FROM PARIS WITH LOVE (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence throughout, Drug Content, Pervasive Language and brief Sexuality

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Directed by: Pierre Morel

Written by: Adi Hasak & Luc Besson

Starring: John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Kasia Smutniak, David Gasman, Richard Durden, Yin Bing & Amber Rose Revah

Sometimes, a movie surprises the hell out of you. That’s exactly what happened with FROM PARIS WITH LOVE for me. Every bit of marketing indicated this movie would suck and its original January release certainly didn’t do it any favors. John Travolta’s output during the 2000’s has been mediocre at best (WILD HOGS, anyone? What about OLD DOGS?) and Jonathan Rhys Meyers isn’t exactly a huge leading man on the big screen. This movie also didn’t bank at the box office and plans of a sequel have recently been scrapped. I stuck in this film with expectations of a cheesy action flick and it’s actually pretty damn good. While this movie definitely falls into the cheesy action genre, the script packs in numerous surprises, performs a balancing act of being comical and serious, and had me walking away very satisfied. I can’t believe I’m saying this but FROM PARIS WITH LOVE is one of the more underrated action efforts of the 2010’s.

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James Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) works as the personal aide to a U.S. ambassador in France, but also has a side-gig as a rookie CIA agent. Sick of swapping license plates and planting microphones, Reese finally receives a long-awaited promotion…but it comes with a catch. That catch is loose-cannon partner Charlie Wax (John Travolta). Wax’s methods are unconventional to say the least and he doesn’t exactly follow the rulebook, but he gets results! This means that Reese soon finds himself in over his head as the mismatched pair of agents contend with a cocaine ring and a terrorist plot. All the while, Reese attempts to keep his fiancé Caroline (Kasia Smutniak) from leaving him after his latest assignment causes a string of misunderstandings. Paris is already a wild city…but it’s even wilder when Wax is in town.

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Strange as it sounds, the unlikely chemistry between Meyers and Travolta greatly benefit FROM PARIS WITH LOVE. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is most famously known for playing Henry VIII in HBO’s THE TUDORS and he doesn’t seem like a plausible action hero type, but that’s exactly what sells his role as nervous Reese. This rookie agent is entirely new to the world of cocaine, high-stakes espionage and large body counts, meaning that a lot of comedy comes from his shocked newbie reactions. Meanwhile, John Travolta chews the scenery like it’s going out of style as Charlie Wax. That could be taken as a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the viewer. As someone who can kick back and enjoy cheesy action films as quality entertainment, this was a very good thing for me. Wax’s loose-cannon attitude and even looser moral compass bring plenty of jokes and cool charisma, making him a lovable scumbag.

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The supporting cast is almost inconsequential. The only two side roles of note are Kasia Smutniak’s stint as frequently glimpsed fiancé Caroline and Richard Durden as bland Ambassador Bennington. The villains are pretty much one-note antagonists and hit a pretty dark cord considering the time that this film was made, along with the current state of the world. Terrorism isn’t necessarily exploited by PARIS’s screenplay though, because it follows the same path that many other action films from the 80’s and 90’s have already tread down. The difference here is that PARIS’s sense of humor, over-the-top action and jumps into serious tonal territory occasionally seem jarring, though the film performs an impressive juggling act for the most part.

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There’s also something to be said for an action movie that can make you laugh and simultaneously keep you on the edge of your seat with unexpected surprises. One plot revelation came out of nowhere and effectively punched me in the gut. The director and writers should to be commended for not backing out of their ballsy decision too. The film’s visuals look slick for the most part, though a brief bit of slow motion seemed like a sloppy post-production effect. The pacing is great as the film never slows down once Wax enters the story. The action itself is explosively awesome as gunfights, car chases and tense standoffs are executed with adrenaline-pumping energy.

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FROM PARIS WITH LOVE is far from perfect. It’s a cheesy action flick, meaning that there are a few lapses in logic, some well-trodden clichés, and stretches of seriousness that don’t fully fit within the explosive entertaining atmosphere. Still, the film remains a lot of fun and left me very satisfied. It’s an action movie with comedy, twists, good chemistry between its two leads, loads of fun, and plenty of action. What more could you really want from a movie like this?

Grade: B

The Top 15 Movies I Reviewed in 2016

List by Derrick Carter

2016 has been a crazy year both on film and in real life. I’ve reviewed just under 200 movies in the course of the last twelve months and for the most part, have fared pretty well in catching cool new flicks as well as crossing many revered classics off my cinephile “shame list.” As a result, my focus in 2016 wasn’t necessarily on catching every new film that graced the big screen and I instead went off whatever the hell I felt like watching/reviewing. Though I didn’t get as many reviews up during 2016 as I have in previous years (for a myriad of reasons), I do feel that For the Love of Celluloid sort of matured over the past twelve months and deeply appreciate the support of anyone who bothers to read my little movie blog.

Apologies if I briefly bore you with a technicality, but my year-end lists will now focus on first time watches in the course of the year and not specifically releases from the year. Without further ado, here are my fifteen favorite first time watches from 2016…

Honorable Mentions: If I hadn’t previously seen RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, THE SHINING, and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE before 2016, then they all would have easily made this list. ANTHROPOID, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, ZOOTOPIA, SAUSAGE PARTY, THE NICE GUYS, THE HANDMAIDEN and TRAIN TO BUSAN were all stand-out movies in this rather mixed bag cinematic year. SPIRITED AWAY, UNITED 93, and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY also barely scraped by in missing this list. So, what did make the list?…

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15. LADY SNOWBLOOD: Before getting into how much I love this movie, this film deserves some context. A local cinema pub runs monthly Kung Fu Movie Nights here and a buddy of mine occasionally drags me to them. I’m not a big martial arts aficionado and most of the movies I’ve seen at this pub have been entertaining and undeniably stupid. However, LADY SNOWBLOOD blew me out of the water. This was more than just a martial arts flick being shown in a cinema pub, but rather a beautiful, bloody revenge tale that carefully unwound its plot and sold its bad-ass heroine as someone to root for as she sliced and diced her way to vengeance. Featuring geysers of blood, gorgeous visuals, and a calculated delivery of fun, LADY SNOWBLOOD may likely go down as my favorite martial arts flick of all-time!

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14. THE INVITATION: Easily the best horror film that I saw this year, THE INVITATION is brilliant in planting the viewer on the edge of their seat for 100 minutes. The premise is simple. A man goes to a suspiciously casual dinner party held by his ex-wife. Through the course of seemingly mundane actions and a possibly paranoid protagonist, we are taken on a tense ride of two terrifying possibilities. This film does a fantastic job of keeping the viewer flip-flopping on their stance and trying to figure out the dark mystery behind the plot, which fully unleashes itself in a truly frightening third act. Don’t watch the trailer. Don’t read any long plot synopsis. If you want to be scared and appreciate a classy Hitchcockian sense of unease, then definitely go into this film as blind as possible!

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13. DREDD: When DREDD came out in 2012, I quickly wrote it off as a RAID rip-off in spite of the comic book source material. Having finally watched the film four years later, I realize just how wrong I was. Though it may resemble THE RAID on the surface, DREDD could not be any more different. This ultraviolent, highly entertaining and fully loaded sci-fi action extravaganza had me laughing and cheering from start to finish. The film doesn’t present its action in a gritty, heavily edited, shaky-cam style as attention to detail and beautiful lenses have been used to portray the gory chaos. I really hope that DREDD 2 eventually becomes a reality, because this needs to be a franchise!

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12. DOCTOR STRANGE: The Marvel Cinematic Universe has now been running for nine years and fourteen films. Though none of its installments have failed to entertain me (some far more than others), I wouldn’t call any of them perfect entertainment…until now. Telling the most inventive origin story thus far in the Marvel universe and simultaneously functioning as a mystical adventure, DOCTOR STRANGE is easily the best MCU movie yet! The acting is stellar, making the main character’s transformation from selfish jerk to courageous hero all the better as a result. The effects are mindblowing (not to sound cliché) and deliver some of the most memorable sequences to hit the big screen in quite some time. It’s like a magical acid trip had a baby with a superhero movie and I loved every second of it!

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11. THE BREAKFAST CLUB: Yes, I know. I hadn’t seen this movie before and was only pressured into watching it by a co-worker who kept bugging me about it. After finally caving in, I discovered why this John Hughes classic has so many fans and is widely considered to be one of the best films to come out of the 80’s. Revolving around five fleshed-out characters and skewing teenage clique stereotypes (that still exist to this day), THE BREAKFAST CLUB is equally funny as it is insightful. The film is a perfect balance of comedy and drama, resulting in an emotionally involving and beautiful story about how people are alike in spite of their differences. Maybe, in a world that’s so divided by differences and labels, we should all just kick back, watch this movie and remember that we can get along. I’ll never forget about this movie. Get it? That’s a reference to the song that plays during the end credits. Whatever, let’s move on…

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10. THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY: Yes, I know this is technically a miniseries, but you know what? This is my list and I don’t care. THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON is better than damn near every true-crime film I’ve seen in my lifetime. Featuring a bevy of great acting talent and more than guaranteed to push a few buttons on every viewer, this 10-part miniseries stays true to the facts and relives the “trial of the century” in painstaking detail. I was addicted to this show when it aired earlier this year and have since binge-watched it as a complete cinematic experience. When paired with ESPN’s excellent five-part documentary O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA, there isn’t much left to be examined about the O.J. Simpson case. If you are the least bit intrigued by true crime, then PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON is a must-see!

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9. DEADPOOL: Though this year had more than its fair share of disappointing superhero flicks, 2016 still managed to deliver two spectacular comic book movies. I loved DOCTOR STRANGE, but DEADPOOL might just be one of my favorite superhero movies of all-time (next to the DARK KNIGHT trilogy). This rowdy X-MEN spinoff did everything in its power to be entertaining as hell and milked the R rating for everything it was worth. Because of DEADPOOL’s massive success as an R-rated money-maker, I truly hope that more studios will realize older audiences will pay to see great R-rated movies on the big screen too. Not everything needs to be accessible to younger viewers and every demographic, DEADPOOL was refreshingly bonkers and the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater since MAD MAX: FURY ROAD!

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8. ON THE WATERFRONT: Another title that I crossed off my shame list this year, ON THE WATERFRONT never seemed that appealing to me. Sure, I had seen Marlon Brando’s contender speech out of context and heard the basic premise, but none of it sounded particularly special. This movie isn’t about a corrupt union and poorly-treated dock workers though, instead it’s a story about broken souls and a long walk to redemption. Marlon Brando’s performance is breathtaking as he disappears into the role of a tough guy with a soft heart. This film progresses naturally and doesn’t cheat out on its dangerous stakes, resulting in some very tense moments. The final minutes are unbelievably emotional as a simple dockside walk becomes a test of willpower and ultimately sums up the entire film. ON THE WATERFRONT is an emotional, brilliantly acted, and spectacularly written piece of art that deeply moved me!

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7. ANIMAL HOUSE: Here’s another movie I crossed off my shame list during 2016. I had never seen ANIMAL HOUSE before, though I was well aware of its reputation. No hyperbole, this film changed the face of movie comedies and opened the door for crass humor to hit the big screen in gross-out fashion. This movie has plenty of hilarious scenes and quotes, but taken within the film’s context, they become ten times funnier. The dark sense of humor in areas had me cackling while the many sex jokes easily contributed to the likes of AMERICAN PIE and SUPERBAD further down the line. Also, John Belushi was a comedic tour-de-force to be reckoned with. With jokes about sex, death, horses, chainsaws, beer, racial differences, impressions of zits, and much more, ANIMAL HOUSE truly is one of the greatest and wildest comedies of all-time!

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6. TRAINING DAY: Though it was released fifteen years ago, TRAINING DAY still seems frighteningly relevant in today’s world. Showcasing a dark underbelly of corrupt cops and street gangs, this film takes place in the space of 24 hours and sunk its hooks into me from start to finish. Ethan Hawke is a naïve protagonist (that’s kind of the point of the story) and we are forced to follow in his footsteps as he stands alongside one of my new favorite cinematic villains. Denzel Washington’s character is a beast and delivers one of the greatest movie monologues (for my money) of all-time in Detective Alonzo Harris’s street-side closing speech. Grim, gritty, and suspenseful the whole way through, TRAINING DAY is one of my new favorite movies!

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5. ARRIVAL: A beautifully crafted and mature piece of science fiction, ARRIVAL’s true brilliance didn’t fully hit me until the closing credits began to roll. This film takes the alien invaders trope and spins in a mature, realistic direction. Though this has already been done in films like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and CONTACT, I guarantee that it hasn’t been executed in the complex and thought-provoking manner that ARRIVAL delivers. Seemingly innocuous scenes take on whole new meanings when you realize the story’s true nature. The ending also guarantees that you won’t be able to watch this film in the same way upon a second viewing, much like Christopher Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE becomes a completely different movie once you’ve been wowed the first time around. ARRIVAL is a science fiction masterpiece and continues director Denis Villeneuve’s winning streak.

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4. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD: Despite stemming from a book that’s required in many classrooms and existing for decades as a beloved classic that’s cherished by countless film fans, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD somehow never made its way across my eyeballs before 2016. However, I now count it among the most emotional dramas that I’ve ever seen. This film tackles hard-hitting issues through the innocent eyes of a child in a coming-of-age tale crossed with a courtroom drama. Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch is outstanding and the rest of the cast put in stellar work as well. This profoundly powerful film deeply moved me and left me on the verge of tears with its beautiful conclusion. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a masterpiece!

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3. THE REVENANT: The film that finally won Leo an Academy Award, THE REVENANT is an amazing cinematic feat that was created by both madness and brilliance. Did Leo look like he just puked when biting into a buffalo liver? That’s because he did. Do these cast members look like they’re freezing their asses off? That’s because they are. Does it seem like these are real locations? That’s because the director shot in natural light and proceeded to put his cast and crew through a hellish outdoor shooting experience. Production accomplishments aside, THE REVENANT remains a riveting tale of revenge and survival in harsher than harsh circumstances. This film is a gritty, unforgiving, and awe-inspiring piece of cinematic art that has blown me away twice at this point and will continue to do so many times in the future. Also, this movie may have given me a fear of bears too.

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2. THE LOBSTER: The best love story I’ve seen all year belongs to a twisted dystopian dark comedy about a guy who’s forced to choose between finding a romantic partner or being turned into an animal. Sound weird? Oh boy, it is! Besides being strange all the way around, THE LOBSTER is also a wonderfully unique flick that’s equal parts charming and disturbing. This cinematic world felt like Terry Gilliam made a movie with David Lynch. The feelings this film gave me are almost impossible to properly describe as there really hasn’t been anything like it before. It’s a romance like no other and if you have a penchant for weird arthouse cinema, then I highly suggest that you watch THE LOBSTER at your earliest convenience…preferably with a significant other who’s also into awesome cinematic oddities.

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1. HIGH-RISE: So if you thought THE LOBSTER was an odd choice for this list, then brace yourself because I can see people flat-out hating my number-one pick. HIGH-RISE is one of the few movies to be adapted from the work of British science fiction author J.G. Ballard. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because David Cronenberg adapted his work into twisted romantic thriller CRASH. That’s the level we’re at here, folks. HIGH-RISE is a grim, darkly hilarious and disturbing tale about a high society that devolves into a bloody class war in the space of a forty-floor apartment building…and I absolutely friggin’ adored this film! I’ve watched it four times within the space of the year and plan on revisiting it many more times in the future. The stylish visuals, colorful characters, twisted story arcs, oddball humor mixed with darkly disturbing content, a suffocating atmosphere, and shocking social commentary blew me out of the water. I love this movie so much that I actually listened to the DVD commentary. It’s the first film to make me do that in years! Though it’s definitely not for everyone (see THE LOBSTER’s divisiveness and crank it up to 11), HIGH-RISE is my favorite movie of 2016 and makes me hope for more big screen adaptations of Ballard’s work.

2016 was a pretty insane year in a lot of different ways. Many movies disappointed me in the theater, but I still saw plenty of good and great films. I also crossed many titles of my cinephile “shame list,” though I still have many more to eventually get through. Here’s hoping for an even better 2017!

THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 8 hours 19 minutes

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Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr., Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown, John Travolta, Courtney B. Vance, David Schwimmer, Nathan Lane, Kenneth Choi, Bruce Greenwood, Chris Bauer, Selma Blair & Steven Pasquale

AMERICAN CRIME STORY is the more mature true-crime cousin of FX’s AMERICAN HORROR STORY. This is a new anthology series wherein each season will examine a notorious American crime (hence the not so subtle title) and they picked a doozy for the first season: the O.J. Simpson murder trial. This “trial of the century” was a double-homicide case turned national sensation. A car chase interrupted the NBA playoffs, broadcasts of the trial resulted in a media circus, tabloids took sexist jabs at the main prosecutor, and racial tensions across the country became even more tense. The whole trial is a fascinating story and makes for equally fascinating television. If THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON is any indication of the quality in store for AMERICAN CRIME STORY’s future seasons, then this has just become one of my favorite TV shows!

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On June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman were brutally murdered. The key suspect in the case became football player/actor/Nicole’s abusive ex-husband O.J. Simpson. This was a black celebrity being tried for the murders two white people in Los Angeles, a city where the Rodney King riots had taken place two years earlier. State prosecutors seemed to have an open-and-shut case (with mountains of evidence against O.J.), but Simpson had a dream team of lawyers who weren’t afraid to divert attention away from the actual case at hand by any means necessary. The trial became less about the murders and more about media, elaborate conspiracy theories, racial tensions, police corruption, and celebrity status. You get to see this all play out in painstakingly detailed fashion.

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“I already know the ending of this trial,” you might say, “what could possibly be gained from watching this show?” I would respond by pointing out that THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON goes through every fascinating bit of the trial. We see the initial investigation, the forming of O.J.’s legal dream team, just how much the prosecution screwed up in presenting evidence, drama among jury members, the public’s reaction to the case, the race card being played time and time again, and the ultimately heartbreaking verdict. This miniseries keeps a level hand as to whether or not O.J. committed the crimes, even though it’s based on Jeffrey Tobin’s book THE RUN OF HIS LIFE (which works under assumption that O.J. Simpson murdered Nicole in cold blood). We are given evidence for the possibilities of O.J. being guilty as sin (something I believe), but also enough wiggle room for the assumption that he might not have committed the crimes (something that other people might believe). It was an undeniably difficult tightrope to walk, but AMERICAN CRIME STORY does it well.

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Besides going through the courtroom drama and murder proceedings, this show also holds up a mirror to mid-90’s America in order to explore ugly truths about racial tensions and media sensationalism. It’s scary how relevant this show is to our current times and how certain things still haven’t changed much. It’s not brought up to an over-the-top degree, but the Kardashian children occasionally pop in and their portrayal is less than glamorous (young fame-seeking whores). It’s an apt reminder that we’re still living in the country the O.J. Simpson trial created. Every time you see a Kardashian “news story,” you’re looking at a direct result of post-O.J. America.

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The media circus isn’t the only thing that PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON nails, because we get loads of scenes that examine racial tension. There is a particularly powerful scene wherein Johnny Cochrane is falsely pulled over and handcuffed in front of his children, but keeps his cool. This small moment demonstrates that the black populace were indeed being horribly mistreated in the streets of L.A. (again, Rodney King just a few years earlier). Other areas of the country were just as bad (if not, worse) and it’s understandable that a “win” was needed to feel justice. Unfortunately, that “win” had to come in the form of O.J. Simpson. More rock solid examinations of racial tension arrive in the jury episodes (near the end of the season) as we watch these people interact with each other and base assumptions solely on color of skin. It’s a touchy subject, but AMERICAN CRIME STORY covers it even-handedly and with a level-head.

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I’ve mentioned the historical content and deeper areas that O.J. SIMPSON covers, but have yet to mention the performances. To be blunt, they’re brilliant across the board. Sarah Paulson is sympathetic, but equally frustrating to watch as prosecutor Marcia Clark. Sterling K. Brown is great as Christopher Darden, a black face for hire in the prosecution’s eyes and a man who wants to convict a murderer in his own eyes. Kenneth Choi is a dead ringer for Judge Ito and actually managed to come off somewhat likable.

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As far as O.J.’s defensive dream team goes, John Travolta plays a diva in Robert Shapiro and Nathan Lane is perfectly slimy as F. Lee Bailey. David Schwimmer isn’t exactly known for his acting prowess, but he’s surprisingly fantastic as Robert Kardashian. His complete arc through the season offers one of the most quietly powerful scenes during the finale. He’s only outshined by Courtney B. Vance’s Johnnie Cochran. To me, there was no Courtney Vance in this series, it was just Cochran brought back from the dead! Vance is perfect! He captures the rage, determination, and underhanded ethics.

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Finally, there’s Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. Simpson. Though he might not bear an immediate resemblance to the titular criminal, Gooding Jr. captures the arrogance, mental instability, and anger present in the real-life O.J. It’s funny though, because Cuba Gooding Jr. isn’t exactly the focus of this series. He’s actually overshadowed by the legal teams duking it out among one another. O.J. doesn’t get to do much but sit in his chair and occasionally yell at his lawyers. After the first few episodes, Gooding Jr.’s screen time is significantly shortened, but that actually makes for a more interesting show as a result.

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Parts of THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON were definitely exaggerated for the sake of ratings (a bar scene between Christopher Darden and Marcia Clarke is clichéd, F. Lee Bailey has an enemy juror nicknamed “the demon,” etc.), but this show also sticks true to the facts on a lot of fronts. It’s unapologetically grim, harsh, and depressing…but also, extremely well-written, carefully detailed, driven by stellar performances, and packs many powerful (frighteningly relevant) punches. THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON is one of the best true-crime television miniseries to ever hit the small screen and I’d also argue that it’s better than most true-crime films too!

Grade: A+

THE PUNISHER (2004)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 4 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Brutal Violence, Language and brief Nudity

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Directed by: Jonathan Hensleigh

Written by: Jonathan Hensleigh & Michael France

(based on THE PUNISHER comics by Gerry Conway, Ross Andru & John Romita, Sr.)

Starring: Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Will Patton, Roy Scheider, Laura Harring, Ben Foster, Rebecca Romijn & John Pinette

Marvel failed to birth a PUNISHER film franchise during the late 80’s, so they gave it a second try in 2004. Though this early 2000’s incarnation is a more “realistic” take on the Punisher’s origin, it failed to spawn the potential franchise that the studio and viewers were hoping for. Despite that disappointing turn of events, the film still stands head and shoulders over the 1989 Dolph Lundgren version. Instead of feeling like a straight-up comic book movie, THE PUNISHER has the tone of a gritty revenge-thriller…despite its main character’s claims that his motives are not fueled by vengeance.

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Frank Castle is an undercover FBI agent whose latest sting has resulted in the death of Bobby Saint, the son of powerful mafia lord Howard Saint. In order to avenge his scumbag son’s death, Saint orders the execution of Frank Castle’s entire family. This results in every single one of Frank’s relatives being wiped off the face of the earth in a bloody ambush, least of all his wife and son. Little does Saint know that Frank barely survived the vicious attack and is now fueled by an overwhelming desire to punish the Saint crime family for all of their wrongdoings. Frank sets up a carefully calculated plan of revenge, all while trying to dodge colorful assassins at every turn.

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To state the obvious, Thomas Jane is a far better Punisher than Dolph Lundgren could ever hope to be. Jane manages to maintain the character’s tragic brooding nature along with his bad-ass action hero persona. It’s a hard combination to balance, but he pulls it off damn near perfectly. When I think of The Punisher, Thomas Jane is always the first incarnation that pops into my head. Facing off against him is John Travolta as the evil, soulless Howard Saint. Though Travolta can get a little hammy in places, he’s so good at being bad. Saint is a villain that you love to hate and you can’t help but take gratification when things are (sometimes, literally) falling apart around him.

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The side characters are where this PUNISHER becomes a bit of a mixed bag. Ben Foster and John Pinette play comic relief neighbors to Jane’s sullen Punisher. Though the script eventually tries to craft something deeper out of them, their presence feels forced and unneeded. Rebecca Romijn receives slightly more to do as the potential love interest for Castle, but her eventual arc feels slightly half-assed and underwhelming. It seemed like the film was building towards something big with this character and then forgot what it was by the time the final scene arrived.

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The foes that Frank faces off against are far more interesting and entertaining to watch than any of the three apartment dwellers. There’s the Russian (a huge, silent, and seemingly unkillable foe) and the short-lived, but memorable, Harry Heck (an assassin who also fancies himself a musician). The former delivers the best fight scene of the entire film, while the latter has a memorable shoot-out that ends in one crazy punch line. Will Patton also receives a significant amount of screen time as Howard Saint’s number-two man and I ultimately liked where they went with his character (even if it seems slightly silly by today’s standards).

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What should be praised about 2004’s PUNISHER is that it actually takes time to develop Frank Castle as a family man before getting into fiery combat sequences and bloody revenge. It’s all the better for it because I was rooting for Frank, even as he was committing rather monstrous acts that make you question whether he’s better than the bad guys. Though the film has some significant downtime between action sequences to watch Castle slowly transform into the unforgiving Punisher, the finale is truly something to behold. Viewers who find themselves fidgeting through the movie’s slower moments will be rewarded with an explosion-filled climax that’s littered with corpses. That’s a very good thing in THE PUNISHER universe.

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This reboot of THE PUNISHER can get a tad over-the-top and silly in places (John Travolta’s ultimate fate is completely ridiculous), but remains an enjoyably dark revenge-thriller. This is a film for those who want a straight-up violent action movie featuring Marvel’s equivalent of Batman (though this vigilante has no qualms about killing bad guys in particularly brutal ways). THE PUNISHER is an entertaining good time and miles better than its 1989 competition (though I have yet to see the 2008 reboot).

Grade: B

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+

SAVAGES (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 11 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal and Grisly Violence, some Graphic Sexuality, Nudity, Drug Use and Language throughout

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Directed by: Oliver Stone

Written by: Shane Salerno, Don Winslow & Oliver Stone

(based on the novel SAVAGES by Don Winslow)

Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Blake Lively, Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro & John Travolta

SAVAGES sounds like it has all the makings of a stellar crime-thriller. Controversial director Oliver Stone is behind the camera and using ingredients of drugs, violence and gangsters all blended into a film that could have and should have been great. In a sad turn of events, SAVAGES is not great. It’s not even good. Instead, this is an utter disappointment that suffers from a mixed bag cast of characters and messy pacing in spite of stylish sensibilities. This is a basic, run-of-the-mill kidnapping thriller.

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Chon and Ben are two dope-dealing best friends who share the same girlfriend, Ophelia. A particularly unique type of marijuana has turned these up-and-coming dealers into wealthy criminals. Ben handles the peaceful business side of things, while Chon takes care of the violence that occasionally arises in their highly illegal line of work. Meanwhile, Ophelia doesn’t do much except for smoking weed, having sex and lying around in the sun. When Ben and Chon are approached by the cartel and a highly questionable business deal goes bad, Ophelia is kidnapped by cartel leader Elena and vicious enforcer Lado. Together, Chon and Ben must use their brains and brawn to take down the crazed cartel and save their mutual girlfriend.

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The cast of characters is a combination of good and bad. Benicio Del Toro is great as Lado, a fearless thug who delights in every single one of his sick actions. John Travolta also gives one of his better performances of the last few years as a crooked DEA agent. Even though he’s a minor character in the grand scheme of things, Travolta adds much-needed talent to this movie. Selma Hayek is only okay as Elena. She is an intimidating villainess at points in the film, but there’s also a forced attempt to flesh out her character as a loving mother struggling to have a relationship with her daughter. At least, Hayek’s cartel leader has far more development than any of the three protagonists. Taylor Kitsch comes off as a bland tough guy and Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays laughably silly hippie. Meanwhile, Blake Lively doesn’t do much save for play a damsel in distress, look pretty and give an irritating voice over throughout the film. The stuff she’s describing is happening right before our eyes too, so there’s really no need for it to begin with.

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Oliver Stone directs SAVAGES with style and a slick look. There are definitely well-executed scenes on display, but they’re bogged down with pacing that drags for too long before arriving at any of the exciting stuff. Since the characters aren’t well-developed to begin with, that leaves us with almost an hour of screen time before Ophelia even gets kidnapped. By the time that happens, one might expect the film to pick up drastically. You would be wrong, because the action scenes and revenge moments are few and far between. There’s an appropriately savage vibe to the violence on display (things get gory and downright brutal) which is a good thing given what this story is about. However, the conclusion is a huge cop-out! This felt like an ending that cheated the viewer in every possible way. The final moments are dishonest and out-of-place.

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SAVAGES might have been a great, rip-roaring thriller if it had the right script and cast behind it. Instead, this comes off like a pretty standard by-the-numbers B-flick that underwhelms. Style, gruesome violence, a few good scenes as well as Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta aren’t enough to save this film from mediocre writing, a really stupid ending, poor characters, and bland performances. SAVAGES is strictly a middle-of-the-road effort.

Grade: C

GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: Alex Gibney

Written by: Alex Gibney

(based on the book GOING CLEAR by Lawrence Wright)

Starring: Lawrence Wright, Mike Rinder, Marty Rathbun, Paul Haggis, Jason Beghe, Tom De Vocht, Hana Eltringham & Tony Ortega

I was first introduced to Scientology through the controversial SOUTH PARK episode “Trapped In The Closet!” That was the last thought I really had given to Scientology until I stumbled across a BBC Panorama episode on YouTube in which a journalist investigates the dangerous cult and finds himself stalked, harassed and wildly misled by Scientologists who refuse to take responsibility for their reckless behavior and business practices. When it was announced that HBO had lawyered up (160 to be exact) for a documentary diving deep into the controversial “religion,” I was pretty much ecstatic. Having now seen GOING CLEAR, I safely say two things. There is not a doubt in my mind that Scientology is a dangerous cult that’s been legalized by the IRS and the film lived up to my expectations.

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GOING CLEAR covers most of what you would expect to see in a documentary taking a critical stance against Scientology. From their tests and highly questionable recruiting methods to ultimate brainwashing process and many controversies, you pretty much get a good general idea of everything you’d want to know. The film is composed of interviews with eight former Scientologists and we are given first-hand accounts of their troubling experiences. Aside from these interviews, there are also clips of gatherings and celebrations including Tom Cruise accepting the Freedom Medal of Valor Award. This unintentionally hilarious award was specifically imagined just for Cruise to receive. On a quick side note, that really means about as much as a made-up Love of Celluloid Cine Award (contact me if you think you could win this “honor” that I just made up for this review!). We also see an outline of John Travolta’s interactions with the group as well as some goofy ads and a ridiculous Scientology music video (made by the group in order to celebrate their tax-free status).

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For the first 30 or 40 minutes, GOING CLEAR focuses on the foundations of Scientology. We are given a history of L. Ron Hubbard’s crooked practices, manipulative methods, and crumbling sanity (ultimately buying into his own bullshit). What’s really especially interesting is seeing what an out-and-out psychopath Hubbard truly was, throwing people off a ship for disobeying his orders as well as emotionally torturing his wife (including committing her to an institution and lying to her over the phone about killing their daughter). As if Hubbard wasn’t bad enough, CLEAR doesn’t pull punches in going after the current sociopathic leader David Miscavige.

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Practices of Scientology are also investigated with their audits (essentially leading to legalized blackmail), Disconnection (separating family members from those critical of the church), and most frightening of all, their Fair Game (stalking and harassing any journalist, ex-member or public figure who dares to step up against them). The last of these is definitely the most disturbing thing on display and really shows how this would-be religion isn’t as harmless as some might assume. Besides those three tactics being investigated, there are also confessions of physical abuse and psychological trauma in the “church.” Speaking of the religious status of this cult, that is also deeply looked into and criticized as it should be. By receiving status as a religion, Scientology has been protected from taxes (though it’s worth 1.5 billion and they pay their workers 50 cents an hour) and also coming out on top in law suits about the aforementioned abuse (claiming legal religious practices and compliant members).

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GOING CLEAR reveals pretty much every major concern that any rational person would have with Scientology and should open plenty of passionate discussions. The phrase “drank the Kool-Aid” is used during one interview and couldn’t be more appropriate given everything seen in this powerful documentary. The only flaw of note with GOING CLEAR is that it seems to focus slightly more on smaller instances of abuse as opposed huge ones that have exploded. A violent game of musical chairs is interesting, but a girl forced to scrub the floor for being heartbroken doesn’t seem as damning as the Lisa McPherson case (which is never mentioned once) or David Miscavige’s wife (who hasn’t been seen in public since 2007). Little is said about their condemnation of psychiatry as a pseudo-science too. GOING CLEAR is a fascinating documentary that could be ridiculous and amusing, if it weren’t so devastating and terrifying.

Grade: A

FACE/OFF (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Intense Sequences of Strong Violence, and for Strong Language

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Directed by: John Woo

Written by: Mike Werb & Michael Colleary

Starring: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Alessandro Nivola, Gina Gershon, Dominique Swain & Nick Cassavetes

If there are two actors who have really been slumming it lately, they would be John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. These two were huge at the height of their career, but have since wound up as washed-up has-beens taking any role that comes across their desks (how else would one explain Cage’s output for the last 5 years?). FACE/OFF is a ridiculous action flick with a really silly premise that allows for a maximum amount of fun, while also providing an excuse for Cage and Travolta to go as over-the-top as humanly possible in their roles…as each other.

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Sean Archer is a loose-cannon FBI agent who doesn’t play by the rules. After the death of his son, Archer has made it his personal mission to take down high-profile terrorist Castor Troy. Archer should feel accomplished once he’s caught Troy (who winds up in a coma), but there’s still a big problem. A bomb is loose in the city (of course) and there’s only one possible (and highly ludicrous) way to stop it from going off. Archer must undergo a shocking super-secret surgery to switch faces with Troy in order to get the location of the bomb out of Troy’s brother. Unfortunately for Archer, the now faceless Troy wakes up from his coma and steals Archer’s face. With their identities switched, the real Archer (wearing Troy’s face) must escape from prison and save his family from Castor Troy (who’s wearing Archer’s face)!

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At the very least, one can reasonably say that this movie’s plot is very silly. You pretty much know what you’re going in for from the get-go. The storyline doesn’t deviate from a predictable course of events with any huge twists or turns. It’s a big dumb popcorn-muncher and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Occasionally, junk food can be just as satisfying than a steak. That is exactly the case with this movie. There are occasional plot holes and silliness abounding, but it’s all in good fun without any pretensions about being taken seriously.

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The best thing about FACE/OFF’s premise is that it provides a flimsy enough excuse for Cage and Travolta to do their best impressions of each other. Kudos to both of these performers, because they do a good job of taking on two completely separate roles. John Travolta plays a pretty bland cop character to begin with, but is allows a lot of wiggle room when he’s crazy Troy. Cage actually is a bit too over-the-top and ridiculous as Troy, but gets significantly better when he transforms into the hero with a villain’s face. The supporting cast is completely forgettable. That’s not a huge problem though, because we all know that the real draw of FACE/OFF is to see Travolta and Cage…well, facing off against each other.

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As fun and hugely entertaining as the action scenes can be, there are definite moments where John Woo gets way too bombastic. There are lots of needless explosions and a cast of people who miss when shooting targets who are a mere few feet away (including both Cage and Travolta). Lots of silly screaming, firework sound effects, and overused slow motion are frequently used. There’s also a hilarious amount of doves packed into five minutes of screen time as well as a Mexican stand-off with more guns than the finale of RESERVOIR DOGS. With all this complaining, there’s far more good to be seen (including an awesome boat chase) than bad. The running time might seem bloated upon the start of the movie, but I can safely say that things never got dull at any point.

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FACE/OFF is exactly what it set out to be. It’s a big, dumb action movie loaded with explosions, over-the-top acting, and a ridiculous story that’s a whole lot of silly fun. Sure, it gets mighty stupid throughout and packs in action movie clichés over and over again, but it’s also a total blast from beginning to end!

Grade: B

AUSTIN POWERS: GOLDMEMBER (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sexual Innuendo, Crude Humor and Language

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Directed by: Jay Roach

Written by: Mike Myers & Michael McCullers

Starring: Mike Myers, Beyoncé Knowles, Michael York, Michael Caine, Robert Wagner, Seth Green, Verne Troyer, Mindy Sterling & Fred Savage

AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY received lukewarm reception in its theatrical release and became a quick cult hit on home video. A couple of years later, THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME came out to delight many fans of the groovy swinging spy from the 60’s. After the hit of that sequel, it took three years for GOLDMEMBER to come out in the summer of 2002. Unfortunately, this is a lackluster installment to say the least. Jokes that were funny in the first two have gotten stale in this third outing. It almost seems like success got to the heads of Mike Myers, Michael McCullers and Jay Roach. A cameo loaded opening full of Oscar winners and pop stars is a sign that this entry had far more of a budget this time around. That’s apparent in many areas, but more money doesn’t necessarily make for a better movie. A majority of GOLDMEMBER either comes as bland or forced.

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Austin Powers has finally apprehended Dr. Evil and tiny clone Mini-Me. However, Austin faces a threat from the past in the form of a 70’s disco-dancing Dutch madman by the name of Goldmember. This lunatic has kidnapped Austin’s neglectful father. It’s up to the shaggadelic spy and a newly found afro-touting sidekick Foxxy Cleopatra to take down Goldmember, save Austin’s dad, and stop another ridiculous plan from Dr. Evil. What happened to Felicity Shagwell of the last film? Did she go back to the past? Was she actually a Fembot? Is it possible that Heather Graham wasn’t contractually obligated to appear briefly in a third film to close off her romance with Mike Myers? All of these could be a possibility, but the real answer is never given to the audience. This is an early plot hole that’s a sign of some seriously lazy writing (even Vanessa got a good send off in SPY WHO SHAGGED ME).

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GOLDMEMBER may be a weak ending to the impromptu AUSTIN POWERS trilogy (did anybody seriously expect this to become a three-film series), but it’s the slickest in cinematography. The make-up on Dr. Evil, Fat Bastard, and Goldmember looks good. The film does obviously spoof more 007 flicks (GOLDFINGER for example), but more references to other movies (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS in a specific scene) and pop culture (a Britney Spears cameo and rap music video in the middle of a jail scene). These latter bits aren’t very funny and come off as awkward. Also unneeded are flashbacks of young Austin and Dr. Evil. Michael Caine is a welcome addition as Austin’s deadbeat father, but he’s essentially wasted for a majority of the flick. Also Scotty and Mini-Me are given story arcs, but neither are as hilarious as the material in the previous films.

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Mike Myers plays four different characters this time around. Of course, he’s Austin Powers and Dr. Evil. He also returns as Fat Bastard and the newly added Goldmember. Goldmember is also a wasted villain too. This baddie’s over-the-top Dutch accent, penchant for commenting on how tight people are, lack of genitalia, and snacks of pancakes with cigarettes come off as completely lame. None of his jokes are very funny and it’s clear that Mike Myers was going into a bad spot of his comedic abilities (this was only a year before the disastrous CAT IN THE HAT).  Most of the other jokes (including returning bits from the previous entries) are dusty this time around. A more blatant example is the dirty name of a sexy woman. In the first two films it was Ivanna Humpalot or Alotta Fagina. This time around the joke has been regulated to the easy cheap Fook Mi and Fook Yu. It’s insulting how much it appears that everyone phoned it in both acting and writing. One saving grace comes in a solid set of three scenes in Japan that I was laughing hysterically at. If everything had been up to the par of those 15 minutes, than GOLDMEMBER would be a solid conclusion to an entertaining trilogy of spy-comedies. Also, Beyoncé Knowles isn’t much of a love interest. She lacks the charm of both Elizabeth Hurley and Heather Graham.

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An overly convoluted script is just one of the many things that GOLDMEMBER suffers from. Did we really need an intricate mythology to how Dr. Evil and Austin Powers met? There are a couple of really funny moments (my favorite part being three scenes in a row in Japan), but they are few and far between. Most of the humor is far too forced. The entire film is disappointing and the end result is a purely middle-of-the-road experience.

Grade: C

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