WATERWORLD (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Intense Sequences of Action Violence, brief Nudity and Language

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Directed by: Kevin Reynolds

Written by: Peter Rader & David Twohy

Starring: Kevin Costner, Dennis Hopper, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Tina Majorino & Michael Jeter

It’s impossible to review WATERWORLD without briefly mentioning this film’s notorious history. In 1995, this Kevin Costner summer blockbuster was the most expensive film ever made. Part of this was because the film was an ambitious project, another reason was because Kevin Costner was a diva who demanded special treatment on the set (e.g. his own private yacht), and most of this was because the production was an utter disaster. Many troubles occurred during the shooting of this film. These included: a set being destroyed by a hurricane, the director leaving the film halfway through production, and Kevin Costner almost dying on set. Constant bad press gave negative attention towards this movie before it was even released. When it finally hit theaters, it flopped hard at the box office (despite spending two weekends at the number one spot). This all being said, how is WATERWORLD when removed from its reputation and taken purely as popcorn entertainment?

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In the distant future, the polar ice caps have melted and the world is now covered in water. Mariner (Kevin Costner) is a mutated loner who spends his time sailing on a unique boat and diving under the water for valuable trading items. After a deal goes wrong in a floating community, Mariner finds himself trapped and facing certain death. Right before he can be executed though, a vicious gang of “smokers” raid and pillage the community. Rescued by bartender Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and strange little girl Enola (Tina Majorino), Mariner soon finds himself transporting precious cargo and searching for a mythical place: dry land. However, the smokers’ cycloptic leader Deacon (Dennis Hopper) is also desperate to find dry land and is looking to get revenge on Mariner.

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Let me be upfront about this, WATERWORLD is a mess. The film’s length (originally trimmed down from three hours) has many dull moments as we are treating to overly long montages, pointless scenes, and a second act where nothing much happens. To boot, Mariner isn’t a likable protagonist. I know that he’s essentially supposed to be Mad Max on the water…but Max was a likable anti-hero from the beginning. For the first half of WATERWORLD, the film constantly plays on the unpleasant possibility that Mariner might rape, kill, or sell the two passengers he has aboard his boat. When the story does transform him into a more sympathetic hero, it feels rushed and unconvincing. We get one “good” deed (he takes back a deal to sell Helen to a rape-happy stranger) and a montage (he teaches Enola how to swim), then suddenly we’re supposed to buy into his unconvincing change of heart.

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To further add to Mariner’s unpleasantness, Costner seems totally bored in his role as the urine-drinking, web-toed, gill-necked jerk. Not many positives can be said about the rest of the cast members either. Jeanne Tripplehorn appears to be reciting her lines for the first time in certain scenes, while Tina Majorino puts in one of the single most annoying performances that I’ve ever seen from a child. Majorino’s character is supposed to be a strong kid with an attitude, but there were moments where I didn’t care if Kevin Costner straight-up drowned her. She’s everything that’s wrong with kid sidekicks in film, especially in big budget adventures. Dennis Hopper took on the role of Deacon two years after embarrassing himself in SUPER MARIO BROS. Suffice to say that Hopper is still doing the exact same over-the-top shtick here, except now he makes a bunch of eyeball puns and walks around in a steampunk outfit. Deacon is one of the least intimidating villains to grace the big screen.

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Though WATERWORLD’s pacing, writing and acting may suck, it still has a few redeemable qualities. The sets are very impressive to look at, even if the computer effects don’t hold up too well. WATERWORLD was actually filmed using similar techniques to James Cameron’s TITANIC, though there is a remarkable difference in quality between the two movies. Action sequences on these gigantic sets are also pretty damned great. The stuff in between the action may be dull, stupid and clichéd as hell, but the explosive set pieces do manage to excite and entertain. Finally, the film’s soundtrack is perfect for a swashbuckling adventure. I’ve heard it used many times in movie trailers from the late 90’s and early 2000’s, but never knew its origin until now. There was a distinct moment when my mind went “That great music came from this lame movie?!?!” It was an odd realization to say the least.

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WATERWORLD has an awesome idea at its core. MAD MAX on the water sounds kind of amazing, but it was executed as a big mess. Despite the film’s bad rep, there are some positive qualities to be found. The action, practical effects, and music all deserve to be attached to a better movie. Meanwhile, the film’s dull pacing and laughably over-the-top acting seriously hinder it. The writing itself is far from anything special. It’s THE ROAD WARRIOR on water, except it doesn’t live up to that potentially great premise. I know that there are a few diehard fans of this film who claim that the Extended Cut of the movie is great and magically gets rid of all the glaring errors. To me, it seems like adding 41 extra minutes to “fix” WATERWORLD would be like trying to place a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.

Grade: C-

YEAR ONE (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Crude and Sexual Content throughout, brief Strong Language and Comic Violence

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Directed by: Harold Ramis

Written by: Harold Ramis, Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg

Starring: Jack Black, Michael Cera, Oliver Platt, David Cross, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Vinnie Jones, Hank Azaria, Juno Temple, Olivia Wilde & June Diane Raphael

Harold Ramis proved himself to be a strong force in cinematic comedy with CADDYSHACK, VACATION and GROUNDHOG DAY. His final stint as a writer and director came in 2009’s YEAR ONE. The film was being promoted as a potential big summer blockbuster, but fell short of studio box office estimates and audience’s/critics’ expectations alike. YEAR ONE is far from Ramis’s best work, but there is entertainment to be found here. This film suffers from a jumbled narrative, cheap gross-out gags, and dusty jokes, but does contain solid moments and some clever writing.

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Zed is an overconfident hunter. Oh is a shy gatherer. Both are outcasts in their tribe, but Zed aims to change this by eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge. This scheme backfires as Zed and Oh are banished from their small community and take off on history’s first road trip. Along their way, they run into a variety of colorful Biblical figures (Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, the city of Sodom). They quickly discover that they might have a further purpose to serve when the cavemen and cavewomen of their community are captured as slaves. Along the way, Zed tries to find himself as a hero and Oh has an internal debate about the existence of God.

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YEAR ONE isn’t up to the same level as Ramis’s other comedies. This is evident by an overreliance on gross-out gags. The film’s tone becomes entirely too juvenile in scenes of Jack Black eating poop, Michael Cera sleeping with a flatulent roommate, and an upside-down Cera urinating on himself. These cheap moments of crude humor stick out further when you consider how smartly written other parts of the screenplay are. Even though their dialogue quickly devolves into penis humor, the introduction of Abraham (a scenery-chewing Hank Azaria) and Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse playing McLovin in Biblical times) is entertaining and borderline blasphemous. My personal favorite moments involve the wicked, guilt-ridden Cain (David Cross delivering the best performance in the film). Vinnie Jones also receives a few good scenes as the hulking Sargon, who mainly serves as an intimidating straight-man to the absurdity surrounding him.

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YEAR ONE’s biggest pitfall comes in Jack Black’s Zed and Michael Cera’s Oh being the least interesting characters in the entire movie. Every performer surrounding them manages to be far more entertaining than these two boring protagonists. Black is doing his typical loud idiot shtick and Cera is playing his usual awkward persona, the would-be hook is that they’re doing these routines in various Biblical costumes. On a positive note, Oliver Platt steals every scene he’s in as the overly flamboyant High Priest. Platt, David Cross, Vinnie Jones, and borderline sacrilegious humor are the film’s highlights. It’s a pity that the rest of the writing and performances aren’t nearly on the same level of hilarity.

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YEAR ONE’s flaws don’t simply stay with its overreliance on potty humor and bland protagonists, but also extends to a rather jumbled narrative. The film is essentially a Monty Python wannabe as it goes from skit-like segment to skit-like segment, but some of these (especially during the first third) don’t have any punch line to be found. When Oh is being attacked by a snake in the forbidden garden, we never see how it turns out. Less than ten minutes later, the same exact situation occurs again with a cougar and there’s still no punch line. A couple of haphazard lines of dialogue could have patched these plot gaps up, but the three screenwriters didn’t even bother to put that much effort into the script.

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While YEAR ONE has its moments (sacrifices being watched as sports-like entertainment, an intense” chase between two slow-moving carts, Cain being a constant asshole), it also relies far too much on poop, fart, and sex gags. It’s not that crude humor can’t be funny, but there doesn’t seem to be much effort being put into these jokes (save for a Eunuch character). YEAR ONE isn’t technically “good” due to a messy script, lame-brained jokes that fall flat, and two boring leads, but I enjoy it on a “guilty pleasure” level. If you’re looking for something that is light-hearted, dumb as a rock, and will kill 97 minutes of your life, then I’d recommend YEAR ONE on those merits. Otherwise, the film is a missed opportunity.

Grade: C+

BERNIE (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Violent Images and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Richard Linklater

Written by: Richard Linklater & Skip Hollandsworth

(based on the article MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF EAST TEXAS by Skip Hollandsworth)

Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Brady Coleman & Richard Robichaux

Comedy and true-crime are two things that typically don’t go together. Sure, there are occasional exceptions to this: the frequently hilarious Last Podcast on the Left as well as Michael Bay’s underrated PAIN & GAIN. Most of the time though, it seems like this combination is likely to be recipe for disaster. Enter Richard Linklater, an acclaimed indie filmmaker with an interesting (to say the least) filmography behind him. BERNIE, adapted from a magazine article, retells the story of a most unusual murder case in comedic fashion. It does this through the typical true-crime documentary lens, but Linklater blurs the lines of reality as he employs big-name actors, small performers, and actual townspeople playing themselves. The story behind the film is very real (as well as darkly entertaining) and Linklater has crafted an entertaining flick for true-crime buffs with a morbid sense of humor.

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Bernie Tiede is a beloved mortician in the small town of Carthage, Texas. Bernie frequently takes elaborate measures to make funerals into memorable experiences, constantly helps out the public, and regularly checks up on lonely widows. After her husband’s funeral, the ornery Marjorie Nugent takes a shine to Bernie. Though she’s the most hated person in her small-town community, somehow Bernie sees something redeemable (possibly money-based) inside of her and becomes her constant companion. Year pass and the verbally/emotionally abusive Majorie mysteriously vanishes. Could Bernie be behind her disappearance? If so, what drove the nicest guy in town to murder? Also, how could the trial possibly play out in a community that adores Bernie? These questions and more are addressed in this faux-documentary that tells a very real story.

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While most of the cast members are unknown faces and actual people playing themselves, three big names stand out. Jack Black takes on his most complex, unconventional role (thus far) as Bernie Tiede. While Linklater casts Bernie in the best possible light (and the film actually helped lead to his early release from prison), there’s also a sense of a possibly manipulative sociopath behind the nice guy persona. Whether or not this was Linklater’s or Black’s intention is besides the point, anyone who watches tons of true-crime docs will catch little clues that Bernie might have been in his relationship with Marjorie purely for financial gain. Hints of this are given through his impulsive spending habits and desire to be liked by everyone…to the point of giving them ridiculously expensive gifts. Jack Black’s Bernie is an interesting character to say the least and kept me guessing to whether he was a nice guy turned evil or a manipulative sociopath from the beginning.

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Academy award winner Matthew McConaughey is the other huge name in the cast. Playing the lawyer/investigator heading Bernie’s case, McConaughey brings some much-needed levity to the light-hearted true-crime proceedings. He’s a redneck, but a down-to-earth guy with intentions to convict Bernie for his deadly deed. McConaughey balances drama and humor in his performance. One emotionally driven argument in a courtroom feels like it could have come from a straight-faced crime drama, while a scene in a restaurant works as goofy comedy. The mixture is entertaining and interesting. Meanwhile, Shirley MacLaine is totally over-the-top (in a good way) as the nasty-tempered Majorie. She plays the role as a spoiled child in the body of an elderly woman and it’s pretty damned funny to watch.

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The best thing about BERNIE comes in the aftermath of the murder. The surprisingly positive small town reaction to Bernie’s cold-blooded crime is easily the funniest part of the entire film. It’s impossible to tell where the unknown actors are and where the actual townsfolk are (until the credits reveal who’s who), but all of their lines are equally hilarious. It’s funny to see an elderly woman justify murder by saying “He only shot her four times.” or another redneck say that the jury that convicted Bernie had “more tattoos than teeth.”

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On a slightly negative note, the first two-thirds of this story are your typical true-crime documentary material that you regularly find on A&E or TruTV. Linklater tries makes this build-up feel wholly interesting through his light-hearted lens, but the material still feels more than a little familiar. I also cannot help but feel that the movie might have been more effective if the very real possibility that Bernie was a manipulative psycho was also given equal light in order to balance out both sides of the story. Still, BERNIE is an entertaining good time for fans of true-crime.

Grade: B

GOOSEBUMPS (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Scary and Intense Creature Action and Images, and for some Rude Humor

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Directed by: Rob Letterman

Written by: Darren Lemke

(based on the GOOSEBUMPS books by R.L. Stine)

Starring: Dylan Minnette, Jack Black, Odeya Rush, Amy Ryan, Ryan Lee, Jillian Bell & Ken Marino

When do you realize that you’re getting old? Some say it’s when you move out of the house. Others say that it’s when you have kids. Personally speaking, I think that you truly start to feel old when Hollywood begins to produce films based on nostalgia from your childhood. That’s certainly happening with GOOSEBUMPS. I frantically burned through R.L. Stine’s books back when I was in Elementary School as well as watched every TV episode from the Fox series that I could possibly see. Even to this day, I still listen to a GOOSEBUMPS-themed podcast (Dune Reads Goosebumps). So to say that I was pretty excited to see familiar horror characters from my childhood come to life on the big screen would be a massive understatement. Having just watched the film a few hours ago, I can say that I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest. Sure, GOOSEBUMPS isn’t going to win any awards, but it’s everything that I could have possibly wanted from a movie like this.

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Zach and his mother have just moved to the small town of Madison, Delaware. Though he’s only been in town for less than two days, Zach has already made a couple of friends: the nerdy Champ and the girl-next-door Hannah. The only thing that seems mysterious in the neighborhood is Hannah’s extremely overprotective father, the one and only R.L. Stine (as portrayed by Jack Black). In order to investigate what he believes might be a possible domestic disturbance, Zach breaks into Stine’s house and discovers a bookcase filled with locked manuscripts. It turns out that whatever R.L. Stine writes down in a book actually comes to life and Zach has accidentally unleashed a horde of monsters upon his small town. It’s up to Zach, Hannah, Champ, and R.L. Stine to capture all of the monsters before their town is destroyed.

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Unlike most nostalgic films that fall flat (I’m looking in your direction, PIXELS), GOOSEBUMPS actually delivers on everything that fans of the books and TV series would want to see on the big screen. The story moves from set-piece to set-piece at a rapid speed. Our characters encounter a ton of various monsters from the books. Everything from evil lawn gnomes to the abominable snowman of Pasadena to a certain evil ventriloquist’s dummy make an appearance. The fast paced storytelling will keep both younger and older viewers constantly engaged in the non-stop adventure. I’d also wager that the jump scares in this film (of which there are a handful) will be legitimately creepy for younger kids. There’s nothing wrong with that though, especially when you consider that the main reason we even have a GOOSEBUMPS movie playing in theaters right now is because the book series scared the crap out of a ton of kids who are now adults.

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What makes GOOSEBUMPS even more impressive is that it’s more than just a film relying on throwbacks and references. The screenplay is very smart and we get fleshed-out characters. Dylan Minnette (who previously starred in an episode of Stine’s HAUNTING HOUR) is a likable lead as Zach. I wouldn’t be surprised if Minnette has a long film career laid in front of him. Odeya Rush (seen in last year’s THE GIVER) is well cast as Hannah and her character is complex right from the start. Ryan Lee (who has also starred in an episode of Stine’s HAUNTING HOUR) is mostly solid as the comic relief character. Though not all of his jokes work, he does get a good amount of laughs. Jack Black steals the show as R.L. Stine. His comic timing and line delivery is spot-on. Black also pulls double duty to provide the voice for Slappy the Dummy as well.

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There’s so much to enjoy about GOOSEBUMPS aside from the performances and smart writing. There are a lot of little nods for fans of the book series. We don’t just get creatures from normal GOOSEBUMPS book series, but also the “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories and the short-lived “2000” books. I actually found myself sitting through the end credits as these weaved together an entertaining montage of various book covers. R.L. Stine makes a quick cameo that you have to keep your eye out for. Also, the last time I saw this many different monsters crammed into one film, I was watching THE CABIN IN THE WOODS. That’s not a bad film to be compared to either.

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GOOSEBUMPS definitely delivers on being a nostalgic, spooky, and fun time that’s perfect for the Halloween season. The writing is far better than it probably has any right to be. The effects bringing the monsters to life (done by Sony Animation) are impressive. The frantic fast-paced nature of the film has an almost rollercoaster ride approach to the storytelling and the script never takes itself too seriously at all, though it does have a number of jump scares that will definitely get younger viewers. Overall, GOOSEBUMPS is a blast and I look forward to making this film an annual viewing for every October.

Grade: B+

THE D TRAIN (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexual Material, Nudity, Language and Drug Use

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Directed by: Jarrad Paul & Andrew Mogel

Written by: Jarrad Paul & Andrew Mogel

Starring: Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn, Jeffrey Tambor, Kyle Bornheimer, Mike White & Henry Zebrowski

I had been hearing a bit of buzz coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival about a little comedy called THE D TRAIN. Jack Black has been picking interesting projects lately and the plot sounded like it could make for a potentially fun time. So even with the iffy marketing, I decided to venture into this dark comedy/dramedy. Color me simultaneously bored and confused. THE D TRAIN is far from a horrible film, but also miles away from a good (or even okay) one. Trying too many things at once and ultimately feeling aimless, THE D TRAIN is a bland mess (sort of like its main character).

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Dan Landsman is a member of his high school alumni committee. In a desperate bid to seem cool and important, Dan has proclaimed himself as the “chairman” of the group (despite them all being on an equal level). When surfing across his TV one night, Dan comes across a Banana Boat commercial and recognizes a familiar face. The face belongs to Oliver Lawless, the most popular kid in his high school. In a last-ditch effort to pull of the best high school reunion ever, Dan decides to fly to Los Angeles on a faked business trip (unbeknownst to both his boss and his wife) to convince Oliver to come to the reunion. Something happens in L.A. that leaves Dan an emotional mess and his identity crisis only worsens when Oliver does show up for the reunion (bunking in Dan’s house, of all places).

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It’s not quite clear what kind of movie THE D TRAIN is trying to be. Certain moments suggest that this is a natural and heartfelt journey of a troubled man looking for himself. Other scenes imply that this should be taken as a scathingly dark comedy. More troubling is that there isn’t enough of a story to support either of these things. The film plays off as more frustrating and upsetting than compelling. There are a couple of chuckle-worthy jokes that did garner a few laughs from myself (and the three other folks sitting in on the mostly deserted midnight showing). However, a lot of the film feels like it’s merely substituting uncomfortable situations and sheer awkwardness for laughs. Yes, both of those things can be funny in the right scenario, but D TRAIN lacks enough of a storyline or likable characters (more on that in a moment) to make that awkwardness worth sitting through or laughing at.

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Jack Black plays the character of Dan with frightening conviction. He’s inhabiting the high school dork who painfully tries to be someone who he’s not. You either knew this person, still know this person or currently are this person. Though Black slips into Dan’s skin with impressive ease, the problems come with Dan being an annoying jerk. I know that D TRAIN attempts to aim for a journey of self-discovery overall, but it misses the mark with this man being thoroughly unlikable with his decisions and lies (that just keep piling on top of each other). Kathryn Hahn is alright as Dan’s wife, but really isn’t given a whole lot of development. The kicker is that they try to have these forced, would-be emotional moments in the latter half of the film that simply don’t work because I didn’t care about almost any of these characters. The best performance in the film comes from James Marsden as Lawless, who is the most fleshed-out guy in the entire film and seems (mostly) likable in comparison to everyone surrounding him.

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THE D TRAIN gives Jack Black an opportunity to play against his usual character type, but Dan Landsman is such an unlikable protagonist that I couldn’t really care about what happened to him for a majority of the running time. James Marsden delivers the only great performance of the film. The script (much like its main character) struggles to find an identity. The problems mainly come in this movie being a mess genre-wise and not having enough of a sustainable enough plot to justify itself as a feature. THE D TRAIN is a bland flick with a couple of slightly noteworthy performances and a few mild laughs to be had, but that’s about all there is here.

Grade: C-

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