Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Directed by: Amy Heckerling

Written by: Cameron Crowe

(based on the book FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH: A TRUE STORY by Cameron Crowe)

Starring: Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Romanus, Phoebe Cates, Brian Backer, Amanda Wyss, Ray Walston & Forest Whitaker

Many screenwriters have attempted to create authentic teenagers in cinema, but only a handful succeed at constructing adolescent movie characters that feel real. Richard Linklater accomplished this in DAZED AND CONFUSED and most of John Hughes’s filmography was built upon fleshing out believable teenage protagonists (with THE BREAKFAST CLUB being arguably his greatest movie). Before his career took a recent nosedive, Cameron Crowe turned an experimental trip back to high school into a film with FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. This film doesn’t work on a concrete plot because it mainly follows teenagers attempt to survive a year at the titular high school. However, it’s very entertaining, quite funny, and packs unexpectedly emotional punches that resonate with the viewer.

Times are moving fast at Ridgemont High, so fast that we see an entire school year encapsulated in 90 minutes. As I mentioned before, FAST TIMES doesn’t really have a singular storyline because the script follows a bunch of different characters as they progress through their teenage lives. Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold) is a senior who’s attempting to break up with his girlfriend, so he can enjoy freedom in his senior year of high school. He also suffers the daily indignities of working a fast food job. Brad’s sophomore sister Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is desperate to discover sex, as she receives advice from older friend/co-worker Linda (Phoebe Cates). Meanwhile, Mark Ratner (Brian Backer) has the hots for Stacy, much to the amusement of his slick best friend Mike Damone (Robert Romanus). Also, stoned surfer dude Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) runs afoul of strict teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston).

FAST TIMES plays fast and loose with its narrative flow, jumping from Brad to Stacy to Mark to Linda to Mike to Spicoli and then whoever it feels like returning to at any given time. The film spends more time with certain characters than others, but the overall result is a cinematic collage of teenage life. Even though this film was made in the 80s and it wears that badge with pride (lots of good tunes, aged technology, and outdated fashion sense are present in every scene), FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH still feels very contemporary in tackling problems that teenagers face on a daily basis. I’d consider this to be one of the more believable teenage-oriented movies out there (alongside THE BREAKFAST CLUB and DAZED AND CONFUSED).

There are points where FAST TIMES pumps up its sexual escapades and comedic bits for big laughs. The stand-out of these light-hearted moments are easily Spicoli’s dreams about being a surfer in his porno-decorated room and his escalating conflict against Mr. Hand. These scenes are the ones that everyone seems to remember the most about FAST TIMES, not least of which as a result of Sean Penn’s hilarious performance. There’s also the sheer awkward laughs that result from Stacy practicing blow job techniques on a carrot (in front of an audience of her peers in the cafeteria), an embarrassing scenario that’s likely happened to everybody at least once in their lives, and more.

FAST TIMES isn’t strictly a comedy though, because the film does get into heavier material as it moves along. Friendships are tested and one harsh reality is faced by a certain character. Adult viewers who have long since forgotten about the drama of their teenage years will likely be reminded about difficulties they faced on their own and relate to RIDGEMONT’s characters more than they might expect to. Films like FAST TIMES serve as solid teenage-oriented entertainment because they feel real and also elicit empathy from viewers who may not fall into the intended age demographic.

What makes FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH so special is that the film never goes past the boundaries of reality and never gets too over-the-top for its own good. This very much feels like a slice of teenage life, regardless of the decade that it was made in and continues to be watched in. The performances from every cast member are convincing, even though certain characters receive significantly more screen time than others (one of Mark’s big subplots ties itself up a bit too quickly and easily). There are laughs and surprisingly potent drama to be found in the FAST TIMES that speed by in the space of 90 minutes. If you want to see a good coming-of-age teenage comedy-drama, FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH is well worth a watch!

Grade: B+

CON AIR (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language

Directed by: Simon West

Written by: Scott Rosenberg

Starring: Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Colm Meaney, Danny Trejo, M.C. Gainey, Nick Chinlund & Dave Chappelle

Even though the 80s was home to lots of cheesy R-rated action flicks, the 90s seemed bound and determined to churn out increasingly ridiculous action entertainment. Originally released in the same month as another outrageous Nicolas Cage action vehicle FACE/OFF, CON AIR is a crazy ride. It’s stupid and ludicrous, but it’s also funny and enjoyable. The material’s cheesiness lends to the entertainment factor as we get one hell of a cast, competently directed action, and unrealistically high stakes. If you want explosions and Nicolas Cage (in a mullet, trying to pull of a bad accent), then CON AIR is for you.

After killing a man to protect his wife, Army Ranger Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) has been handed a ten-year prison sentence. Being a good guy at heart, Poe quietly serves his time and waits to go home to his loving wife and daughter (who doesn’t know him yet, but still writes him adorable letters). When he’s granted parole, Poe boards the massive prison aircraft Jailbird. Things go awry when the evil madman “Cyrus the Virus” (John Malkovich) and the rest of the dangerous convicts wind up taking over the plane. If he wishes to ever see his wife again and hopes to save some lives in the process, Poe will have to carefully help take down the prisoner-hijacked plane. Meanwhile, U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) attempts to stop folks from simply blowing up the plane.

CON AIR is stupid, ridiculously stupid. There’s the whole prisoner revolt sequence, which seems to rely on an unlikely series of coincidences (with a prisoner smuggling gasoline on board) and a series of easily-accessible levers. As if the hijacked airplane wasn’t enough for the plot’s high stakes, they also throw in a subplot about Poe’s cellmate being diabetic and all of the syringes on the plane being smashed. To boot, the laws of physics are frequently defied and you know what? All of this stupidity and the sheer ridiculous nature of the film are the bombastic fun to watch! This is a big dumb popcorn movie and doesn’t aspire to be anything more than that.

As the heroic Poe, Nicolas Cage has horribly wooden line delivery and evokes a cheesiness that remains unrivaled in his filmography. Cage’s serious moments are hilarious and they’re not supposed to be. He also sports the worst mullet in the world and tries to pull of a terrible Southern accent (which downright disappears during a few scenes). As a so-so supporting character, John Cusack sweats on the ground level and gets involved in the finale when the action leaves the confines of the plane. Colm Meaney plays a hot-headed higher-up and adds to the tension as he seems just a tad too trigger-happy.

The convicts are the real show-stealers though, because each one of these colorful characters adds something memorable to the film. Ving Rhames plays intimidating gangster henchman Diamond Dog, while Danny Trejo (who was once a real-life convict) has the role of a rape-happy thug. M.C. Gainey is a huge highlight as hyperactive pilot prisoner “Swamp Thing” and delivers one of the cheesiest jokes in the entire film. There’s also a miscast Dave Chappelle as junkie “Pinball.” Steve Buscemi stars as serial killer Garland Greene (whose murders make the Manson Family look like the Partridge Family), coming off as both creepy and unexpectedly funny. John Malkovich gives the best performance in the film as “Cyrus the Virus.” He’s such an entertaining baddie and his death scene is probably one of my favorite action deaths ever (as it goes on for a while and he bites it in three increasingly over-the-top ways).

In terms of action, CON AIR never once gets repetitive. There are one-on-one fights, plane crashes, car chases, explosions, midair combat, and showdowns in various locations. The film is also shot in a way wherein the viewer can make out what the hell is going on and which characters are giving/receiving the blows/bullets. To say that the film gets over-the-top in its action would be a huge understatement as one scene has a broken propeller flying between Cage and Malkovich…to break up their confrontation in the most insane way possible.

CON AIR has lots of goofy details and obvious flaws. There’s the silly performance from Nicolas Cage and the colorful prisoners (who all contribute to the humor and action). The film’s soundtrack seems downright strange in places (Trisha Yearwood’s “How Do I Live” is incredibly out-of-place for this film, but still received an Oscar nomination) and the same guitar riff is played around a hundred times throughout the score. For all of its faults and stupidity, CON AIR is fun and succeeds at being entertaining from start to finish. If you’re into action movies (especially ridiculous ones) and you haven’t seen CON AIR, you owe it to yourself to sit through this one!

Grade: B

SNOWDEN (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Sexuality/Nudity


Directed by: Oliver Stone

Written by: Kieran Fitzgerald & Oliver Stone

(based on the books THE SNOWDEN FILES by Luke Harding and TIME OF THE OCTOPUS by Anatoly Kucherena)

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Rhys Ifans & Nicolas Cage

I’ve been looking forward to SNOWDEN for a while now. Though director/writer Oliver Stone has suffered a mediocre slump in his output, this controversial story seemed like the kick in the pants that he needed to reinvigorate his filmography. This movie was originally supposed to be released on Christmas 2015, but for some reason it was delayed until May 2016, until it eventually was postponed until September. SNOWDEN has finally hit theaters with minimal promotion, mixed reviews, and a handful of screenings per theater. There’s a positive side to this though. My Tuesday night showing was sold-out and audience word-of-mouth has been extremely positive. Remarkably, this biopic doesn’t choose a side in the conflict, but rather presents points that Snowden might be a hero, a traitor, or a bit of both. This political thriller leaves that aspect for the viewer to decide.


In June 2013, NSA contractor Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) leaked classified documents to the press that exposed government surveillance programs that infringed on the civil rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens. This led to treason charges and a hot debate over security vs. freedom that still hasn’t fully been resolved in the public eye. This film spans from 2004 to 2013 in showing Snowden’s injured exit from the military, experience in the CIA, relationship with his girlfriend, and time in the NSA that ultimately pushes him to sacrifice everything to deliver information to the public.


Whether you think he’s a traitor who deserves execution or a hero who should be celebrated, this film presents itself as a balanced character study of Edward Snowden. Though I’ve seen reviewers claim that this movie merely rehashes real-life events and nothing more, I wouldn’t consider that to be a negative when the events are incredibly interesting and troubling. This cinematic version of Edward Snowden is grounded on a human level thanks to a heavily developed relationship with his opposites-attract photographer girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).


Joseph Gordon-Levitt has proven himself to be an excellent actor in the past and that certainly doesn’t change here as he becomes Edward Snowden. From the mannerisms to the distinct way of speaking, I forgot that I was watching Levitt. He’s that good. Shailene Woodley (who’s had dramatic ups and angsty downs) gives her best work to date as Lindsay Mills. The quality performances don’t end with those two though, because Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, and Zachary Quinto are great as three journalists with Snowden confidential info. Scott Eastwood shows up as a temperamental NSA employee. Timothy Olyphant plays a smarmy CIA agent. Rhys Ifans shines as Snowden’s mentor and “friend,” which makes later scenes even more intense to watch. Finally, Nicolas Cage delivers his best performance in a decade with five minutes of screen time as a CIA instructor.


SNOWDEN’s narrative is non-linear, opening with 2013’s fateful meeting of journalists and then flashing back to 2004. The film progressively shifts between Snowden’s interviews with the three reporters back to his progress through the CIA and NSA. This makes for a captivating experience as Stone is cramming nine eventful years into just over two hours. It’s also interesting to watch the past timeline catch up with the 2013 wraparound. Though Oliver Stone’s visual style can occasionally be a bit much (did we really need a lovey-dovey scene projected onto Snowden’s hotel window?), SNOWDEN also weaves in actual footage and news clips. There are clips of both current presidential candidates voicing (unsurprisingly) negative opinions about him, pieces of actual news stories from the leak and Obama’s reactions to the fallout. Be sure to stay through the first half of the credits for extra tidbits.


Though it also functions as a dramatic biopic, SNOWDEN plays out like a paranoid thriller that’s made even more intense by this story being factual. We’d be naïve not to think that the NSA is still up to stuff and that we’re still being watched on a daily basis. However, Stone’s film wisely presents fuel for both sides of the argument. There’s talk of the modern battlefield being everywhere, but also about the sacrifice of freedom for security. It’s a huge gray area with no easy answers and the film doesn’t choose a side. Instead, Oliver Stone’s return-to-form is sure to keep you thinking about it long after the credits have rolled, could inspire new feelings towards one of America’s most controversial figures, and may make you paranoid enough to put a Band-Aid over your webcam.

Grade: A

FACE/OFF (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Intense Sequences of Strong Violence, and for Strong Language

FaceOff poster

Directed by: John Woo

Written by: Mike Werb & Michael Colleary

Starring: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Alessandro Nivola, Gina Gershon, Dominique Swain & Nick Cassavetes

If there are two actors who have really been slumming it lately, they would be John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. These two were huge at the height of their career, but have since wound up as washed-up has-beens taking any role that comes across their desks (how else would one explain Cage’s output for the last 5 years?). FACE/OFF is a ridiculous action flick with a really silly premise that allows for a maximum amount of fun, while also providing an excuse for Cage and Travolta to go as over-the-top as humanly possible in their roles…as each other.


Sean Archer is a loose-cannon FBI agent who doesn’t play by the rules. After the death of his son, Archer has made it his personal mission to take down high-profile terrorist Castor Troy. Archer should feel accomplished once he’s caught Troy (who winds up in a coma), but there’s still a big problem. A bomb is loose in the city (of course) and there’s only one possible (and highly ludicrous) way to stop it from going off. Archer must undergo a shocking super-secret surgery to switch faces with Troy in order to get the location of the bomb out of Troy’s brother. Unfortunately for Archer, the now faceless Troy wakes up from his coma and steals Archer’s face. With their identities switched, the real Archer (wearing Troy’s face) must escape from prison and save his family from Castor Troy (who’s wearing Archer’s face)!


At the very least, one can reasonably say that this movie’s plot is very silly. You pretty much know what you’re going in for from the get-go. The storyline doesn’t deviate from a predictable course of events with any huge twists or turns. It’s a big dumb popcorn-muncher and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Occasionally, junk food can be just as satisfying than a steak. That is exactly the case with this movie. There are occasional plot holes and silliness abounding, but it’s all in good fun without any pretensions about being taken seriously.


The best thing about FACE/OFF’s premise is that it provides a flimsy enough excuse for Cage and Travolta to do their best impressions of each other. Kudos to both of these performers, because they do a good job of taking on two completely separate roles. John Travolta plays a pretty bland cop character to begin with, but is allows a lot of wiggle room when he’s crazy Troy. Cage actually is a bit too over-the-top and ridiculous as Troy, but gets significantly better when he transforms into the hero with a villain’s face. The supporting cast is completely forgettable. That’s not a huge problem though, because we all know that the real draw of FACE/OFF is to see Travolta and Cage…well, facing off against each other.


As fun and hugely entertaining as the action scenes can be, there are definite moments where John Woo gets way too bombastic. There are lots of needless explosions and a cast of people who miss when shooting targets who are a mere few feet away (including both Cage and Travolta). Lots of silly screaming, firework sound effects, and overused slow motion are frequently used. There’s also a hilarious amount of doves packed into five minutes of screen time as well as a Mexican stand-off with more guns than the finale of RESERVOIR DOGS. With all this complaining, there’s far more good to be seen (including an awesome boat chase) than bad. The running time might seem bloated upon the start of the movie, but I can safely say that things never got dull at any point.


FACE/OFF is exactly what it set out to be. It’s a big, dumb action movie loaded with explosions, over-the-top acting, and a ridiculous story that’s a whole lot of silly fun. Sure, it gets mighty stupid throughout and packs in action movie clichés over and over again, but it’s also a total blast from beginning to end!

Grade: B

JOE (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Disturbing Material, Language and some Strong Sexual Content

Joe poster

Directed by: David Gordon Green

Written by: Gary Hawkins

(based on the novel JOE by Larry Brown)

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Heather Kafka, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Sue Rock, Adriene Mishler & Gary Poulter

Nicolas Cage has appeared in so many B-movies and hammy roles in the past two decades, that it has become damn near impossible to get someone to discuss him as a serious actor. Given the right role, Nic Cage can soar. That’s been seen in plenty of underappreciated films that feature strong performances from him (e.g. 8MM or LORD OF WAR). As JOE, Cage has proven every one of his naysayers wrong and shown that this quirky actor isn’t completely washed up. JOE is a dark film that combines a coming-of-age story with a crime drama. It’s an interesting mix that makes for one intense viewing experience. I didn’t expect things to end up as far into disturbing territory as they wind up going. In fact, I originally was likening JOE to MUD with Cage replacing McConaughey’s role. I wasn’t even in the same ballpark. This is one hell of a great film that is a tad predictable, but winds up being immensely satisfying and fresh in every area.


Joe is an ex-con and head of a rough-around-the-edges group in a landscaping job. It’s hard work, but he’s pays well and tells it like he sees it. Joe tries not to sink back into his old criminal ways, but when some dirtbags come to his town it’s becoming more difficult to refrain from beating the life from these punks. It is at this difficult time in Joe’s life that he meets the teenage Gary. Gary’s living situation is less than ideal. He’s essentially the man of the house and his abusive alcoholic father takes out druken rages on the him every night. Joe and Gary become the most unlikely friends. As problems in both of their lives come to a crossroads, life-changing decisions must be made.


There’s a thick dirty atmosphere covering JOE. This feeling immerses the viewer in the story’s backwoods setting. Every character felt authentic. This can especially be applied to the two leading men with quite the age gap between them. Nicolas Cage gives his best performance in years as Joe and brings to life a man whom you might initially find hard to root for. Joe has a very dark side that comes out here and there. Some may say that he stretches the lines of common decency beyond a breaking point (one scene involving a dog comes to mind), but there’s still an endearing good quality about him. This is brought out in the chemistry between Cage and young Tye Sheridan (previously seen in last year’s MUD). Sheridan basically reprises the same kind of character he had in that 2013 coming-of-age tale, but does it in a far different way. This version is more mature than his previous role (helped by the fact that Sheridan looks older as well) and beset with some heavy problems for coming-of-age movie.


Speaking of which, this movie is dark! It’s downright disturbing in a couple of areas. Without flaunting a ton of twisted deeds happening, small details that imply what’s going on and make it so upsetting to watch. As Joe and Gary are characters that I wound up rooting for, nearly everyone around them is either a shell of a person or a completely wicked individual that deserves some sort of comeuppance. This all being said, the formula of JOE is a predictable one. I had an idea of where things where heading from the opening scenes. However, the writing and characters really hammer this one to being a hugely successful piece of cinema. It’s an absolute winner, even with the familiarity included in the mix.


I wouldn’t say JOE is for everybody, as the material can be very upsetting to watch at points. However, if you’re in the mood for a powerful drama that takes a look on an uglier side of life, then this will do the trick just fine. See it, if not only for the stellar performances by Cage and Sheridan as the leads. Special mention to the late Gary Poulter (an actual alcoholic homeless man hired to play the drunkard father) for being someone you just wanted to jump through the screen and murder. These are his 15 minutes of fame and he earned it for a brilliant portrayal of a truly despicable man. The conclusion may be guessed from the beginning, but it doesn’t lessen the impact and emotions that the film hits you with. JOE comes highly recommended!

Grade: A

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