SUBURBICON (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language and some Sexuality

Directed by: George Clooney

Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney & Grant Heslov

Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe, Glenn Fleshler, Megan Ferguson, Jack Conley, Gary Basaraba & Michael D. Cohen

SUBURBICON is a film that sounds great on paper. You have a talented cast starring in a darkly comedic period piece that was scripted by the Coen brothers (two master writers/directors who excel at pretty much everything they touch). Unfortunately though, this script has been floating around since the 80s and director/writer George Clooney took a stab at reconstructing the crime-comedy to include some rather forced social commentary. The resulting cinematic mess tries too hard to be quirky and attempts to do to many things at once, resulting in a movie that won’t completely satisfy anybody.

In 1959, the small town of Suburbicon seems picture perfect. However, things are not as nice as they appear on the surface. Clean-cut family man Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) finds his life upended when two robbers break into his house and kill his wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Julianne Moore). Trying to move on with their lives, Gardner invites Rose’s twin sister Margaret (also Julianne Moore) to move in and curious son Nicky (Noah Jupe) begins to suspect that all is not right with his father. Meanwhile, an African-American family has moved into this all-white neighborhood and supposedly caring neighbors begin to show their racist true colors.

SUBURBICON’s biggest problem is a direct result from its troubled production. Apparently, this final product was the melding of two unrelated scripts. One of which is the aforementioned crime draft from the Coen brothers and the other was a drama based on the real-life experiences of the Myers family (a black family who moved into an all-white neighborhood in the 50s and faced endless harassment from their neighbors). The result mixes together about as well as milk and vinegar, which is to say not at all. There are two very tonally different movies in the space of SUBURBICON’s 105-minute running time and neither of them are particularly satisfying.

This film is at its best when it’s in full quirky murder-mystery mode. There are a few scenes that could only come from the twisted imaginations of Coens. My favorite moments easily belong to an over-the-top Oscar Isaac as a suspicious insurance investigator. However, he only pops in for two scenes that equal a grand total of 10 minutes. Matt Damon’s final bits of screen time are also great in a twisted way. There is occasionally good stuff within SUBURBICON. It just gets drowned out by the film’s overly familiar messy tonal shifts and a predictable narrative that seems like a lesser version of FARGO…but in the 1950s. The murder-mystery storyline also drags to the point where most of the interesting developments occur during the final third…as opposed to being a slow-burn tale that increasingly builds suspense.

SUBURBICON’s more dramatic side could have potentially served as its own serious film. However, it feels like a complete afterthought that just happens to take up a lot of screen time in this would-be dark comedy. Many of the Mayer family’s (not so subtly named after the real-life Myers family) scenes are appropriately upsetting. You’ll likely get angry at the racism on display, but it just seems so out-of-place in this film. These scenes belong in a different movie of an entirely different genre. A mixture of racially charged drama and murder-filled satirical comedy just wasn’t meant to be.

One positive highlight of the less-than-positive mess that is SUBURBICON comes in high production values that showcase a stylized view of the 1950s. Even if the more macabre moments rub you the wrong way (to me, they were the most redeemable bits of the film), you can’t deny that SUBURBICON looks good. It also makes this film’s poor performance at the box office stick out even more. If SUBURBICON were executed correctly, this might have wound up as one of the best films of last year and a potential Oscar contender. Instead, this is a mish-mash of uneven tones that don’t go together and will leave a lot of people disappointed. Good acting (the performers weren’t the problem in this film) and a handful of memorable moments aside, SUBURBICON is a huge misfire for Clooney and the Coen brothers (who clearly allowed their script to fall into the wrong hands).

Grade: C-

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, and brief Suggestive Material

Directed by: Taika Waititi

Written by: Franco Escamilla, Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost

(based on the THOR comics by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins & Benedict Cumberbatch

THOR: RAGNAROK is the third THOR film and the seventeenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the exception of 2008’s THE INCREDIBLE HULK, THOR was easily the weakest origin story in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. THOR: THE DARK WORLD served as an entertaining sequel, but couldn’t reach the heights of the rest of MCU’s second phase of films. THOR: RAGNAROK is easily the best THOR yet (not exactly high praise) and is a highly entertaining mythological superhero romp. While I don’t think this third THOR is nearly as awesome as some folks have been making it out to be, there’s loads of fun to be had and it’s a big step up in quality from the rest of 2017’s MCU offerings (including the vastly overrated SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING and the slightly underwhelming GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2).

Two years after the events in THE DARK WORLD, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has discovered that his mischievous adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has taken over the home world Asgard and his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has been banished. While on the journey to bring his dear old daddy home, Thor discovers that an ancient prophecy is coming to light and it might spell doom for all Asgardians. Unfortunately, god of death Hela (Cate Blanchett) has returned and seems hellbent on conquering Asgard. All the while, Thor has wound up stranded on a junk planet in the clutches of the cruelly kooky Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). In order to save his people from destruction, Thor must fight his way through gladiator battles, unite with old friends and new faces, and find a way to stop the seemingly undefeatable Hela.

RAGNAROK follows the usual superhero formula and is fairly by-the-numbers in terms of its plot. There’s an evil bad gal who’s bent on world domination, an ancient prophecy that might be fulfilled, and a story arc that must be experienced by our main hero that causes him to grow even more powerful. However, THOR: RAGNAROK does something extremely well that the other THOR films only did occasionally well. It’s funny, really funny. Not just in scenes that feature Tom Hiddleston’s Loki (who still remains a charming fan favorite) either, but also in nearly every moment. RAGNAROK contains more laughs than pretty much any other MCU entry, with the sole exception being the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.

Viewers who watch RAGNAROK in search of other Marvel goodies will receive those in spades too because this plot also serves as the best HULK movie never made. To elaborate further, Thor’s entrapment on the junk planet is blended with the much celebrated PLANET HULK storyline. Hulk’s inclusion gives Thor another hero to relate to and shows that Hulk can star in a great movie that doesn’t need to involve all of the other Avengers. Also, the end credits scene promises serious stakes for the upcoming INFINITY WAR (which hits next May) and Benedict Cumberbatch squeezes in five minutes of (very funny) screen time as Doctor Strange. Tessa Thompson adds a fresh new heroine to MCU’s mix as the hard-drinking, harder-hitting Valkyrie, while Idris Elba doesn’t get receive much to do as Heimdall.

RAGNAROK mainly falters in its big antagonist. Cate Blanchett’s Hela looks cool as all hell. Her intimidating costume design and weaponized black spikes that fly from her body are pure eye candy. Sadly, that doesn’t translate into her as a character though, because she’s just another bland baddie who wants to take over the world. I found her slightly reluctant lackey Skurge (played by Karl Roden) to be a much more interesting character and his story arc (though familiar) was far more satisfying. Hell, I even felt that Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster was a far superior villain to Hela. Grandmaster had an odd kookiness to him and still came off as threatening, though simultaneously hilarious. I guess I’m saying that I wish Hela had been more interesting and that Grandmaster had even more screen time.

If you are a Marvel Cinematic Universe fan (and you should know if you are by the seventeenth film in the long-running franchise), then you’ll find a lot to enjoy in THOR: RAGNAROK. The by-the-numbers plot may be familiar, but the hilarious, colorful and spectacle-loaded execution kept me smiling from ear to ear as the entire movie played out. The film’s main problems arrive in Hela looking cool, but being rather bland. However, Goldblum’s Grandmaster is worth the price of admission alone. RAGNAROK also injects a few much-needed risks into the MCU that will likely pay off in big ways during INFINITY WAR. THOR: RAGNAROK comes highly recommended!

Grade: B+

JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

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

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Directed by: Kevin Smith

Written by: Kevin Smith

Starring: Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Ben Affleck, Jeff Anderson, Brian O’Halloran, Shannon Elizabeth, Eliza Dushku, Ali Larter, Jennifer Schwalbach, Will Ferrell & Jason Lee

After starring as memorable supporting characters in four movies, stoners Jay and Silent Bob became the main players in Kevin Smith’s fifth View Askewniverse flick. Lampooning countless films, featuring a bevy of cameos, and resembling an R-rated cartoon, JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK isn’t necessarily Kevin Smith’s most heartfelt or well-written effort. Instead, this is a stoner comedy that focuses on being entertaining and funny. It accomplishes both of those things in spades.

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Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) have spent most of their lives peddling pot outside of the Quick Stop convenience store (from CLERKS). When pissed-off employee Randall (Jeff Anderson) slaps them with a restraining order, the two stoners find themselves looking for a new place to hang out. This leads them to a comic book store…which in turn leads them to discover that they are the basis for upcoming superhero blockbuster BLUNTMAN AND CHRONIC. Unfortunately, Jay and Silent Bob never received their big Hollywood check and, to make matters worse, anonymous internet trolls are calling them names. Jay and Silent Bob decide to travel from New Jersey to Hollywood in order to stop the film from being made…or at least receive some cash. This road trip leads the pair of stoners to a stolen orangutan, a group of sexy jewel thieves, a loose-cannon wildlife marshal (Will Ferrell), and lots of movie references.

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JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK isn’t going to win over anyone who already hates Kevin Smith. This film was tailor-made for Smith fans who already loved the titular pair of stoners/drug-dealers in CLERKS, MALLRATS, CHASING AMY and DOGMA. The film isn’t as grounded as CLERKS or CHASING AMY, but it’s definitely not as fantastically outlandish as DOGMA. JAY AND SILENT BOB plays everything as a goofy stoner comedy, defying logic and physics when it results in a laugh or furthers the plot along. I’d like to think of this film as Kevin Smith’s equivalent to HAROLD AND KUMAR before there was even HAROLD AND KUMAR. It’s JAY AND SILENT BOB GO TO HOLLYWOOD with lots of stupid humor, general craziness and tons of movie references. I can’t even begin to tell you how many movie references and big name cameos are in this film.

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One of my favorite moments lambasts the then-upcoming SCOOBY DOO flick. There’s also a hilarious chase through the Miramax backlot that’s more than a tad reminiscent of PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE and also serves as an excuse for plenty of in-jokes. My point is that JAY AND SILENT BOB is hardly original. The plot is a giant road trip and intentionally borrows from many other movies. However, JAY AND SILENT BOB is well-made where it counts, in being funny and entertaining the whole way through. Whether it’s three of the best fourth wall jokes I’ve seen in a film or the sheer absurdity of a romance between Jay and a hot criminal with a heart of gold (Shannon Elizabeth), this film just worked for me. Is it stupid? Absolutely. Is it Kevin Smith’s best movie? Not at all. Did Jay and Silent Bob really deserve their own feature? Probably not. Yet, this film still inexplicably manages to be funny and engaging for well over 90 minutes.

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It’s also worth noting that JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK predicted the future in regards to internet trolls bitching about superhero movies for the sake of bitching about superhero movies. The flick makes that into the main plot point behind Jay and Silent Bob’s nationwide quest to Hollywood, also providing colorful profanity and insults along the way. Though it’s far from Kevin Smith’s best movie in the View Askewniverse (I think that title will always belong to CLERKS), JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK is highly entertaining for Smith fans. Film references, gross sexual humor (one joke about a cup broke me into a hysterical fit of laughter), the screenplay’s sporadic craziness, and the buddy-pairing of real-life friends Jason Mewes (foul-mouthed Jay) and Kevin Smith (almost mute Silent Bob) make this film well worth watching!

Grade: B+

THE MARTIAN (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Strong Language, Injury Images, and brief Nudity

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Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Drew Goddard

(based on the novel THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir)

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor & Donald Glover

In recent years, space survival films have hit a resurgence on the big screen. In 2013, we had GRAVITY (which I loved). In 2014, we had INTERSTELLAR (which I thought was good, but far from great). It’s 2015 and now, we have THE MARTIAN. The key difference between THE MARTIAN and the other two aforementioned films is that this movie is an adaptation of a best-selling novel that happens to be directed by Ridley Scott. However, Scott hasn’t exactly been at the top of his game lately. In 2013, he disappointed with THE COUNSELOR. In 2014, he left audiences apathetic with EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS. Now, Scott has returned to his A-game. THE MARTIAN isn’t perfect, but it serves as a highly entertaining blockbuster.

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Astronaut Mark Watney is in the most dire situation imaginable. During a manned mission on mars, a freak storm causes his team to make an emergency evacuation. A piece of debris hits Mark and his captain makes the split-second decision to leave him for dead. However, Mark is not dead. In fact, he’s very much alive and now trapped on a uninhabitable planet, while his unaware crew members fly back home. All is not lost though as Mark has useful equipment left on the planet as well as a ground lab and a food/water supply. However, this won’t be enough to last four years (which is when the next possible NASA mission will arrive). Mark frantically does his best to (in his words) “science the shit out of this thing,”  all while NASA becomes very aware of the situation and scramble to rescue Watney.

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THE MARTIAN excels in making the viewer feel for Watney’s plight. Everything that can possibly go wrong does. You just can’t help but feel frustration at every hurdle the universe seems to be throwing Watney’s way. The atmosphere of desperation doesn’t exactly dampen any of the entertainment value to be had here. This is a really fun movie that’s meant to be taken more as an entertaining sci-fi flick rather than a realistic survival story. I say this because THE MARTIAN gets increasingly ridiculous during its third act. At this point, we’ve accepted that Mark can grow food in Martian soil and create his own water through a recipe, but there are definite moments that almost seem a little too over-the-top and far-fetched.

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Matt Damon is perfect as Mark Watney. He’s a likable presence and seems to have a constant sense of humor in the face of his dire predicament. For viewers who aren’t so science-savvy (including yours truly), there’s no need to worry about getting lost in the techno-babble of Mark’s actions, because he provides a constant commentary and explanation in his video logs. This also serves as an ingenious plot device to get dialogue out of a character who’s the only person on an entire planet. Jessica Chastain is usually solid in whatever role she takes on and there’s no change here. It almost felt like she was playing Murph from INTERSTELLAR as an astronaut, so that has to count for something. Michael Pena, Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan all do well in the side parts of Mark’s other crew members. Meanwhile, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor serve as NASA agents trying to bring Watney home, while Jeff Daniels is the closest thing this film has to an antagonist. The only performance that comes out of left field is Donald Glover serving as comic relief combined with a plot device instead of an actual character.

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As far as spectacle goes, THE MARTIAN looks fantastic. Ridley Scott is no stranger to bringing other worlds to life on film, whether it be ALIEN or PROMETHEUS, and he does the same with the barren, crater-laden landscape of Mars in this film. None of the effects struck me as cheap or cheesy. Every piece of spectacle also serves a purpose and isn’t merely there to wow the audience. For a movie running at over two hours, the story feels very well paced and moves by quickly, save for a somewhat pointless epilogue.

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THE MARTIAN marks another thrilling space adventure in the world of cinema. It’s also a return to form for Ridley Scott (who’s been down and out for the past two years). The performances are all enjoyable. The spectacle is spectacular. The film provides a lot of entertainment combined with desperation. The story strays into a couple of silly areas during the final third, but remains an entertaining blast nonetheless. THE MARTIAN is a surefire crowd-pleaser!

Grade: A-

DOGMA (1999)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Language including Sex-Related Dialogue, Violence, Crude Humor and some Drug Content

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Directed by: Kevin Smith

Written by: Kevin Smith

Starring: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino, Chris Rock, Salma Hayek, Alan Rickman, Jason Lee, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith & George Carlin

When one thinks of Kevin Smith, the first thoughts are probably dick jokes and iconic stoner pals: Jay and Silent Bob. DOGMA has those, but it also has a lot more than I initially expected. After years of this flick being recommended by friends, I thought this was going to be Kevin Smith skewing religion with his usually dirty sense of humor. Instead, DOGMA comes off as a sort of fantasy comedy that is both funny and oddly sweet. The content might border on offensive (the image of Buddy Christ has become a meme by now), but it also has a super rare quality of being so clever and creative that it should please both skeptics and believers. DOGMA is one of Smith’s best films.

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Bethany Sloane seems like the last person God would call on to take a holy pilgrimage. Bethany goes to church purely out of habit, but has little faith in God. To be even more ironic, she works at an abortion clinic. Nevertheless, Metatron (the voice of God) informs her that she is go on a quest that all existence hinges on. Thanks to a recent loophole, two fallen angels (Loki and Bartleby) might have found a way back into heaven and it’s up to Bethany to stop them from reaching the gateway in New Jersey (of all places). Aided by the black unknown thirteenth apostle, the stripper Serendipity, and two prophets (Jay and Silent Bob), Bethany races against time to stop these two fallen angels from ruining all of existence.

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DOGMA is a crazy movie that manages to be sweet, silly, and crude all at the same time. The plot is extremely detailed, throwing in lots of mythological figures and Catholic beliefs together for a wild ride. Seeing as this is ultimately about a reluctant heroine hired by the voice of God to stop two evil angels, you might expect some violence, but DOGMA has more than its fair share of that. This film can be pretty bloody at points and Smith never once loses the sense to keep everything light-hearted.

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The film is loaded with a strong cast given colorful roles. Bethany (Linda Florentino) is a surprisingly compelling lead and one of the stronger heroines I’ve seen in a film of this type. Of course, there’s Jay and Silent Bob as main characters this time around. These are arguably the funniest moments of Jay and Silent Bob in the View Askewniverse (a fictional universe that also holds the CLERKS films and MALLRATS). Then there’s Ben Affleck and Matt Damon playing Bartleby and Loki. The pair play well off each other and that should come as no surprise given their film history at that point. These two make for some interesting villains as they aren’t necessarily all-out bad guys. They do kill people, but there are stipulations (they have to be semi-serious sinners) and there’s real motivation as to why they’d want to return to heaven (that doesn’t involve destroying the universe). Chris Rock is funny as the thirteenth apostle, Salma Hayek is a tad underused as Serendipity, and the same goes for Jason Lee as a demon. The big stand-outs (at least for me) are a sarcastic Alan Rickman as the voice of God and George Carlin in the side role as a business-driven Cardinal.

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The film does feel a little long and this is primarily due to a couple of unneeded scenes that were almost as if Kevin Smith was working backwards from the cool story he had built. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the inclusion of a poop monster. This scene served next to no purpose and supplied more than all of the potty humor the film needed. The frantic details being thrown at the viewer in the opening might be a little hard to follow, but everything connects and makes sense as the rest of the film plays out. I was surprised at how well Smith executed emotional scenes, including one stand-out moment before the final third starts. This scene didn’t feel like it even came from Smith and that’s a huge compliment, because it was absent of humor and had a touching side to it. It only served to make the rest of the film more entertaining and interesting.

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The biggest accomplishment that DOGMA pulls off is that it’s a fantastic comedy that should please both atheists and the religious (at least, those with a sense of humor) for similar reasons. It pokes fun at the mythology and beliefs of religion, but also doesn’t condemn it. This is a well-written film that ranks as one of Kevin Smith’s best works. Those afraid that DOGMA is sacrilegious should have their fears put to rest. Smith addresses that concern early on by pointing out that God clearly has a sense of humor. Just look at sex and the platypus.

Grade: A-

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