BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD DO AMERICA (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 21 minutes

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

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Directed by: Mike Judge

Written by: Mike Judge & Joe Stillman

Voices of: Mike Judge, Demi Moore, Bruce Willis, Robert Stack, Cloris Leachman, Richard Linklater, Dale Reeves, Greg Kinnear, David Letterman & Tony Darling

Before SOUTH PARK was the most controversial cartoon around, MTV’s BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD was blamed for corrupting the youth of America. However, the joke was on the show’s haters because lots of people enjoyed watching Mike Judge’s cartoon about two metalhead morons. His shorts gained so much popularity that MTV immediately approached Judge to make a feature film. After rejecting the misguided offer for a live-action BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD movie, Judge brought the two boys to the big screen in glorious animated fashion. BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD DO AMERICA is a frequently hilarious comedy that packs in colorful visuals and a high level of energy from start to finish.

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One morning, dimwitted couch potatoes Beavis (Mike Judge) and Butt-Head (also Judge) wake up to find their TV has been stolen. The boys venture off to grab a new television and this leads them straight into the path of lowlife criminal Muddy Grimes (Bruce Willis), who mistakes the teens for a pair of hired killers. Beavis and Butt-Head misinterpret Muddy’s offer of 10 thousand dollars to “do his wife” and set off to Vegas with intentions to “score.” The two idiots are soon thrust into a national conspiracy. Crazy hijinks, sexual innuendos, peyote-induced hallucinations, more attempts to score with chicks, and the reemergence of The Great Cornholio soon follow.

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In transitioning from the small screen to the big one, Mike Judge realized that the crude animation of BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD’s shorts simply wasn’t going to fly on a giant theater screen. So he gave the boys and their world a colorful makeover. Having watched some of the shorts before and after seeing this film, the background animation and wide aspect ratio makes a huge difference to the viewer’s eye. Judge takes the two dim-witted metalheads across famous locations and puts them in crazy scenarios that are sure to please fans of Mike Judge’s comedy in general. It bears mentioning that I’m not the biggest BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD fan, but I still had an absolute blast watching this film.

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This screenplay is chockfull of non-stop sexual innuendos (would you expect anything else from Beavis and Butt-Head?) and clever twists of fate. Judge has lots of low-brow jokes, but also packs in plenty of smart humor that foreshadowed his future KING OF THE HILL series (which premiered a month after this film’s original release). Montages of absurd situations, smart references that don’t necessarily spell out the punchline for the audience, and the high-stakes conspiracy that this two teenage morons wander around in make for one very entertaining film. There are jokes that fans of the show will appreciate more than the casual viewer, but the laughs come frequently and in ways you might not expect.

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While Judge reprises the voices of Beavis and Butt-Head, he also puts in extra work as hippie teacher Van Driessen (who sings the unforgettable song “Lesbian Seagull”) and Hank Hill soundalike Tom Anderson. The supporting characters are voiced by notable big actors and actresses. Bruce Willis is hilarious as loose-cannon redneck Muddy Grimes, while Demi Moore (Willis’s wife at the time) plays scantily clad Dallas Grimes. Robert Stack receives huge laughs as a cavity-search-obsessed ATF Agent. Cloris Leachman is great as a little old lady who seems a bit too eager to hand out her prescription pills to Beavis. David Letterman and Tony Darling show up as familiar-looking roadies, while Greg Kinnear and Richard Linklater also have small parts.

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In true BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD fashion, the film has a rockin’ soundtrack that features the likes of Red Hot Chili Peppers, White Zombie, Rancid and many more. These songs are mostly well placed, though the film occasionally interrupts the story’s flow to include them. A Vegas montage to “Love Rollercoaster” is quite fun to watch and so is a Rob Zombie illustrated hallucination in the desert. Even though this moments seem a bit jarring and Judge has admitted to MTV forcing his hand towards their inclusion, they remain enjoyable in the context of the film and on their own.

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Not every joke in BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD DO AMERICA works, but the film has held up remarkably well over two decades later. A majority of the laughs seem geared towards fans and casual viewers alike, while the script is smarter than you’d expect. The film’s hand-drawn, larger-scope animation is impressive to look at. Meanwhile, the soundtrack adds an extra (literal) rockin’ layer of energy to the proceedings. Call me crazy, but BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD DO AMERICA is a better animated comedy than SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT (which occasionally felt forced and overstayed its welcome). If you don’t mind diving into Mike Judge’s cartoon about two pill-popping, sex-obsessed, rock-loving couch potatoes, then BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD DO AMERICA is a good time!

Grade: B+

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

SPY KIDS (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Action Sequences

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Directed by: Robert Rodriguez

Written by: Robert Rodriguez

Starring: Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, Danny Trejo, Alan Cumming, Tony Shalhoub, Teri Hatcher, Robert Patrick, Cheech Marin, George Clooney, Mike Judge & Richard Linklater

The 90’s gave birth to many talented new filmmakers. One of these names was Robert Rodriguez. With two violent westerns and an R-rated vampire comedy behind him, it seemed a bit odd that the next step in Rodriguez’s career would be making a children’s film. However, he wowed audiences and critics alike with SPY KIDS. This is a film that I have fond memories of watching multiple times during my childhood. I saw this film in theaters and owned the VHS tape (back in the day when they were still making those), so I was a bit hesitant to revisit this film with so many years having passed me by since I last viewed it. I was expecting my memories to be overly nostalgic and the actual movie to be a potential disappointment. However, that was not the case at all. SPY KIDS has aged fantastically over time and remains a quality dose of family entertainment that provides fun for both adults and children alike. Color me pleasantly surprised.

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Ingrid and Gregorio Cortez are far from your typical married couple. They were originally rival spies hired to eliminate each other, but they fell deeply in love instead. Soon enough, they got hitched and had two kids. Now raising their children, Carmen and Juni, these married former spies find themselves out of their element in domestic life. Any average filmmaker could have stopped there and called that the plot, but Rodriguez continues by having Ingrid and Gregorio abducted during one last mission by a madman. It’s up to young Carmen and Juni to thwart a super villain’s dastardly plans (which involve robot assassins) as well as rescue their parents.

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There are a number of reasons why SPY KIDS stands high above most of the recent live-action efforts masquerading as family entertainment. The biggest of these is the stunning amount of creativity on display. Robert Rodriguez clearly had a distinct vision of how he wanted to tell this story, when to incorporate humor and how to combine multiple character arcs. Most of the laughs come from good old-fashioned humor on display. I couldn’t point out any moments of innuendo and there was only one potty joke (which is brushed off casually as Rodriguez giving the obligatory obvious poop joke that we all saw coming). In the wrong hands, SPY KIDS could have been an easy, overly familiar kid-friendly spin on 007 (think AGENT CODY BANKS). Instead, this film seems intent on entertaining everyone and it accomplishes that goal in style.

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What makes SPY KIDS even more enjoyable is the talented cast. Antonio Banderas (known for playing typically darker action heroes) and Carla Gugino (who later went on to star in R-rated comic book adaptations like SIN CITY and WATCHMEN) play against their usual characters as two spies who are out of their element as parents. This provides a lot of jokes that adults will latch on to. Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara, both newcomers at the time, star as brother and sister: Carmen and Juni. Though they can be wooden at times, they come across as likable protagonists worth rooting for. Other familiar faces show up in Danny Trejo (playing their Uncle Machete…get it?), Robert Patrick (as a briefly seen baddie), Cheech Marin (as an undercover agent) and George Clooney (in a brief, but very funny cameo). The best casting decisions come in Alan Cumming and Tony Shalhoub as the main villains. Cumming plays his evil mastermind as sort of a demented Dr. Seuss type who also happens to run a nightmarish kids’ show (think a cross between YO GABBA GABBA and TELETUBBIES). Shalhoub is the power-hungry Minion who becomes increasingly concerned that his boss is more obsessed with his TV program rather than the actual evil plan at work.

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SPY KIDS runs under 90 minutes and feels perfectly paced as a result. There’s a lot of stuff happening in every scene and not a wasted frame. There are also two story-arcs distinctly aimed at adults and children. The adults will connect more with the two former spies dealing with the stresses of starting a family and kids will connect with the sibling story-arc about the importance of family, though the latter can definitely be appreciated by older viewers as well. The action scenes are brought to life through mostly good effects that combine CGI and practical work (including mutated kid’s show mascots and robotic guards made entirely of thumbs). It’s downright whimsical and enjoyable all the way through.

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I am definitely surprised at how well SPY KIDS holds up over a decade later. The story is creative, the characters are all fleshed out, and the humor is likely to connect with viewers of all ages. While most live-action family fare in the new millennium has struggled to find that nitch for both adults and children, Robert Rodriguez walked that tightrope with 2001’s SPY KIDS. This film manages to bring solid entertainment that can be appreciated by viewers who want something creative and deliberately silly. Give it a look and you’re likely to have a lot of fun.

Grade: B+

BOYHOOD (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language including Sexual References, and for Teen Drug and Alcohol Use

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Directed by: Richard Linklater

Written by: Richard Linklater

Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke

Mountains of hype can make a difference on a film. As much as I try to steer clear from early critical consensus on new movies, it’s very hard in the age of social media to avoid what people are saying at film festival premieres. BOYHOOD received an insane amount of praise during Sundance. Since its limited release began a few weeks ago, many critics have been calling for a possible Best Picture nomination. Richard Linklater’s epic-length project is extremely ambitious, but ambition doesn’t necessarily mean something is automatically good. Linklater has taken on interesting ideas in the past and didn’t stick the landing (e.g. FAST FOOD NATION and more so with A SCANNER DARKLY). BOYHOOD is worth celebrating and there hasn’t ever been anything like it in the history of cinema, but it’s far from perfect.

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Mason is an imaginative six-year-old living with his single mother and his bratty sister. After his mother starts attending college to make a better life for her family, Mason’s father returns into his life but only on every other weekend. The rest of the film is Mason growing up and experiencing different things over the years. We follow him from ages six to eighteen, while also viewing how much life changes for everyone around him. That’s the episodic plot and it feels like an authentic slice of life. That phrase is used quite often (I’m guilty of throwing in plenty of reviews), but it’s never felt more real than here and there’s a solid foundation to back that up…

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BOYHOOD was shot over twelve years. Linklater was provided an annual budget from IFC Films and then shot with the same cast for a few weeks every year for over a decade. This means that we see these actors, not just characters literally grow over time. The script was never fully completed in the process either, but rather improvised around where the cast members’ were at that point in their lives. It’s the most exciting experimental filmmaking that I’ve ever heard about and a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making-of might prove to be even more interesting than the resulting movie. The passage of time is very apparent and will jog memories of many audience members, especially millennials and the current generation. Pop culture references (e.g. the bratty sister singing a Britney Spears tune or a brief visit to a midnight release party of HARRY POTTER & THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE) and a soundtrack that contains a number of songs popular during the various times of filming only brought back more of the nostalgia I had brewing in my system.

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As far as the acting is concerned, Ellar Coltrane is the main star as the ever-maturing Mason and starts off shaky. His acting skills dramatically improve as he grows up alongside his character. The same can be said of Lorelei Linklater. She’s annoying as some kids are, but does find sustainable ground later on. This is especially true in one of the more emotionally upsetting periods of the film involving their mother’s attraction to an abusive alcoholic scumbag. Patricia Arquette hasn’t been in anything too notable for the past decade, but is given a meaty role as Olivia, Mason’s mother. Her cycle of lousy taste in men is one of the stronger threads in the film. Ethan Hawke is great as Mason’s father (a.k.a. Mason Sr.) and fleshes out his weekend father figure that gradually matures as well. BOYHOOD can be seen as not the story of Mason (though he’s the main focus), but the story of the three family members around him.

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The lack of a plot is really just the summary of one boy’s journey of growing up. Things randomly happen in life and Mason remarks that it’s always “right now.” Time passes us by every second and it’s what we do with those moments and how we choose to remember everything that matters. Mason goes through the motions that everyone goes through. He has teenage drama in high school, gets a low-wage job, deals with some difficult home situations, and finds young love/heartbreak. This is a movie that you really can’t spoil even if you tried, because you know how it ends already. He grows up. We all did at one point or are in the process of doing so. The big issue that comes with this free-for-all style is that the nearly three-hour-long running time comes dangerously close to wearing out its welcome. It never fully goes into BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR areas (where focus goes to more mundane details), but I found myself thinking that certain scenes could have been cut to make a tighter film.

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The acting from the young Coltrane and Linklater in the beginning was a little off. The running time is also too long. However, there’s plenty to be praised in BOYHOOD. Mason remarks near the end of the film that instead of seizing the day, time seems to do the opposite. The moment seizes us. That’s a wonderful way of putting life in general. BOYHOOD takes a fairly ordinary chunk of somebody’s life and transforms it into a special creation. Mason is fictional as are all the characters around him, but there are people who have grown up in the same situations that he does in the film. We all have our own stories to tell. If there’s any stand-out accomplishment I can say about BOYHOOD that makes it stand out from the pack of movies in cinema history, it’s that most viewers will be looking back at everything they’ve accomplished, felt, and gone through in their lives in careful detail, while appreciating every joyous second they’ve lived. If that’s the case, then my criticisms don’t have much of a place in the bigger picture of things.

Grade: B+

FAST FOOD NATION (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Images, Strong Sexuality, Language and Drug Content

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Directed by: Richard Linklater

Written by: Richard Linklater, Eric Schlosser

(based on the book FAST FOOD NATION by Eric Schlosser)

Starring: Patricia Arquette, Luis Guzman, Ethan Hawke, Ashley Johnson, Greg Kinnear, Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Willis, Paul Dano

Far more on the dramatic side of things than the documentary SUPER SIZE ME bringing attention to the same problems, FAST FOOD NATION is told through multiple connecting narratives that revolve around the greasy food industry. A good way of describing this storytelling style is that this is TRAFFIC with the drugs swapped out for burgers and still set around a corrupt broken system. What makes NATION so much more intriguing as a film is that writer Eric Schlosser, who penned the non-fiction book that this film takes its name from, joins director Linklater on the screenplay. The commentary and messages aren’t subtle in the slightest, but everything is solid enough to bring plenty of weight to the everything being said. Well-written characters make the film work as a drama, even if some of the stories themselves come off as one draft away from being completed. I can safely say that this is an interesting and intelligent movie saddled with a fair share of pitfalls.

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Don Anderson is a marketing representative for Mickey’s (a fast food restaurant chain) and has been informed of a very disturbing test result. A popular new menu item called “The Big One” has been found to contain some cow manure in the meat itself. His boss politely addresses it as “There’s shit in the meat.” So Don is sent to a small Colorado town to investigate the company’s meat-packing plant, but he’s suspicious that everything is being sugar-coated for his visit. In the very town that Don is visiting, Sylvia and her fellow illegal immigrants are working in the very same meatpacking plant. Soon they find that the job is not without significant risks, both from unsafe conditions and a belligerent supervisor. Finally, there’s Amber, a young Mickey’s employee. Amber works in a Mickey’s to earn cash needed to get by, but she’s faced with moral dilemmas popping up at her unhealthy workplace.

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There’s plenty of intriguing details in FAST FOOD NATION. I enjoyed watching it as a whole and appreciated the brutally honest nature. If you do some research on fast food as a whole, you’ll find some pretty disturbing stuff. Enough to make you question why people would bother to put that stuff into their bodies. The graphic visuals are unapologetically disgusting and though I don’t know for sure, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the filmmakers used real cow carcasses in the meat-packing plant scenes. It’s clear that Schlosser is co-writing this screenplay with director Linklater, because it almost seems like stretches of words right off the page of his book have been turned into dialogue for the characters. It’s not annoying or forced in any way. These are some very realistic people brought to the screen. Ethan Hawke shows up for a few scenes in a minor role, but makes a big impression.

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Undeniably, the best part of the movie comes in one conversation with Bruce Willis’s scene-long character. He delivers a lenghty monologue and the shocking statements coming out of his mouth most likely reflect the empathetic feelings of heads of these big fast-food chains. After all, why should McDonald’s change a damn thing if they keep serving billions around the world? This is all regardless of the disgusting discoveries made at plenty of their restaurants (watch the stellar documentary SUPER SIZE ME for more details on those). The same can be said of any huge fast food chain. The food is crap and they know it’s crap, just like the people eating it know it’s crap. They still eat it (it’s quick and convenient) and the fast food industry is still booming. Willis’s amazing dialogue drives every point of this home and I felt that scene should have been the conclusion of the entire film. This final moment would have sent everything off with a powerful bang.

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Instead, FAST FOOD NATION is a mess when it comes to the organization of the three plot-threads. Kinnear’s character of Dan is front-loaded into a majority of the first half and as a result his story concludes at the halfway mark (with Willis delivering that awesome speech). Then the viewer is left with one very solid thread and another plot that goes on well enough, but builds to absolutely nothing as there isn’t a proper conclusion given. This all comes as a result of Linklater and a screenplay focusing far too much on significant stretches dedicated to one specific plot-thread out of the three. The final cut suffers in being uneven and winding up as a good movie, but one with some baggage that’s hard to ignore.

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I did think that FAST FOOD NATION is a film that was worth my time, in spite of the aforementioned problems. I might even revisit this one in the future. If all three threads had been balanced out more and one specific storyline had been given a couple of scenes to conclude in a satisfying manner, then this would might have been a great-bordering-on-fantastic film tackling important issues. Instead, it’s a good flick with some interesting things to say, but it ultimately winds up suffering from those damn screenplay problems.

Grade: B-

A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Drug and Sexual Content, Language and a brief Violent Image

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Directed by: Richard Linklater

Written by: Richard Linklater

(based on the novel A SCANNER DARKLY by Philip K. Dick)

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane

I remember seeing the commercials for A SCANNER DARKLY when it was coming out. It looked to be a trippy sci-fi story with an unusual animation style being applied to it. The film was shot live action and then animated over by a group of various artists. The source material is the acclaimed novel of the same name from famed science-fiction author Philip K. Dick. Sadly, A SCANNER DARKLY is a textbook case of style over substance. The visuals are very cool, but the story being told might have benefitted from a real world approach with a more engaging screenplay. There’s a kernel of an awesome, brooding tale lying within the movie, but it’s undercooked.

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Set seven years in the future, a super addictive toxic pill known as Substance D has turned 20% of America’s population into addicts. One group of law enforcement is working to win this escalating war on drugs and an undercover officer named Bob Arctor is in the middle of a secret operation. He’s living as a tweaker with a group of Substance D users in order to fry some big fish that they might be linked to a few of his friends. In order to keep his identity a secret, he roams around his office environment in a specialized suit (known as a Scrambler) that keeps his identity a secret to his fellow agents. After some unexpected evidence comes in from one of Bob’s friends (also donning a Scrambler), he finds himself investigating himself. Things get stranger as the side effects of Substance D (which Bob has become hooked on to keep up appearances) is having nasty side effects on his brain. As the film’s tagline states: Everything is not going to be OK.

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The ideas behind A SCANNER DARKLY are good ones. I have admittedly never read a novel by Philip K. Dick, but the man seems to have great premises that are most described by fans as hardly ever getting a proper treatment onto film. This piece of unusual animated visual art is a prime example of a concept not reaching its full potential. I did appreciate that the animation on display has a bizarre disorienting effect that puts the viewer into the same unhinged mental state as the junkie characters. The artwork is a neat gimmick, but ultimately the movie should rely on more than just the unique visual process that it went through (taking a production time of over a full year to complete). The script begins with a promising set-up and then wanders without point or purpose for about two-thirds of the run time before concluding on a creative note that echoed a certain 70’s dystopian film (to give a specific title would be a spoiler).

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This admittedly cool conclusion did work in the film’s favor, but it also left me completely unsatisfied that nearly everything else in the storyline was tedious and damn near pointless. The movie plays out like a living graphic novel and there were a few instances (involving some weird hallucinations) that couldn’t have been replicated nearly as well in a live-action format. Besides four brief surreal moments, I can’t think of a single reason why A SCANNER DARKLY was executed in this oddball animated style. It’s a talking heads story done in an experimental fashion and the talking heads don’t have nearly enough remarkable or interesting things to say.

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As far as the cast goes, Rory Cochrane and Robert Downey Jr. were the two stand-outs. Cochrane’s character ultimately winds up (like so many other plot points in this film) being useless, but I got a solid laugh out of the fate of his storyline. Robert Downey Jr. seems to be having fun as a philosophy-waxing junkie that keeps you on your toes. You never quite know what to expect from his character, especially as the film comes to the conclusion. Everybody else is either underused or just plain bland. Woody Harrelson is another worthless character that provides some cheap comic relief and contributes nothing else. Winona Ryder is hugely underused as Bob’s girlfriend and then there’s the man playing our protagonist: Bob. This would be Keanu Reeves. Reeves has become widely reviled for not having much of an acting range and he’s just as wooden here. It’s not aggravating to watch, but I feel that almost any other notable actor could have gotten real emotional responses out of me in what little journey this character takes.

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A SCANNER DARKLY has been a polarizing film since its small release. People either love it or absolutely hate it. I’m stuck in the middle of the road. I enjoyed watching it on a purely visual level, but I’d never subject myself to it again. It’s a beautiful, hollow experience. Pure spectacle around a subject matter that really doesn’t lend itself to spectacle. I enjoyed some aspects about it, but it ultimately suffers from many pointless scenes that play out like filler and an underdeveloped story (which might be attributed to the fault of Philip K. Dick himself). The tagline states that “Everything is not going to be OK.” Sadly that also applies to this movie which is underwhelming to say the least and mediocre to say the most.

Grade: C

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