SCREWED (2000)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Crude and Sex-Related Humor, Nudity, Language, some Violence and brief Drug Content

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Directed by: Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski

Written by: Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski

Starring: Norm Macdonald, Dave Chappelle, Danny DeVito, Elaine Stritch, Daniel Benzali, Sarah Silverman & Sherman Hemsley

For a period in the 90’s, Norm Macdonald delivered his unique brand of humor on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Norm also followed in the steps of countless other SNL stars (Sandler, Myers, Ferrell) and headlined two comedies in an attempt to become a big screen comedic star. With 1998’s okay enough DIRTY WORK flopping at the box office and not leaving much of an impact on mainstream audiences,  Norm found a second chance with 2000’s SCREWED. Unfortunately, this would-be comedy earns its descriptive title. SCREWED wastes comedic talent on a mediocre, lazy script. There are a few mild chuckles to be found, but most of the 81-minute running time is spent on dusty jokes and dead air.

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Willard Fillmore (Norm Macdonald) has worked fifteen years as a servant for crotchety Mrs. Crock (Elaine Stritch). Crock is as wealthy as she is stingy and Willard is tired of her constant abuse. After a particularly miserable Christmas, Willard decides to get revenge on Crock by kidnapping her tiny dog and ransoming it for 1 million dollars. When the dog escapes, Crock misinterprets the ransom note and assumes that Willard has been kidnapped. Willard and his best friend Rusty (Dave Chappelle) decide to try to manipulate the chaotic situation in their favor. This ever-changing scheme involves a higher ransom and the help of creepy mortician Grover (Danny DeVito). However, things quickly go off the rails when Crock refuses to pay the ransom and hard-headed Detective Tom Dewey (Daniel Benzali) begins putting the pieces together. Now, Willard, Rusty and Grover are just trying to avoid getting screwed! See what I did there? If this movie isn’t going to try, then why should I?

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To be perfectly honest, I love Norm Macdonald. His wacky persona cracks me up. Though his goofy line delivery works in stand-up comedy and podcasts, Norm’s sense of humor doesn’t seem to translate well onto film. That or he just got saddled with two movies that were undeserving of his talent. At least, DIRTY WORK had a few hilarious moments and kept an energetic momentum going throughout. SCREWED feels dead on its feet from start to finish. The film runs at 81 minutes (counting credits) and feels like an agonizingly long experience. Much of this comes from sheer laziness and unfunny gags. The film has a poop joke here, some overused dialogue there, and is half-assed the whole way through. Dave Chappelle knocks people out with desk lamps as a nervous habit. Isn’t that funny? Elaine Stritch yells a lot as the grumpy old lady. Doesn’t that sound hysterical? Also, nearly everybody gets double crossed and the plot forgets to make these bits funny. This is exactly what you want to see in a Norm Macdonald comedy, right?

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SCREWED packs in a lot of plot twists that might have been funny if the tiniest piece of discernible effort had been put into the screenplay or performances. Norm seems to be phoning it in as Willard and the same can be said about Dave Chappelle as his best friend. At least, Danny DeVito attempted to have some fun as the ghoulish mortician and elicited a handful of chuckles from me. His character becomes unfunny around the final third of the film though, when the screenplay feels the need to throw in as many revelations as possible and neglects to give him much to do. Elaine Stritch seemed to be taking this role purely for a quick paycheck. Meanwhile, Sarah Silverman plays a side character who comes out of nowhere and really doesn’t receive anything that’s worthy of a single laugh.

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The extent of SCREWED’s laziness fully comes through in an obviously wacky score that seems like it was plucked out of a million other generic comedies and cinematography that’s just plain ugly to look at. I know that the only connection between these two films is Norm Macdonald, but DIRTY WORK was a far superior movie and even that wasn’t extraordinarily funny. SCREWED has mostly been forgotten to the sands of time. This movie bombed during its theatrical run (failing to make back enough to cover its 10 million dollar budget) and though some folks online consider it to be underrated, I found it to be an almost painfully unfunny film to sit through. It’s a real pity that Norm Macdonald couldn’t make it big in Hollywood. His goofy sense of humor works wonders and I consider him to be among the very best that SNL ever had to offer. A decision to watch SCREWED will leave you screwed out of 81 minutes of your life. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

Grade: D

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+

EVOLUTION (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Crude and Sexual Humor, and for Sci-Fi Action

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Directed by: Ivan Reitman

Written by: David Diamond, David Weissman & Don Jakoby

Starring: David Duchovny, Julianne Moore, Orlando Jones, Seann William Scott, Ted Levine, Ethan Suplee, Ty Burrell & Dan Aykroyd

EVOLUTION is a movie that can be summed up in three words: GHOSTBUSTERS with aliens. Don’t believe me? This movie is even directed by the same guy who brought both GHOSTBUSTER films to the screen. He’s treading familiar cinematic waters with a fresh cast and a different monster. I don’t distinctly remember the level of excitement that this film had upon release (I was 10 years old at the time), but I do remember it being a regular sleepover movie (at least, for me). So it had some sort of impact on kids and adults at the time, going as far as to receive a short-lived animated series as well.

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When a meteor crashes into Earth and winds up at the bottom of an 80-foot crater, it appears to be the discovery that Ira Kane and Harry Block, two college professors and friends, have been waiting for. They cut off a sample of the space rock and find that there’s extraterrestrial life contained in some goo from the meteor. What’s even more peculiar is that this goo seems to be evolving at a rapid rate with single-celled organisms becoming worms in the space of three days. Soon enough, the U.S. military arrives to steal Ira and Harry’s discovery. This annoyance becomes the least of their problems, because hostile alien creatures begin to invade nearby areas and attack civilians. It’s up to Harry, Ira, Wayne (an idiot fireman-in-training) and Allison (a clumsy scientist) to take down the alien menace before we go extinct…

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EVOLUTION has a number of famous faces in the cast, but these were the early days for a few of them. David Duchovny was coming fresh off of X-FILES and that seems to be the sole reason for his presence. As the main lead, he’s bland and delivers his lines in a wooden unenthused sort of way. Starring alongside him is MADTV regular Orlando Jones, who easily stands out as the best part of this movie. Jones nails nearly every one-liner he receives and has a hilarious highlight as scientists try to capture an alien bug inside of his colon (without the aid of lubricant). Jones never went on to have the career that he really deserved, but he’s easily the best part of this whole film. Ted Levine and a (far younger) Ty Burrell serve as inept military officers. They aren’t played for laughs, but do play off each other well as dickhead human antagonists. Seann William Scott (coming off AMERICAN PIE) is hit-or-miss as the would-be fireman. Dan Aykroyd is sadly underutilized as the city’s Mayor, while Julianne Moore is wasted on a one-joke character. The joke is that she’s clumsy and the movie gets all the mileage it can out of her tripping, dropping stuff, and running into things.

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The story itself is predictable. You won’t have a hard time at all guessing how everything will play out, but that’s doesn’t necessarily make the whole film bad as the encounters with the aliens themselves are fun. Some of the effects haven’t aged well over time, while others look impressive. One monster coming out of a lake is Syfy level quality of CGI these days, but looked pretty cool at the time this film was made. The alien designs are also creative with a green-skinned dog-like creature, winged dinosaurs, and blue-skinned apes being highlights. The movie too often relies on cheap, obvious humor, but even these moments can get still get a few laughs out of me.

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EVOLUTION is pretty much a shameless remake of GHOSTBUSTERS under a different name, complete with a climax involving characters wearing matching jump-suits to take down a giant otherworldly menace. The cast is a mixed bag with certain actors being highlights and others being wasted on bland characters. The aliens themselves are cool to look at and the scenes of our heroes fighting them are enjoyable. I won’t deny that my vision of this film might be slightly clouded by a nostalgic haze (I watched this a lot when I was a kid), but EVOLUTION stands as an entertaining guilty pleasure.

Grade: B-

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Crude and Sexual Content, Language throughout, some Violence and Drug Material

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Directed by: Seth MacFarlane

Written by: Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin & Wellesley Wild

Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Giovanni Ribisi, Neil Patrick Harris & Sarah Silverman

Seth MacFarlane has gained a massive audience from his various TV shows, some more successful than others (FAMILY GUY & AMERICAN DAD > THE CLEVELAND SHOW). In 2012, he surprised everybody with TED. This heavily R-rated comedy received solid response from critics and a hefty box office receipt from audiences. I originally expected TED to play out like one big extended FAMILY GUY skit and was pleasantly surprised to call it one of the funniest comedies of the new millennium. The same cannot be said of A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST. MacFarlane’s second directorial effort plays out like one big extended FAMILY GUY skit. It’s not horrible (as many reviews would have you believe), but it’s also still a disappointment. This is one of those sad occasions in which nearly every solid joke has been placed front and center in the marketing (including one cameo that was brilliant, but spoiled by a trailer). MacFarlane’s film is aiming for crude and raunchy humor, but commits the sins of either trying too hard or going long stretches without a single laugh.

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Albert Stark is a cowardly sheep farmer living in the small town of Old Stump. The year is 1882 and Stark despises everything to do with the Old West. It’s a dangerous time where everything seems out to kill you. From rattlesnakes on the outhouse trail to the doctor with radical medical theories, Stark does his best to avoid an untimely demise in a time where death is all too commonplace. Louise, his girlfriend, is tired of his behavior and leaves him for the mustachioed Foy. That’s when Anna (wife of the Clinch Leatherwood, the most notorious gunslinger around) strolls into town and Stark falls head over heels for her, unaware of her true identity. With Anna’s assistance, Stark trains to be a gunfighter and must man up if he wants to live to see another day as Clinch Leatherwood is on his way to town.

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The film’s plot isn’t necessarily as basic as the trailers have indicated. Things flow in one big chain-of-events and MacFarlane gets so wrapped up in telling his story that there are stretches (notably a long one in the middle) where I was thinking to myself that “We’ve gone a while without a single workable joke.” That’s already a bad sign with a comedy. A well-constructed comedy should move things along in a story while keeping you entertained with laughs all the way through. There shouldn’t be a long enough gap for the viewer to notice that they haven’t been given anything to laugh at for a sizable chunk of time.

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The all-star cast range from giving good performances and to dishing out some mediocre ones. Cameos are sprinkled throughout (some so quick that if you blink, you’re likely to miss them) and the most ingenious moment was already given away in the promotional material. As the leads, Seth MacFarlane and Charlize Theron are a bit bland. Amanda Seyfried is so-so in the role of Louise and didn’t get a single laugh out of me. Meanwhile, Liam Neeson is channeling the villainous Clinch Leatherwood as if the character is straight out of a serious Western. The coupling of Giovanni Ribisi (who provided the funniest scene in TED as far as I’m concerned) and Sarah Silverman as Stark’s best friends works well. Silverman’s prostitute character also has one of the most disgusting scenes in the entire film. The real scene-stealer is Neil Patrick Harris, who’s gleefully tearing up the screen as Foy wearing a glorious facial accessory (his well-greased fine-tuned moustache). Harris has the best lines, the best scenes, and gets the most laughs. He already proved in the HAROLD & KUMAR films that he can be hysterical and that’s certainly the case here.

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MacFarlane’s sense of humor either works for you or it doesn’t. This film isn’t aiming for the pinnacle of high comedic gold and it revels in gratuity. Some jokes feel dusty and others makes it seem like MacFarlane was trying too hard. There are enough satisfying laughs that make this a decent enough time-killer though. Swearing, modern phrases, genitalia, bodily functions, and plenty of racism is scattered all over the place and the movie revels in the crude content that would easily make it the favorite film of a rowdy pack of Junior High kids (in fact, I predict it will be in the near future). It’s funny, but there are stretches where the jokes fall flat or are entirely absent. Then there’s the overlong running time of the film that feels far more concerned with telling a story than receiving any laughs or even chuckles. A tighter running time and a simpler story might have sufficed for a more entertaining movie. Instead, the plot feels entirely too stretched for its own good and concludes on an oddly anti-climactic note for a movie that had been building up to a certain key moment.

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A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is enjoyable enough for some cheap laughs with friends. I wouldn’t recommend running out and paying full price to see this one on the big screen. This may be more enjoyable at a discount theater or as a Redbox rental. It’s an acceptable Western-Comedy (a subgenre that doesn’t seem to have any other movies besides BLAZING SADDLES), but not one I’d be particularly excited about watching again. It’s enjoyable at the time, but you’ll be struggling to remember any hilarious scenes by the end of the day.

Grade: C+

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