T2 TRAINSPOTTING (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

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

Directed by: Danny Boyle

Written by: John Hodge

(based on the novels TRAINSPOTTING and PORNO by Irvine Welsh)

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Kelly Macdonald, Kevin McKidd, Kyle Fitzpatrick & Anjela Nedyalkova

Danny Boyle has been attempting to get a TRAINSPOTTING sequel off the ground for the better part of the last decade. He encountered problems in adapting Irvine Welsh’s follow-up novel PORNO, which didn’t seem to work as its own movie. His original plan for TRAINSPOTTING 2 took place 9 years later and this eventually transformed into 20 years. It was a risky move to say the least. Would Danny Boyle be able to recapture the magic of TRAINSPOTTING? Would the cast be able to come back convincingly as their unforgettably colorful characters? Would T2 serve as a worthy successor to one of the best films from the 90s? Well, T2 TRAINSPOTTING is a movie miracle because the answer to all of these questions is a resounding “Yes!” This sequel is every bit as great as its predecessor.

Two decades after the first film’s events, reformed-junkie-turned-thief Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s not surprising that Renton’s friends don’t exactly give him a warm welcome, because he did steal 16 thousand pounds from them and was living off of it in Amsterdam. Spud (Ewen Bremner) is still a junkie and has become suicidal, so Renton attempts to clean him up and channel his addiction elsewhere. Meanwhile, Renton finds a business opportunity with opportunistic scumbag Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) and his dominatrix girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Things seem to be looking up, but violent psychopath Begbe (Robert Carlyle) has escaped from prison and is hellbent on getting bloody revenge on Renton for screwing him over.

Over two decades have passed since TRAINSPOTTING’s release, but the returning cast members feel completely natural in this sequel. It’s as if they were anxiously awaiting the chance to play these characters again. Ewan McGregor is likable as Renton and attempts to turn his life around for the better, in the aftermath of many mistakes and disappointments. Meanwhile, Jonny Lee Miller is a perfect as Sick Boy. He’s both devious and very fun to watch. Ewen Bremner elicits the most sympathy from the viewer as Spud, who’s trying to kick his drug addiction for good and ultimately winds up with the film’s most heartfelt moments. Robert Carlyle is fantastic as Begbe, coming across as both a scary villain and a tragic antagonist (receiving a surprisingly emotional bit in the final third).

Much like the performances, TRAINSPOTTING 2’s plot feels as if this was the exact way things were intended to go from the beginning. That’s quite an achievement when you consider that Danny Boyle, Irvine Welsh, and John Hodge constructed this story from bits and pieces of two novels (TRAINSPOTTING and PORNO) alongside lots of original material. This sequel also creatively incorporates callbacks to the first film in ways that don’t distract from the proceedings. There are occasional echoes of the predecessor’s soundtrack and a minute of footage from that film is brilliantly brought into the proceedings. I loved how this follow-up was able to naturally connect to the original in a way that didn’t seem forced at all.

TRAINSPOTTING 2’s soundtrack is just as phenomenal as the first film’s unforgettable selection of songs. From a remixed version of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” to oldies and new wave tunes alike, I’ve been rocking this soundtrack on my headphones since I watched this film and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Though TRAINSPOTTING 2’s narrative is brilliant in that it furthers along these characters and ties up loose ends from the last film, Danny Boyle also seems to be having a field day with this sequel’s style. He plays with the camera in fun ways and seems to be outright experimenting in certain scenes. For the most part (much like the first film’s wild execution), it works damn near flawlessly. However, I have one gripe in that some childhood flashbacks seemed like a bit too much. It’s a minor complaint with an otherwise phenomenal film.

T2 TRAINSPOTTING is a rare sequel that works on the same level of its predecessor and serves as a brilliant companion piece to that film. Watching the first TRAINSPOTTING and this sequel should make for a fantastic viewing experience that I highly recommend, especially if you haven’t seen either of these films. TRAINSPOTTING 2 is an incredibly written, visually stunning, and deeply emotional experience that will keep the viewer thinking about it long after it’s over. Here’s hoping that we eventually get a TRAINSPOTTING 3 in another 15-20 years, though these two films make a perfect double feature.

Grade: A

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Graphic Violence and some Language

Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

(based on the novel NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN by Cormac McCarthy)

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper, Barry Corbin, Beth Grant & Stephen Root

Throughout their filmography, the Coen brothers have written and directed plenty of great films. It wouldn’t be a stretch to list them amongst the greatest filmmakers working today and their crowning cinematic achievement will likely go down as their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. This ultra-bleak cat-and-mouse thriller won four Academy Awards and is frequently listed as one of the best films of the 2000’s. As a fan of the Coen brothers, a person who frequently indulges on dark thrillers, and an admirer of cinema as art, I have to say that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is one of my favorite films.

In 1980’s Texas, Vietnam war veteran Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is hunting when he stumbles across a drug deal gone bad. Amongst the blood, corpses and bullet shells, Llewelyn finds two million dollars and one thirsty survivor. After he steals the money and feels guilty about leaving the dehydrated man behind, Llewelyn returns to deliver a gallon of water and finds himself on the run from very dangerous people who want their stolen cash back. Though gun-wielding Mexicans and a good ol’ boy bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson) are searching for Moss, his main hunter is psychopathic Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Moss and Chigurh find themselves in an increasingly deadly game of cat-and-mouse, all while aging Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) chases both men.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN has many amazing qualities, one of the biggest easily comes in stellar performances across the board. Josh Brolin makes Llewelyn Moss into a likable protagonist, even if he makes a few bone-headed decisions. The entire plot is thrust forward by Moss making one giant mistake and it becomes a blood-soaked cautionary tale. Tommy Lee Jones delivers the most restrained performance of the film as the close-to-retirement sheriff, who’s sickened by the increasing violence and crime of the world. The film’s title mostly derives from Tommy Lee Jones’s character’s sullen storyline and the plot’s heavier philosophical content is packed into his scenes.

Woody Harrelson is charismatic as the cocksure bounty hunter, while Kelly Macdonald is convincingly naïve as Moss’s wife. The film’s scariest performance arrives in the form of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. This lunatic kills unfortunate souls in unique ways (e.g. cattle-gun, handcuffs employed as a deadly weapon, sound-suppressed shotgun) and is 100% terrifying. Bardem’s deliberate line delivery and dead-eyed stare create a foe that’s simply hard to read, which makes him even scarier. Chigurh also has a twisted set of principles that are never fully revealed to the viewer, but we see life-or-death coin tosses and chance encounters that end on quietly menacing notes (the “do you see me?” scene sends chills down my spine).

Though its set-up is simple, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN packs in plenty of deeper meanings, careful background details, and parallels between characters that are likely to be analyzed by viewers in many different ways. The quiet ending (that seemingly arrives out of nowhere) is sure to throw a few people for a loop, but I really enjoy how it book-ends the film alongside opening narration that sets up the violence to come. As far as background details go, small things like wires that resemble like nooses in a convenience store owner, Chigurh’s cattle-centric main weapon of choice, and a phone ringing as a symbol of death calling come into play. There’s also one distinct scene that’s repeated between Moss and Chigurh that surely means something, though I’m not entirely sure what.

Besides being pure pleasure for arthouse-loving cinephiles, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN functions just as perfectly as a modern western thriller. The violence is shocking and the tension is so thick that you could cut it with a knife. Most of NO COUNTRY functions without a musical score, which makes the stellar sound design and every line of cleverly constructed dialogue stick out that much more. The film also takes ambiguous turns that let the audience fill in the blank. There are moments that may not suit every viewer’s cinematic cravings, but NO COUNTRY’s unconventional storytelling seems to work for a bigger audience than most arthouse dramas would typically appeal towards.

When I was in high school, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was one of the most intense books I ever read. Through sheer filmmaking prowess and careful eyes behind the camera, the Coen brothers masterfully translated Cormac McCarthy’s simple-yet-profound tale into a masterpiece of a movie. The suspense and fast-paced action will please those who want a modern western thriller, while the deeper meanings and carefully placed dialogue will thrill serious film lovers. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is easily one of the best films from the 2000s and definitely belongs somewhere in my top 20 all-time favorite movies!

Grade: A+

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 (2011)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sequences of Intense Action Violence and Frightening Images

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Directed by: David Yates

Written by: Steve Kloves

(based on the novel HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS by J.K. Rowling)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Tom Felton, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, John Hurt, Jason Isaacs, Kelly Macdonald, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith & David Thewlis

Though the decision to split HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS into two films still seems like a mistake on Warner Bros.’ part, this eighth (and final) film in the HARRY POTTER saga is cinematically spectacular final installment nonetheless. Sure, Part 2 understandably feels like the second half of a better whole, but that narrative flaw doesn’t have nearly the same impact in dipping quality that 2010’s Part 1 saw. Details from the previous films come into play, major plot revelations about certain characters come to light, and the HARRY POTTER saga comes to an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

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After narrowly escaping the clutches of Death Eaters, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) are searching for Voldemort’s remaining Horcruxes (dark magical objects that contain pieces of his soul). Their magical scavenger hunt takes them into the dark vaults of Gringotts Bank and then to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. With only three Horcruxes left and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) determined to kill “chosen one” Harry, Hogwarts will become the battleground for a massive confrontation. Prophecies will be fulfilled, truths will be revealed, deaths will occur on both sides and a final battle will decide the fate of the wizarding world.

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DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 is the exciting second half of a cohesive whole. This leads to some narrative issues as viewers will have to be fresh off DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 1 to fully appreciate Part 2 picking up mere seconds after that far lesser film concluded. There are only two major settings in this movie: Gringotts and Hogwarts. Gringotts Wizarding Bank was briefly glimpsed in THE SORCERER’S STONE, but Part 2 treats the viewer to a more in-depth look at the Goblin-run bank’s treacherous vaults filled with curses, elaborate security precautions and a show-stopping set piece that delivers excitement early on. As for Hogwarts, old places and familiar faces come into play as Harry desperately searches the corridors for a hidden chunk of Voldemort’s soul.

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In terms of spectacle, DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 delivers action that fans wanted to see on the big screen since the series began. There’s a massive battle featuring damn near every major character and supporting actor from the previous films, even Jim Broadbent and Emma Thompson pop in just to reprise their professors in the final conflict. The special effects and make-up work are just as solid as ever, though director David Yates occasionally goes a bit too over-the-top during final Harry vs. Voldemort fight. Though a tense wand duel throughout Hogwarts is stellar, a scene of Voldemort and Harry whizzing through the air like Superman is silly to say the least.

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There is no need to recap this final film’s many performances, because we’ve seen all these characters and cast members before. Nothing has changed in their greatness. However, I will say that there’s a sense of maturity in seeing these beloved characters and the series as a whole grow throughout the years. There’s something deeply satisfying about watching the conclusion to this eight-film-long franchise, be it from sheer nostalgia or fantastic storytelling. Voldemort’s speech to the tearful wizards and witches of Hogwarts is affecting. Two major plot revelations bring about the yearning to rewatch previous entries and cast a new light on the series as a whole. However, the titular Deathly Hallows once again feel like a throwaway subplot that’s merely there as a cheap plot device. Also, Alan Rickman’s Snape story arc delivers one of the most emotional sequences in the entire series.

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Would HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS have functioned better as one big three-hour film? I think so and it might have stood next to PRISONER OF AZKABAN as the best film of the series. Part 2 and (to an annoying degree) Part 1 both have scenes that could have been excised for a tighter, better film. I feel this finale could have functioned better as one long seventh movie. Still, in spite of being the second half of a whole story, DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 stands as one of the better films in the long-running fantasy series. Plot points are wrapped up in emotional ways with revelations that cast a new light on previous movies. We get to spend one last time with a large cast of beloved characters. The battle at Hogwarts also stands as the series’ most epic moment. DEATHLY HALLOWS: Part 2 is a deeply satisfying final installment to an unforgettable cinematic saga.

Grade: A-

BLACK MIRROR Season 3 (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 6 hours 32 minutes

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Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Alice Eve, James Norton, Cherry Jones, Wyatt Russell, Hannah John-Kamen, Alex Lawther, Jerome Flynn, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mackenzie Davis, Malachi Kirby, Michael Kelly, Sarah Snook, Kelly Macdonald & Faye Marsay

After two seasons of three episodes and a twisted holiday special aired in the U.K., Netflix picked up Charlie Brooker’s sci-fi anthology BLACK MIRROR and approved two new seasons of six episodes. Some fans were worried that this new incarnation of BLACK MIRROR might be too Americanized, but Brooker has maintained creative control and then some! No longer limited by the conventions of cable, this third season of BLACK MIRROR does a whole lot of interesting new things. Brooker delivers five new nightmares and one misfire. Without further ado, I’ll get into the episodes themselves…

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NOSEDIVE: In a not-so-distant future where people rate each other through their daily social interactions, this episode follows a young woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) trying to move into an upper-class neighborhood. In order to do this, she must secure a high ranking and a friend’s wedding seems like the perfect occasion to up her social status. However, not everything goes according to plan. With networks like Facebook, Instagram, etc. allowing strangers to “like” you, this premise seems a bit frightening and more realistic than one might hope. I was expecting the story to go into horribly dark BLACK MIRROR territory, but I didn’t expect this episode to come off as funny and heartfelt. It eventually becomes both of these things. These qualities never go to an overbearingly cheesy extent, but they definitely milks laughs and an uplifting message about true freedom in a world where life is a popularity contest. A

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PLAYTEST: An adventurous backpacker (Wyatt Russell) signs up to test an experimental virtual reality game. While the technology starts off as fun, it eventually morphs into something else entirely when a survival-horror game kicks in. Though the conclusion is flawed, this entire episode was chilling enough to hold my attention from beginning to end. Nightmarish imagery is employed to scare the viewer and a few moments legitimately made me jump (something that’s very hard to do in a TV show). Strong character development allows the horror to naturally shift from visceral to psychological with ease. Though the ending is a cop-out, it doesn’t dissuade from the sheer effectiveness of everything that came before it. If this episode had ended a few minutes earlier, it would have been perfect! A-

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SHUT UP AND DANCE: My favorite episode of Season 3! An awkward teenager (Alex Lawther) becomes a blackmailed pawn after hackers record him through his webcam. In order to keep an embarrassing video off the internet, the teenager goes through with their increasingly strange demands. This episode is among the darkest that BLACK MIRROR has ever done (it ranks up there with WHITE BEAR and FIFTEEN MILLION MERITS for me). Excellent performances keep us feeling sympathy for the protagonists and frustration towards those victimizing them. The ending (complete with an unforgettable use of Radiohead’s “Exit Music”) is harrowing, generates lots of extremely conflicted emotions and will leave the viewer with plenty of material to mentally chew on. This disturbing episode is the one that’s haunted me the most from this season. A+

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SAN JUNIPERO: In 1987, a shy nerd (Mackenzie Davis) meets an outgoing party girl (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in a strange town. However, things aren’t exactly what they seem and a timeless romance soon blossoms between them. The saving graces of this episode are attention to detail and a great soundtrack. That’s about it. I don’t want to spoil any plot details, because the connection to BLACK MIRROR isn’t obvious at first. However, even when stuff is revealed, I didn’t feel like this episode fit under the BLACK MIRROR label. Not every episode needs to be doom and gloom (see the bittersweet, heartfelt NOSEDIVE), but this was ridiculously cheesy and drawn out. I was bored and counted down the minutes until it was over. Though some fans and critics have been saying this is the stand-out of season three, it sticks out like a sore thumb for all the wrong reasons to me. It’s like a bad soap opera with sci-fi elements thrown in. This is the worst BLACK MIRROR episode I’ve sat through thus far. D

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MEN AGAINST FIRE: The second-best episode of the season follows a futuristic army in charge of exterminating mutant “roaches.” However, when one of the freaky creatures uses a strange device on a rookie soldier (Malachi Kirby), ugly truths begin to come out. This episode plays like an old-school TWILIGHT ZONE story cranked up to eleven with explosive action, a relevant message, and a bleaker-than-bleak final act that leaves certain details up for the viewer to decide. This diabolically brilliant piece of science-fiction would have made a fantastic feature, but for now, we’ll have to settle for a frightening, profound episode that stands in BLACK MIRROR’s top-tier. A+

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HATED IN THE NATION: After a reviled journalist (Elizabeth Berrington) is brutally murdered, two detectives (Kelly Macdonald, Faye Marsay) investigate an emerging series of homicides that are linked to social media. Unfortunately, the case isn’t nearly as simple as it seems and things spiral out of control. I hesitate to give any specific details away about this episode, because it develops over the course of 89 minutes. The Season 3 finale is not without a few problems, as the characters seem a tad one-note and the police procedural aspect is conventional for the first third. However, plot developments do go into suspenseful and twisted territory. Executed with a nihilistic attitude and strange (all too plausible) ideas, this final episode isn’t quite up to the same level as a majority of the series…but manages to be entertaining, compelling and intense nonetheless. B+

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BLACK MIRROR Season 3 mostly knocks it out of the park with five winners and one dud. The horror episodes are genuinely horrific, with the best easily being SHUT UP AND DANCE. Pretty much every story has something to say about modern life and our addiction to technology, with NOSEDIVE take a bittersweet note on what true freedom means. Though there is one bit of hot garbage in this third season, even SAN JUNIPERO has a couple of neat ideas that unfortunately become fodder for a cheesy soap opera. This third season is sure to please BLACK MIRROR fans and newcomers, even if there are a couple of episodes that aren’t quite up to the BLACK MIRROR level of excellence we’ve come to expect. A comedy, a horror story, a disturbing thriller, a corny romance, a dark wartime tale, and a sci-fi police procedural are all contained in this mostly stellar third season! Here’s hoping that 2017 brings a solid Season 4!

Grade: A-

TRAINSPOTTING (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Graphic Heroin Use and Resulting Depravity, Strong Language, Sex, Nudity, and some Violence

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Directed by: Danny Boyle

Written by: John Hodge

(based on the novel TRAINSPOTTING by Irvine Welsh)

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Kevin McKidd, Kelly Macdonald & Peter Mullan

In 1996, Danny Boyle blew the sensibilities of European and American audiences with this little film. In many ways, TRAINSPOTTING seems like the 90’s equivalent of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and that’s some high praise. Based on Irvine Welsh’s acclaimed novel, TRAINSPOTTING centers on a group of junkies through the poverty-stricken areas of Scotland. Though it could be an unbearably bleak experience, there’s a dark sense of humor thrown into this film that keeps things from getting too depressing. TRAINSPOTTING pretty much lives up to all the acclaim I’ve been hearing about for years.

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Renton is a heroin addict struggling to get clean with his junkie buddies. This proves to be a more difficult task than he originally imagined as hardships, failed attempts at romance, and sheer temptation keeps dragging him through the ins-and-outs of addiction. He’s not alone as his motley crew of mates (which includes dim-witted Spud, crooked Sick Boy, clean-cut Tommy, and psychopathic Begbie) all navigate through various ups-and-downs that life generally throws at everyone (love, death, financial hardships). The key difference is that this group’s ups-and-downs also involve criminal activity, constant use of heroin and a whole lot of tragic circumstances.

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The plot of TRAINSPOTTING isn’t simply about the viewer following around a group of addicts, because the film takes plenty of shifts throughout the storyline. These plot points range from downright heart-breaking to darkly hilarious. Sometimes, they’re a blend of both. However, the characters are what really sell this film. Though the movie mainly focuses on Renton (a star-making performance from Ewan McGregor), the entire cast is filled with colorful individuals. Spud (Ewen Brenner) is an idiot who finds himself in horrible situations (one scene involving dirty bed sheets is hilarious and stomach-churning), but there’s a genuine sympathetic side to him. Jonny Lee Miller is slightly underused as Sick Boy, but makes the most of the screen time he’s given. Then there’s Robert Carlyle as Begbie. This psychotic character is much like the Irish version of Joe Pesci’s gangster in GOODFELLAS. He’s funny during one scene and terrifying in the next.

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Danny Boyle uses a lot of various editing tricks (crisply connecting different scenes with different characters), colorful visuals, an awesome soundtrack (I plan on playing these songs on my iPod for the foreseeable future), and a gritty atmosphere. There’s this almost indescribable dirty quality to the film that lends so much to the nature of the story being told. This is especially present during key moments, including a toilet scene near the beginning. The mix of humor and serious drama works out well in keeping the film from getting too damned bleak and unpleasant, but not so much to negate the devastating blow of heartbreaking moments. Danny Boyle and the cast tackle all the controversial subject matter with unapologetic glee.

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If there is any complaint to be had with TRAINSPOTTING, it would be that the pacing varies from place to place. The film begins in a rapid fire way that had me wondering if these 94 minutes were just going to fly by and leave me wanting a little more. However, the film slows down significantly as the plot proceeds. One might argue that it almost gets down to a crawl in a stretch involving Renton and Begbie stuck in the same apartment. This being said, the movie never lost my attention or did anything that could be considered a fault in my eyes. The ending is so satisfying that it left me completely happy. This is a pretty amazing topsy-turvy flick about drug addiction, criminal activity, and friendship.

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It’s no wonder that TRAINSPOTTING became such a hit upon its release! You cannot necessarily narrow this film into one clear category. Shocking, depraved, compelling, disturbing, darkly hilarious, and downright awesome! There’s not much else that I can say about TRAINSPOTTING that hasn’t already been said. If you haven’t seen this flick yet, go buy it now (it’s one you’ll want to own in your collection, that is if you don’t already have it)!

Grade: A

BRAVE (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some Scary Action and Rude Humor

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Directed by: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman & Steve Purcell

Written by: Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman & Irene Mecchi

Voices of: Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Julie Walters, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Steve Purcell, Patrick Doyle & John Ratzenberg

Disney’s animation department has been upping their game recently (e.g. FROZEN and WRECK-IT RALPH). It’s highly ironic that Pixar (which used to be the biggest game in town as far as family entertainment went) has recently hit a decline in the quality of their films. In the last three years we’ve seen a bad sequel to an already iffy movie (CARS 2) and an iffy prequel to a good film (MONSTERS UNIVERSITY), but there’s at least been one semi-original effort. This was 2012’s BRAVE. It may have a somewhat creative plot, but the story strictly adheres to many ideas that proved somewhat successful in previous Disney efforts. In this sense, the film is a bit of a mash-up of other (in some cases, better) films. Pixar still appears to have some magic left, because this blended combination works pretty well as a good family entertainment.

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Set in medieval Scotland, the story follows Merida, a young princess bound to living by the traditions set forth by her ancestors. Despite Merida’s urge to break free and form her own destiny, Queen Elinor is bound to keep her daughter on the path of becoming a proper princess. Neither seem willing to hear each other out and their relationship, which was once so strong, has become strained. Merida sabotages a competition to find her suitor and the kingdom is thrown into disarray. Desperate for a way out of the impending marriage, Merida seeks the help of a bumbling witch, who casts a spell to change the queen. Unfortunately, Merida wasn’t specific enough and Elinor turns into a bear. With a limited amount of time, Merida and Elinor (who is now in the body of a bear) must mend their broken relationship in a dangerous journey to break the spell before it turns permanent.

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Taking visuals into consideration, BRAVE is a beautifully animated piece. Pixar has come along way from the humans in TOY STORY. Even though TANGLED and FROZEN both bear some similar resemblance to the designs in this film, BRAVE seems to have a more amazing three-dimensional aspect to the characters. Another notable point is that Merida does not bear the typical resemblance of what one might describe as a “Disney princess.” She sports a mess of tangled hair, lots of freckles, and is more active than most of the other Disney females. To put it bluntly, she might be seen as a physically active ginger wearing princess clothes. I respect this portrayal completely and think it’s refreshing. More Disney films, cartoons, and live-action movies in general might consider adopting more unconventionally beautiful (e.g. real-looking) people. Not to harp on it, but that’s a really admirable thing about BRAVE.

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The use of a kingdom in Scotland and myths that surround that location make for another refreshing thing in a kid’s film. I wish more family films would explore other folklore and legends that haven’t been used much. This doesn’t completely excuse the frequent use of clichéd plot developments and a few scenes that could have been cut or replaced to make a better film though. In essence, we’ve seen the formula of a rebellious princess taking a journey to correct a mistake and we’ve seen the idea of a person being transformed into a bear in order to learn a lesson in the 2003’s mostly forgotten BROTHER BEAR (of all things). A good portion of the story does follow a by-the-numbers telling of this fable, but there are some surprisingly great things that pop up too.

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One seemingly small detail comes back in a very clever and smart way in the last half. I’m not sure if most kids will catch exactly what it means in terms of the plot, but it was really cool to see things tie up in a smart way. There is a dark animal antagonist that may scare the crap out of younger viewers and I applaud Pixar for not dumbing it down. Sometimes, family entertainment needs a darker side to the danger, which only makes the conclusion that much more satisfying (e.g. the cruel villain in UP). In essence I might compare BRAVE to RATATOUILLE in the story being told is aimed at more mature audiences, but children will get a kick out of the more cartoony parts. It has silly moments, but the film is also complicated in points.

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BRAVE is not Pixar’s best film, but it is far better than some of their other earlier efforts (A BUG’S LIFE and CARS) too. It feels much more like an older Disney movie than a full-on Pixar film, which could be seen as something good or a bad. Despite the clichés and overly familiar points, this somehow works out very well in other aspects that haven’t been tackled as much (especially in family oriented fairy tale films). It is because of these skillful touches that BRAVE works far more as a whole than as a sum of its parts!

Grade: B

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