THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, Sexual Content and some Drug Use

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Directed by: Shawn Levy

Written by: Jonathan Tropper

(based on the novel THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU by Jonathan Tropper)

Starring: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Abigail Spencer, Dax Shepard & Jane Fonda

A lot of inherent problems arise when families get together. Sibling rivalries reignite, relatives are embarrassed that they aren’t quite where they want to be in their life, and there’s just the plain awkwardness of being around your in-laws. It’s a messy scenario that rears its head around holidays, reunions, and in unfortunate circumstances in the death of a loved one. THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU tackles such problems and is based on the bestselling novel by Jonathan Tropper with a screenplay adapted by the author of the source material. The film has made its rounds at festivals like Toronto International and boasts a lot of big names. Though its receiving lukewarm reception at the moment, THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU is a very enjoyable slice-of-life mix between semi-realistic drama and awkward comedy that will entertain adults looking for something specifically geared towards the age crowd of early 20 somethings and onward.

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Judd Altman has always lived his simple life in hopes that he could avoid the exact rough patch he’s currently in. Finding his wife in bed with his boss, Judd is going through a divorce and lost his job. To make matters even worse, his terminally ill father has passed away sooner than expected. To honor his dad’s last wish, he and the rest of his family (mother, sister, two brothers, and their in-laws) are living together under one roof for a week. As if things couldn’t be complicated enough, each family member is going through a bad spot of their own. Wendy is his sister trapped in a loveless marriage with two kids. Paul is the eldest brother trying to have a baby with his wife, but finding it’s far more difficult for them than expected, Phillip is a young playboy going through an Oedipus-complex of sorts by dating his far older therapist. Finally, their mother Hillary is over sharing and overbearing. This group of people and their in-laws are trapped together for seven days. In the tagline from a certain horror film, who will survive and what will be left of them…

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I won’t be shocked if THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU winds up being an unsung gem of 2014. I was far more convinced that THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU was a realistic story examining both sadness and humor that life brings than many other drama-comedies from recent years (e.g. this year’s WISH I WAS HERE). It really helps that all of the main cast members have chemistry together and make this feel like an honest-to-God family rather than just an excuse for an ensemble film. The family may be highly dysfunctional (comically in ways, hence the well-deserved laughs at characters’ expenses), but I cared about each individual, their problems and their relationships to some degree. Not every issue gets easily solved either or fixed at all. Much like our own lives, certain problems must be endured or left to fate.

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Not everything is solid in THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU as a few plot elements are predictable. A fling between Jason Bateman’s Judd and a character named Penny (played by Rose Byrne) plays out in a familiar way. The scenes between them do build to a satisfying conclusion, but they almost felt a little too played up in a film that’s focusing on real-life problems that many people go through. There are also too many sappy one-on-one talks between characters that all focus on the same kind of thing: character has a problem, other character comforts them, both walk away happy. That’s fine a handful of times, but it got laughable at one point to almost a Lifetime Channel degree. The cheesy soundtrack doesn’t do the film any favors either, making some already corny dialogue seem even more clichéd.

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Even with all of the problems listed, the chemistry between the main characters is what sold me on really enjoying this film. I’d say the two stand-outs are Jason Bateman as a character with real dramatic weight behind him and Tina Fey as his sister trapped in the loveless marriage. Both are given a lot of range to play with and use it to their advantage in their performances. The rest of the cast (some of whom I didn’t recognize at all) do a solid job as well with three exceptions. Those would be Rose Byrne (who feels like she’s from a typical rom-com), Timothy Olyphant (whose inclusion was almost entirely pointless), and Dax Shepherd (who’s acting like he’s from a completely different kind of movie). Luckily, the focus is on the Altman family, instead of these weak side characters serving as means to an end.

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THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU can sometimes get cheesy (especially in repetitive conversations and a bad soundtrack), but I was entertained by this little dramedy a lot more than I thought I would be going in. It’s an uplifting film that tackles real-world problems (one could argue too many problems and in a few misguided ways) in a fashion that comes off as sad and funny because it’s kind of accurate. The main cast sell their roles as a troubled family with real chemistry, while the side characters could have been completely ripped out of the film and it would have possibly been even better for that. THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU is a good date movie or a decent watch if you want an uplifting mix of drama and comedy.

Grade: B-

MUPPETS MOST WANTED (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some mild Action

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Directed by: James Bobin

Written by: Nicholas Stoller & James Bobin

Starring: Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey, Steve Whitmore, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, Peter Linz, Zach Galifianakis, Salma Hayek, Tom Hiddleston, Frank Langella, Ray Liotta, James McAvoy, Chloe Grace Moretz, Danny Trejo, Stanley Tucci & Christoph Waltz

In 2011, those lovable oddball puppets known as the Muppets appeared in the aptly titled THE MUPPETS. While I liked that film to a certain degree, it was a tad underwhelming and never really focused on what made the Muppets so successful to begin with. With MUPPETS MOST WANTED, the humans play side characters and the Muppets themselves take center stage for this caper-adventure-musical. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a great romp nonetheless!

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“The End” remains in the sky formed from fireworks at the closing of the last film. The cameras are still rolling. This obviously means that the studio wants a sequel (as Gonzo sings “at least until Tom Hanks does TOY STORY 4”). So the Muppets meet with a manager, named Dominic Badguy (pronounced Bad-gee), and sign up for a worldwide tour. Meanwhile, a criminal frog named Constantine escapes from a high-security prison in Russia. Kermit accidentally runs into him and Constantine cleverly switches places. Posing as the host of the Muppet show (and doing a bad voice impression of Kermit), Constantine is in cahoots with Badguy. Together they are pulling off a series of intricate heists and using the Muppet tour to avoid suspicion. With Kermit locked away in the Russian slammer, it’s up to a small group of Muppets to rescue Kermit, take down Constantine, and save the day!

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Though the opening musical number states that “sequels aren’t ever quite as good”, I found MUPPETS MOST WANTED to be a significant step up from the predecessor. Considering this is actually the eighth installment of their theatrical films, the Muppets haven’t lost their witty humor and still know how to win over a crowd. Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll spot a ton of celebrity cameos throughout. None of these are distracting. I’d dare say that some of them are nothing short of brilliant. One of which actually got a cheer from numerous people in my theater. The Muppets (though undeniably puppets) have a charming lifelike quality that is just as effective as the living people surrounding them. Certain humans stand out more than others. Ricky Gervais is clearly having a blast playing Badguy and provides a lot of solid laughs. The relationship between Ty Burrel’s Interpol agent and CIA agent Sam the Eagle that was my favorite part of the film. Those two cracked me up constantly and it was almost like the Muppets do a cop drama with the intended hilarious results.

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Some people have praised Tina Fey’s performance as the singing Russian prison officer. I actually didn’t like her character much and found her to be more annoying than anything else. The songs, while catchy in the context of the film, didn’t stick with me after I was done watching it (unlike other Muppet films). The running time of almost two hours long feels a tad stretched too. I never got bored, but I could feel that some scenes were going on a little longer than they needed to. It’s the one of same problems that 2011’s THE MUPPETS suffered from and I did enjoy MUPPETS MOST WANTED so much more than that initial let-down. These flaws take things down a notch, but it remains solid wholesome entertainment for the entire family.

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Though I did have some problems with the film, MUPPETS MOST WANTED is ultimately a cheerful upbeat tale that will delight both adults and children alike. The songs work in the film and it’s clear that all the stops were pulled out to treat this caper as a legitimate adventure…that just happens to have Muppets. MUPPETS MOST WANTED ranks just behind MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND (which still remains my favorite film starring this group of oddballs). The never-ending sense of humor and rapid fire pace of the jokes themselves (though the plot could have used a shorter running time) are both enough to warrant a solid recommendation. Welcome back, Muppets! You’ve been missed!

Grade: B

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