ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE (1994)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Off-Color Humor and some Nudity

Directed by: Tom Shadyac

Written by: Jack Bernstein, Tom Shadyac & Jim Carrey

Starring: Jim Carrey, Courtney Cox, Sean Young, Tone Loc, Dan Marino, John Capodice, Noble Willingham, Troy Evans, Raynor Scheine & Udo Kier

Jim Carrey may not be nearly as big now as he once was, but this hyperactive performer owned the box office during the 90s. His first box office hit was ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE and this film didn’t exactly fare well with critics. However, it banked with audiences and has a rather large fanbase. I loved both ACE VENTURA movies when I was a kid, so I decided to revisit them to see how they held up over the past two decades. Though ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE has a decent amount of laughs and surprisingly crafts a clever animal-centric mystery, this comedy is a bit scattershot. Carrey fans and nostalgic viewers will likely get enjoyment out of it, but this film hasn’t exactly aged well.

Ace Ventura (Jim Carrey) is a pet detective who specializes in rescuing kidnapped animals. After the Miami Dolphins bottlenose mascot Snowflake is stolen from its tank, Ace Ventura is hired by team publicist Melissa Robinson (Courtney Cox). While on the case, Ace finds himself beset by strange clues and hindered by stubborn Lieutenant Lois Einhorn (Sean Young). As the mystery gets weirder, Ace soon discovers that the kidnapping might be the beginning of a more sinister plot and there may be lives on the line. This hyperactive pet detective must rescue Snowflake before it’s too late…and also hopefully not get killed in the process.

In many ways, ACE VENTURA is film of its time. This movie mostly shows its age through Jim Carrey’s zany performance as the titular pet detective. This project was filmed when Jim Carrey was relatively unknown. The biggest things on his resume were the sketch show IN LIVING COLOR and horror-comedy ONCE BITTEN. Carrey hadn’t quite honed in on his unique brand of over-the-top humor. To say that his performance is manic would be putting it mildly. He’s practically bouncing off the walls of the sets and channels a seemingly uncontrollable urge to make the viewer laugh at all costs. Sometimes, his hyperactive mannerisms work. Other times, he’s trying way too hard to get a chuckle (e.g. making his ass talk, referencing a quick TV show or movie, etc.).

Carrey is the main star here and the supporting cast members/characters are almost inconsequential. Courtney Cox plays a love-interest and semi-sidekick, but there are chunks of the story where the viewer almost completely forgets about her character’s existence. The same can be said of Tone Loc as Ace’s police officer friend, because he has about five minutes of screen time and pretty much serves as a plot device. Meanwhile, Sean Young is memorable for many reasons as the frustrated lieutenant who hates Ace with every fiber of her being. You will definitely not forget her character and a few of her scenes were really raunchy for the time…especially in a PG-13 movie.

PET DETECTIVE’s funniest bits come in a shark tank sequence and a montage of Ace investigating a series of rings. Most surprisingly, ACE VENTURA works a bit better as a pet-oriented mystery than it does a ridiculous comedy. There are unexpected twists and moments of genuinely clever writing that slap the viewer upside the head. A certain element of the plot sparked controversy upon the film’s release and is sure to offend certain sensitive viewers in our current political climate, but I recommend looking at this “offensive” element as a crude joke from an early-90s atmosphere (when times were different). Also, it’s worth noting that Carrey purposely wanted this plot development to be completely wacky to the point where nobody would take it seriously at all.

Even though ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE was the film that launched Jim Carrey into superstardom, this first “pet dick” flick isn’t one of his best films and I’d say that it isn’t even the best film in the short-lived ACE VENTURA franchise. There are enough chuckles and pieces of smart writing to combat the film’s flat moments and Carrey’s early “trying too hard” obnoxiousness. If you enjoy Jim Carrey, then you’re bound to find (at the very least, mild) entertainment in ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE. If you find Jim Carrey to be annoying, this film likely won’t do much for you.

Grade: B-

SURVIVING CHRISTMAS (2004)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sexual Content, Language and a brief Drug Reference

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Directed by: Mike Mitchell

Written by: Deborah Kaplan, Harry Elfont, Jeffrey Ventimilia & Joshua Sternin

Starring: Ben Affleck, James Gandolfini, Christina Applegate, Catherine O’Hara, Josh Zuckerman, Jennifer Morrison, Udo Kier & Stephen Root

If you try to force anything, it usually winds up badly. Hence the main problem with SURVIVING CHRISTMAS. This lame holiday box-office bomb hasn’t gone on to make much of an impression in the decade following its release. This was also at the peak of Ben Affleck gaining his “bad actor who will do anything for a paycheck” reputation that he’s recently shaken off. SURVIVING CHRISTMAS doesn’t offer many good things to praise or much to write about at all, so this will be a rather short review on the basis of how predictable and stale the whole film is.

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Drew Latham is a millionaire lacking in real friends and family. With the prospect of spending yet another holiday season by himself, Drew decides to rent a family for Christmas. The unlikely candidates are the Valcos, consisting of father, mother, teenage son, and adult daughter. They enter into a legally binding contract to fulfill every single one of Drew’s holiday needs for a hefty sum of money. This puts a lot of stress on an already troubled family and Drew acts like a total jackass. Sound hilarious yet? Wait, it gets wackier. When the Valcos’ adult daughter comes home to the find the ridiculous charade, Drew begins to fall for her. Bet you can’t guess where this is all going. The movie can’t either, because it has to throw in pieces of filler and sub-plots (that are even more far-fetched than the premise) to scrape by the obligatory 90 minute running time.

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The most I can give SURVIVING CHRISTMAS is that it made me chuckle twice, but that’s about it. Even then, there wasn’t any full-on laughter happening and it was at the expense of these dumb characters. Every person in the movie is repugnant, especially Drew. We’re expected to laugh with, sympathize (at a certain point and onwards) with and ultimately care for this asshole who’s so superficial that he’s ripping a family apart during Christmas. The main premise might have made for a clever dark comedy that wasn’t trying to include a sappy romance and throw drama into the mix. Instead, the movie is just plain stupid and moves through the overly familiar motions at a sluggish pace.

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A sign that the film you’re watching might be total crap comes when the whole story feels like it’s being driven by the soundtrack. This is the most obnoxious music I’ve heard in a movie for quite some time. Humor is subjective, so there may be a few people who like this film. Nothing against them, but this felt like it was a Lifetime original movie. Wait, that’s too good for it. This 2004 dud felt like a PG-13 version of an extended FULL HOUSE holiday special. All that was missing was a laugh track and it would have blended right into the uninspired blandness of forced sitcom garbage. I survived SURVIVING CHRISTMAS and I don’t intend to every sit through it again. Avoid this film in the same way that you would an expired fruitcake!

Grade: D-

SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (2000)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

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

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Directed by: E. Elias Merhige

Written by: Steven Katz

Starring: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack, Eddie Izzard & John Aden Gillet

SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE sounds like a blast right from the premise. It’s a macabrely clever blending of history and horror for a vampire film that’s truly one of a kind. The movie boasts talented actors and fantastic art direction. SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE was actually nominated for two Academy Awards after its release (Best Supporting Actor and Best Makeup). Despite all of these things, the film remains a hidden gem in the horror genre and a treasure for cinephiles familiar with the German Expressionism movement in the early years of cinema.

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The year is 1921. Famed German director F.W. Murnau has been denied the rights to produce an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA, but proceeds to do so anyway by changing the names of characters and adding the title NOSFERATU. Instead of Count Dracula, the vampire is Count Orlok. The production crew hear rumors that Murnau has picked a most unusual performer for the role and these are confirmed by the arrival of method actor Max Schreck. Schreck frankly scares the bejesus out of everyone on the set with his realistic take on the undead ghoul. All the while, it appears that Murnau is going off the deep end to perfect his masterpiece. He couldn’t have taken radical steps and hired an actual vampire to star in his film, could he? Though that might explain why certain members of the crew are going missing…

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It’s not a huge spoiler to say that this is a horror movie and there are only so many ways this premise can play out. SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE has stellar moments, a show-stopping climax, and manages to add its own spin on actual history. F.W. Murnau was known for being a bit eccentric on his sets and Max Schreck was a method actor who did scare everyone on the set of NOSFERATU by never breaking character. Filmmaking was a far more intricate art form in this time period too. A single flaw in an unbroken shot could screw up a day’s work. Screenwriter Steven Katz uses all of this knowledge to his full advantage. The whole story is further brought to life by an absolutely beautiful soundtrack. Seriously, if you don’t have any desire to watch this movie, just listen to the soundtrack for the sake of listening to wonderfully composed music.

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As original as the plot may be, SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE seems to rely too heavily on the one-joke premise in places. There are many scenes (some of which are for pure comic relief) that have cast/crew members talking to Max Schreck in order to see how far he’ll push his method acting as a vampire. These usually end with one actor looking to the other and saying “We need more like him!” An added “wah wah wah” sound bite wouldn’t be too out-of-place in these moments. The film isn’t strictly played for laughs though. A very horror angle is taken on the material and reminds you that this is a dark story about eerie goings-on in the hope of producing a cinematic masterpiece. It seems almost like director E. Elias Merhige was aiming to incorporate German expressionism into this film about a guy making a German expressionist film. It’s kind of meta in that regard and adds yet another layer to why this movie is so damned entertaining.

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As far as the cast is concerned, John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe play off each other brilliantly. Malkovich is perfect as the obsessed Murnau and Dafoe is even more so in the role of Schreck. Adding little ticks, twitches, and a variety of extreme facial expressions, Dafoe is almost unrecognizable in this part and seems to be loving every second of it. This is how the scariest vampires are in my opinion (the creepy monsters that aren’t sexy and are only interested in draining your precious red fluid). A few other notable performers have issues or just plain leave way too early in the story. Eddie Izzard adds a lot of fun to the film, but leaves almost as fast as he enters. Meanwhile, Udo Kier is unconvincing as the film’s oddball producer. Then there’s Cary Elwes. In the right roles, he’s fantastic. In the wrong roles, he’s awful. He’s more good than bad here, but carries an undiscernible accent that magically comes and goes. The film works best when its focused on Malkovich or Dafoe and that’s a majority of the story.

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SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE tells a creative story that brims with potential as soon as you read the synopsis. There are many strengths (great atmosphere, fantastic soundtrack, a couple of perfect performances, etc.), but also some weaknesses (some shaky performances, a few pointless scenes, etc.). The good far outweighs the bad in this unusual horror flick. It’s a vampire movie like no other and it just happens to take place around the filming of one of the most famous vampire movies ever made!

Grade: B

NYMPHOMANIAC (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 4 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Nymphomaniac poster

Directed by: Lars Von Trier

Written by: Lars Von Trier

Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen, Jamie Bell, Willem Dafoe, Mia Goth & Udo Kier

Never one to shy away from controversy, Lars Von Trier has encountered a lot of scrutiny over his latest project. This four hour (original cut was nearly six hours) movie chronicles of the life of a sex addict. It also serves as the final film of Von Trier’s Depression Trilogy, which began with ANTICHRIST (an horrific near-masterpiece) and continued with MELANCHOLIA (a beautiful picture lowered by the weight of an uneven story). On a pretty asinine (money-grubbing) move from the studio, NYMPHOMANIAC has been split into two separate volumes (so thus costing double the money to see it as a whole). I did watch both volumes together as a one long movie and that’s the only way to experience Lars Von Trier’s concluding piece of his Depression Trilogy (if you’re interested in subjecting yourself to this material at all). NYMPHOMANIAC has wonderful stretches and manages to maintain a grasp on the viewer’s emotions. However, the sheer size of this film is ultimately what makes it a lesser experience than it could have been…along with pretentious nature that comes with the territory that is Lars.

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The story opens on a beaten woman lying in a snowy alley. Her name is Joe and a kindly stranger, named Seligman, comes to her aid. In Seligman’s rundown apartment, Joe chronicles her life story for the curious man. She’s a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac and her addiction to sexual gratification has brought her to the point of winding up battered in that grimy alley. Her obsession with her sexuality started as a child and evolved as she grew older. Through Joe narrating scenes (that we are shown), we see her fuelling the ever-growing need for sex over the years. Her life story includes some possible love (though Joe claims to rebel against this notion), some light-hearted moments, and a whole lot of tragedy.

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Breaking down the narrative, this is the story of one person (a female sex addict) relating the story of her life to another person (Seligman). The film plays out on a grander scale than merely that spanning different locations and colorful characters. The cast is littered with a lot of big name actors showing up in some big or significantly small (near cameo) roles. Everybody does a solid job (including Shia LaBeouf as Joe’s first lover). The chronicles of Joe are spaced over four full hours. Right there, you can find the film’s major flaw. NYMPHOMANIAC is too bloated. Even with 90 minutes already being removed from the original cut, there’s still plenty of room for edits that don’t benefit the story in any real way.

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One of these key expendable things is the character of Seligman. Played by Stellan Skarsgard, Lars might have intended for this figure to represent the filmgoer’s reactions to Joe’s story. As a character, he interjects far too much with increasingly far-fetched theories about what may be causing Joe’s obsession with sex. Some people may seem to think that Seligman is an integral part of the story, but his role could have easily been summed up in a brief 5 minutes with Joe narrating. That in itself, might have cut about 40 minutes out of the running time.

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Another overused technique that became annoying can be found in the overuse of archive footage in montages. When a character is discussing something as simple as a gun, the audience doesn’t need to be shown different clips showing different people from different eras holding different guns. This happened far too many times and seemed to be another way of stretching the film to an unnecessary length.

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With all my bitching concerning the four hour running time, one might think that I didn’t care for NYMPHOMANIAC. On the contrary, I thought that this was an ambitious leap for Von Trier. He hits on a lot of core levels. The first half (or in the case of the idiotic marketing: VOLUME I) of the film showcases some light-hearted humorous scenes. There’s a sense of humor on display that I wouldn’t expect walking into a Lars Von Trier film. It’s in the second half (VOLUME II) where I can see a lot of viewers being turned off of the film. This is where Joe’s sexual conquests turn into decidedly darker, more tragic territory. It’s also here where Von Trier beat my emotions down to a fine dust. That’s a huge compliment for a drama like this, but I can’t help but think things might have worked better without the unnecessarily long running time and pretentious tweaks.

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As far as the filmmaking here goes, everything is professionally made. The sex scenes themselves (of which there are many) aren’t erotic in the slightest. One of the common misconceptions I’ve heard from people about this film is that it essentially sounds like an epic-length porn, but that’s far from how the execution comes off. By definition, pornography is supposed to arouse and excite the viewer, NYMPHOMANIAC is about as erotic as staring at a tree for four hours (unless that’s a fetish for a certain viewer). The sequences do get graphic and (in some cases, mainly in the latter half) hard to watch. This is absolutely not a feel-good film about romance. This entire film is a depressing examination on an addict’s downward spiral in life. It’s best to set aside some recovering time afterwards, because this one will bum a lot of people out (which is what it primarily set out to do). The feeling after finishing NYMPHOMANIC left me wanting to take a shower and eat some ice cream.

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In a lot of ways, NYMPHOMANIAC reminded me of BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR in terms of the errors that both films carry. The problems mainly come in unnecessary additions to a plot that could have made for an awesome movie. The bloated running time for both films (3 hours for BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, 4 hours for NYMPHOMANIAC) ultimately knocks what could have been two really amazing films down to two decent films. I never plan on sitting through NYMPHOMANIAC again. This is partially out of the four hours it would take to do so and mostly because of how heavy the depressing story is. I don’t regret experiencing it in the slightest. It’s an appropriately downbeat way to conclude a trio of films revolving around Depression. If you’re a fan of arthouse cinema and Lars Von Trier’s work, then I can give this a solid recommendation. I wouldn’t suggest it to anybody else in the slightest.

Grade: B-

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