THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Rude Humor and some Action

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Directed by: Chris McKay

Written by: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern & John Whittington

Voices of: Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Mariah Carey, Jenny Slate, Susan Bennett, Billy Dee Williams, Hector Elizondo, Conan O’Brien, Jason Mantzoukas, Doug Benson, Zoe Kravitz, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Adam DeVine, Eddie Izzard & Seth Green

The first of three new LEGO movies, THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a spin-off for the popular DC superhero from 2014’s surprisingly awesome THE LEGO MOVIE. Will Arnett has returned to reprise the vocal work for Lego Batman/Bruce Wayne and this film is set entirely within the Lego DC Universe. Filled to the brim with comic book references and call-backs to other movies, LEGO BATMAN never takes itself seriously at all and yet still manages to throw in a touching message about family and friends. Though not as great as its LEGO predecessor, THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is the best DC Comics movie to hit nationwide theatrical release in years. This is a delight for parents, teenagers, and Batman fans who enjoy a good laugh.

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In Lego Gotham City, orphan-turned-superhero Batman (Will Arnett) enjoys wearing black, playing loud music and fighting crime. He’s always saving the day, but has never let anybody else into his life…other than faithful butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes). After Batman foils the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) yet again and hurts the evil clown’s feelings, the villain hatches an ingenious scheme for revenge. Meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson) has stepped into her dad’s shoes as chief of police and has enacted a new “it takes a village, not a Batman” approach to fighting crime. Also, Batman has taken young boywonder Robin under his reluctant parental wing. The real challenge Batman has to face though…is overcoming his fears about family.

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Will Arnett’s Batman was easily one of the funniest parts of THE LEGO MOVIE and he brings everything that fans loved about that character into a feature-length running time. Though this film has a handful of slow moments that drag, Arnett’s comedic timing and purposely brooding voice frequently rescue the story from being “too much of a good thing.” The rest of the voice cast is stellar as well, with Michael Cera delivering some of the biggest laughs as lively, no-pants-wearing Robin. Tons of Batman’s rogue gallery make appearances too, including a lot of C-grade baddies that provide giggles from their mere cameos. My two favorite side villains were Catwoman (who’s constantly saying “mew mew”) and Bane (who’s adopted the strange, but awesome-sounding voice from 2012’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES). Zach Galifianakis also shines in the most sensitive portrayal of the Joker that you’ve ever seen, making for an evil supervillain that throws tantrums like a depressed ex-girlfriend.

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It should come as no surprise that THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is chock-full of movie, TV and comic book references. There are so many jokes within the first five minutes that it seems impossible to catch them all in one viewing. From signs that cheering citizens are holding to bits of dialogue that directly tie into certain films to full-blown footage used from every big-screen Batman in history, there are tons of laughs and in-cannon material here to satisfy diehard Batman fans. The film also throws tons of references towards DC comics in general, featuring cameos from Justice League members and familiar places from Superman’s stories. Even still, the references don’t stop there because there are unexpected non-cannon characters that have a big part to play in the proceedings. I won’t go into detail, but I was grinning ear to ear for a majority of the action-packed climax.

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LEGO BATMAN MOVIE’s message isn’t exactly original, but seems perfectly suited to the nature of Batman’s character and how we’ve seen this character explored in past versions of the material. The film’s lively visuals explode off the screen, looking like stop-motion even though they are actually the result of highly-detailed computer animation. As clever, entertaining and downright fun as LEGO BATMAN is, the plot encounters a few dull stretches. These mainly come in the second act, where we need to see certain things develop. In writing my summary of this film’s story, it struck me that LEGO BATMAN juggles four different subplots and tries to bring them together as a cohesive whole. The script does a solid job of this for the most part, but occasionally meanders as it brings these storylines together. Still, the pay-off, countless references, sheer entertainment value, and never-ending sense of humor are all well-worth the price of admission.

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If you’re a fan of 2014’s THE LEGO MOVIE or any incarnation of Batman, then THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a must-see! I imagine that DC Comics fans will have a field day with the sheer amount of references, tie-ins, and clever writing; all while kids are having a blast watching Lego Batman run around on the screen. I saw LEGO BATMAN in a sold-out movie theater that was filled with families and an apparent birthday party going on the front two rows. At no point, during any minute of the running time, did a child begin crying or a bratty kid act out in any way. That’s almost unheard of, at least for me. Everybody was glued to the screen and that’s a major feat for any family film. Though the pacing isn’t perfect, but THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a ton of fun! Sometimes, that’s all you need!

Grade: B+

WAR DOGS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout, Drug Use and some Sexual References

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Directed by: Todd Phillips

Written by: Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips & Jason Smilovic

(based on the book ARMS AND THE DUDES by Guy Lawson)

Starring: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, J.B. Blanc, Kevin Pollak, Bradley Cooper & Barry Livingston

After directing eight sex comedies and a few documentaries, director Todd Phillips takes a hard left turn into true-crime/political territory with WAR DOGS. This film is based on the true story of Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, though details have been changed and exaggerated to make a more interesting movie. The film’s strongest elements are its story, the chemistry between Jonah Hill and Miles Teller, and a manic energy that keeps things interesting. However, this movie occasionally suffers from trying too hard to replicate the style of a Martin Scorsese crime flick and never fully becoming as great as it could have been.

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David Packouz (Miles Teller) is going nowhere in life. His job as a massage therapist barely pays the bills and attempts to start up his own business have drastically failed. Low on cash and with a child on the way, David reunites with former friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who makes bank as an international arms dealer. David is intoxicated by Efraim’s lavish lifestyle and soon becomes his business partner. However, things get complicated when the two young dudes find themselves in over their heads with dangerous people and the U.S. government. What follows is lots of cash, cocaine, bullets, and illegal activities that forced the U.S. Army to reexamine its contracting procedures.

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The premise of WAR DOGS sounds like a lot to take in. After all, what if you know next to nothing about defense contracts? Well, have no fear because the script (written by three people, including Phillips) gently takes the viewer by the hand and lays out details in an easy-to-understand manner. We are also shown how illegal dealings and shady business practices can easily be made behind the curtains. WAR DOGS doesn’t tackle all of this as light-hearted comedic fodder (as the trailers suggest), because the film may cause audience members to think long and hard about what they’ve seen afterwards.

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As you might imagine, David and Efraim aren’t good people. The film knows this and makes that clear. We’re watching scumbags get away with doing scumbag things, until it all comes crashing down on their heads. Miles Teller is somewhat sympathetic as David, because he has a family to provide for and seems like the more level-headed nice guy of the two. Jonah Hill is an out-and-out asshole as Efraim. This coke-snorting, back-stabbing, morally bankrupt stain of a human being represents everything that’s wrong with this world….and he also has an obnoxious laugh. Efraim is someone who will take advantage of anything and anyone to make a few extra bucks and Hill plays him to perfection.

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As for the supporting cast, there are only three big recurring faces. Ana de Armas (one of the most beautiful women alive) puts in a solid performance as David’s innocent wife. Her relationship is deeply affected by her husband’s newfound career, though she doesn’t exactly get a ton of screen time to show that. The focus is more on the international arms dealing and crimes, whereas David’s personal life is just a subplot. Bradley Cooper plays a threatening guy who works from shadowy places. Cooper is fantastic in the part, but doesn’t receive more than five brief scenes. For those five moments, he completely steals the show. Kevin Pollak is a welcome presence as a local businessman with ties to Efraim and David.

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WAR DOGS has a very interesting story and Todd Phillips attempts to execute it with grandiose style, though this doesn’t come off entirely successful. Phillips tries too hard to replicate a Scorsese-crime flick. For example, the movie uses voiceover narration from Miles Teller which isn’t exactly uncommon…but also accompanies this with frequent freeze frames to character’s faces. It’s obvious that Phillips was trying to do GOODFELLAS and CASINO, but with international arms dealing. It sounds great in theory, but the style is unnecessarily forced. The film also has title cards with quotes of dialogue that seem more distracting and pretentious as opposed to cool and artsy.

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WAR DOGS is hindered by its wannabe Scorsese style and never becomes as great as it should be. The performances are solid across the board. Some scenes are humorous, while other plot developments are shocking (especially if you don’t know the true story). The pacing moves quickly and never gives the viewer time to get bored. I was interested and entertained throughout. Even if the film never reaches its full potential, one fantastic scene perfectly sums up this entire movie. As the greedy millionaire arms dealers frantically drive away from gunfire, a brave band of underpaid soldiers rush into eliminate the threat. As David and Efraim gleefully dance in the truck, a passing soldier angrily glares and flips them off. That about says it all, right there.

Grade: B

SAUSAGE PARTY (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

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

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Directed by: Greg Tiernan & Conrad Vernon

Written by: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter & Ariel Shaffir

Voices of: Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, Michael Cera, James Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Paul Rudd, Nick Kroll, David Krumholtz, Edward Norton, Salma Hayek, Conrad Vernon & Scott Underwood

At the tail-end of an underwhelming summer movie season and in a year that’s been filled with depressing events, SAUSAGE PART comes as a hilarious breath of fresh air. Besides being the first R-rated computer-animated feature, SAUSAGE PARTY is probably the filthiest comedy I’ve ever seen. While driving home from the movie theater, I was trying to think of a movie or TV show that reached the same level of this film’s raunchy extremes…and I honestly didn’t have a single title come to mind. SOUTH PARK, TEAM AMERICA and DRAWN TOGETHER all seem slightly tame by comparison. This animated comedy for adults is surprisingly smart, while also serving as a pitch-perfect spoof of Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks.

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Shopwell’s is a supermarket populated by all brands of foods, who worship shoppers as “gods” and eagerly await to be chosen for “the great beyond.” Frank (Seth Rogen) is a sausage who desperately wants to be with his hot dog bun girlfriend Brenda (Kristen Wiig). Luckily, they’ve been thrown into the same shopping cart and their dreams are finally coming true. When an unexpected spill occurs, Frank and Brenda are left stranded in the store…outside of their packages. Along with a Muslim lavash (David Krumholtz), a Jewish bagel (Edward Norton), and a lesbian taco shell (Salma Hayek), Frank and Brenda make the perilous journey back to their aisle…as a villainous Douche stalks them. To complicate matters, Frank discovers the horrible truth about the humans.

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I walked into SAUSAGE PARTY expecting an absurd amount of profanity (it’s definitely there, but never to a distracting degree), food carnage (there’s plenty of that) and stoner jokes (which only filled two major scenes). This comedy goes to the extreme and delivers on different types of humor, all while giving a huge middle finger to easily offended viewers. Like some of the best comedic material out there (ala SOUTH PARK), nothing is off limits. Religion, race, sexual orientation, graphic violence, tons of swearing and (to a much more innocent degree) plenty of puns are utilized throughout the running time. Expect to be shocked and grossed out, but also prepare to laugh a lot!

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SAUSAGE PARTY’s script goes into unexpectedly clever, very dark places. What was especially shocking is the film’s mostly well-executed message about community. Though the not-so-subtle social commentary isn’t quite up to the level of the intelligence in something like SOUTH PARK, it’s refreshing to see a filthy R-rated comedy use its filth to aid the plot as opposed to mere shock value. Be assured though, there’s plenty of hilariously perverse material packed into the short running time. Food carnage only makes up a mere portion of the smorgasbord of laughs that can’t be unseen.

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Besides delivering in its story and jokes, SAUSAGE PARTY is also very well-made. The animation is colorful and vibrant, which makes every swear word, sexual innuendo, disgusting sex act and bit of graphic violence that much funnier to watch. SAUSAGE PARTY nailed the look of an innocent children’s film and then took a hard turn into adult-only territory. A talented cast of big names enliven the anthropomorphic food and hungry humans. Even smaller characters manage to make memorable impressions on the viewer.

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Seth Rogen’s Frank is a headstrong hero looking for the truth behind his existence. Kristen Wiig’s Brenda is a bun trying to hold on to her optimistic beliefs and serves as an enjoyable enough love-interest, though a couple of her jokes fall flat. Michael Cera’s deformed sausage Barry serves as a side character in his own highly entertaining subplot. Salma Hayek, Edward Norton, David Krumholtz, Craig Robinson, and Bill Hader all make the most out of purposely laughable stereotypes. Nick Kroll is a big highlight as Douche with a typical douchey attitude (excessively saying “bro”). Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride and plenty of other notable comedic performers also lend their voices to the film in smaller parts.

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SAUSAGE PARTY feels like someone watched a bunch of Pixar movies, watched Wienerschnitzel’s old Delicious One commercials, smoked a ton of pot and then decided to make a children’s film geared towards adults. It’s a hilarious time that serves as one of the biggest highlights in a rather lackluster summer movie season and a fantastically entertaining distraction from depressing real-life events. The writing is also far smarter than you might expect, especially for a movie that revolves around a sausage running away from hungry humans. This is easily Seth Rogen’s funniest movie since KNOCKED UP and probably the filthiest comedy I’ve ever seen. If this sounds like something you’d like, I highly recommend SAUSAGE PARTY…just leave the kids at home.

Grade: A

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

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

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Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

TRUE STORY (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Disturbing Material

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Directed by: Rupert Goold

Written by: David Kajganich

(based on a memoir by Michael Finkel)

Starring: Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Connor Kikot, Gretchen Mol & John Sharian

Jonah Hill and James Franco star in a movie that isn’t a comedy? I know. I was skeptical too, but that skepticism quickly washed away when TRUE STORY revealed what a heavy, depressing true crime drama it truly was. This is the most uncomfortable movie that I’ve seen in a while and though it has its fair share of problems, there are too many good qualities that I can’t not recommend it (that was a double-negative and those come into play during certain lines of the dialogue in this film). Before walking into the movie theater, I had never heard of Mike Finkel and vaguely knew of Christian Longo. Having now seen this film, I don’t think I’m going to forget either of these people any time soon.

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Mike Finkel, a reporter for the New York Times, recently falsified a big article about slavery in Africa and has found himself out of a job as a result. Christian Longo killed his entire family and wound up on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list as a result. It’s almost as if fate comes knocking when Finkel hears that Longo was arrested in Mexico using Finkel’s identity. Intrigued as to why an alleged murderer would be pretending to be a small time journalist, Finkel goes to meet Longo and the two begin to correspond. Finkel is granted exclusive rights to tell Longo’s side of the story…if he teaches Longo how to write. As Longo’s trial draws nearer, Finkel finds himself in morally questionable waters. By the conclusion of the trial, both men will be changed…and not necessarily for the better.

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I will address my problems with TRUE STORY before going into why I wound up liking this film. The movie takes a while to get going. The pacing in the first half drags noticeably and I could easily understand somebody finding the whole movie boring as a result of this. It certainly doesn’t help that we get too many shots of people looking pensively off into the distance for no reason other than to make the film seem more dramatic. Jonah Hill is slightly miscast as Finkel. He has his moments (especially near the end), but Hill occasionally doesn’t come off as natural as he probably wanted to be. It feels like he’s forcing himself to be in serious role, but wasn’t necessarily prepared for it. Of course, this might have also been hindered by the fact that Finkel seems like scum-sucking douchebag who wants a quick shot at fame again. The tone of the film is uncomfortable and that’s very appropriate given the icky subject matter. This is all treated with respect as the movie never explicitly shows Longo’s crimes, but rather alludes to them in disturbingly subtle scenes.

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With all these complaints, you are probably wondering why I consider TRUE STORY to be a good film. Well, there are a number of big reasons. Jonah Hill seems slightly miscast as Finkel, but James Franco is an absolutely perfect fit as Longo. He inhabits his role of this manipulative monster with skill and precision. We can see the exact moments where he gets inside Finkel’s head and proceeds to play with everyone around him. Felicity Jones is mostly underused as Finkel’s wife, who’s reasonably concerned about her husband’s new story, but has a couple of stand-out scenes. While the first half of the film drags and might be far too slow for some, the second half picks up fantastically. The final minutes of this movie are incredibly powerful and have a lot of commentary about what stories society chooses to focus on. Specific scenes from the final third of this film have been replaying themselves in my mind over and over again since I left the theater.

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TRUE STORY is far from great due to poor pacing in the first half, Finkel being an unlikable lead and Jonah Hill being miscast. However, it more than makes up for those flaws in Franco’s performance, an icky feeling of unease that’s present throughout the entire film and a fantastic second half. Near the conclusion, Longo tells Finkel that he’ll forever be remembered as “that guy who talked to that guy who murdered his family.” This movie does nothing to dissuade from Longo’s point. In fact, it proves that comment true without a doubt! TRUE STORY is a dark, compelling drama (with some flaws) that leaves the viewer with a lot to mentally chew on long after the end credits have rolled. This one comes recommended to true-crime buffs.

Grade: B

22 JUMP STREET (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout, Sexual Content, Drug Material, brief Nudity and some Violence

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Directed by: Phil Lord & Chris Miller

Written by: Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel & Rodney Rothman

(based on the TV series 21 JUMP STREET)

Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Peter Stormare, Ice Cube, Dave Franco, Amber Stevens, Nick Offerman & Rob Riggle

If anybody claims that they knew 2012’s 21 JUMP STREET reboot would be as good as it was, then they’re lying to your face. That movie should have stank to high heavens and the concept sounded like the worst idea in theory. Then Chris Miller and Phil Lord entered and churned out a pretty decent action-comedy. 21 JUMP STREET, though fairly predictable and almost wearing out its welcome, was a big success. The last thing anyone expected was a sequel, but 22 JUMP STREET is now in theaters and it manages to one-up the first film in every possible way. The script relies on an extreme amount of meta-humor and a mighty clever plot that goes out of the way not to repeat certain scenarios from the last film (hence the obvious meta-humor aspect prevalent in every frame of the film). 22 JUMP STREET is a very funny and wholly entertaining sequel to an action-comedy based on a cheesy 80’s cop-drama (you don’t often see that description, do you?).

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After a bust gone wrong, Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) are sent back into the Jump Street undercover program. Since their age is starting to show, they have now been placed in college to find the supplier of a new deadly synthetic drug (exactly like the first time, as their police captain so eloquently states) and stamp it out before it spreads across the country. The pill-based drug “WHYPHY” is extremely hard to track down. While on their supposedly simple mission, Schmidt falls for an art major and Jenko blends into the hard-drinking football-playing frat boy lifestyle. These factors complicate the dim-witted duo’s mystery of discovering where the drug is coming from and the identity of who’s selling it.

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Everything is a lot funnier and more entertaining this time around. This is the most meta-humored movie I’ve ever seen. One of the opening scenes in the sergeant’s office should let you know right away what you’re in for, because he’s pretty much describing the unexpected success of the last movie (right down to box-office lingo) in briefing the partners of their new assignment. Ice Cube, who got annoying as the angry black man stereotype in the first film, is given a lot more room to garner some well-deserved laughs. A few of his scenes had me cracking up to the point of near tears.

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The comedic pairing between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum feels more natural here too. Jonah Hill is essentially still playing the straight-man that he played in the previous installment, though he does get some comedy gold here and there. Channing Tatum is absolutely the funniest person. The friendship between Hill and Tatum feels genuine, even if it does get strained from time to time. It’s a good pairing, though I wouldn’t necessarily pray to see 23 JUMP STREET in the future (lightning probably won’t strike three times with this idea). A much-welcomed Peter Stormare shows up as one of the antagonists and gets some memorable moments. Another stand-out is Jillian Bell as a disapproving roommate who comes off as a very unusual comedic character in a lot of odd ways. You really have to see her performance to fully appreciate how funny she is. Plenty of cameos abound as well.

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22 JUMP STREET has a fair share of problems. These mainly revolve around some predictable through-the-motions clichés that do pop up from time to time. The movie makes fun of itself with some ultra self-aware jabs at even containing these familiar buddy-cop tropes. It still can get a little irksome. Also for the first half, I felt as if the movie would wind up on the same decent-but-not-great level that I found 21 JUMP STREET to fit squarely in. Then one key moment (you’ll know if when you see it) happens and the movie catapulted into hysterically good territory. The second half of the film is where things really shine, although the former does have it’s fair share of good jokes. Once it hits the successful stride halfway through, it never lets up on the laughs.

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22 JUMP STREET, much like 21 JUMP STREET, is far better than it has any right to be. It’s a sequel to a comedic reboot of a silly 80’s TV series. Things work out entirely in the movie’s favor though. This is one hell of a funny action-comedy. The first half has some solid laughs, but takes a little while to get fully going. The second half is where things went onto being downright hilarious. The movie is very entertaining and I can definitely see myself watching it again sometime in the future. Also stick around for the brilliant end credits that send the film out on the highest (most meta) note possible!

Grade: B

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Adventure Action and some mild Rude Humor

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Directed by: Dean DeBlois

Written by: Dean DeBlois

(based on the book series HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON by Cressida Cowell)

Voices of: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Cate Blanchett, Djimon Hounsou & Kit Harington

DreamWorks has been bringing impressive competition for Disney in computer-animated family entertainment. Out of their catalog of films, I would definitely say that HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is the best movie they’ve brought to the screen. Apparently, plenty of audiences and critics agree with me, because that first film has become acclaimed and made huge bank at the box office. It took four years for a sequel to hit theaters and was well worth the long wait to see this stellar sequel in the new animated series. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 manages to keep the level of high quality that the original had and bring to life a completely new chapter that’s unlike anything in the previous film. Usually animated sequels have an unfortunate habit of wearing out tropes that worked in the past, but DRAGON 2 takes some bold new turns. It’s a great adventure for the whole family.

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Five years have passed since dragons and Vikings have learned to live together. The village of Berk has become a wonderful ever-expanding place. With dragons being kept as pets and being rode in Quidditch-like games, everything seems to be working out perfectly. One-legged Hiccup and Toothless have taken to discovering nearby lands and expanding a map of what surrounds Berk. A chance encounter with a group of dragon hunters leads Hiccup to a familiar face from his past and brings the attention of vicious warlord Drago Bludvist.

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One of the twists that might have been genuinely (god forbid) surprising has been given away in nearly every piece of the marketing. This is just one of many ways that HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 expands the world of its predecessor and ups the stakes at every possible turn. The first film was excellent, but you could definitely tell it was a “kid’s movie” in the comical sense of humor that came through in nearly every scene. It’s a great follow-up, but DRAGON 2 made me forget I was watching “family entertainment” on multiple occasions. I don’t mean this in any sort of negative way, but I am saying that director/writer Dean DeBlois is more willing (or was allowed more room) to take risks this time around. He does and the emotional payoff to most of them resonates strongly. This is the first movie I’ve seen in 2014 where the theater burst into a round of applause when the end credits began to roll. It’s a terrifically exciting adventure that’s perfectly suitable for any age, despite heavier material thrown in here and there.

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Every memorable character returns from the first film and some get more screen time than others, but everybody is fleshed out. Two major new additions (one of which will not be specifically mentioned, even though the trailer gives it away) are also very well executed. The first film kind of followed the “secret friendship” formula of storytelling and there was no clear-cut antagonist (save for a massive dragon in the final third). DRAGON 2 introduces the intimidating Drago Bludvist and this is one of the best villains I’ve seen in an animated film for quite some time. He comes off as a little understated at first, but more the time spent on him, the more you understand what made him so cruel and why he’s such a lunatic. There was a good portion of the movie where I wanted Drago to die a horrible, painful as possible death because of how downright evil he comes off. That’s a very rare thing to see in a bad guy (especially in a computer animated “kid’s movie”).

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The visuals have gotten even better this time around and that’s saying a lot because they were really phenomenal parts of the first film. Everything is beautiful to look at and every landscape feels like a piece of art. The dragons themselves still come off as winged, scaly, fire-breathing pets and all the children in the theater seemed to love that aspect of it. Toothless is undeniably cute and I still wish that he was real, so I could ride him through the skies. There’s still quite a bit of comic relief thrown in and the story does go through some predictable motions (especially in the final act), but it’s an exciting ride that perfectly fits into this summer season saddled with a drought of family movies.

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I won’t say that HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is better than the first film, but I like them on equal ground for different reasons. This second installment is more mature, complex, and takes far more risks. It’s an awesome piece of family entertainment and shows that the series (third movie is already in the works) is blossoming into a maturity, kind of like the young central characters. Beautifully animated, surprisingly gripping, and braver than most of the family entertainment to come out in the last few years, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is a sequel that completely justifies it’s existence. It lives up to the first film and serves as a wonderful second chapter in a series that might go down as one of the best of its kind since the TOY STORY trilogy!

Grade: A

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Sequences of Intense Action and some Scary Images, and brief Mild Language

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Directed by: Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois

Written by: Will Davies, Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders

(based on the novel HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON by Cressida Cowell)

Voices of: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jonah Hill, T.J. Miller, David Tennant

With the sequel coming out in a matter of weeks, I figured it was time to watch the first HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. Based on the series of children’s novels, this animated fantasy film skyrocketed to becoming a huge success and currently lies within IMDB’s top 250 (no small feat for an animated feature that doesn’t involve the companies Pixar or Disney). DRAGON is the best animated film to come out of DreamWorks (with SHREK 2 as a close second). The story is enchanting. The humor is whimsical and enjoyable for all ages. The visuals can range from good to dazzling. This is a great family film and just a great movie overall.

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For those who don’t know the story, the film is set is in a Viking village on the island of Berk. This village is constantly under attack by dragons. These fire-breathing monsters run amok, steal food, and have been responsible for the deaths of quite a few Vikings (so we’re told, we never see any of these graphically go down as this is a children’s film). Hiccup is the misfit son of the village leader. While everybody in Berk is all brawn and no brains, Hiccup is skinny and constantly inventing new contraptions. He also longs to slay a dragon in order to make a name for himself. One night, Hiccup does take down a Night Fury (the most feared and mysterious type of dragon) with one of his inventions and nobody believes him. Instead of killing the dragon, Hiccup wound grounding it on a mountain. The Night Fury seems unable to properly fly away and Hiccup finds that he doesn’t have it in him to kill the beast. Hiccup and the Night Fury (named Toothless) form a relationship that could be doomed due to the Vikings’ fearful nature of dragons.

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The formula used in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON involves an awkward outsider keeping a secret under wraps from his judgmental peers. It isn’t completely new. It’s been seen in plenty of other stories, especially kid’s movies. What sets this film apart is how everything is executed. I never thought I’d see a movie that turned a dragon into a cute adorable creature that you wished existed so you could keep it as a pet. Color me surprised, because I want a pet Toothless of my own and I’m a grown-ass man who knows that dragons don’t exist. The visual style is a little shaky during moments, as if it wasn’t as fully rendered as it could be, but the movie looks gorgeous in other parts (especially in a couple of flight scenes with Hiccup riding on the back of Toothless).

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I thought the voice cast for the film, populated with a lot of well-known names, was impressive as well. Jay Baruchel isn’t necessarily what you would call a leading man, but he does have the voice for Hiccup and makes the character his own. Gerard Butler isn’t screaming “This is Sparta!” 300-style, but does play Hiccup’s quick-to-judge father and doing a fine job in the part. I did like the love interest played by (unfamiliar face for me) America Ferrera. As far as everybody else went, I could take or leave them. They weren’t too memorable or given much character development other than being detractors for Hiccup that gradually grow to accept him. It was pretty neat to see R-rated comedy regulars Christopher Mintz-Plass (McLovin from SUPERBAD and the well-endowed stoner in NEIGHBORS), Jonah Hill (also from SUPERBAD and KNOCKED UP) and TJ Miller (who starred opposite Baruchel in SHE’S OUT OF MY LEAGUE) in a kid’s movie.

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Though the initial set-up may seem pretty familiar in its general formula, I really enjoyed where the movie went in the daring conclusion and some twists sprinkled throughout. DreamWorks has a knack for going into brave places that Disney wouldn’t dare touch. It’s not that the studio is out-and-out aiming for an adult audience, but they are willing to take new risks and that’s something Disney hasn’t been willing to do for the last couple of decades. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON has a rousing and very exciting climax that had me glued to the screen and I’ll gladly sit through the film again multiple times in the future. I’m very much looking forward to the second installment to see where things go from here.

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HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is a wonderful film. It will entertain older viewers, while delighting children. Toothless is a dragon for the ages and I would consider him to be adorable. The story itself isn’t entirely unfamiliar, but it does take some risks and goes into territory that separates DreamWorks from Disney and Pixar films. The cast all fit their parts, even if a few members/characters didn’t make a huge impact on the story. It’s a movie that brims with creativity and has earned every bit of its reputation as one of the best family movies in the past 5 years. This is highly recommended, if you haven’t already seen it. If you have, then watch it again!

Grade: A

21 JUMP STREET (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Crude and Sexual Content, Pervasive Language, Drug Material, Drug Material, Teen Drinking and some Violence

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Directed by: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

Written by: Michael Bacall

(based on the TV series 21 JUMP STREET created by Patrick Hasburgh & Stephen J. Cannell)

Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Dave Franco, Brie Larson, Rob Riggle & Ice Cube

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have gone on record saying that their careers seem to based around making terrible-sounding ideas good. This is dead-on accurate considering that their other directorial work has included CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS and THE LEGO MOVIE. The idea of making a film out of a cheesy 80’s cop-drama as a comedy (which easily could have tanked at the box office) sounded pretty dire on paper. With 21 JUMP STREET, the pair go headlong into hard R-rated humor and do a decent job with it.

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In their high school years, Morton Schmidt was an awkward nerd and Greg Jenko was a popular jock. They met again in the police academy and became fast friends, helping each other out in the areas where they struggled. Together they became police officers and took down a big drug dealer…but forgot to read him the Miranda rights. Due to their mistake, Schmidt and Jenko find themselves transferred to an undercover department located at 21 Jump Street. They must go back to high school incognito to take down a new synthetic drug and its creator. Times have changed since their days in grade school and so have the cliques. Of course, this leads to one cop getting too deep in his fake identity, while the other becomes a bit of an outcast taking his undercover work seriously.

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21 JUMP STREET is funny, quite funny during some scenes. It nails that part of the film right out of the gate, which is not an easy thing to do in comedy. For once, Jonah Hill is more of the straight-man to the surprisingly hilarious Channing Tatum. Ice Cube shows up in a supporting role and does the usual angry black man making mean faces routine. His character even points out that this is a stereotype, but it doesn’t make this running joke any better. The actors playing the high school students were convincing and looked the right age for the parts. For me, the biggest laughs came in Rob Riggle’s character of an obnoxious gym teacher.

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Most of the humor works in pretty cleverly addressing what a huge transition has gone between the generational gap. What used to be considered geeky or lame has found a trend in being the new cool thing. What used to be fantastic modern music is now considered oldies. The emphasis on how far out of their element Hill and Tatum are makes for some solid entertainment value.

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Besides being a comedy, the film nails some of the action movie parts too. There are shoot-outs and car chases. They all have an added comedic sense that works fairly well around them too. One high-speed chase on a freeway had me cracking up and was probably my favorite part of the entire film! This isn’t a movie content to just play with a few curse words getting the R-rating and some cheap laughs. 21 JUMP STREET revels in the hard R-rated comedic material. It gets pretty hilarious at points, but during others it feels like the jokes wear out their welcome a bit (e.g. a scene involving tripping out on drugs that’s revisited later on in the film). The plot is fairly predictable as well. We know exactly where things are going and what point they’ll end up at. It’s a matter of playing-by-the-numbers. The script hits all of the requisite beats for a buddy-cop film, but the comedy works in the 21 JUMP STREET’s overall favor and slightly sets it apart from similar movies.

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21 JUMP STREET is a buddy-cop comedy based on a cheesy 80’s drama that is clearly in on the joke. That’s pretty obvious when you take into consideration one phenomenal cameo (well worth the long wait to reveal it). Jonah Hill plays more of the serious character as opposed to most of the hilarity coming from Channing Tatum (who does a surprisingly great job). The film is familiar and some of the jokes miss their mark significantly. Taken as an outrageous romp, 21 JUMP STREET is a good time. You pretty much know if you’ll like this one as you’re walking into it.

Grade: B-

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