his finest work as Travis Bickle. He becomes the character to the point where you don’t feel like you’re watching De Niro anymore and that effect is frightening. Though it’s been parodied and referenced to no end, the “You talkin’ to me?” scene is scary within the film’s context…especially given everything that follows the iconic moment. Travis Bickle is truly one of cinema’s most repugnant protagonists, which is an extremely positive quality when you look at this film’s plot and De Niro’s performance.

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TAXI DRIVER doesn’t give its supporting characters a ton of screen time because this film is all about Travis and his interactions with the world. Of the people Travis does interact with, Peter Boyle steals a profound scene as the advice-spewing “Wizard.” Fun fact: Peter Boyle later repeated his monologue on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND with a laugh track accompanying it. As Iris, a very young Jodie Foster shows remarkable maturity and talent in the demanding role. Though she has about five total scenes, Foster’s character certainly leaves an impression on the viewer that’s similar to her effect on Travis. Cybill Shepherd has cringeworthy awkward moments as Bickle attempts to woo her in horribly misguided ways (hot date to a seedy porno theater, anyone?). The only bad performance comes from an out-of-place Albert Brooks as would-be comic relief.

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Harvey Keitel shines as villainous pimp Sport and makes a serious impression with less screen time than Foster’s teenage prostitute. The rest of the bad guys are briefly glimpsed, but seem perfectly cast in their scummy roles. There’s an eerie realness to TAXI DRIVER that still holds up to this day. The story never gets all-out violent (save for one small scene) before the shocking finale, but there’s a sense that Travis might unravel at any moment. People usually go to the movie theater to escape from reality for a little while, but TAXI DRIVER offers no such comfort by forcing us to stare at some horrible truths and never giving the viewer anything hopeful to latch onto. There’s no uplifting scene in this film as even the bloody conclusion has an ironic punchline.

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Watching TAXI DRIVER is not a pleasant experience, but it’s an amazing one nonetheless. Robert De Niro’s performance is astounding as he transforms into a psycho cabbie violently looking for a life purpose. The grit and grime of 70’s New York feel like they come through the screen and stick to the viewer, prompting one to crave a shower afterwards. There isn’t much of a story as you’re spending time with an uncomfortably realistic character study. TAXI DRIVER is madness and hell captured in 70’s cinema. It’s a fantastic movie that’s worth a watch for any cinephile, but expect to feel dirty and depressed afterwards.

Grade: A

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-

PULP FICTION (1994)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 34 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Graphic Violence and Drug Use, Pervasive Strong Language and some Sexuality

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Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Maria de Medeiros, Ving Rhames, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette & Christopher Walken

Coming off of RESERVOIR DOGS, Quentin Tarantino was recognized as a rising talent. This led to Miramax instantly green lighting Tarantino’s next film based solely on his script. So at Cannes 1994, Tarantino’s sophomore effort PULP FICTION premiered to much acclaim, awards and success. Since its release, the crime anthology has cemented itself as a pop culture phenomenon and frequently ranks amongst the best films ever made. Whereas RESERVOIR DOGS had a couple of slight flaws that kept it from perfection, PULP FICTION was the first outright Tarantino masterpiece. This film is simply awesome! Told in a non-linear format of four interlocking crime stories, PULP FICTION is an anthology that was unlike any other at the time. So without further ado, I’ll get to the stories…

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THE DINER (Wraparound): This segment opens and closes the film from two different points of view. A couple (referring to themselves as Honey Bunny and Pumpkin) begin a conversation about mistakes that can be made in robbing banks, gas stations and other locations, only to reveal that they’ve planned an ingenious robbery of a diner. Their plan doesn’t exactly play out the way they intended it to when a mysterious patron steps in. This segment immediately throws the quirky sensibilities of PULP FICTION at the viewer. Despite being not necessarily funny in that the characters are despicable, this story thrives on witty dialogue and little touches. It’s pretty excellent stuff that cuts to credits and then we get…

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VINCENT VEGA AND MARSELLUS WALLACE’S WIFE: Out of all the segments in PULP FICTION, this is the least violent. A hitman, Vince Vega, is instructed to take his boss’s wife out for a date. This is especially nerve-wracking for Vince, because his boss, Marsellus Wallace, is known for being vicious towards people who cross him. In an unexpected turn of events, Vega and Mia Wallace hit it off very well at a 1950’s-themed restaurant. The date gets complicated as things go on, but you can’t help but feel that there’s some real chemistry between Vega (played in a stellar turn by John Travolta) and Mia (a sexy Uma Thurman). It feels nice to see a bit of relaxation and tenderness in a movie that’s so crazy and violent on every other front. This story is far lighter fare than…

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THE GOLD WATCH: Butch is a boxer paid off by Marsellus (yes, the mob boss from the previous story) to take a dive during his final boxing match. However, Butch decides to get greedy and cash in on himself winning the match. Now on the run, Butch realizes that his beloved gold watch (handed down through three generations) is still at his apartment. His journey to retrieve the watch takes him through encounters with very nasty people…and I’m not just talking about gangsters. It seems like this segment gets a bit too dark for some, but I love it. It’s grim and pretty disturbing, but never revels in an unpleasant nature. Things are sick and wrong, but somehow remain fun and entertaining. You know that you’ve done something right when MAD TV and THE SIMPSONS are brilliantly lampooning your material in a way that pays respect to it rather than outright mocks it. Though this story is friggin’ messed up, we get a lighter touch with the final full length story…

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THE BONNIE SITUATION: Vince Vega and his partner, Jules, are assigned to kill a few guys who screwed over Marsellus. The hit is successful, but the pair wind up with an accidental corpse in the backseat of their car in broad daylight. In a desperate attempt to avoid jail, they hide at Jules’s friend’s home and try to clean up. This segment might seem sort of uneventful, but it’s damn near entirely driven by dialogue between the characters. Whether it’s Quentin Tarantino (in a far better cameo than his stint in RESERVOIR DOGS) talking about non-existent signs on his lawn or Harvey Keitel (cast as the charismatic Wolf) teaching the pair of blood-soaked killers how to best cover their tracks. It’s all entertaining to a ridiculously satisfying degree. There’s no real way of describing why, because you’ll fall under its spell as this segment goes on.

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Usually, my anthology reviews have grades for each of the segments and an overall grade for the whole film. There’s no need for that approach in PULP FICTION because each of four interlocking crime stories are A+ worthy. The film’s fun tone and sense of style permeates through all of its segments, even though each can be held up as their own individual stories. Ranging from funny and charming to twisted and darkly hilarious, Quentin Tarantino’s sophomore film is a classic that will hold a strong place in cinema history. I’d tell you to watch it, but you probably already have.

Grade: A+

RESERVOIR DOGS (1992)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language

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Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, Lawrence Tierney, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn, Quentin Tarantino & Kirk Baltz

Quentin Tarantino’s rise to fame is a tale that inspires any filmmaker. This twenty-something transformed from a video store clerk/film buff seemingly overnight to a sensation at Sundance 1992 with his directorial debut, RESERVOIR DOGS. Tarantino is clearly a guy who loves movies and that comes across in his work. While some might find his frequent homages to older movies to be a bit obnoxious, those who love the man’s work really love the man’s work. I fall into the latter category. Tarantino became one of my favorite filmmakers during formative years of high school when my passion for critiquing films was coming out. Though it can be a bit too self-indulgent in its dialogue, RESERVOIR DOGS is part of the reason that independent cinema is where it is today and Tarantino’s debut still holds up over two decades later.

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A mob boss and his son organize an elaborate, seemingly foolproof diamond heist. In the process, they hire six criminals and assign each an alias (Mr. White, Mr. Orange, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Pink, Mr. Blue, and Mr. Brown). In a shocking twist, the robbery goes horribly wrong with two men dying, Orange getting a bullet in his gut, and the rest of the crooks scrambling to put together why this happened and what to do about it. They come to the conclusion that there must be an undercover cop in their midst and the whole job was doomed to begin with. As minutes pass, blood spills and the criminals get more desperate for the identity of the rat. We are given these answers and plot points through flashbacks of the remaining criminals.

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Non-linear storytelling is part of the reason that RESERVOIR DOGS works so well. What might have been huge restrictions for other directors (a lack of sets and short amount of time), Tarantino turns into strengths. We never see the actual robbery, but we hear details about it from the characters. We are also shown the direct aftermath of the botched job which leads helps our imaginations piece together what a bloody, chaotic mess it was. Using careful stylistic choices, Tarantino thrusts the viewer right into the film’s oddball tone right from the beginning. This movie is violent and serious, but also has a twisted and darkly comical sense of humor. The latter is immediately obvious through an opening monologue about Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” actually being a song about big dicks and a now infamous torture scene set to the song “Stuck in the Middle with You.” It bears mentioning that Tarantino knew how to implement good soundtracks from the beginning of his career. With a running joke of K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies playing on the radio, Tarantino appropriately uses songs to help set the tone of his movie.

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If there’s anything that will make or break your experience with RESERVOIR DOGS, it will be whether or not you enjoy watching these criminals. Frankly, I love these colorful (not only in name) characters. Tarantino doesn’t make the mistake of glamorizing their immoral lifestyle as he shows the ugly nature and frequent conflicts erupting amongst them. Harvey Keitel is fantastic as Mr. White. Though we aren’t given much info about his personal life, you can see that there are redeeming qualities to this villainous character by the way he treats the wounded Mr. Orange. Another big stand-out is Michael Madsen as the psychopathic Mr. Blonde. He’s just as entertaining as he is scary. Meanwhile, Steve Buscemi plays the slimy “professional” Mr. Pink extremely well. Lawrence Tierney and Chris Penn blend right into the roles of mob boss Joe and his son Nice Guy Eddie. The only performance that occasionally gets over-the-top in comes from Tim Roth as Mr. Orange. A few of his lines come off like he’s overacting.

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RESERVOIR DOGS is one of the most influential independent films in cinematic history. It helped revolutionize a new era of filmmaking during the 90’s. Though Tarantino can be a little too self-indulgent in moments (he’s not a good actor, but still gives himself a cameo as Mr. Brown), his directorial debut stands as one of the most darkly entertaining crime movies ever made. RESERVOIR DOGS is pretty much required viewing for cinephiles everywhere.

Grade: A

COP LAND (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

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

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Directed by: James Mangold

Written by: James Mangold

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Peter Berg, Janeane Garofalo, Robert Patrick & Michael Rapaport

COP LAND is a film that I discovered by accident. I was surfing the web through various movie pages and stumbled across this forgotten crime-drama. Seeing this stars the likes of Sylvester Stallone in the lead role, you might initially guess that this movie would be filled to the brim with gunfights, car chases and explosions. You would actually be very wrong, because this tense little film takes it’s time with a thriller approach to what easily could have turned into a bombastic over-the-top B-flick. COP LAND is one of the better surprises that I’ve had in quite some time.

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The time is the late 80’s and the place is New Jersey. Freddy Hefflin is a wannabe cop who’s been regulated to the position of small town Sheriff due to him being deaf in one ear. Freddy really doesn’t have much to do seeing as most of the residents of his small town are NYPD cops who he idolizes day in and day out. When a mishap on a highway lands one of these officers in hot water, Freddy is enlisted by an Internal Affairs investigator to dig deeper into the façade of “Cop Land” that is actually hiding a whole lot more than one small cover-up. Freddy finds himself pitted against the very heroes that he idolized as he realizes just how deep police corruption cuts through his own territory.

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COP TOWN moves at a slow, deliberate pace in order to build up its characters. I cared about every single one of these people in one way or another. The heroes are complicated and the villains are fleshed out into the two-faced criminals that they really are. I really can’t throw enough praise at just how good this whole screenplay is. There are plot twists throughout that did surprise me and the movie never once treats its audience like idiots. A natural progression of good vs. evil fuels the story in a way that feels entirely fresh. It’s all fantastically entertaining and intense. Some of the plot points do seem a tad rushed, but that’s not exactly a huge complaint seeing how well the rest of the story plays out around it (including a phenomenal final act that felt like an old-school Western was taking place on the streets of New Jersey).

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I don’t think it’s overhyping this film to say that Sylvester Stallone easily gives his best performance as Freddy. When most people think of Stallone, they immediately picture Rocky or Rambo. Though he’s carved out a place in the cinematic world for his rough and tough action heroes, the role of Freddy is far from any of those characters. This is a shy, soft-spoken guy who feels like he’s constantly in the presence of Gods when he’s among his NYPD residents. Stallone is fantastic in the part and plays every emotion in a very subtle fashion. I’d be remiss not to mention just how fantastically the corrupt cops are portrayed by the likes of Harvey Keitel, Robert Patrick and Arthur Nascarella. Ray Liotta shines as Freddy’s best friend who may or may not also have a dog in the corruption race around town. Though Robert De Niro is underutilized as the Internal Affairs investigator, he makes the most of what little screen time he’s given (about a total of four scenes).

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COP LAND uses gritty atmosphere and a dark tone to its advantage. The small town setting really lends to the suspense of this film. It feels like the fictional Garrison, New Jersey might as well be in the middle of nowhere, even though New York City is one bridge away. The finale is absolutely perfect and satisfying beyond words. Some have criticized the film for taking an easy way out. I disagree as the entire story feels like a long suspenseful fuse that’s intensely burning towards a giant powder keg. The final 20 minutes of this story are the explosive results of that keg going off.

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COP LAND is an underrated crime-drama that really sees Stallone take on a role unlike any other in his career. What’s even more impressive is the unlikely production of this film altogether. It was made on a small budget and all of the actors worked for scale. It’s clear that they read the script and knew there was a good story to be told here. Though there are a couple of slight flaws (a few rushed plot points and Robert De Niro being wasted in a very small role), COP LAND is well worth recommending. Check this one out!

Grade: B+

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

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

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Directed by: Wes Anderson

Written by: Wes Anderson

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Lea Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson & Tony Revolori

Wes Anderson has gained a reputation over his career for unique style and an oddball sense of humor. Anderson’s newest film carries an air of sophistication and the logistics of a cartoon. Layered with quirky sensibilities and having a genuine heart at the center, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is my favorite film of the year thus far! This already has a spot reserved on my Best of 2014 list. The entire affair is an absolutely entrancing experience of wonderful magic that only phenomenal filmmaking can bring.

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Beginning in the present, a young girl visits a memorial and reads a book by a character known simply as “The Author.” The film then cuts back to the 1980’s to find the Author describing a trip he made in the 1960’s. Flashing back to the 1960’s, we see a younger Author meet the elderly owner of the once prestigious/now rustic Grand Budapest Hotel. This elderly fellow relates the tale of how he came to own the Grand Budapest. So to break this down we open with a narration within a book that takes us to a flashback that then takes us to another flashback. Instead of coming off as convoluted in the slightest (as it almost certainly would have in any other film), this technique offers satisfying bookends to the main story at hand. Speaking of which…

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Set in the 1930’s, the main plot (e.g. the elderly owner’s story) is the tale of a famous concierge and his loyal lobby boy. The concierge is Gustave H., a philosophical and poetic gentleman, who takes to romancing many of the rich elderly (blonde) women who frequently visit the hotel. The lobby boy is Zero, a refugee from a less fortunate country, who has found a fatherly figure and devoted friend in Gustave. After Madam D (a former lover of Gustave) is found murdered, a priceless painting (titled Boy With Apple) is left in the possession of the two. Unfortunately for Gustave, something sinister is afoot and he’s been framed for Madam D’s death. Zero must rise up to the occasion, band together with Agatha (love of his life and candy-maker), and prove Gustave’s innocence!

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From the onset, there are many things unusual about THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. Model work was done for the landscape shots and the film has a candy-colored sensibility in nearly all of the sets. Everything has been put together with care and attention to detail. In its most unusual opening, the viewer is sucked into the oddball world of this story. A thick atmosphere covers the whole thing like frosting on one of Agatha’s cakes. The amazing soundtrack adds even more flavor and perfectly encapsulates the tone of the movie. It should also be noted that the frame ratio of the film changes based on the time period the film is currently in. For example, its widescreen (2.35:1) in the present day, goes down to 1:85 when the Author is relating his story, and goes to traditional 1:33 for Zero’s tale. Purposely executed, this added yet another sense of wonder to an already amazing film.

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The film sports a large cast of big names. Some of these notable actors only appear for a minute or two, but their presence was a nice touch. Tony Revolori doesn’t have a long list of titles to his name, but delivers as young Zero. It’s easy for the viewer to sympathize with his bad history and root for him to overcome the odds to get his beloved mentor back. Speaking of which, Ralph Fiennes is simply brilliant as Gustave H. This character goes from waxing poetic to fowl-mouthed ruffian in the blink of an eye. Though the character might have come off as a quirky scumbag in any other film, Fiennes makes him into lovable guy. There’s certainly something to be said for that. Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe both appear as villains. Brody is hysterical as the ill-tempered fascist son of Madam D. His off-the-cuff profanity is only outweighed by Gustave’s frequent outbursts. Dafoe is a quiet, intimidating, leering man whose fashion sense includes a constant pair of brass-knuckles. Last but not least, Saoirse Ronan is Agatha. Though her character isn’t devoted nearly as much time as Gustave or Zero, she’s an essential part of the film.

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As the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end. This was the case when the end credits began to roll on GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. The film is a true crowd-pleaser in every sense of the term. The humor is hilarious, but there’s also an unspoken sentimental factor that doesn’t truly reveal itself until the final moments. In some comedies, this might be uncalled for or felt forced. In GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, every emotion is genuine and absolutely earned. The best way of describing the magic and wonder this film holds is by saying it’s an adult story set in an absurd fairy-tale landscape. Walking out of the darkened movie theater, a nearly overwhelming wave of awe washed over me from the whole adventure I had just gone through with a colorful cast of characters. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is phenomenal and nothing short of a masterpiece!

Grade: A+

TWO EVIL EYES (1990)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: George A. Romero, Dario Argento

Written by: George A. Romero, Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini

Starring: Harvey Keitel, Adrienne Barbeau, Ramy Zada, Sally Kirkland, E.G. Marshall, Martin Balsam, Tom Atkins

The works of Edgar Allan Poe have been the source of many horror films, including a massive amount directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price. Out of all these films, one that has a special place in my heart is TALES OF TERROR from 1962 which is an anthology containing three of Poe’s best stories. TWO EVIL EYES adapts two of the tales from that film and puts a modern spin on both. It also is crafted by two famous film directors that the genre has to offer. While both stories are quality stuff, one outshines the other significantly.

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THE FACTS IN THE CAST OF M. VALDEMAR: Jessica is the trophy wife of the elderly Ernest Valdemar. She and her lover, Robert, have found a way to wind up rich as her husband is dying from an awful illness. Robert is a professional hypnotist putting Valdemar in a trance to sign some documents and relieve some of his pain. Unfortunately for Jessica and Robert, Valdemar passes away before the funds left in her name have been transferred. They freeze the body to keep it from decomposing and they will wait until the money comes through before revealing that Valdemar died. The trance that Valdemar was under was never lifted and his soul remains in agony, haunting the couple. The couple’s lies pile on top of each other and Valdemar’s restless spirit violently seeks vengeance.

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The cast of this segment features a couple of familiar faces in the horror world. Adrienne Barbeau (from THE FOG) plays Jessica and E.G. Marshall (who appeared in Romero’s CREEPSHOW) appears in a supporting role. The story overall feels like it belongs as one of the better episodes of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, which is both a complaint and a compliment. At times, the story is dark and well-paced. However, things become a little too cheesy near the end and one special effect in particular (repeated throughout the climax) is laughable. There was surely a better way of pulling this off, but Romero wound up making it a slice of horror camp. The story is fun overall, but it pales in comparison to what comes next. B

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THE BLACK CAT: Dario Argento knocks it completely out of the park with his twisted take on one of the best Poe stories of all time. Romero’s segment ran at about 50 minutes and Argento’s runs at more than an hour. Some may argue that seems like a large amount of time for a story in an anthology, but every second was needed. In fact, I would have loved to see this segment stretched into a feature-length film and it might have gone down as one of Argento’s crowning achievements. Featuring references to other Poe tales (a death mirroring THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM shows up and the main character’s name is Rodrick Usher), this story is bleak as hell and downright disturbing throughout.

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Rod Usher is a crime scene photographer and takes his work very seriously. He sees it as art. This has molded him into a cruel man. His artistic wife is an unusual woman and takes in a stray black cat. The animal takes an immediate strong disliking to Usher and he returns the hatred. In a fit of rage, he kills the animal and uses photos of the dead feline for his morbid art book. When his wife finds out, she tries to leave him and things go terribly wrong. An cat bearing resemblance to the one he killed also makes its way into Usher’s life, which drives him further over the brink into madness.

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Though minor details have been added and the setting has been changed, this telling of Poe’s classic tale of madness is true to the text. It’s essentially the same story just told in present day and done with a definite eye for artistic direction (as Argento used to be known for). Harvey Keitel sells his downright evil character very well. While most say that Argento’s last good movie was OPERA, I’d argue that TWO EVIL EYES showcases the last fantastic effort by a former master of the genre. As much I loathe SUSPIRIA (which I feel is a terrible movie that’s vastly overrated), Argento has always excelled at human horror (e.g. DEEP RED, TENEBRE) and THE BLACK CAT makes for a stellar viewing experience. Downright demented, brilliantly executed, and never letting a moment of anything remotely light-hearted come through. This is the kind of adaptation that Poe’s tales deserve. A+

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TWO EVIL EYES is a great movie, but it winds up that way based solely on Dario Argento’s contribution to the semi-anthology as it were. Romero’s entry was fun, but felt like it belonged on an episode of TV horror anthology. It certainly radiated the campy fun of those TV broadcasts. It’s a movie that (like many others I’ve been checking out this month) doesn’t get the recognition that it deserves. This is well worth the time of any film fan on a chilly October evening. Just be prepared to creeped out by the second story long after it’s over.

Grade: A-

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