POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 26 minutes

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

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Directed by: Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone

Written by: Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone

Starring: Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, Sarah Silverman, Tim Meadows, Imogen Poots, Bill Hader, Joan Cusack, Maya Rudolph, Will Arnett, Mike Birbiglia, Martin Sheen, Snoop Dogg & Will Forte

The Lonely Island is a trio of comedians/writers who made it big on Saturday Night Live and have already visited the big screen with 2007’s so-stupid-it’s-funny HOT ROD. Though they’ve found success separately (on film) and together (in three albums), it’s been nearly a decade since The Lonely Island made their big screen debut…and now they’re back with this spot-on mockumentary! Placing its fingers firmly on the jugular of modern pop culture and the pop music industry, POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING is sure to please Lonely Island fans and people with a strange sense of humor (both usually fall under the same demographic).

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Meet Conner4real. Formerly a member of the musical trio known as the Style Boyz, Conner broke off into a worldwide solo sensation and gained an enormous fanbase with his first record. When his hotly anticipated second album ConnQuest receives negative reviews and dwindling sales, Conner resorts to desperate stage gimmicks and press antics to keep himself relevant. We watch as Conner’s career flies off the deep end and his pompous attitude begins to get the better of him. As you might imagine, it’s highly entertaining, surprisingly thirst-quenching, and very funny to behold.

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It should come as no surprise that POPSTAR is essentially spoofing Justin Bieber and I won’t deny that it’s well deserved. The title itself a is direct riff on the musical doc JUSTIN BIEBER: NEVER SAY NEVER and there are plenty of nods to stupid actions that the real-life spoiled star has committed throughout his career. However, Bieber isn’t the only target here, because POPSTAR takes on the pop music industry and petty celebrity culture as a whole. There’s a side character who’s essentially Kanye West, gags about three different reality shows clashing, and a gossip show called CMZ (wonder what that could possibly be making fun of). POPSTAR isn’t exactly subtle in its targets or jokes, because this spoof is devouring easy prey to begin with.

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These gags and characters are all executed by a massive cast of big faces, some of which were complete surprises (I won’t spoil those appearances). Besides The Lonely Island (as Conner4Real, his DJ, and his former bandmate), this film has a ton of colorful side characters played by the likes of Sarah Silverman, Tim Meadows, Bill Hader, Joan Cusack, Maya Rudolph, Will Arnett, Mike Birbiglia, and Will Forte. Celebrity cameos/interview segments feature Simon Cowell, RZA, 50 Cent, Pink, Ringo Starr and many more. There are simply too many to list and they’re all crammed into 86 minutes of fun. Seeing as this ensemble cast of comedic and musical talent is so large, certain roles outshine others. As funny as Bill Hader’s flatlining roadie and Joan Cusack’s cocaine-snorting mother are, their presence is limited to scenes that have already been given away in the marketing. Will Arnett is a huge highlight as the obnoxious CMZ host, so be sure to stay through the credits for an extra scene of him.

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The Lonely Island are a musical group and comedic troupe, so they’ve put together a mighty hilarious soundtrack for POPSTAR. With songs about the Mona Lisa being overrated, an obnoxious number about being humble, and songs that tackle social issues in terribly misguided ways, POPSTAR’s songs are horribly offensive, absolutely hilarious and genuinely well put together. One particular music video had me close to crying from laughing so hard. It’s safe to say that The Lonely Island knew precisely what they were doing when they got behind the camera and in front of it for this feature.

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The documentary-style storytelling greatly benefits POPSTAR as a whole. The film cuts together interviews, Snapchat/Youtube videos, news reports, footage from Conner’s concerts, and his day-to-day life. This results in a structure that’s legitimately interesting to watch, even when the material veers into predictable and sentimental territory towards the ending. In a decade or so, POPSTAR might be looked back on as a painfully funny reminder to how ludicrous both the pop culture and pop music scene were in the 2010’s.

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POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING is a silly, highly entertaining ride that had me giggling like an idiot from beginning to end. The film can be a tad too predictable at times and nearly overstays it’s under 90-minute running time, but I had a blast watching this film and imagine that fans of silly comedy will likely have a similar experience. The soundtrack is great. The laughs range from small visual gags to over-the-top set pieces. The mockumentary style lends itself perfectly to the material. POPSTAR is to music documentaries what 2007’s WALK HARD was to dramatic music biopics!

Grade: B+

TRAINWRECK (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes

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

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Directed by: Judd Apatow

Written by: Amy Schumer

Starring: Amy Schumer, Tilda Swinton, Bill Hader, John Cena, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn & LeBron James

Romantic comedies aren’t exactly the kind of films that can majorly change over time. You have two people who fall in love with each other before encountering turbulence in their relationship that threatens to separate them before eventually reuniting and rekindling their affection for each other. It’s a well-known, often-used formula that’s associated with rom-coms and chick flicks. While TRAINWRECK doesn’t buck that decades-old trend, it happens to be directed by Judd Apatow (the man behind KNOCKED UP, one of my favorite rom-coms) and was penned and stars Amy Schumer. So with a hard R rating and crude sensibilities, TRAINWRECK should more than please couples who enjoy dirty-minded comedy with a soft side. It’s that sort of movie.

TRAINWRECK, Amy Schumer (left), 2015. ©Universal Pictures

Ever since she was a child, Amy was hammered with the idea that monogamy wasn’t realistic. As result, Amy has grown into a loose, heavy-drinking, drug-using writer working for a tabloid magazine. She’s never had a committed relationship, because she never thought that lifestyle was for her. This all changes when she’s assigned to write an article on sports doctor Aaron. Aaron is the polar opposite of Amy. He’s a conservative, nerdy guy and hopeless romantic. Somehow, Amy and Aaron hit it off well during an interview and go out for dinner. Dinner turns into drinks and drinks turns into sleeping together. Aaron has fallen head over heels for Amy and she’s trying to cope with the fact that she’s finally found someone she loves. That’s the set up and it’s not exactly hard to guess where the film goes from there, but it’s highly entertaining to watch.

TRAINWRECK, from left: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, 2015. ©Universal Pictures

TRAINWRECK isn’t exactly immune from clichés of the rom-com formula, but openly mocks them as it goes along. The screenplay is especially impressive seeing that it’s the first actual full-length narrative that Schumer has written as her past work consists of skits and stand-up comedy. It definitely helps if you like her material (and I do) as her crude sense of humor and talent both translate well onto the screen. The movie throws in a lot of fun plot details and manages to get a lot of mileage out of them. A ton of laughs come from Amy’s job at the Tabloid magazine (especially her mentoring an oddball intern) and frequent conversations with a homeless man on her street. As crude and lewd as TRAINWRECK can be, the film has a definite sweet side as well. A lot of the movie hinges on Schumer’s performance and she brings her character to the screen very well. In other hands, this character could have been downright despicable and unlikable on all fronts. However, we realize she’s a damaged woman with a lot of baggage. Watching her journey is an enjoyable experience, even when you don’t agree with her actions.

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As far as the rest of the cast goes, everyone else delivers in their parts. Bill Hader (who has been on a roll lately with THE SKELETON TWINS and INSIDE OUT) plays Aaron as someone we can sympathize with. While he’s not so much of the focus of the film as Amy is, the two have good chemistry together as a couple. Meanwhile, LeBron James is hilarious as an exaggerated version of himself. Brie Larson is great as Amy’s polar opposite sister and Mike Birbiglia is well-cast as said sister’s husband. I was surprised by John Cena’s performance. I haven’t seen him in much (besides the godawful MARINE), but Cena impressed as Amy’s ultra-sensitive beefcake fling. He’s not a huge character, but makes the most of every scene he’s given. The biggest problem in TRAINWRECK comes with pretty much every Apatow comedy of late. The running time is too long. It’s not enough to dissuade anybody from watching this movie, but there are scenes that definitely could have been removed entirely and nothing would be missed (e.g. one useless montage and an “intervention” scene that only serves as an excuse for a few cameos). It feels like TRAINWRECK definitely could have benefitted from more time in the cutting room.

TRAINWRECK, from bottom: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, 2015. ©Universal Pictures

TRAINWRECK is a dirty-minded, foul-mouthed rom-com with a heart of gold. Much like KNOCKED UP, the movie feels very honest in spite of its unavoidable clichés. Amy Schumer’s script is well-written and her performance is dramatically different from what you might expect from her. The film is definite date-night material for couples who happen to love Schumer’s comedy. You could do far, far worse in the chick flick department. Dare I call TRAINWRECK the best chick flick I’ve seen in a long time. I think I shall. If it sounds up your alley, give it watch!

Grade: B+

SLEEPWALK WITH ME (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Sexual Content and brief Language

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Directed by: Mike Birbiglia

Written by: Mike Birbiglia, Ira Glass, Joe Birbiglia & Seth Barrish

Starring: Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, Carol Kane, James Rebhorn, Cristin Milioti, Aya Cash, David Wain & Kristen Schaal

If you’re a fan of Mike Birbiglia’s stand-up, then you’ll most likely be a fan of SLEEPWALK WITH ME. This self-depreciating comedian has a way about making his everyday occurrences and downbeat life experiences into something that you can both laugh about and sympathize with. Birbiglia manages to transfer that quality into his directorial debut in which he stood behind the camera, co-wrote the script (basing it off his own life), and acted in the role of the main character. There’s a genuine and soft-spoken honesty in SLEEPWALK that feels refreshing and wholly enjoyable. It might not be for everybody, but if you like laughs with a dose of sad reality, then you’ll probably enjoy SLEEPWALK WITH ME.

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Matt Pandamiglio is a struggling stand-up comedian trying to carve a solid career out of making people laugh. Through much failure and a side job as a bartender, Matt is slowly making his way up the comedy totem pole. This is coming at a price though. Due to a huge amount of anxiety, Matt finds himself suffering from severe sleepwalking spells that are getting increasingly worse. His stress mainly stems from his own struggling relationship with long-time girlfriend Abby, which has been placed on especially rocky waters by a recent wedding in the family. Matt finds himself turning his relationship struggles into laughs on the stage, but also finds himself on a venture of self-discovery.

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Mike Birbiglia is playing himself as Matt Pandamiglio. Every experience, bit of storytelling, and joke on the screen is coming from Birbiglia’s own life and stand up. He’s shared these stories on stage before and proven himself capable of telling them in a highly entertaining manner. While that works perfectly on the stage, one may have their doubts about Birbiglia breaking into the cinematic medium. However, this stand-up comedian turned director/actor has managed to incorporate his subdued style of humor in a way that lends well to this visual storytelling format for the most part. There are bits and pieces of dialogue that were clearly meant to get a laugh, but don’t necessarily translate as well onto the screen (though they’re hilarious in his stand-up). Matt isn’t exactly the most likable character, but he’s a realistic and compelling one in spite of his faults (which he clearly addresses from beginning to end).

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SLEEPWALK WITH ME really deserves kudos on the realistic stance in how it approaches the life of a stand-up comedian. For every big name that breaks into the mainstream or even gains a cult following, there are hundreds of little folks who will never be successful in a career of making people laugh. Just YouTube comedians and you’re bound to hit at least a thousand names that you’ve never heard of before and will likely never hear from again. Mike Birbiglia isn’t exactly a huge tour-de-force on stage, but he’s made his way into some well-earned success. He also knows what its like to be living from community college gig to 30 minute set at a small bar and he brings these experiences into his screenplay. Besides being about sleep disorders and the life of a comedian, SLEEPWALK also tries to be about a shaky relationship. This aspect is the weakest of the three covered. It’s not as if there’s anything terrible or remarkably bad about it, but some scenes feel a bit forced (such as Abby apathetically trying to pick out a wedding dress or a closing monologue).

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If you like Mike Birbiglia, you’ll like SLEEPWALK WITH ME. The film manages to be funny with total honesty that’s bound to be appreciated by filmgoers and (I’d imagine) comedians alike. Most of Birbiglia’s material translates well into the cinematic form, though there are a couple of near-miss jokes. The REM sleep disorder stuff is well-executed as is the life of a struggling comedian trying to break out, but the relationship angle feels a tad forced in places. SLEEPWALK WITH ME has a target audience and will definitely satisfy that demographic. I can also see this playing well with fans of independent dramedy. I recommend this film. If you like it, you might also enjoy Birbiglia’s stand-up album titled SLEEPWALK WITH ME that chronicles his actual real-life story behind this film.

Grade: B

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Elements, some Sexuality and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Josh Boone

Written by: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber

(based on the novel THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Mike Birbiglia & Willem Dafoe

Love stories are as old as time itself. It makes sense that Romance is the most overpopulated movie genre of all time. At this point, everything has withered into standard clichés, a bad soundtrack made up of forgettable pop songs, and a specific formula that has become tedious to say the least. There’s no doubt in my mind that nearly every young couple in America will be going on a date this weekend to FAULT IN OUR STARS and the popularity of the novel backs up that claim. In this case, that’s not a bad thing. FAULT is the most honest romance movie I’ve seen in a long while. It does hit a few clichés while following a well-worn formula, but circumstances have been shaken up in such a way that this is a refreshing love story that is worth your time.

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Hazel Lancaster has been battling cancer for a good portion of her life and as a result, is hooked up to a portable oxygen tank. Reluctantly attending group therapy sessions at the insistence of her mother, Hazel meets Gus. He’s a cancer survivor, but lost his leg in the process of beating the disease. The two begin a friendship that becomes something far more special. It seems as if they were made for each other, but Hazel is hesitant on loving Gus for fear of her imminent untimely death being a “grenade” (as she describes it) to those around her. However, Gus doesn’t care and what follows is a beautifully told love story that, although being predictable, makes for a sad and ultimately uplifting experience.

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FAULT IN OUR STARS raises a lot of good points about love and life itself. One being that death is bound to happen to all of us, so why not make ourselves the best person we can become and enjoy life while it lasts. It’s unusual to see a teenage-oriented novel being adapted to the big screen with such a sense of maturity and respect for the filmgoer (as well as the fans of the book itself). There’s certain to be a lot of people who will snicker at the idea of sitting through FAULT IN OUR STARS and chalking it up as another one-dimensional love story in the vein of those lame Nicholas Sparks movies. That’s absolutely not the case here. This is far more along the same thought-probing and emotional lines of something like PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, where young life isn’t glamorized and these characters go through plenty of real-world problems.

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The film isn’t without a few faults of its own. There’s a corny factor that comes in a few scenes that seem particularly made to get teenage girls to swoon. Luckily, these moments can be counted on a single hand and don’t last very long. Everything progresses naturally enough to be believable, even if the storyline is predictable in a lot of ways. FAULT’s biggest problem is Ansel Elgort’s role of Gus. He comes off as a good-natured individual that seems to genuinely care about Hazel and is deeply in love with her. However, the boy just comes off as too perfect in a lot of areas. It’s clear that this person is a construction of a writer and actor on the screen. It’s every girl’s dream to find a guy as perfect as Gus, but nobody is as flawless as him. We only see the good things about Gus and when there’s one moment that showcases him on a bit of a more upsetting level it’s sugar-coated. To reveal only one side about such a pivotal character in this story feels a little dishonest to the viewer, especially in a film that nails nearly everything else with such realistic accuracy.

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Elgort’s performance is good, but I just have a problem with how the character was written. The real praise deservedly goes to Shailene Woodley as Hazel. Amazing is putting it lightly, she becomes this character and makes us feel for her every second in the film. I loved watching her and this seemed like a real person brought to the screen. The same can be said for everybody else, but Woodley is nothing short of astounding in her role. I really didn’t like her in DIVERGENT, but she did a 180 degree turn for this film (ironically an adaptation of another young adult novel, albeit completely different in quality). Her career is destined for great things, if she keeps up quality roles like this one.

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Rest assured that plenty of people will be crying by the time the credits rolled (bring lots of tissues). I never burst into tears myself, but I admittedly came close to it (I can be an emotional bastard when handed the right material). Props to FAULT IN OUR STARS for being the most realistic romance in the past decade. There are a few faults in this movie seen in Gus’s one-sided character, a sense of familiarity, and a couple of clichéd scenes. Besides these minor issues, everything in the movie feels natural and plays out as such. There is a formula being followed, but it’s being followed in a fresh way. For all of these things, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is remarkable!

Grade: B+

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