DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive, Continuous Teen Drug and Alcohol Use and very Strong Language

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Directed by: Richard Linklater

Written by: Richard Linklater

Starring: Jason London, Wiley Wiggins, Rory Cochrane, Matthew McConaughey, Sasha Jenson, Michelle Burke, Adam Goldberg, Cole Hauser, Milla Jovovich & Ben Affleck

Movies don’t always need a well-crafted plot or intensely developed characters to be enjoyed. DAZED AND CONFUSED is a coming-of-age comedy that flourishes on capturing teenage life and high school drama, all through the lens of 1976. The cast of characters is immense and the audience doesn’t necessarily receive a lot of time to fully “know” them as intimately as we might like to, but we do get a sense of who these kids are through their conversations and social interactions. Even though the script may not have a traditional narrative in following characters from point A to point B, Richard Linklater’s third feature feels like an authentic slice-of-life captured on film.

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It’s May 28, 1976. Lee High School’s future seniors are excited for a summer filled with underage drinking, philosophical discussions fueled by pot smoke, and an upcoming Aerosmith concert. Randall Floyd (Jason London) is a football player being pressured to sign a drug-free pledge that would alienate him from his friends. Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins) is an incoming freshman who’s trying to avoid being paddled by all of the future male seniors, one of whom (Ben Affleck) is particularly abusive. Kevin Pickford (Shawn Andrews) is a popular student hosting a huge end-of-school keg party. Ron (Rory Cochrane) and David (Matthew McConaughey) are two stoners who enjoy having pseudo-intellectual conversations about history, presidents, and aliens. Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi), Tony (Anthony Rapp) and Mike (Adam Goldberg) are three nerds looking to socialize. All of these subplots collide, along with a few others, over one school-free night in Austin, Texas.

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Seeing as the narrative is all over the place with many interconnected plotlines, I won’t necessarily analyze each and every one of these in-depth. What I will say is that all of these plot threads seem believable. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit to discover out that some of the scenes were taken directly out of Richard Linklater’s personal experiences. There’s an honesty in how the film progresses. Every scene feels organic and none of the interactions between characters feel forced. There are definitely plot threads that I wish had gone on a bit longer (Ben Affleck’s bully left the film too soon and a tiny bit of momentum goes with him). This is a minor complaint though, especially when you consider how well-written the dialogue is and the sheer entertainment factor, both of which are what this film thrives on.

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DAZED also has a solid cast of big names in early roles. I already mentioned Ben Affleck as the school bully and he’s a ton of fun to watch, but Matthew McConaughey steals the show as laid back twenty-something David Wooderson. With a perpetually relaxed demeanor and slightly quirky persona, McConaughey’s iconic stoner is the best character in this film…even though he receives far less screen time than his counterparts. Rory Cochrane receives a lot of laughs as the long-haired, conspiracy-obsessed, pot-smoking Slater. Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp and Marissa Ribisi all have good chemistry as the three nerdy friends. Other big names include Milla Jovovich, Cole Hauser, Parker Posey, and a non-speaking Renee Zellweger.

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It’s a bit depressing that the two main stars of this film haven’t really gone on to do much since this 1993 coming-of-age stoner comedy, those being Jason London as Randall Floyd and Wiley Wiggins as Mitch Kramer. That’s not to say that either of their performances are lacking, because that is in no way the case. Actually, Jason London brings a sentimentality to his story arc as his coach tries to force him to choose between football or his friends. Wiley Wiggins adds innocence to the story as the awkward new freshman experiencing his first night of alcohol, pot, and older girls. It might be argued that these two storylines shine above their entertaining counterparts and the film is all the better for both of them.

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The solid writing and good performances are capped off with a stellar soundtrack (Aerosmith, Foghat, Alice Cooper, KISS, Black Sabbath, and many more) and production values that convincingly bring 70’s suburbia to life (including bad fashion and nice cars). DAZED AND CONFUSED isn’t necessarily a straightforward comedy that’s loaded with set pieces and a traditional narrative. Richard Linklater wanted this film to be AMERICAN GRAFITTI relocated to the 70’s and I’d say that he succeeded on that front. Though certain actors definitely outshine others and I wish that a few plot threads had received more screen time, DAZED AND CONFUSED is a whole lot of fun. Even when the film seems to be wandering aimlessly, I was never bored. As a result, watching DAZED AND CONFUSED feels like hanging out with a handful of very good friends and should be enjoyed as such.

Grade: B+

BERNIE (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

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

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Directed by: Richard Linklater

Written by: Richard Linklater & Skip Hollandsworth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

PAPARAZZI (2004)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 24 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Violent Sequences, Sexual Content and Language

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Directed by: Paul Abascal

Written by: Forry Smith

Starring: Cole Hauser, Robin Tunney, Tom Sizemore, Daniel Baldwin, Kevin Gage & Dennis Farina

Paparazzis are the scum of the earth. There’s no honor or dignity in making a profit off harassing celebrities in their personal life. With this issue more prevalent than ever before, one might think that a thriller centered around these privacy-invading assholes could make for a weighty film with a lot to say. 2004’s PAPARAZZI is definitely not that film. This box office bomb/critical flop feels like it belongs in the heyday of 70’s trashy exploitation cinema. It’s goofy, stupid, ridiculous, and over-the-top on every conceivable level. It’s really bad movie, but so damned bad that it’s unintentionally enjoyable for all the wrong reasons.

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Bo Laramie is a fresh-faced action star who’s just struck it big. With this fame comes attention and with that attention comes the soul-sucking parasites known as paparazzi. When Rex Harper, a particularly nasty photographer, invades Bo’s personal space and receives a punch in the face as a result, Bo is arrested and forced to undergo anger management therapy. As if Bo’s situation couldn’t get any worse, Rex and his trio of nosy goons decide to stalk Bo and try tear his personal life apart. After their tactics go too far and result in a car accident that winds up putting Bo’s little boy in a coma, the newly recognized action movie star finds himself in a real-life thriller as he begins to take down these paparazzi scumbags one-by-one…much to the chagrin of an inept detective.

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PAPARAZZI can probably be considered the most unintentionally hilarious thriller to follow the likes of 1997’s TURBULENCE. It’s a movie so baffling that it makes the viewer question who on Earth greenlit this project…turns out that was Mel Gibson. Gaps in logic are seen all over the place, which causes the entire movie to rely on the stupidity of pretty much every character to make it function. There’s Cole Hauser playing a protagonist who’s about as wooden and one-dimensional as you can get. By the time he becomes a secret Hollywood vigilante, the viewer finds themselves not fully rooting for Bo as he reveals himself to be a total lunatic. The paparazzi themselves are laughably bad, including a washed-up Tom Sizemore as the main villain who isn’t given nearly enough scenery to chew. The most egregious excuse for a character comes in the inept Detective Burton who can’t seem to tie his shoelaces without pondering over the process for five minutes. A huge plot “revelation” in the final third showcases how astoundingly stupid this detective is. It’s almost as if someone watched Lt. Frank Drebin in THE NAKED GUN trilogy and found him to be a serious character, so they wrote him into a thriller.

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There are also nice little coincidences strewn throughout the script that help tie everything together with a nice little bow on top as well as minor moments that are plain hilarious. Why, after barely releasing an action movie, is Bo already filming the sequel to that film? Clearly, not enough time has passed to determine if that first movie was worthy of a franchise. Unless the film is based on superhero comics, I’m pretty sure that’s not how Hollywood works. This being said, PAPARAZZI is entertaining in an unintentionally hilarious B-flick sort of way. This would feel right at home in the 70’s alongside DEATH WISH and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. PAPARAZZI manages to be enjoyable in the “guilty pleasure” exploitation sense in spite of a PG-13 rating that doesn’t lend well to gratuitous violence.

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Mark my words. PAPARAZZI is a bad movie. It’s astoundingly inept in its stupid plot. However, there’s a somewhat redeeming quality to be taken out of that. The dumbass characters, ranging from an unsympathetic lead to paparazzi scumbags to an unbelievably inept detective, get their fair share of laughs that surely weren’t intended. The plot is woven together through a series of dumb decisions and coincidences. It’s a bad movie, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t entertaining in a really stupid so-bad-it’s-good way.

Grade: D+

INTERSTELLAR (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Intense Perilous Action and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Written by: Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Jessica Chastain, Mackenzie Foy, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, John Lithgow, Topher Grace & Matt Damon

INTERSTELLAR has been my most anticipated movie of 2014 and there are many reasons for that. The biggest of which is Christopher Nolan directing and writing. I love every single film that I’ve seen from Nolan. These include his DARK KNIGHT trilogy (RISES is actually my favorite of the three), INCEPTION, and THE PRESTIGE. INTERSTELLAR looked to be Christopher Nolan treading similar ground to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and that made me even more excited, not to mention throwing in a couple of brilliantly constructed trailers and promotional material that made me absolutely giddy. Now that I have seen INTERSTELLAR, I can safely say that it’s good, but far from perfect or even great. Part of my slight disappointment might come from high expectations, but most of it comes from the film’s problems that are too big to overlook. I repeat, this is a good movie, but you should temper your expectations walking into it.

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An entirely different sort of apocalypse is hitting Earth. It’s full of blight and dust storms that’s slowly killing food supplies bit by bit. Cooper is a former pilot turned farmer in these troubled times and things are looking bleaker by the minute. When he stumbles across a top-secret NASA base, he’s recruited to pilot an interstellar mission to another galaxy that might hold hope for survival. Aided by three scientists and a highly intelligent robot, the crew make their trip through the worm hole and visit planets that could potentially be habitable for the humans. Meanwhile on Earth, things are looking even more grim and Cooper’s daughter tries to figure out a solution for humanity’s survival by herself.

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INTERSTELLAR does a nice job of setting up this unique apocalyptic future. There are enough modern technology (cars, electricity) and customs (school, baseball games) to relate to, but there’s also addition of odd robots and severe dust storms that almost look like blizzards. I bought this world and the family living in it. A fantastical concept of time is made seeing as the intergalactic trip takes years to even reach the worm hole and time passes different on certain planets that the explorers are discovering. I didn’t buy a few clichéd elements that are fed to the audience later on in the film. Splitting the plot between McConaughey’s outer space adventure and the human struggle back on Earth mostly feels messy. Occasionally, one thread will flood the screen for too long and drown the momentum in the other plot. In a specific instance, Nolan cuts between both journeys at a jumbled pace. I was still interested in what was happening for the most part, but pieces of the story felt like they needed a little more work.

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As for the cast, there are a lot of big names. Almost too many and it feels that way watching the characters. Some people pop in and out of the movie without much thought to them. These include bigger actors with minor parts. One of the characters is so unceremoniously disposed of that it made me wonder what the point was of including them in the first place. The cast of characters feels crowded and major people are pushed to the side in order to further along the plot. McConaughey is definitely the best performer here with Anne Hathaway being another solid presence. However, Jessica Chastain is wooden and Michael Caine is absolutely wasted in a throwaway part that merely lasts for a couple of scenes of exposition.

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With all this complaining and praising aside, the film looks phenomenal and is further boasted by the always great Hans Zimmerman’s music. Spectacle used in bringing this new galaxy to life is hugely effective. I was on the edge of seat during numerous occasions in wondering how the characters were going to get out of the current messes they kept finding themselves in. If you have amazing looking worlds and keep cutting back to a dusty wasteland of Earth, the other planets become far more appealing to watch. I wanted to view the Interstellar voyage far more than someone trying to figure out a math equation to save humanity. This might be part of the reason that Chastain feels hollow in this particular film as she’s saddled with the latter storyline.

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The biggest problems I have in INTERSTELLAR are one particular plot detail (no spoilers) and the lengthy running time. INTERSTELLAR is almost three hours long and feels like its three hours long. I wasn’t ever bored, but there were moments in which I wanted a scene to move faster than it was going. A certain plot detail is brought up early on in the film that seems out-of-place for this sort of story and it makes a few more appearances throughout the story. We are given a full revelation of this detail and I had predicted what it was in the first hour. This bit of circular logic opens a noticeable plot hole and has been seen before in many other stories.

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INTERSTELLAR is good. It’s not great, spectacular, masterful or fantastic. It’s not even very good, but it’s just plain good. I had fun watching it and will watch it again in the future, but not in the near future. The overall movie is cool and highly enjoyable, but the plot can also be convoluted and silly. In the end, I felt like INTERSTELLAR was a three-hour-long glorified episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. There are merits and problems with that, but INTERSTELLAR is still well worth watching for fans of science fiction.

Grade: B

Derrick Carter’s Top 10 Films of 2013

List by Derrick Carter

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Trance, Ender’s Game, Simon Killer, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, Rush, Captain Phillips, Stoker, and Side Effects

10. Dallas Buyers Club

10. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB: This film may not be entirely true to the events that it’s based on, but DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is the kind of the movie that makes you re-evaluate just how you’re living your life once the end credits have begun to roll. Matthew McCounaghey and Jared Leto give two of the most heartfelt performances of the year. It’s not a movie that you’ll want to watch on repeat (mainly due to the fact that it’s a film about a man fighting an incurable disease and the war the FDA launches on him), but it’s certainly a powerful one. This is a movie that drained me emotionally by the end of the film, because I was feeling the same frustration at the injustice of how the characters were being treated. Excellent film and I’ll be surprised if both Leto and McCounaghey don’t get Oscar nods.

9. Maniac

9. MANIAC: 2013 was a fantastic year for cinema, but it was a bit of a pathetic year for the horror genre. The best wide-released horror flick was YOU’RE NEXT (which is missing from this list and isn’t even in my Honorable Mentions). There’s always independent and foreign horror to satiate the need to be frightened. MANIAC is a remake that outdoes the original in every conceivable way, whilst also adding the element of seeing the entire film literally through the eyes of a serial killer. What could have wound up being a cheap gimmick becomes a wholly disturbing and chilling experience that will leave you struggling to get a good night’s sleep for a long time after.

8. Place Beyond The Pines

8. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES: There are gripping stories, moments that shock you, and conclusions that leave you emotionally devastated. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES contains all of the above in a narrative that could be seen as almost an anthology format. It’s a story that follows three different characters that are forever shaped by the choices of someone else. Tragedy is one of the most accurate words I can pick when describing this film. Also, it should be noted that the final moments of the film (fueled with a haunting score) had me crying like the first time I saw AMERICAN HISTORY X.

7. Frozen

7. FROZEN: It seems like ever since Disney switched to the computer animation format, they lost the spark of what made their former efforts so magical. Gone were the musical numbers. The sense of timeless fairy tales seemed to be replaced with potty humor and pop-culture references. Recent films like TANGLED and PRINCESS AND THE FROG tried to recapture that flame that gave Disney films like THE LION KING and BEAUTY & THE BEAST. Somehow, against all odds, FROZEN winds up being the best Disney film in about two full decades. The songs are catchy and have stuck with me since my viewing experience. The script also gives memorable characters, while mocking certain Disney clichés and delivering a timeless, wonderful tale. FROZEN is truly something special!

6. American Hustle

6. AMERICAN HUSTLE: Capturing the essence of the 70’s from set designs, costumes, a very cool soundtrack, and Bradley Cooper’s unforgettable perm, AMERICAN HUSTLE told an intense and very entertaining crime story without ever delving into the ultra-violence that the subgenre usually contains. It was a bold move on the part of David O. Russell, but he’s crafted a fantastic film that let the A-list cast run loose and wild to my delight. This is a movie about people double-crossing each other and by the time everything begins hitting the fan, it’s unlikely that you guessed much of what was in store for you as a viewer (including one very neat cameo).

5. Gravity

5. GRAVITY: You can’t get much more epic than the setting of space itself and that’s exactly the canvas that director/writer Alfonso Cuaron (who held off on directing this film until technology was advanced enough to get across his vision) uses for this tale of survival. It’s spectacle, but cinema comes in many forms. It’s not all about important statements, human drama, character studies, or entertainment. Sometimes, a film just needs to be a ride and this is what GRAVITY was. A huge roller-coaster of a movie and I enjoyed it as such. It’s been a tad overhyped at this point, but GRAVITY still remains on my top 10 of 2013!

4. Worlds End

4. THE WORLD’S END: The final part of the “Cornetto” trilogy (also consisting of SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ) is my favorite of the comedic trifecta. Some human drama is thrown into this sci-fi comedy which makes for some unexpectedly emotional moments (much like in SHAUN), which in turn make the laughs that much more heartier. Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright have closed off their so-called trilogy in grand style and though it’s sad to see it come to a close, I can’t imagine a better way to conclude the so-called Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy. Jokes are brilliantly set up in advance and the chemistry between the cast is so convincing and enjoyable to watch that you may even forget there are robots that show up later on (I certainly did).

3. Prisoners

3. PRISONERS: Few movies have ever made me as uncomfortable as this one did. I was uneasy for the entire running time and for good reason, PRISONERS quietly builds suspense and keeps itself one step ahead of the audience. It’s unflinching in its violence, but also shows restraint when it needs to. Some of the more shocking moments in the film come as to what’s implied rather to what’s shoved into the viewer’s face. This script was supposedly passed around from many directors and tons of different casting choices. The end result is so flawless that it makes one wonder if how it even would have stood a chance with anybody else involved. Heartbreaking, intense and concluding in the most provocative way possible. PRISONERS is the best thriller I’ve seen since Fincher’s GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.

2. Wolf Of Wall Street

2. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET: Give Leo the award. Just give Leo the award already! The man is proving himself to be a chameleon of acting (in the same way Gary Oldman is). In THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, Leonardo DiCaprio skillfully slips into the skin of drug addicted, sex addicted, all-around rich scumbag Jordan Belfort. Far from an unpleasant watch, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is easily the most entertaining film I’ve seen in all of 2013. I haven’t laughed harder at a movie all year (the scene involving Leo and Jonah Hill high on Quaaludes is one of the funniest movie scenes I’ve ever seen in my life). The three-hour running time seems to rush right past, showing the best pacing I’ve seen in a movie this length. Overall, just see it. I loved this movie and it’s one that I plan on buying the moment it hits home video!

1. 12 Years A Slave

1. 12 YEARS A SLAVE: It’s pretty surprising that there’s never been a proper film depicting the horrors of slavery until 2013 (ROOTS doesn’t count). This is a heartbreaking movie that tore my emotions apart and had myself (along with a sold-out movie theater) crying heavily during multiple points in the film. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is the kind of film that you never forget once you’ve seen it. It will stick with you and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes required viewing during History classes for its unflinchingly realistic look on the dark stain in American history. The acting from everyone is top-notch, as is every single aspect with this film. I can’t say that I enjoyed this movie at all, because it’s not made to be enjoyed. It does show one man’s struggle to retain his humanity and survive a 12-year-long period in slavery. Hard to watch, but ultimately rewarding in many ways, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is a masterpiece through and through!

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 3 hours

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

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Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Terence Winter

(based on the book THE WOLF OF WALL STREET by Jordan Belfort)

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujardin, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner & Jon Favreau

Martin Scorsese is 71 years old. Let that sink in. In a time where most veteran filmmakers feel so content to play it safe or have taken a long fall from grace (cough, Francis Ford Coppola, cough), Scorsese has pumped out amazing movie after amazing movie. With the combination of his 90’s mafia classics (GOODFELLAS and CASINO) he seemed to have perfected a style in how to tell a story about real-life criminals. Even with his later films THE DEPARTED (a crime masterpiece) and HUGO (one of the best family films in the past decade), Scorsese never seemed to falter or lose his talent. Everybody has a few flops, but Scorsese’s amazing hits more than make up for some of his lesser work. Martin Scorsese has delivered a combination of dark comedy and white-collar crime that is nothing short of a masterpiece with THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.

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This film is based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a corrupt jerk who pulled off one of the most infamous money laundering schemes in the history of Wall Street. We open with a 26-year-old Belfort making his way into the titular Wall Street as a stockbroker. He quickly acquires the verbal tools of the trade and just as quickly finds himself out of a job due to Black Monday (a day when stock markets around the world crashed). Discovering the world of penny-stocks (loser companies in which the stock broker makes 50% commission), Jordan creates his own firm of an abandoned auto-body shop that blossoms into a full-fledged money-making machine. The film chronicles everything from Jordan’s humble self-made beginnings to his downfall in crime, drugs, and sex addiction. Instead of painting a bleak picture from the get-go, Scorsese delivers an impressively hilarious dark comedy that makes the three-hour running time fly by.

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WOLF OF WALL STREET is crude and very explicit. We do see many of Jordan’s sins which range from sniffing cocaine off a hooker’s breasts to abusing Quaaludes achieving such an extreme high that he encounters a “cerebral palsy” phase. This is a movie about a scumbag in every sense of the word. So why is it so amazingly entertaining all the way through? Well, we’ve seen plenty of other scumbags ranging from mobsters (Henry Hill in GOODFELLAS) to serial killers (Patrick Bateman in AMERICAN PSYCHO) and Jordan Belfort is far from the depths of evil that those characters were. Told in a certain style, nearly any story can be made hilarious and enjoyable to watch. This is the magic Scorsese injects into THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. It could have been a dark brooding downfall crime drama, of which we’ve seen so many, but WOLF is a frantically exciting and engaging. It’s by far the most entertaining movie I sat through in all of 2013!

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A director is only as good as his cast and it certainly helps that every single performance rings true to what was required of the cast. Jonah Hill’s character is a perverted lunatic who has no problem devouring a co-worker’s goldfish or marrying his attractive cousin, let alone introducing Jordan to a variety of new drugs that will forever make him an addict. Matthew McConaughey also is a foul-mouthed presence in the film for the first 30 minutes (which winds up being a sixth of the film’s total running time), but marks some memorable scenes.

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Of course, the real standout is Leonardo DiCaprio. This man has long distanced himself from being just a pretty-boy actor and really deserves the Oscar for best actor. He simply disappears into the skin of Jordan Belfort, frequently breaking the fourth wall to address the viewer (much like Henry Hill did in the courtroom scene in GOODFELLAS). He also proves himself to have a knack for comedy in this film, one scene of which had me in tears from laughing so hard. Leo owns the real-life character of Jordan Belfort and makes every second count of the 180 minutes on-screen.

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I could gush and gush for hours about how much I loved THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, but I’ll let the film speak for itself from here on out. If you’re a fan of Scorsese, you’ll absolutely love it. If you want proof that Leonardo DiCaprio can act his ass off, then prepare to be schooled. If you simply want to be entertained by one of the funniest dark-comedies in years, then you won’t be disappointed. This is one of my new favorite movies!

Grade: A+

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

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

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Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallee

Written by: Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn & Dallas Roberts

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is based on a rather incredible true story. Notice that I said the film is BASED ON a rather incredible true story, instead of that it IS a rather incredible true story. As with many movies that claim to be inspired by true events, the screenwriters took creative liberties with the script. So much so that they wrote in two supporting characters that never really existed. This might seem like a big problem from the point of view of someone who hasn’t seen the film, but it actually helps the movie as a whole. We need to remember that the film world and the real world are (and always will be) two separate entities. They should be taken as such. As a film, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB comes off as a masterwork of emotion and the power of what one will do to ensure that their life means something.

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It’s 1985 and Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) parties hard. By partying hard, I mean that he pretty much has sex with any beautiful woman that he fancies, chain smokes, abuses many drugs, and drinks himself silly. With this dangerous lifestyle come some risks and one of them rears its ugly head in a discovery that changes Ron’s outlook on life. After feeling sickly for a while and passing out at his job, Ron is taken into the hospital and diagnosed with HIV. Immediately shunned by his so-called friends and with an estimated 30 days to live, Ron desperately tries to sneak some trial drugs from the hospital.

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Of course, this can’t (and won’t) last forever, so he packs up his things and heads to Mexico where he finds some unapproved (by the FDA) drugs that produce amazing results. Seeing dollar signs at first, Ron makes a deal with the doctor and sets up a paid program. This Buyers Club, as he calls it, is a place where HIV-Positive patients can get drugs that actually work. Befriending a transsexual (Jared Leto) and confiding in a doctor (Jennifer Garner), Ron engages in an all out war with the FDA to keep his Buyers Club alive, along with his newfound friends and club members.

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As a testament to DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, I can safely say that I was engaged in the film from beginning to end. The two hours felt like exactly the right amount of time to tell this story. With such a time, the film never wears out its welcome. The addition of fictitious characters in films based on true events comes as nothing new (e.g. THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND). This is one of those cases where the addition of these characters actually adds to the power of this as a film, rather than a completely factual tale ripped right out of the headlines.

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These characters would be nothing without the talent giving them life. Jennifer Garner is sympathetic as a doctor torn between what her job dictates and what she feels is right (even if it may be considered unethical by her employers). Jared Leto gives an absolutely amazing performance as Rayon, a transsexual who quickly befriends Ron. Speaking of which, Ron Woodroof isn’t the most likable guy at the beginning of the film. He stars off as a redneck trailer trash hick and he’s highly homophobic to boot. We watch as his views change through the movie and he becomes more accepting of those radically different from him. It will be a crime if Matthew McConaughey doesn’t get a nomination at the Oscars and equally surprising if Jared Leto doesn’t get one as well for Best Supporting Actor.

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The mark of a good movie is getting the viewer involved in the what’s going on in the screen. It’s more than just watching the scenes unfold, it’s feeling the same emotions as the characters and the power that comes with them. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB excels in this regard. I was frustrated when Ron’s battle with the FDA escalated. On a side note, this movie may also make you think twice before taking any FDA approved drugs. That’s not what the film is about though. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is a movie about life itself and how people will dig deep in themselves to make their existence matter. It’s not only a phenomenal film, it’s also one of the very best 2013 has to offer.

Grade: A+

FRAILTY (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Some Language

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Directed by: Bill Paxton

Written by: Brent Hanley

Starring: Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Powers Boothe, Luke Askew, Jeremy Sumpter, Matt O’Leary

Thought-provoking and tragic, FRAILTY is one of those movies that plenty of people probably ignored on DVD shelves at their local video stores. It barely made its budget back upon release, though it has been praised by many critics. The film works as an unnerving unbinding of the ties between fathers and sons, as well as a horror film that is always stays two steps ahead of the viewer. Working from both behind and in front of the camera, Bill Paxton delivered an original horror film that will stick with most viewers long after its disturbing conclusion.

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Splitting its narrative between the 1979 and present day, most of the story is told through flashbacks. Fenton (Matthew McConaughey) shows up at a FBI building and claims to know the identity of a serial killer at large. When Agent Wesley Doyle probes further onto how he could possibly have this knowledge, he is told the sequence of events that took place in Fenton’s dark childhood. At points through these flashbacks, we cut back to the present to see the situation between Fenton and the agent progressing further.

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You may wonder what exactly made Fenton’s childhood so horrible. His widowed father is a loving, kind soul. His younger brother, Adam, thinks the world of him. That’s why it seems so out of character for their dad to burst into their bedroom in the middle of the night and claim to have received a vision from God. This vision told him that his family was chosen to slay demons that lay hidden around him. These demons look like regular people but are actually an evil that must be destroyed. While Adam is entranced with this idea and totally believes his father, Fenton is rightly skeptical. Their dad begins bringing home “demons” to destroy and things begin to intensify.

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Blending together a dual narrative, FRAILTY could have gone wrong in many ways. One plot could have wound up outshining the other. Even worse, the movie could have never really connected the dots at all by the conclusion. Luckily, the script weaves both the past and present together in a way that makes the viewer beg to see what will happen next in the other storyline as well as the one that they’re currently watching. Intricately connecting in ways that you might not even expect, FRAILTY leads to a series of unexpected surprises in its final act. These revelations make the plot much more tragic, deep, and scary than it appeared.

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Bill Paxton is simultaneously upsetting and terrifying to watch as a father who deeply loves his sons, but also thinks he’s been commanded to kill for God’s will. The struggle between he and Fenton intensifies with each passing second that they are on-screen. The commendable acting by a young Matt O’Leary (DEATH SENTENCE)  and an even younger Jeremy Sumpter (EXCISION) is probably the absolute best thing about the movie. It certainly helps that the material that everyone was given had some real meat to it and was far from the normal movie you’d see a child taking near center stage.

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There are a couple of things that hold FRAILTY back from being absolutely fantastic. These include some shoddy effects. Though the film rarely has moments involving the use of special effects, when it does (on two particular occasions), they look almost laughably fake. Luckily, they aren’t in crucial scenes and don’t turn the viewer away from what’s happening. Also Matthew McConaughey is really bland here. He’s usually a great actor (just look at his work in KILLER JOE), but he’s a bit wooden as the older version of Fenton.

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FRAILTY almost seems like a horror novel being visually told. This is not a problem in the slightest. The characters are well-developed. The twists the movie takes are unexpected. The atmosphere is thick with foreboding and dread. Finally, the story itself is original and clever. This is simply a really cool horror movie that you may not have heard of, but you should check out as soon as you can! Very much recommended!

Grade: A-

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