ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 25 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language including Sexual References, and brief Nudity

Directed by: Terry Jones

Written by: Terry Jones & Gavin Scott

Starring: Simon Pegg, Kate Beckinsale, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Rob Riggle, Eddie Izzard, Joanna Lumley, Robin Williams, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones & Michael Palin

Simon Pegg was funny in the Cornetto trilogy (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, HOT FUZZ, and THE WORLD’S END). Rob Riggle delivered some of the biggest laughs in both JUMP STREET films. Eddie Izzard’s stand-up comedy is hysterical, while Robin Williams is arguably one of the funniest men who ever lived. Also, the Monty Python troupe were groundbreaking for their irreverent humor and uniquely British sensibilities. With all of these funny and talented people crammed into one film, you’d think that ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING would, at the very least, be fun to watch. That’s what I thought and it turns out that I was sadly mistaken. Learn from my error and avoid this disappointing excuse for a comedy.

After a group of hyper-intelligent aliens (voiced by Monty Python) stumble across a space probe, the extraterrestrials begin a test to decide whether or not Earth needs to be destroyed. This test selects a random human and gives them god-like powers. Unluckily for us, that test subject is amateur writer/teacher Neil (Simon Pegg) and he begins using his amazing abilities to do absolutely anything (see what I did there?). Before you can say BRUCE ALMIGHTY, Neil’s powers start landing him in hot water as he tries to win over the affection of his neighbor Catherine (Kate Beckinsale).

One of ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING’s biggest problems stems from it feeling like a Monty Python sketch that was extended 75 minutes past the point of being funny. There are a couple of chuckles to be had here and there, but the script doesn’t have much compelling flow. The repeating joke is that Neil keeps wording his wishes incorrectly and hijinks ensue. Some of these bits run for almost all of the film (with one co-worker’s crush taking a cult-like turn), and others are over in a matter of minutes (wishing people back to life and winding up with a bunch of decaying zombies).

The film’s characters aren’t worth much either. Simon Pegg is playing a bland nobody and that might be part of the joke, but you’ve seen this type of boring protagonist a million times before. There’s nothing to this person. He’s boring and his biggest story arc is the clichéd motivation of trying to win his neighbor’s love. Kate Beckinsale attempts to make her love-interest/supporting character worth something and winds up with mixed results. She definitely delivers the biggest “life lesson” in a scene where she explains how god-like powers might not be the best thing ever. Also, Robin Williams’s final role was the voice of Neil’s dog Dennis. Much like the rest of the film’s attempts at humor, Williams’s sentient pooch gets a few chuckles at first and then becomes boring.

The biggest conflict comes from Rob Riggle as Catherine’s headstrong, cocky ex-boyfriend Grant. He only plays a tiny part in the film and brings a plot point that exists for a total of 10 minutes, coming off as lame and needlessly dark in the process. A pretty huge plot hole also rears its head during Riggle’s final minutes of screen time. It’s sad when the viewer can figure out how to get out of a dilemma before the main character can, but this protagonist is so much of an idiot that he doesn’t take advantage of an obvious flaw in the villain’s half-assed plan. Also, the Monty Python cast seem like they reunited purely as a favor for director/co-writer Terry Jones (one of the members of Monty Python). Eddie Izzard also shows up for about five minutes a strict head teacher, so there’s that.

ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING is a bland excuse for a comedy that wastes an unbelievable amount of talent. The premise might have made for a fun ten-minute skit, but it simply repeats its one-note beats for 85 minutes that drag out in a manner that feels like three hours. The film is a missed opportunity all around, but I don’t know if it ever had much of a chance with its flimsy concept. Pegg, Riggle, Williams, Izzard, Beckinsale, and the entire Monty Python troupe deserved better than this.

Grade: D

JUPITER ASCENDING (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Violence, Sequences of Sci-Fi Action, some Suggestive Content and partial Nudity

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Directed by: Lana Wachowski & Andrew Wachowski

Written by: Lana Wachowski & Andrew Wachowski

Starring: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Sean Bean, Tuppence Middleton, & Terry Gilliam

Ever since the MATRIX sequels, it seems like people are quick to rip apart the Wachowski siblings. While I don’t necessarily find RELOADED and REVOLUTIONS to as all out terrible as many do, I can fully admit that they’re nowhere near the level of the original MATRIX. The siblings quickly moved on from their newly carved science fiction trilogy to work on other interesting (if not financially successful) titles. V FOR VENDETTA is one of my favorite movies. I didn’t bother watching SPEED RACER (it doesn’t really appeal to me), but it looked like it was visually stunning. CLOUD ATLAS wound up being one of my favorite films of 2012 and I consider it criminally underrated. This all being said, JUPITER ASCENDING is the Wachowskis taking on aliens and winds up as an enjoyable (though flawed) space opera.

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Jupiter Jones is an illegal immigrant making her living through cleaning houses. She lives a fairly boring and mundane life. However, her world is far bigger than she imagined. For some unforeseen reason, Jupiter has become marked for death by an evil intergalactic ruler. Rescued by a splice (half-man, half-wolf) named Caine Wise, Jupiter discovers the true origins of Earth and her ultimate destiny. This also puts her in the path of the powerful Abrasax dynasty (three heirs with different motives). Jupiter is put on an adventure that will decide not only her fate, but the fate of mankind.

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JUPITER ASCENDING is a fun, goofy science-fiction adventure. The scale is highly ambitious and so are most of the ideas at work, although some plot points are familiar. The Wachowskis incorporate a concept used in their MATRIX trilogy through a not-so-subtle way (complete with long-winded speech from a villain). Even so, there’s a lot of creativity to be seen which include little winks at alien mythology (e.g. crop circles, conspiracy theorists, etc.). Some of the ideas don’t necessarily work though. Creatures called splices (half-man, half-animal) play a big part in the proceedings. While some of them look cool (Channing Tatum, a rat-like henchman), others look downright ridiculous (an owl guy and an elephant pilot). The sillier looking creatures kept me from being fully immersed in the story, which essentially boils down to a dysfunctional family feud over who owns the Earth.

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Performances range from good to awful. Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum are enjoyable in their roles, but they don’t necessarily seem to make these characters their own. Sean Bean is a welcome presence as a disgraced splice (half-man, half-bee) and there aren’t any other real heroes of note. The Abrasax dynasty reminded me a lot of the Henry VIII and his violent children. I kept thinking that their characters resembled the Tudors in space. Douglas Booth and Tuppence Middleton are solid in their roles as two powerful heirs, but Eddie Redmayne is awful. He uses a misguided soft-spoken, weirdly accented delivery that becomes unintentionally hilarious at points. Redmayne is supposed to be the menacing big bad villain, but comes off instead like a spoiled brat.

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Mixed bag acting and somewhat derivative story aside, JUPTER ASCENDING has great action sequences and lots of them. The design of some of the aliens (aforementioned splices, little green men, and winged reptiles) can be a tad distracting, but there’s still much excitement to be had in these long scenes. This being said, there are some downright painful moments of comic relief involving Jupiter’s family back on Earth. It’s a bit jarring to go from an intense space battle to a family dinner of people yelling at each other. These latter scenes feel like they’re from a completely different film. However, they’re mercifully short-lived compared to all the aliens, spaceships, and intergalactic politics.

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Though it’s far from great or arguably good, JUPITER ASCENDING is a decent flick. The film has its share of problems (silly creatures, brief tonal shifts, and Eddie Redmayne’s annoying villain), but has more strengths (beautiful visuals, huge ambition that pays off in areas, cool plot points, and exciting action scenes). I was entertained from start to finish and that’s really what I hope for in a space opera. There are definitely flaws in the film, but it’s nowhere near the disaster that many are calling it. You might be surprised by how much you actually like JUPITER ASCENDING.

Grade: B-

FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Extreme Drug Use and related Bizarre Behavior, Strong Language, and brief Nudity

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Directed by: Terry Gilliam

Written by: Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Alex Cox & Tod Davies

(based on the novel FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS by Hunter S. Thompson)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Tobey Maguire, Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, Cameron Diaz & Christopher Meloni

FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS didn’t do well upon release (grossing little over half its budget back) and surprisingly garnered a large cult following shortly after. However, it shouldn’t surprise many that this film is highly divisive. Like another movie that came out in the same year and similarly went on to be a highly regarded cult classic THE BIG LEBOWSKI, FEAR AND LOATHING lacks a solid three act structure. It’s a plot that wanders aimlessly for two hours, but the joy of spending time with these wacky characters and the surreal atmosphere makes this an entertaining experience for anybody who doesn’t mind an unconventional plot that’s more of an excuse to show frantic goings-on.

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Raoul Duke (Depp) is a journalist with the hot assignment of following a Las Vegas desert race. His lawyer, known simply as Dr. Gonzo (Del Toro), advises on renting a fast car and bringing a limitless supply of extreme drugs and narcotics. The two wind go to Vegas and get high off their asses. They travel to different casinos/hotels/theaters, encounter various oddball people, and wind up in a couple of tense circumstances (wrecking more than one hotel room along their way). Like I stated before, FEAR AND LOATHING isn’t so much about an interesting story as it is about spending time with these two lunatics (mainly Raoul Duke, as his inner monologue lays each situation out for the viewer) and laughing your ass off at their antics. It will either work for you or it won’t. It charmed me into liking this bizarre film based on the drug-fueled ravings of an author who pretty much went through the exact same experiences that Duke goes through in Vegas. The old saying of “write what you know” is very apparent here.

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Terry Gilliam is known for his weird sensibilities and quirky style. With off-center camera angles, various special effects, and two highly capable actors in the center roles, Gilliam has brought to life a mere two-hour film that gives the viewer the exact impression of what it feels like to be on drugs. I felt like I was high without ever once having to drink, smoke, snort, or inject something potentially dangerous into my body. This film might be described as the safest drug experience you’ll ever have and it’s legal. Through the script (also co-written by Gilliam, among three others) and direction, Gilliam captures paranoia, hallucinations, danger, fantasies and pleasure that come through Raoul Duke’s illegal adventure. The excellent choice of songs are a nice touch too.

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The biggest issue that many people might find annoying and did decrease some of my enjoyment/interest in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS is the lack of a flowing plot. The many appearances by big name celebrities ebb and flow through comedic scenes, some of them work and others don’t. Tobey Maguire as a disheveled nervous hitchhiker, Cameron Diaz as a reporter in an elevator, Gary Busey as a Nevada desert cop, and Christina Ricci is an artist of Barbara Streisand paintings. These are among many faces that quickly pop in and leave the film just as fast as they appeared. The story may be frenetic and an excuse for a series of drug-fuelled experiences in a city full of gambling, shows, and all sorts of craziness. Depp’s ranting and raving narration puts the viewer squarely into his life, which makes everything as coherent as it can be given the circumstances that frequently venture into hallucinations and hazy memories. It’s still enjoyable for anyone who loves Johnny Depp, the writings of Hunter S. Thompson, Terry Gilliam’s filmography, or all of the above.

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According to Terry Gilliam, Hunter S. Thompson was freaking out during his first viewing of FEAR AND LOATHING at a test screening. When asked about his vocal reactions and wild response to this adaptation of his work, Thompson related that it was like living the whole hellish experience all over again. With that seal of approval, you know that FEAR AND LOATHING greatly accomplishes what it set out to do. However, your enjoyment will purely depend on what that means to you. Frankly, I have never done drugs, drank or smoked and don’t plan on it because these things are simply not for me. FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS is a wonderfully weird cinematic experience that puts you in the constant drug-addled mind of its main character. I can definitely understand the love for FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (like the love for the similarly wild BIG LEBOWSKI) and appreciate the cult following it has gained, but I only like the film. It’s one I will definitely watch again in the future, but I’ll have to be in the mood for it. FEAR AND LOATHING is the closest thing the world will get to a legal form of binging on ether, pills and other hallucinogenic drugs.

Grade: B

MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

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Directed by: Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones

Written by: Monty Python

Starring: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, & Michael Palin

Monty Python is a group reveling in absurd humor. Their first film was an anthology consisting of the best sketches the early seasons of their show had to offer, but HOLY GRAIL was the troupe’s first real feature. It serves more like an excuse to connect a series of original skits. The special thing about this material is that all of the laughs revolve around the legend of King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail. It should come as no surprise that Monty Python’s dedicated fanbase have since made HOLY GRAIL into one of the biggest cult classics of cinematic history. I watched this film many times in my childhood and found it hilarious back then. Years have passed and this was my first viewing in a long time. Truth be told, I now find it to be slightly overrated, although there are still plenty of wacky antics to be had.

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King Arthur gathers a band of trusty knights and is appointed by God to find the Holy Grail. The knights stick together in the first and last third of the film, but there’s also a good chunk of the middle portion that revolves around the separate knights on their own individual searches for the blessed artifact. In these segments (ranging from as short as three minutes to about 7 minutes long) they each encounter unique dangers. The oddball animation frequently seen in the FLYING CIRCUS series makes an appearance here and the humor is totally surreal. This movie in no way, shape or form tries to take itself seriously. This provides lots of silly scenes that either hit or miss, depending on what jokes work for each viewer.

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To be honest, I’m a bit disappointed that this film wasn’t nearly as hysterical as I remember it being. Nostalgia definitely has a factor in the enjoyment level. If you didn’t grow up with HOLY GRAIL, then you’re not likely to love it as much as everybody else. Certain jokes feel really forced in areas. Sir Galahad’s encounter at the Castle Anthrax is among one of the more annoying scenes in the movie. At one point in that sketch, the characters even break the fourth wall and ask if the scene should have been cut. The answer is yes, because it’s not on the same level as most of the ridiculous moments on display. Another sequence that feels like the Monty Python group is trying too hard involves evil knights that say the dreaded word “Ni!” Those are just two of a handful of jokes that aren’t that solid to begin with, but drag on too long.

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With these more annoying bits aside, the movie is genuinely funny in plenty of areas. The Monty Python team take on multiple roles (Michael Palin plays more than 10 characters) and it’s quite entertaining to spot their familiar faces over and over in different scenes. Some actors even talk to themselves (dressed in different clothing) during some moments. The film makes no qualms about the shoe-string budget it was filmed on, going so far as to poke fun at the low-quality of sets and use actors banging coconuts together to simulate sounds of horses clopping. The highlights include a vicious Black Knight, a cave guarded by a hideous creature (anybody who’s seen this film knows which specific scene I’m referring to), a historian narrator, and Sir Lancelot’s adventure.

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This is a film that I really can’t critique in the same sense that I review a traditional narrative. HOLY GRAIL doesn’t have so much a story, but rather a bunch of set-pieces that are loosely connected in the King Arthur legend. The quality ranges from excellent to iffy, but no scenes is outright horrible or bad. The movie is self-aware and its sudden conclusion (a joke within itself) may disappoint some viewers. I didn’t find HOLY GRAIL to be as awesome as I remember it being and the acclaimed reputation is a little much. This still stands as ridiculous fun, but younger viewers are likely to enjoy it more than adults.

Grade: B

BRAZIL (1985)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Strong Violence

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Directed by: Terry Gilliam

Written by: Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, Charles McKeown

Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Michael Palin, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Bob Hoskins, Ian Holm, Jim Broadbent

BRAZIL is George Orwell’s 1984 with a sense of humor. This is an overly comical view of a depressing industrial world where paperwork proceeds every tiny action. This is a bleak future where a totalitarian government monitors everything, keeps the public in a constant state of fear from supposed unseen terrorists, and specializes in making free-thinkers simply vanish in the blink of an eye. BRAZIL, much like 1984, strongly resembles some issues currently happening in various countries around the world. Besides maintaining some solid laughs throughout, the film also is unrelentingly dark and never loses focus of the story being told. This is the kind of science fiction satire that simultaneously made me laugh and want to cry from the dire circumstances unfolding before my eyes.

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In a metallic-tinted bureaucratic-laced future, Sam Lowry lives a perfectly suitable existence in his meager position as a low-level government worker. He has frequent dreams about flying the skies and rescuing a beautiful girl he has never met before, but is completely content with his way of life. After a minor error is made in a typewriter that sends an innocent man to a horrible fate, Sam finds himself caught in the web of dangerous repercussions following that paperwork mistake and indeed trying to save the very girl of his dreams.

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To give anything more specific away would spoil some of the fun. The plot of BRAZIL is at the same time overly complicated and extremely simple, much like the processing system of the asinine society running the show. The film also blends the dark nature of the plot with frequent laughs. One thing that should be noted about the tone is that it grows progressively more grim as things go along. The first 40 minutes are comedic genius and then things begin to get more twisted and serious. If you go into this film expecting an all-out comedic tour-de-force, then you’ll finish the experience mighty depressed from just how alike it is to 1984 (a story you really have to prep yourself for due to the sheer unrelenting bleakness of the content).

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The real complaint I have about BRAZIL is that the movie comes close to wearing out its welcome on more than one occasion. There were some scenes that could have easily been cut. The film runs at over two hours (nearly two and a half if you’re watching the director’s cut). It’s not that things drag out to the point of being insufferable, but some sequences do seem to go on a bit too long. One thing that might annoy certain viewers, but I totally dug it was that lots of different variations of the song “Brazil” were used throughout the entire film. I know there was probably some other music in the score, but that piece of music (used hauntingly as the end credits roll) will forever stick out in my mind when this film is brought up in conversation. Some of the running gags (of which there are quite a few) work better than others, but I did appreciate that there were still some chuckles as the story tauntingly played with my emotions.

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Terry Gilliam is known for being a visionary director and that’s certainly the case here. Every little detail added to the sets is well-realized. Little touches to this world only further enhance the sensation that I was looking into a vision of the future and what I saw made me wish that tomorrow would never come. The depressing roots of 1984, which Gilliam admitted to liberally borrowing from, are still very much intact in Gilliam’s vision of Orwell’s novel. In fact, I’d dare say that the final 30 minutes play out like one long extended nightmare that had me glued to the screen.

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As far as the cast goes, there are some great performances and a notably mediocre one. Jonathan Pryce is a phenomenal lead and it helps that Sam Lowry is a likable character. He signifies a good man trying to keep his moral compass in a broken society, which makes his struggles all the more difficult to watch. Katherine Helmond, covered with layers of make-up, appears as Price’s mother at varying ages and a friend of hers provides one of the best recurring jokes throughout the film. Those interested in seeing younger versions of Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent, and Ian Holm need look no further as they appear as a maintenance man, a plastic surgeon, and Price’s boss, respectively. Robert De Niro has a few scenes as a wanted would-be terrorist that are entertaining. The only real let-down is Kim Greist as Price’s love interest. I don’t know which direction to point the blame in. Her character isn’t exactly given a lot of development, but Greist doesn’t raise her above a one-note rebellious damsel-in-distress whom Price to trying to save.

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BRAZIL may wind up pushing the time limit this story might have been told in (over two hours was a tad too long) and some jokes may fall flat, but it remains a wonderful classic dystopian future tale. One entirely forgettable love interest aside, the film is packed full of colorful characters and great performances. The contrast of dark material and quirky humor works wonders, though the humor really begins to disappear as the film reaches nightmarish levels in the final act. Gilliam’s unofficial adaptation of Orwell’s famous novel is weird, strange, oddly funny, and doesn’t skimp on the entirely grim subject matter within the book. I recommend bracing yourself for a tough, heady piece of art before sitting down to watch BRAZIL. This all being said, the film is phenomenal and comes highly recommended for those wanting something completely out of the ordinary.

Grade: A-

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