THE GAME (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, and for some Violence and Sexuality

Directed by: David Fincher

Written by: John Brancato & Michael Ferris

Starring: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, James Rebhorn, Deborah Kara Unger, Peter Donat, Carroll Baker, Armin Mueller-Stahl & Anna Katarina

Despite getting off to a rocky start with ALIEN 3, director David Fincher demonstrated his masterful cinematic storytelling in 1995’s crime-thriller SE7EN. Audiences seemed primed and ready for a follow-up thriller from Fincher, but 1997’s THE GAME grossed below studio expectations and typically isn’t one of the first titles that gets brought up in conversations about Fincher. While it certainly isn’t on the same high quality as Fincher’s perfect thrillers, THE GAME is a tense ride that keeps your eyeballs glued to the screen. In some ways, THE GAME feels like the feature-length version of a good TWILIGHT ZONE episode, which means that it comes with many positive qualities and a few noticeable problems.

Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is a super wealthy banker who (despite living in a huge mansion and having a lavish lifestyle) just can’t seem to relax and enjoy life. When Nick’s younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn) comes to town, it appears that Nick’s life just might change in exciting and potentially dangerous ways. Conrad gives Nick the unique birthday present of an interactive game that’s specifically tailored for each player. The strange gaming company CRS soon infiltrates Nick’s life seemingly everywhere he turns. Soon enough, Nick is being thrust into deadly scenarios and begins to doubt that he’ll survive this sinister “game.”

I’ve only seen a handful of Michael Douglas performances (I still need to watch WALL STREET), but THE GAME’s protagonist seems perfectly made for this actor’s style. Douglas comes off as a convincing tightwad, rich guy asshole and I was wondering if I’d be able to feel anything for this prick of a protagonist during the film’s first fifteen minutes. However, Douglas’s character does reveal a more human, emotional side as this “game” pushes him to his breaking point (both mentally and physically). Douglas gets to show a range of acting as his character goes through periods of depression, desperation, fear, anger, and determination. Michael Douglas acts his ass off and it’s a joy to watch.

The supporting cast doesn’t exactly have a big range of names as a lot of CRS employees and business colleagues only show up for a single scene or a couple of brief moments. Sean Penn makes the most of his small role as Nick’s desperate brother and gets to deliver a bombshell scene midway through that makes the already intense thriller even more intense. Deborah Kara Unger plays Christine, a waitress caught up in the middle of the game and also a potential love interest for Douglas. James Rebhorn is appropriately creepy as a CRS spokesman who introduces Douglas’s character to the potentially fatal “game.”

Because THE GAME is a David Fincher film, you can bet your bottom dollar that the cinematography looks slick and atmospheric. Fincher’s distinct visual style (that often has a unique feeling of bleakness to it) adds a layer of seriousness to material that (to be honest) dangerously comes close to being goofy and over-the-top. The viewer really needs to suspend their disbelief at certain points in the script to make this story work, but that doesn’t lessen the constant suspense. Much like Nick, we never quite know what is real and what is part of the “game.” We only have an idea that this won’t end well for the formerly Scrooge-like protagonist who’s finding his humanity as he’s trying to save his own skin.

THE GAME’s problems stem from plot holes that rear their ugly heads during the final minutes. The script went to the trouble of including lines of dialogue that fill in certain gaps and let the viewer know that there were other possibilities during certain scenes. However, a couple of big moments seem to rely on certain characters being omnipotent. One major scene has similar flaw that was pointed out and made fun of in DUMB AND DUMBER (of all things, and that film came out three years earlier than THE GAME’s release). I couldn’t help but think back to one line of dialogue and laugh my ass off, because that scene in THE GAME really falls apart when you think about it.

THE GAME is another solid thriller in David Fincher’s stellar filmography, even though it’s not quite on the same level of his other thrillers (e.g. SE7EN, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, GONE GIRL, etc.). There’s lots of suspense and entertainment to be found in this film, but you do have to buy into some pretty far-fetched ideas and silly coincidences (particularly in the action-driven finale). Michael Douglas’s performance is so good that it’s worth watching the entire film just to see it. However, constant twists (as silly as they get) and the thick atmosphere are likely to keep you hooked. As silly and ridiculous as THE GAME can be, it still remains a damn good thriller that’s worth watching. If you can overlook certain plot points, you might love it more than I did.

Grade: B+

FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982)

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+

THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Rude Humor and Action

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Directed by: Clay Kaytis & Fergal Reilly

Written by: Mikael Hed, Mikko Polla & John Cohen

(based on the video game ANGRY BIRDS by Rovio Entertainment)

Voices of: Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, Peter Dinklage, Kate McKinnon, Sean Penn, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key & Blake Shelton

I wasn’t expecting THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE to be great. After all, this film is based on an addicting cell phone app. That’s the current state of the film industry though, where a TETRIS trilogy gets greenlit and an EMOJI MOVIE is currently in production. I watched ANGRY BIRDS with hopes that it might be serviceable family entertainment. Not up to Disney or Pixar standards, but somewhere along the lines of a lesser DreamWorks film. I was horribly mistaken. THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE is one of the worst animated films I’ve seen in a long time and it’s not like this film doesn’t have good production values behind it either. ANGRY BIRDS features a talented voice cast and has solid animation, but the script is offensively lazy and a large portion of the jokes fall flat.

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On the aptly named Bird Island, easily infuriated Red (Jason Sudeikis) has been sentenced to anger management. In this frustrating program, the red flightless bird reluctantly befriends speedy Chuck (Josh Gad) and explosive Bomb (Danny McBride). Red’s anger management classes encounter unexpected turbulence when a mysterious ship arrives, filled with green pigs. The pigs are led by charismatic leader Leonard (Bill Hader), who quickly becomes popular in the bird community. However, Red becomes suspicious of these pigs and is written off as paranoid by his fellow feathered citizens. Soon enough, the outcast trio of angry birds become the only hope for Bird Island’s unhatched eggs.

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To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t exactly sold on ANGRY BIRDS being a film from the get-go. The marketing was lame, but I heard a few surprisingly positive reviews and the animation looked good. This film was made by Finnish company Rovio Entertainment, the very same company that made the ANGRY BIRDS app to begin with, and currently holds the record for the largest budget in Finnish film history. Apparently those investments paid off for them, because this film banked at the box office and there’s already a sequel in the works. Why am I discussing the production of this film, rather than the qualities of the movie itself? Well, those details seem remarkably more interesting than anything I can really say about this dull slog of wasted animation.

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The film’s story seems to be making itself up as it goes along, with many filler scenes before the all too brief conflict between angry birds and green pigs. This film seems like an origin story for the ANGRY BIRDS universe, but forgets part of why that game was so enjoyable in the first place. You’re launching birds at evil green pigs to retrieve eggs. This movie takes over an hour before it finally reaches that point, not that it necessarily would have been better to watch birds vs. pigs for an hour of screen time. What I’m getting at is that THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE runs way too long. This film could have easily been shortened by 20 or 30 minutes and it would have made for a less painful experience.

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The film’s talented voice cast is completely wasted on bottom-of-the-barrel potty humor and pop culture references. Both of those can be well-executed in kid’s films, but ANGRY BIRDS drops the ball numerous times. There’s a forced SHINING reference with two pigs, a Calvin Klein ad with a pig, cholesterol jokes and plenty of substituted profanity (e.g. “Peck my life” and “Shell yes”). Are we laughing yet? Well, if those don’t do it for you, surely you’ll be rolling in the aisle from lame bird puns, a sequence of a snot-nosed bird flying through the air and smearing mucus everywhere, butts being thrown into other birds faces, and an elongated pee joke that’s already been spoiled in the trailer. It’s a wonder that THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE wound up hitting 3,932 theaters, because this thing feels like it should be debuting direct-to-video in Redbox and discount Wal-Mart bins.

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Are there any redeeming qualities to ANGRY BIRDS? Well, two adult-aimed jokes are genuinely clever and the animation is fun to look at. I’m not going to pretend like I’m the target audience for THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE, because I’m clearly not. However, THE LEGO MOVIE also sounded stupid in theory and wound up being one of the best films of 2014. It’s possible to make any idea, regardless of how idiotic and stupid it sounds, into a great or fun film, if there’s enough talent, effort and love thrown into the project. THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE is not that kind of movie. Instead, this lazy cash-grab will probably occupy bored children for 97 minutes, but likely won’t do much for teenage viewers and adults.

Grade: D

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Some Crude Comments, Language and Action Violence

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Directed by: Ben Stiller

Written by: Steve Conrad

(based on the short story THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY by James Thurber)

Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Sean Penn & Patton Oswalt

This is the second adaptation of a short story that has been regarded in many circles as a mini-masterpiece. The 1947 adaptation of the tale didn’t stay true to the written work. Taking in that logic, why should this second adaptation be any different? In fact, this new version of THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY uses the concept of the story to tell an entirely new (though familiar) tale.

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Walter Mitty is an ordinary guy with his mind in the clouds daydreaming about fantastical deeds and being the hero that he doesn’t see himself as. When his job is threatened due to a missing photograph of mass importance, Walter slowly opens up to romance the co-worker he’s had a crush on and finds himself on a real life adventure to find the freelance photographer’s missing photo.

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About a third of the film takes place inside the confines of Walter’s daydreams and these are brought to life via spectacular effects. However, the movie isn’t all about Walter’s imagination running wild, because this is a journey of self-discovery. The story itself doesn’t really cover any new or unfamiliar ground, but it just happens to be done extraordinarily well. Ben Stiller pulls double-duty behind and in front of the camera. Surprisingly, this is probably the finest Ben Stiller performance I’ve seen. He gives the viewer a remarkable insight into the character of Walter.

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Besides Stiller, the cast also sports Kristen Wiig as Walter’s crush, Adam Scott as Mitty’s verbally abusive boss, the frequent voice of Patton Oswalt as an online-dating company representative, and Sean Penn in a brief (but powerful) scene as famed photographer Sean O’Connell. Every cast member pulls their weight to present these characters as always centered in the real world. For a budget of 90 million dollars, WALTER MITTY certainly seems to have used every cent in the best possible way. This is about telling a great story with a great message behind it that can be taken to heart by anybody (young or old). The cast, amazing cinematography, and enjoyable screenplay all contribute to a simply all around impressive experience.

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Of course, the film isn’t perfect and there are two problems that weighed it down. The story is predictable. We all have ideas to where it’s going and I guessed every single one of the plot points on the mark. One of the final shots of the film is supposed to resonate a lot of power and meaning. It did to some extent, but I felt a bit of that was lost due to some seriously obvious clues put right in front of the viewer’s face to guess what conclusion the story will take.

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Secondly, some of the pacing is a bit off. There are plenty of beautiful and simply awesome moments throughout the movie, but there are also some scenes that seem to go on for too long. Some mild dragging takes place in the middle portion of the film. It felt like the adventure was interrupted for both Walter and the viewer (in a few ways, it was). When the film picks back up though, it’s thoroughly entertaining and somewhat makes up for the plodding moments. I felt that THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY didn’t need to be just shy of two hours long, but maybe that’s just me.

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Even with these faults, it shouldn’t be overlooked that the very essence of THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is uplifting and has the viewer walking out with a sense of how wonderful life itself is, without ever being cheesy. This is a celebration of the everyday man and seizing the opportunities put in front of us. The message that I felt was that we only have a certain amount of time on this Earth, but the way WALTER MITTY shows it is far from depressing or off-putting. It’s a movie about living and how truly wonderful that is! Though it’s got a few stumbles, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY comes highly recommended!

Grade: B+

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