INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Destruction and Violence

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Directed by: Roland Emmerich

Written by: Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich

Starring: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, Randy Quaid, Margaret Colin & Vivica A. Fox

Though it’s simply a dumb popcorn flick, INDEPENDENCE DAY caused shock waves in the cinematic world that resonated years after its initial release. This summer blockbuster kicked off the “tradition” of tentpole movies being marketed during the Superbowl, also birthed a trend of large-scale disaster films and science fiction epics that took up theater screens through the late 90’s, and showcased groundbreaking special effects. Besides causing all of those latter effects, INDEPENDENCE DAY broke records and became one of the biggest movies of the 90’s (in box office terms). While the story is flimsy, the characters are thin, and there’s an undeniable cheesiness to the entire film, INDEPENDENCE DAY rocks in terms of entertainment and spectacle. I am surprised by how well it has stood the test of time. This is 145 minutes of pure fun!

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July 2, 1996. A massive UFO approaches Earth. As millions of Americans prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July and people around the world go about their daily lives, something very threatening waits on the horizon. The question of whether or not we’re alone in the universe has been answered in a massive way. A group of huge spaceships surround the world and it appears that these aliens don’t come in peace. Fiery craters erupt. Famous landmarks are reduced to ash. A large amount of the planet’s population is lost. Still, hope emerges when various individuals from different backgrounds come together to take these aliens down!

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Fighter pilot Steve Hiller (Will Smith) takes to the skies, while his girlfriend (Vivica A. Fox) and her son (Ross Bagley) make their way across a hopeless landscape of destruction. President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) attempts to do all he can with different tactics and combat strategies, but at the end of the day his inspirational words may be the most powerful weapons of all. Computer geek David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) desperately searches for a technological way to stop the spaceship’s powerful shields. Meanwhile, redneck Russell Casse (Randy Quaid) tries to keep his children safe. These characters will all encounter one another in different ways and they will have to face seemingly impossible odds if they wish to save the day…and Earth as we know it.

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Though it’s over two hours long, there’s hardly a dull moment in INDEPENDENCE DAY. The first scene kicks off with the massive approaching spacecraft and the President being informed about the extraterrestrial situation. Though the characters are mostly thin in that there’s a President, a geek, the geek’s ex-wife, a pilot, the pilot’s family, a drunken redneck, his family, and a few other side characters, there are moments that try to develop them further…even though these scenes mostly show how these people connect to one another. This large cast’s three main standouts are easily Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman. However, Judd Hirsch, Randy Quaid, Vivica Fox, and Margaret Colin all receive a substantial amount of screen time as well.

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During its slower scenes and so-so attempts at character development, INDEPENDENCE DAY remains entertaining thanks to a sense of humor and the impending threat of giant alien ships hovering over major cities. Once the action kicks in, the film has copious amounts of large-scale destruction, intense battles, and lots of alien lore. The film could have simply left its plot at aliens attacking the Earth and humans being unprepared…but still saving the day regardless. Instead, past urban legends, conspiracy theories, and strange occurrences in our country’s history serve as fun plot points.

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Director/co-writer Roland Emmerich wisely decides to keep the aliens in the dark for a majority of the film’s running time. We see lots of UFOs, but know little about their intergalactic inhabitants…until one annoying comic relief character pops in to throw a ton of exposition at the viewer. We’re about halfway into the action before we get a long look at one of these freaky tentacled beasties. Their appearance is reminiscent enough of the “little green men,” but also incorporates small creative details. There’s actually a jump scare in this movie that still holds up perfectly. Even after showing us the otherworldly menace, Emmerich doesn’t seem to revel much in the hordes of invading aliens. We mostly get glowing ships and flying spacecraft.

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INDEPENDENCE DAY weaves multiple storylines in and out of each other and thus creates a large-scale feeling, even if all of the main characters happen to live in one nation and the threat spans across the entire planet. There’s a definite patriotic feeling going strong through this movie and it revels in moments of people from different backgrounds uniting as one force. As cheesy as that may be, it’s something to be praised. Bill Pullman’s inspirational speech near the film’s finale still serves as a genuinely powerful moment in a movie that’s basically about aliens shooting green light at earthlings.

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INDEPENDENCE DAY has plenty of clichés and silly moments, but those ultimately become part of the fun. The characters are thin and the plot is predictable, but that doesn’t really matter when the entertainment factor is amazingly strong and the spectacle still wows audiences today. I happened to catch INDEPENDENCE DAY on the big screen right before its sequel and there were plenty of cheers, applause and laughs to be had from modern audience watching this film over two decades after its original release. The film is definitely flawed and far from perfect, but it’s so damn enjoyable that you might not even care. Simply put, INDEPENDENCE DAY is a silly B-flick that was given A-level spectacle and fun. There’s something oddly inspiring about that in and of itself.

Grade: B+

HARD RAIN (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence

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Directed by: Mikael Salomon

Written by: Graham Yost

Starring: Morgan Freeman, Christian Slater, Randy Quaid, Minnie Driver, Edward Asner & Michael Goorjian

In all likelihood, you probably haven’t heard of HARD RAIN. This disaster/action flick came and went so fast in the January of 1998 that it didn’t leave much of an impression on anyone, though it has gone down as a huge financial flop (earning back less than a third of its 70 million budget). While there are plenty of notorious box office bombs that are well deserving of their losses, HARD RAIN is actually entertaining. It’s a shame that not many people have heard of or remember this movie, because RAIN is a pretty enjoyable combination of natural disaster adventure and action thriller.

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A small Indiana town has been hit with the worst rain storm in U.S. history. The water level is steadily rising and homes have been evacuated. All this being said, it only makes sense that unlucky Tom has been saddled with transporting 3 million dollars in an armored truck. After experiencing car problems due to waist-deep levels of water, Tom finds himself on the run from a group of armed criminals who want the money. In order to stay alive, Tom hides the millions in cash and navigates his way through the flooded streets. His luck only gets worse as the rain keeps pouring, the violent criminals desperately pursue him, and a couple of mentally unhinged cops get wind of his newly hidden treasure. The rain was only the beginning. The gunfire and chases through the drenched landscape could be Tom’s end.

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Brought to the screen by the same folks who made SPEED, HARD RAIN manages to combine two well-worn genres into something that feels enjoyable and arguably a little fresh. This is a traditional action flick with a disaster movie twist. There’s not a glimpse of sunshine in the entire film as rain keeps pouring and the flood is everywhere. Production was a believably miserable experience with the cast and crew being soaked through most of the movie. It pays off for those wanting simple popcorn entertainment as HARD RAIN is predictable for the most part, but also quite fun. The film is well-paced, though forced comedy relief moments put a damper on some of the momentum. RAIN also boasts really cool action scenes, including a rip-roaring chase through the flooded hallways of a school as well as a finale that delivers everything you’d want and expect from a movie of this type. Again, the story isn’t necessarily anything new, borrowing clichés liberally from standard action fare and predictable disaster movies, but still winds up being entertaining.

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The biggest problem in HARD RAIN are the characters. These people are bland. Christian Slater plays a cookie-cutter good guy. He isn’t given much of a personality and merely serves as a protagonist to escape various crazy scenarios. Morgan Freeman plays the cookie-cutter bad guy. His interest is purely in the money and he yells at people while occasionally firing guns. Meanwhile, Minnie Driver is…you guessed it…the cookie-cutter good-looking gal. She serves as Slater’s unlikely love interest and sidekick through the latter half of this adventure. Like everyone else, she isn’t given a real personality. You might be asking: Is anybody in this film given a personality? Well, yes! Randy Quaid (of all people) is really awesome as the redneck, socially disgraced Sheriff who becomes blinded by the prospect of 3 million dollars hidden in his town. Quaid comes off as a likable guy in the beginning but one of the main threats by the end. He’s wholly enjoyable in this role and allowed room to make it his own.

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HARD RAIN is one of the biggest box office flops from 1998 and that’s a shame. The movie isn’t great or even particularly special, but it’s a pretty fun flick that never takes itself too seriously. The comic relief can be annoying and a majority of the characters merely serve as means to an end, but the action scenes are well-executed and the natural disaster element adds a constant danger to already dangerous proceedings. This is an underrated gem from the 90’s that has sadly gone unnoticed. If you’re in the mood for a fun time-killer, check out HARD RAIN.

Grade: B-

KINGPIN (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Crude Sex-Related Humor and a Drug Scene

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Directed by: Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly

Written by: Barry Fanaro, Mort Nathan

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid, Vanessa Angel, Bill Murray, Chris Elliot, William Jordan, Lin Shaye

The Farrelly brothers are known for their earlier comedies. DUMB AND DUMBER is one of the funniest films of the 90’s and I would argue that THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY is on the same level of that Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels flick. Between both of those well-known celebrated films, the Farrellys directed a project that has become a underseen gem of theirs. They may not have written it, but they did direct it and the script is more than worthy of the brothers names being attached. KINGPIN is a crude, silly, and thoroughly enjoyable sports comedy that blends plenty of different types of jokes together. It’s not high art or one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, but I had a really good time watching this film. I laughed a lot and by the conclusion (which did surprise me), I walked away grinning.

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Roy Munson has had the gift of bowling in his blood from childhood. Trained by his father, the young (albeit naïve) Roy wins the state championship against a snooty rival bowler, Ernie McCracken. After being scammed into a hustle gone wrong by Ernie, Roy loses his bowling hand and winds up wasting 17 years of his life as a washed-up, broke, has-been athlete. Out trying to make a cheap buck, Roy spots budding talent in the Amish closeted-bowler Ishmael Boorg. With an all-star bowling tournament on the horizon that boasts a prize of one million dollars, Roy takes the innocent Ishmael under his wing on a road trip to Reno to enter the competition. Along their way, the two encounter plenty of different colorful characters including: intimidating thugs, a beautiful girl named Claudia, and an unwelcome face from Roy’s past.

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KINGPIN is sort of in the same vein as Weird Al’s UHF. It uses the go-for-broke, throw everything at the wall and see what sticks method. Luckily, a majority of the jokes hit. There are a number of punch lines that miss the mark and one that downright didn’t belong in the film. Even in the not nearly as funny moments, things still work due to the interesting characters. Woody Harrelson takes the lead role as Roy and revels in the loser personality of this washed-up professional that begins to have a change of heart thanks to Ishmael. Speaking of which, Randy Quaid is hit-or-miss as Ishmael. He’s downright hilarious in some scenes as he sinks into some all sorts of sinning (all rationalized as being for the greater good), but also takes the dummy shtick too far during some moments (e.g. him constantly mistaking Roy’s last name throughout the entire movie).

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Vanessa Angel is a good as a genuinely caring friend to Ishmael and begrudging love interest for Roy. Chris Elliot and Lin Shaye also make brief, but disgustingly memorable appearances. The real standout besides Harrelson would be Bill Murray as the Roy’s old nemesis, Ernie McCracken. Donning one of the worst comb-overs in movie history, Murray is clearly having an absolute blast playing the villain for a change. He’s hatable on all levels and reserves a spot as one of the most despicable dickheads to ever grace film history.

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The biggest issue that detracts from some of the entertainment in KINGPIN doesn’t involve some lame jokes that don’t quite work. It’s actually the long running time. Some parts of the film could have definitely been glossed over or cut out altogether for a more tight running time. Credit where credit is due, the story really picks up the pace in the last 50 minutes. I really liked how the conclusion played itself out too. The last scenes involving every character were very fitting. The ending also surprised me on a few levels that I didn’t predict. I was completely satisfied by the final 10 minute wrap-up.

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KINGPIN is far from the Farrelly brothers best movie. That accomplishment lies between DUMB AND DUMBER and THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY. It doesn’t deserve the fate of being mostly forgotten that has befallen it though. This is a movie that I would highly recommend for a group of friends gathered with pizza and beer. It’s a highly entertaining sports comedy that does surprise on some levels and goes to outrageous lengths to get a laugh. Some of the jokes don’t work, but the majority of them do. The pacing can be a little slow in the first hour, but it never lost my interest and got significantly more enjoyable in the second half. In the end, I do recommend KINGPIN as a ridiculous comedy that revolves around the cut-throat world of bowling. Before DODGEBALL or TALLADEGA NIGHTS, there was KINGPIN and it’s very much worth remembering.

Grade: B

THE ICE HARVEST (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language and Sexuality/Nudity

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Directed by: Harold Ramis

Written by: Richard Russo, Robert Benton

(based on the novel THE ICE HARVEST by Scott Phillips)

Starring: John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Platt, Randy Quaid, Mike Starr, Ned Bellamy

When someone brings up the topic of Christmas movies, they usually involve comedies with shenanigans that can be related to in the most wonderful/stressful time of the year (e.g. CHRISTMAS STORY and CHRISTMAS VACATION). My favorite Christmas film is actually a dark crime-comedy set on the night of Christmas Eve. The holiday makes for a interesting backdrop for the bloodshed and thievery being shown on the screen, but the film is also a piece of yuletide noir (which is an unusual combination to say the least).

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Taking place on the night of Christmas Eve and the early morning hours of Christmas, we follow Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) as he attempts to get away with “the perfect crime.” A crooked lawyer for the mob, Charlie has stolen over 2 million dollars from his boss (who happens to be the head of the mob in Kansas) with the assistance of his sly partner in crime, Vic (Billy Bob Thornton). Weather conditions have left the two with no other option but sticking out Christmas Eve in Kansas and leaving in Christmas morning with the loot. Trying to act normal, Charlie discovers that a hitman is looking for Vic and himself. Running into a drunken former client (currently married to his ex-wife), things become more complicated and the bodies begin piling up.

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THE ICE HARVEST is unlike any other Christmas movie that you’ve ever seen. It’s pitch-black in tone, but at the same time Christmas “cheer” litters the scenery. The film is beautifully and the story sucks you in immediately. This feels like you’re stepping into this increasingly outrageous situation with a cast of interesting characters. Each one of the cast members here delivers a performance that brings their unique character to life. I loved watching all of them and the dialogue is nothing short of brilliant (it feels like some of the greatest Tarantino lines that Tarantino never wrote).

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Charlie is a likable character, even though he admits in the opening narration to not having any real “character.” Billy Bob Thornton plays the dim-witted Vic very well, but doesn’t make the character into the all-out one-dimensional idiot that he could have easily been portrayed as. Speaking of idiots, Oliver Platt gives nothing short of a great performance as the drunken Pete, Charlie’s best friend and former client. Even though he does have moments of dumb slapstick (which don’t feel out-of-place in the slightest), Pete is a lovable moron who drinks far more than he should, but is oddly sympathetic. Meanwhile, Connie Nielsen shows up as Charlie’s love interest. Randy Quaid (known for playing Cousin Eddie in CHRISTMAS VACATION) is the head honcho of the mafia and menacingly evil as the center villain (mainly saved for the intense final third of the film).

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Some scenes that would seem menial in any other crime-caper (such as a dinner scene at Charlie’s ex-wife’s family’s house) feel essential to the story, even if they only provide some of the comic relief (which had me laughing hysterically). The film also doesn’t shy away from some rather graphic violence, but again it’s essential to the story being told. It’s dark, but also loaded with a ton of laughs throughout. This is the best of both worlds that is always seen in Guy Ritchie movies, but it happens to be set on Christmas Eve. For a movie with so many laughs to be had, there’s also some serious tension building throughout the perfectly paced running time. More than a few clever plot twists find their way into the mix and make for a movie that’s just as intelligent as it is entertaining.

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Christmas time is a celebrated and revered season of the year, but it doesn’t mean that the crappy weather doesn’t suck. Nor does it diminish the disgusting commercialism of the latest fads whoring themselves out to gullible consumers. It certainly doesn’t make the interactions with annoying relatives any less uncomfortable. Where most movies show the cheery side of the holiday, THE ICE HARVEST revels in the dark side of it, but does so brilliantly. Personally, this is my absolute favorite Christmas movie of all time! The combination of hilarious moments, tense build-up, and a steadily growing body-count make for a fantastic time for fans of dark comedy, crime thrillers, or a combination of the two.

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Over the years, THE ICE HARVEST has become a hidden gem and remains criminally underrated. This deserves to become an unconventional holiday classic. Even if it never does (and it probably won’t), I will always see it as worth a necessary viewing every December and that’s the highest praise I can give it!

Grade: A+

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