THE HOUSE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout, Sexual References, Drug Use, some Violence and brief Nudity

Directed by: Andrew Jay Cohen

Written by: Brendan O’Brien & Andrew Jay Cohen

Starring: Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Jason Mantzoukas, Ryan Simpkins, Nick Kroll, Allison Tolman, Rob Huebel & Jeremy Renner

Despite starring in hilarious comedies throughout the 2000s, Will Ferrell has been in some real stinkers lately. With the exception of a few animated comedies (MEGAMIND, THE LEGO MOVIE), Ferrell’s recent output has included stale attempts at recapturing past comedic magic (ANCHORMAN 2), lazy executions of fairly funny premises (GET HARD), and some of the worst films of his entire career (DADDY’S HOME). I was hoping that THE HOUSE might wind up being Ferrell’s return to form. The premise was funny, the cast looked solid, and the R-rating allowed extra room for irreverent hijinks. THE HOUSE falls between GET HARD and DADDY’S HOME on Ferrell’s cinematic totem pole. This film is mostly lazy and lots of dull patches frequently overshadow its better moments.

Scott (Will Ferrell) and Kate (Amy Poehler) are ecstatic for their daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) to head off to college. Alex has been accepted into a prestigious university, but Scott and Kate realize that they don’t have the cash to cover her tuition. To make matters even worse, the town’s annual scholarship program has been shut town by shady councilman Bob (Nick Kroll). Things might turn around though, because Scott and Kate’s eccentric friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) has a brilliant idea to raise lots of funds in a short amount of time. Frank turns his house into an illegal underground casino, while Scott and Kate become his business partners. Wacky hijinks ensue.

I’ll address THE HOUSE’s positive qualities first because there are a few redeeming factors. One of those factors arrives in Jason Mantzoukas. Though the selling points of this film were Ferrell and Poehler, Mantzoukas steals most of the show as the overly eccentric Frank. A subplot about him trying to win back his recently separated wife is tedious, but Mantzoukas even makes these scenes watchable in his absurd line delivery and over-the-top body language. Mantzoukas was one of the best things about last year’s not-as-bad-as-they-said-it-was DIRTY GRANDPA and he’s easily one of the best things in THE HOUSE. Maybe, Mantzoukas’s roles are simply meant to improve low-quality comedies, because he seems to be doing a bang-up job so far.

I’d be lying if I said that THE HOUSE didn’t have a couple of funny scenes. The best bit has already been given away by the red band trailer, though the actual scene lasts longer than the 30 seconds and had me cracking up. If the entire film was as funny as that single sequence, then this would be a very different review. Unfortunately, this scene and a couple of other bits (mostly involving Mantzoukas) are the only things worth praising about THE HOUSE. The rest of this film feels boring, lame, and lazy.

Even though they are the main selling points, Ferrell and Poehler really don’t have much to do in this film. Aside from occasionally mugging at the camera, their married couple characters mostly remain straight-faced and don’t receive many great jokes. We see them acting like dorky parents with their daughter. We watch as they worry and celebrate with Mantzoukas. By the time the film tries to throw them into an over-the-top style, it feels drastically out-of-place and unearned. Most films like this have a natural progression as a character transforms from a boring suburban nobody to a stylish interesting somebody. THE HOUSE never executes that story arc in a natural or funny way, so the viewer is left to roll their eyes and remain completely disconnected towards these characters.

THE HOUSE’s plot troubles don’t stop at its unconvincing story arcs for the two dimwitted protagonists though, because a lot of this film feels like filler. It’s as if somebody was brainstorming what happens in Las Vegas casinos and decided to write those ideas down…and then just threw them into the movie with no rhyme or reason. Stand-up comedians, air bars, massages, fight night, and CASINO-style torture all just come and go, leaving few laughs to be found. Bits of this film might have served better as Funny or Die/College Humor web skits…as opposed to scenes in a comedy that was funded on 40 million and had big names attached to it. A subplot with an unnecessary bland antagonist feels like an afterthought, while Jeremy Renner as a mobster (who shows up for two scenes) would have been a much better baddie to focus on.

THE HOUSE is a missed opportunity. The pieces were there to craft a really funny R-rated comedy, something to draw in crowds who wanted to laugh in 2017’s lackluster summer movie season, and a possible comeback film for Ferrell. Instead, THE HOUSE is lazy, uninspired, and drowns out its funny bits with lots of filler and a script that feels like it never got past the brainstorming stage. There are loads of better Will Ferrell movies and far funnier R-rated comedies out there. If you bet on this flick, everybody loses.

Grade: D+

JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Nonstop Crude and Sexual Humor, Pervasive Strong Language, and Drug Content

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Directed by: Kevin Smith

Written by: Kevin Smith

Starring: Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Ben Affleck, Jeff Anderson, Brian O’Halloran, Shannon Elizabeth, Eliza Dushku, Ali Larter, Jennifer Schwalbach, Will Ferrell & Jason Lee

After starring as memorable supporting characters in four movies, stoners Jay and Silent Bob became the main players in Kevin Smith’s fifth View Askewniverse flick. Lampooning countless films, featuring a bevy of cameos, and resembling an R-rated cartoon, JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK isn’t necessarily Kevin Smith’s most heartfelt or well-written effort. Instead, this is a stoner comedy that focuses on being entertaining and funny. It accomplishes both of those things in spades.

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Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) have spent most of their lives peddling pot outside of the Quick Stop convenience store (from CLERKS). When pissed-off employee Randall (Jeff Anderson) slaps them with a restraining order, the two stoners find themselves looking for a new place to hang out. This leads them to a comic book store…which in turn leads them to discover that they are the basis for upcoming superhero blockbuster BLUNTMAN AND CHRONIC. Unfortunately, Jay and Silent Bob never received their big Hollywood check and, to make matters worse, anonymous internet trolls are calling them names. Jay and Silent Bob decide to travel from New Jersey to Hollywood in order to stop the film from being made…or at least receive some cash. This road trip leads the pair of stoners to a stolen orangutan, a group of sexy jewel thieves, a loose-cannon wildlife marshal (Will Ferrell), and lots of movie references.

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JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK isn’t going to win over anyone who already hates Kevin Smith. This film was tailor-made for Smith fans who already loved the titular pair of stoners/drug-dealers in CLERKS, MALLRATS, CHASING AMY and DOGMA. The film isn’t as grounded as CLERKS or CHASING AMY, but it’s definitely not as fantastically outlandish as DOGMA. JAY AND SILENT BOB plays everything as a goofy stoner comedy, defying logic and physics when it results in a laugh or furthers the plot along. I’d like to think of this film as Kevin Smith’s equivalent to HAROLD AND KUMAR before there was even HAROLD AND KUMAR. It’s JAY AND SILENT BOB GO TO HOLLYWOOD with lots of stupid humor, general craziness and tons of movie references. I can’t even begin to tell you how many movie references and big name cameos are in this film.

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One of my favorite moments lambasts the then-upcoming SCOOBY DOO flick. There’s also a hilarious chase through the Miramax backlot that’s more than a tad reminiscent of PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE and also serves as an excuse for plenty of in-jokes. My point is that JAY AND SILENT BOB is hardly original. The plot is a giant road trip and intentionally borrows from many other movies. However, JAY AND SILENT BOB is well-made where it counts, in being funny and entertaining the whole way through. Whether it’s three of the best fourth wall jokes I’ve seen in a film or the sheer absurdity of a romance between Jay and a hot criminal with a heart of gold (Shannon Elizabeth), this film just worked for me. Is it stupid? Absolutely. Is it Kevin Smith’s best movie? Not at all. Did Jay and Silent Bob really deserve their own feature? Probably not. Yet, this film still inexplicably manages to be funny and engaging for well over 90 minutes.

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It’s also worth noting that JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK predicted the future in regards to internet trolls bitching about superhero movies for the sake of bitching about superhero movies. The flick makes that into the main plot point behind Jay and Silent Bob’s nationwide quest to Hollywood, also providing colorful profanity and insults along the way. Though it’s far from Kevin Smith’s best movie in the View Askewniverse (I think that title will always belong to CLERKS), JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK is highly entertaining for Smith fans. Film references, gross sexual humor (one joke about a cup broke me into a hysterical fit of laughter), the screenplay’s sporadic craziness, and the buddy-pairing of real-life friends Jason Mewes (foul-mouthed Jay) and Kevin Smith (almost mute Silent Bob) make this film well worth watching!

Grade: B+

DADDY’S HOME (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Elements, Crude and Suggestive Content, and for Language

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Directed by: Sean Anders

Written by: Brian Burns, Sean Anders & John Morris

Starring: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini, Scarlett Estevez, Owen Wilder Vaccaro, Thomas Haden Church, Hannibal Buress & Bobby Cannavale

Like any other big comedic actor, Will Ferrell has gone through highs and lows. His highs have been hilarious (TALLADEGA NIGHTS), hugely entertaining (MEGAMIND), and surprisingly emotional (STRANGER THAN FICTION). His lows have been bland (GET HARD), disappointing (ANCHORMAN 2), and outright terrible (BEWITCHED). DADDY’S HOME made a splash in last year’s box office and is now Will Ferrell’s highest grossing live-action film. That’s a bit depressing, because this lame comedy is nowhere near Ferrell’s best and actually falls near the bottom of his output. DADDY’S HOME is confused about whether or not it wants to be light-hearted family friendly comedy or the usual crude PG-13 Ferrell fest. The film’s tone suggests the former, while the sex/penis jokes suggest the latter. As a result, DADDY’S HOME is a dull mess that isn’t really aimed at anyone in particular.

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Brad Whitaker (Will Ferrell) is a dorky stepfather, who’s overly polite and a total pushover. Despite being happily married to his wife Sara (Linda Cardellini), Brad’s stepchildren Megan and Dylan are understandably reluctant to accept him as their dad. Just when doors seem to be opening up between Brad and the kids, they receive a phone call from their biological father Dusty (Mark Wahlberg). Through a misunderstanding, Dusty invites himself to visit for a week and Brad begins to engage in a full-blown “dad off” between himself and Dusty. Wild and crazy antics ensue, except they really don’t because these jokes feel a bit tame, far-fetched, and outright stupid.

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DADDY’S HOME reveals a big problem in its first ten minutes. Brad seems like a sociopath, even though the movie is trying to portray as a lovable clumsy doofus. Through his opening narration, Ferrell’s stepfather protagonist all but directly tells us that the main reason he even married Sara was because she had kids. Remember, we’re supposed to be rooting for this guy. The script also goes too far in showing us what a geek Brad is. Of course, he works at a slow jazz radio station. Of course, he has uncomfortable conversations with his boss. Of course, he keeps misunderstanding what his step-kids want from him. He’s a dork…but ain’t he lovable? Yeah, not really.

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That’s not to say that Mark Wahlberg’s character is likable either, but at least Dusty is set up as one-dimensional antagonist from the start. The film’s characters act like he has charisma that simply wasn’t evident to me and then slowly pulls back layers to reveal Dusty’s true intentions…like they weren’t obvious from the start. The underhanded tactics that Dusty uses make him completely unlikable, but Brad and Sara still keep him around out of misguided reasons. Even when Dusty invites a random guy (played by Hannibal Buress) to start living with the family, they still allow him to stay in the house…because the film wanted it that way. Dusty also accompanies Brad to work and warms up to his boss…solely because the script called for it.

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Many events in this movie only occur because the script called for them and not out from believable character decisions or a natural story flow. I know these might sound like dumb complaints for a PG-13 Will Ferrell comedy, but there has to be a level of consistency to make any story work. TALLADEGA NIGHTS was far funnier (I truly love that movie) and has more believability than DADDY’S HOME. This bland comedy simply moves from crude set-piece to even cruder set-piece and also tries to maintain a family friendly atmosphere by having the story bring would-be heartfelt messages into the final third. This mix doesn’t work because it’s not well written, particularly funny and the characters are all unlikable scumbags.

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At the end of the day, DADDY’S HOME is bland, forgettable, and not particularly funny. Adding insult to injury, this film tries to shoe-horn in a forced message about what it truly means to be a family and constantly feels like a jumbled mish-mash of two very different movies. To make matters even worse, the wife and children are merely regulated to game pieces that will be won by either scummy Wahlberg or sociopathic Ferrell. Even if it weren’t already a tonally confused mess, DADDY’S HOME would be seen as reprehensibly stupid, unfunny, and intelligence-insulting comedy thanks to a sloppy script. DADDY’S HOME might just be down there with BEWITCHED as one of Ferrell’s very worst films.

Grade: D

ZOOLANDER 2 (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Crude and Sexual Content, a scene of Exaggerated Violence, and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Ben Stiller

Written by: John Hamburg, Ben Stiller, Nick Stoller & Justin Theroux

Starring: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Penelope Cruz, Kristen Wiig, Christine Taylor & Benedict Cumberbatch

2001’s ZOOLANDER has a special place in my heart. It’s a movie that I constantly watched throughout my high school years and I still occasionally quote it with friends today. A sequel wasn’t necessarily a bad idea as the original cast of characters have been reassembled (with a couple of new additions) for another over-the-top story of deadly inner workings behind the fashion industry. Ben Stiller was still at the helm in directing this follow-up and the production values are as good as ever. So, why does ZOOLANDER 2 come off as extremely forgettable and disappointing? Sometimes, the simplest answer is the correct one. ZOOLANDER 2 suffers from being too little, too late.

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Fifteen years have passed since the events of the first film and life has not been good to Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) or Hansel McDonald (Owen Wilson). In the aftermath of a horrible tragedy, Derek adopted a hermit lifestyle and a scarred Hansel developed an unhealthy relationship with his orgy partners. When both of these former friends/male models receive an invitation to do a fashion show in Italy, it appears that their careers have been reborn…until an Interpol agent (Penelope Cruz) recruits them to solve a mysterious chain of “beautiful people” murders (the latest victim being Justin Bieber). Derek Zoolander must bond with his estranged son, face a familiar villain from the past, and work with Hansel to uncover a bigger mystery at work.

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Despite how ridiculous, stupid and juvenile it was (all positive qualities in the context of the original film), 2001’s ZOOLANDER had a coherent plot. There was a progression of events, development of characters, and lots of dumb laughs to be had as the story moved forward. ZOOLANDER 2 has a narrative mash that attempts to resemble a plot and keeps going off the rails into new storylines. The film’s trailers have already highlighted the return of Mugatu (Will Ferrell delivering the funniest scenes in the movie), but he doesn’t really come into play until the halfway point. Up until then, it’s Derek bonding with his son, flirting with Cruz’s Interpol agent, and trying to reinvigorate his faded career. The conclusion is also wildly all over the place in a bad way.

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You don’t necessarily watch a movie like ZOOLANDER 2 for the plot though, right? Instead, you go in expecting lots of goofy humor, ridiculous scenes, and stupid characters. Well, ZOOLANDER 2 occasionally delivers on that front, but has long stretches where I was hoping for something remotely funny to occur. The bonding scenes between Derek and his son had potential to be hilarious, but instead they come off as old tired gags that have been seen in many other comedies. A story arc about Hansel’s constant orgies becomes tiring after its introduction. While this was a nod to a legitimately funny throwaway scene in the first film, it dominates nearly every Hansel moment in this sequel and seems forced.

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ZOOLANDER 2 relies on entirely too many cameos as well. The first film had cameos, but placed them in a way that felt funny in the context of the story. This sequel overdoes it to an annoying degree. There are a number of spots where the pacing drags just to squeeze in a few more celebrities for the sake of including them. Even when the film isn’t packing in a ton of unnecessary famous faces, the pacing lags thanks to the unfocused script. New characters like Penelope Cruz’s Interpol agent and Kristen Wiig’s weird fashion designer are also wasted in not being given anything interesting to do.

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This isn’t to say that all of ZOOLANDER 2 is entirely bland and unfunny. As mentioned before, Will Ferrell delivers the best moments in the film as the returning Mugatu (the pay-off to a prison confrontation made laugh pretty hard). The story also sets up a few strong scenes early on. There’s a clever montage filling us in on the details of what occurred after the first film. A running gag about a schoolmaster was probably my favorite joke of the entire film. Also, Justin Bieber gets killed by a machine gun (I have no complaints about that). Compared to recent comedy sequels, ZOOLANDER 2 isn’t nearly as bad as JOE DIRT 2 or HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2, but is only marginally superior to DUMB AND DUMBER TO and TED 2. It seems like Ben Stiller and company tried too hard to recapture certain qualities from the first film and none of their chosen qualities were what made ZOOLANDER stand out among 2000’s comedies. Much like its titular male model, ZOOLANDER 2 feels like a washed-up has-been with occasional glimmers of talent.

Grade: C+

GET HARD (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Crude and Sexual Content and Language, some Graphic Nudity, and Drug Material

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Directed by: Etan Cohen

Written by: Jay Martel, Ian Roberts & Etan Cohen

Starring: Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart, Alison Brie, Edwina Findley & Craig T. Nelson

Full disclosure: I was not expecting a lot from GET HARD. It looked like a fairly typical Will Ferrell vehicle clashed with a basic Kevin Hart comedy. Not surprisingly, it’s getting trashed by most critics. While this is far from a good film, GET HARD does have a handful of solid laughs and doesn’t really do any harm to society. It’s a by-the-numbers flick that will probably satisfy less discerning Ferrell/Hart fans who only want to sit down and watch two on-screen jackasses for 100 minutes. This is a pretty basic comedy that has a few good jokes and lots of dusty ones.

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James King is a wealthy businessman with a beautiful girlfriend, a huge mansion, and lots of cash to spare. Darnell Lewis is a struggling car washer who’s trying to provide for his family in radical ways that often backfire. After King is indicted with embezzlement charges and sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin prison, he seeks the help of Darnell. Through a misunderstanding and plain racism, King mistakenly thinks that Darnell is a former convict and offers to pay him 30 grand to get himself properly prepared for the big house. With 30 days before King is sent to prison, Darnell does his best to make King as hard as possible. Wacky antics ensue.

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The premise is funny by itself and offers a lot of opportunities for craziness. Will Ferrell is enjoyable to watch as King, though he’s essentially playing his same type-cast idiot character. Kevin Hart is equally enjoyable as Darnell, though he’s essentially playing his same type-cast Kevin Hart character. Nothing about either Ferrell or Hart really stood out. I just saw them as Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart as opposed to characters they were supposedly playing. While a lot of jokes in GET HARD didn’t work for me, a number of scenes got me laughing. These moments included a staged prison riot, Ferrell meeting two radically different gangs, and a lesson in fellatio. However, some gags drag on for far too long and get less funny as they go. The most notable of which is a prison yard simulation with Hart pretending to be three different kind of convicts. That scene starts off very funny and simply becomes tired after it wears out its welcome.

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Besides jokes being killed by their length, a majority of this comedy feels dusty. It’s shocking that three people wrote this film as the story is overly predictable. The laughs rely far too much on homophobic and racist jokes. A couple of these scenes do work (the fellatio lesson and a Nazi hate group), but the rest of the movie feels like it’s not really trying that hard to be that funny. These are old jokes that have been seen in plenty of other films (including some starring Hart and Ferrell). You can pretty much guess the basic outline for GET HARD after a certain point in the first act and this story doesn’t do anything to stray from that formula. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem if the hilarity factor were off the charts. It should bear mentioning that the R-rating is a nice touch, allowing for many F-bombs and some nudity, but again, feels like it’s wasted on a standard script.

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GET HARD is a typical Will Ferrell/Kevin Hart vehicle that goes through the motions. There are funny moments, but the jokes mostly feel dusty and familiar. The screenplay is easy to predict from the first act. Ferrell and Hart are playing the same kind of characters that they always play. There’s a definite audience who are likely to eat this film up, but I prefer many other Ferrell comedies to this movie (e.g. TALLADEGA NIGHTS, even BLADES OF GLORY). The overuse of homophobic and racist jokes is bound to rub many folks the wrong way. It’s not all out bad. GET HARD’s biggest problem is being lazy. I didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it. It is simply there.

Grade: C

My Top 10 Films of 2014

List by Derrick Carter

2014 has been a solid year for cinema. As with every film critic (freelance or professional), there comes a time of decision-making as to what the best movies of the year were. This list is all opinion based (like my reviews) and I can understand why people might not (and probably won’t) completely agree with every choice. In deciding how to rank my top 10 of the year, I noticed there was an equal amount of independent/foreign fare and big studio hits. This was unintentional, but is a nice detail that highlights how balanced this year really was for cinema all around.

Before I get into my actual list, it bears mentioning that I have not seen/reviewed every single film from this year (I plan on covering FOXCATCHER, INHERENT VICE, and AMERICAN SNIPER eventually). I’m only one man after all, so my selections come from the films that I’ve watched and reviewed this year. That all being said and without further ado, here are my 10 favorite films from 2014!

Honorable Mentions: BOUND BY FLESH, UNDER THE SKIN, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, FURY, THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2, and A MOST WANTED MAN

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10. BIG BAD WOLVES: I wasn’t terribly impressed with Aharon Keshales’s and Navot Papushado’s directorial debut, RABIES. BIG BAD WOLVES serves as a drastic improvement. At first, the story seems relatively simple. However, the diabolical screenplay toys with the viewer in injecting a pitch-black sense of humor that works wonderfully and a dark tone that isn’t the slightest bit funny. Things aren’t as simple as they originally appear and a haunting conclusion ensures that this film will stick with you. I originally saw/reviewed it in January and it has held up on multiple viewings throughout the year. If you’re up for a disturbing tour-de-force of horror that defies expectations, BIG BAD WOLVES should be on your radar!

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9. THE LEGO MOVIE: On New Year’s Day, I was chatting with a friend about how much I thought THE LEGO MOVIE was going to suck. This concept seemed doomed from the beginning and I was reluctantly dragged to the theater at the urging of my younger siblings. In all of 2014, I have never been so happy that I was so wrong about a film! Blending meta-elements, rapid fire jokes, and a hilarious storyline, THE LEGO MOVIE is 2014’s biggest surprise! The animation (which appears to combine stop-motion and computer graphics) is stellar. Tons of jokes are present so that it takes multiple viewings to catch every little piece (pun intended) that the movie has to offer. LEGO MOVIE is not only the best family film of 2014, everything about it is awesome!

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8. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST: The X-MEN movies have a good vs. bad ratio of 5 to 2. Those are fantastic odds for any blockbuster series. DAYS OF FUTURE PAST delivered the best entry in the mutant saga to date. This much-anticipated comic book storyline was fantastically brought to life by returning director Bryan Singer. In lesser hands, FUTURE PAST could have become a standard blockbuster with the gimmick of time travel used to combine both casts of the franchise. Instead, this film was a delight to sit through for myself and many film goers this past summer. Easily the best comic book film since Christopher Nolan graced the silver screen with his take on Batman. Definitely count me in for APOCALYPSE in 2016!

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7. NIGHTCRAWLER: Scarier than any true horror film that I saw in all of 2014, NIGHTCRAWLER is a truly disturbing movie. Disappearing completely into the main character of Lou, Jake Gyllenhaal delivers an award-worthy performance that creeped me out to the point where I was wriggling in my seat as he manipulated everyone around him. In a sense, Lou is a vampire sucking the moral decency out of everyone he comes across. As a dark, disturbing, and unflinching masterwork, NIGHTCRAWLER serves as cinematic nightmare that I can’t wait to revisit in the near future.

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6. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: This was the summer blockbuster that delivered on every possible level. It had grand action and amazing effects (those monkeys look so real), but also incorporated them into a smart story and complicated characters. While RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was a huge surprise for everyone, DAWN has cemented itself as my personal favorite APE movie. DAWN blended spectacle and a fantastic plot so perfectly that it makes me shake with anticipation for the newest upcoming APES film (Summer 2016). Having seen RISE and DAWN, I’m more than prepared to bow down to our future primate overlords. This movie rocked!

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5. THE RAID 2: I watched the original RAID at its Sundance premiere and thought it was an impressive action flick, but a tad overrated in the end. This exhilarating sequel pulls out all the stops to one up the original in every possible way. While APES blended spectacle with an intelligent story, RAID 2 blends an intense gangster thriller with mind-blowing action scenes. I was exhausted by the end of this film and that’s the biggest compliment I can give any action movie. Each fight scene has its own unique spin so none of them blended into one another. A few that stick out in my mind are a prison yard fight, one of the most intense/realistic car chases that I’ve ever seen, and a stunning confrontation between two highly skilled, deadly men. Those are just a few of the phenomenal sequences that this epic-length modern action classic has to offer. It plays like THE DEPARTED had a baby with a Bruce Lee movie. It’s friggin’ nuts and I loved every second of it!

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4. WHIPLASH: How do you turn a protégé story about a young man trying to be a successful drummer into a nail-bitingly thriller? Apparently, you get Damien Chazelle to write and direct it. Though he is a young newcomer, Chazelle struck gold in this fantastic and deep drama. I didn’t like Miles Teller before watching this movie and now appreciate that he has some serious acting chops on him. J.K. Simmons, usually a side character or background actor, is given room to be the most intimidating antagonist that I saw in a film all year. He plays a conductor, but Simmons is downright scary as hell and entertaining to watch at the same time. Well shot, well written, well acted, and all around well constructed, WHIPLASH is a masterpiece!

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3. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: The evening that I spent watching this magical film was an enchanting experience. Evoking a sense of classic comedies and a fairy tale color palette, Wes Anderson’s GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL sucked me into its oddball world from the first frame. Ralph Fiennes’s Gustave H. and Adrien Brody’s villain had me breaking into hysterical laughter throughout this whole film. Besides the humor, there’s a unique sweetness to BUDAPEST as well as a compelling storyline (background happenings reward repeat viewings). GRAND BUDAPEST is sincere in its story, humor, honest emotions, and ridiculous nature. Cinematic heaven!

GONE GIRL, from left: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, 2014. ph: Merrick Morton/TM & copyright ©20th

2. GONE GIRL: Going into 2014, there was one film that I was highly anticipating. That was David Fincher’s adaptation of the best-selling mystery, GONE GIRL. The novel is acclaimed, for good reason, of having a nasty sleight of hand that trips up the reader’s preconceived notions. Fincher masterfully transfers that level of Hitchcockian suspense onto the screen in this deeply disturbing and haunting thriller. I didn’t spoil anything in my review and I won’t spoil anything here either. If anyone does try to give away the plot, slap them in the face before they can give away any detail. Though it’s really your fault for having not seen this film yet. Go see it! Seriously! It’s the smartest, entirely compelling and most intense thriller that I’ve seen all year. Once you’ve seen GONE GIRL, you’ll know why everyone is raving about it so much.

BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE), (aka BIRDMAN), Michael Keaton, on set, 2014. /TM

1. BIRDMAN or (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE): What do I even say about this film? When I saw the trailer for BIRDMAN, I felt iffy on it. This looked to be a quirky comedy that could potentially be good, but might rely far too much on the gimmick of having a washed-up former superhero actor playing a washed-up former superhero actor. Nevertheless, I walked into the movie theater hoping for a good flick. In less than 10 minutes, I was under the film’s spell. This wasn’t just good or funny, this was fantastic and amazing. Telling the story in a stylistic choice that appears to be caught in one take (through various hidden cuts) and containing some of the best performances that this entire year had to offer, BIRDMAN is an extraordinary piece of cinema. I’ve bad-mouthed Michael Keaton for a couple of crappy movies he did earlier this year, but his performance really is something to behold in this film! There’s never been anything quite like BIRDMAN before and there’s never going to be anything quite like it again. BIRDMAN is perfection!

2014 was a solid year and produced a lot of phenomenal films. I hope 2015 is even better!

AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME (1999)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sexual Innuendo and Crude Humor

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Directed by: Jay Roach

Written by: Mike Myers & Michael McCullers

Starring: Mike Myers, Heather Graham, Michael York, Robert Wagner, Rob Lowe, Mindy Sterling, Seth Green, Verne Troyer, Elizabeth Hurley & Will Ferrell

Seeing as AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY gained a huge amount of success on home video, an unexpected sequel was announced as a summer blockbuster in 1999. Whereas the first film was definitely a product of its times and has held substantial ground upon rewatch, I can safely say this sequel nails everything the first one did with a little higher quality. Mike Myers was not flying solo in writing this script and the addition of a co-writer may have helped hone his creativity into something slightly funnier this time around. SPY WHO SHAGGED ME is a good time for fans of the first film and may even bring in a crowd that didn’t care too much for the original. This is a goofy James Bond spoof that gets even wilder and crazier the second time around.

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It has been two years since the events of the first film. Austin Powers and Vanessa’s marriage has come to an explosive end. Dr. Evil has returned to Earth with a brand spanking new invention: a time machine. Using this time machine, Evil travels back into 1969 and steals Austin’s mojo from his cryogenically frozen body, thus depleting the sex drive from the present Powers. Austin must travel back in time to stop a sinister plan involving a moon, a laser, and a clone about one-eighth Dr. Evil’s size (named Mini-Me). He also befriends fellow agent Felicity Shagwell and tries to retrieve his mojo.

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One of the main differences in quality this time around is that Austin Powers has been made into a far funnier character than he was in the original. I find the first POWERS film to be almost strictly Dr. Evil’s show. In this sequel, Austin Powers far outshines Dr. Evil. The Mini-Me storyline is one of the funniest things in the film (a fight scene near the end is hysterical), but Evil has also delivers plenty of lame jokes that fall flat. Speaking of jokes, some of the same set-ups are used from the first film and have much better punch lines upon being repeated. This is also stacking on top of lots of good funny and just as raunchy material (a scene involving suggestive shadows, comments on a spaceship that looks like a certain body part, etc.). It isn’t high art or the pinnacle of comedic genius, but it’s exactly what AUSTIN POWERS fans expect and want from a sequel that’s bigger and better.

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There is also more creativity. Specific 007 flicks are targeted (one sticking out is the ludicrous MOONRAKER) and Mike Myers is pulling triple duty as three separate characters. He’s doing Austin and Evil again, but also appears as a morbidly obese Scottish thug appropriately named Fat Bastard. Another detriment that needs to be mentioned is Scotty (Dr. Evil’s son and part of the funniest plot thread from the first film) taking backseat to Mini-Me. Though I don’t want to compare both plot threads, I feel the movie might have benefitted from the two being in equal balance or Scott having a more significant screen presence in this second installment. Also Rob Lowe is great as a young Number 2 (originally played by Robert Wagner)

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The problems with SPY WHO SHAGGED ME are the same problems in INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY. It’s definitely still a product of its times with plenty of 90’s references and other pop culture hints that have aged. Some jokes fall flat (especially a few scenes with Dr. Evil). However, SPY WHO SHAGGED ME is a hugely entertaining, purposely juvenile take on more ridiculous 007 flicks. It’s also a sequel that manages to be slightly better than the original in many ways, but the same faults keep it to the same pillar of amusing crude comedy that the first film was. If you liked the first AUSTIN POWERS, you’re bound to like this one.

Grade: B+

AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Nudity, Sex-Related Dialogue and Humor

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Directed by: Jay Roach

Written by: Mike Myers

Starring: Mike Myers, Elizabeth Hurley, Robert Wagner, Seth Green, Mindy Sterling, Michael York & Will Ferrell

AUSTIN POWERS is a movie that is so much a product of its time period that I was kind of worried to revisit it. A few years had passed from the success of WAYNE’S WORLD and semi-successful gross of WAYNE’S WORLD 2. Mike Myers was a far bigger name back then (slightly lower than Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey). Tons of cultural references are sprinkled throughout the script written by Myers. Therefore it’s far more enjoyable for someone who lived through the 90’s. In this day and age, the film holds up surprisingly well and plays like a dirtier-minded version of something in the same vein of THE NAKED GUN or HOT SHOTS.

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In 1967, Austin Powers (Mike Myers) is a groovy secret agent who’s very much into the hip Free Love environment. He’s constantly clashing with the diabolical Dr. Evil (Mike Myers in different make-up). After Evil freezes himself to commit crimes in the future, Austin Powers is cryogenically frozen as well. 1997 is the year that Dr. Evil returns and Austin Powers is forced back into action. As both Evil and Powers adjust to the three decades worth of change around them, Powers tries to stop Evil’s evil plan to destroy the world and also falls in love with his sexy partner Vanessa (Hurley).

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AUSTIN POWERS is filled to the brim with dirty jokes, potty humor and sex puns. To those offended by any of those things, this is the kind of the territory you automatically find yourself in a Mike Myers comedy. The main target of Myers’s script is 007 flicks. References to plenty of Bond movies are made and deliberate details are shifted from specific baddies to damn near identical dialogue. A couple of examples are the hat-wielding assassin Odd Job being changed into a shoe-wielding assassin Random Task and Dr. Evil stating “No, Mr. Powers. I expect them to die.” Silly moments also deliberately poke fun at the plot holes seen in that cheesy series. The mixed element of AUSTIN POWERS is that the title character can be annoying (kind of the joke in certain areas) and that Dr. Evil outshines him in every possible aspect. Evil’s relationship with his test-tube-born son (played wonderfully by Seth Green) is comedy gold.

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The bigger flaws come in a rather anti-climatic ending, although there are two follow-up films. If I had seen this in the theaters or on video during 1997, I would have been unsatisfied with an obvious ploy for a second film. At the time, it wouldn’t have even been a possibility to have seen a sequel either, because AUSTIN POWERS only found a following on video after so-so theatrical reception. Also, the relationship between Myers and Hurley comes off as unbelievably forced. All this being said, POWERS is still pretty frickin’ funny. Also the film is risqué for a PG-13 flick. If the MPAA had rated this now, it would have suffered cuts or the wrath of a light R rating.

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AUSTIN POWERS isn’t perfect. The title character can be annoying and the relationship is unconvincing. The movie is great where it counts and that’s in the laughs. Everything involving Dr. Evil is hilarious and I sort of wish this movie had been solely about this incompetent villain. The movie is a product of its time in the sense that Austin Powers is a character from the swinging 60’s. Both are aged in slightly embarrassing ways, but they’re also funny regardless. AUSTIN POWERS is a solid 90’s comedy that has a lot of rewatch value. The near future will tell if the sequels hold up just as well for me though…

Grade: B+

SEMI-PRO (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Sexual Content

SemiPro poster

Directed by: Kent Alterman

Written by: Scot Armstrong

Starring: Will Ferrell, Andre Benjamin, Woody Harrelson, Andrew Daly, Will Arnett, David Koechner, Rob Corddry, Jackie Earle Haley, Jason Sudeikis, Kristen Wiig, Ed Helms

It seems like you either dig Will Ferrell or you don’t. He’s got his fair share of misfires, but the man knows how to bring a goofy sense of humor. After tackling news anchors, race car drivers, and figure skaters, Ferrell brought an R-rated basketball comedy to the screen in February 2008. At this point, it seemed like a lot of people were fed up with him essentially playing the same idiot over and over, because SEMI-PRO bombed at the box office. It’s not highly regarded by critics or the general public. This is one of those times where I have to heartily disagree. SEMI-PRO isn’t Ferrell’s best film and it’s far from his funniest, but this is a very entertaining sports comedy that frequently ventures into ridiculous areas. It made me laugh and I don’t understand the unwarranted hatred this film brings out in people. SEMI-PRO is one of the reasons I go back and watch older films that weren’t necessarily big hits upon their releases. This is an underrated flick.

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The year is 1976 and basketball is still evolving into what it is today. One hit wonder Jackie Moon, whose single “Love Me Sexy” made him rich, owns, coaches, and plays in ABA Flint Tropics. As the times are changing, the ABA is merging into the NBA and only the best teams will be taken, while the rest just disappear. The Flint Tropics are not a good team, far from it. They suck and Jackie Moon brings desperate publicity stunts to put the asses in the seats. With the newly arrived star player Ed Monix joining the Tropics, the team gets a drastic makeover in the gameplay and Jackie takes even crazier measures to try to ensure that they will be absorbed into the NBA.

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The comically exaggerated 70’s style, lingo, and references are merely a backdrop to this film that deserves a place just below TALLADEGA NIGHTS. SEMI-PRO is ludicrous and frequently funny. It’s a good sign when you can point out only a couple of jokes that fell flat. I laughed out loud a lot during SEMI-PRO. Even the lesser gags still got some chuckles out of me. However, the film almost plays out in episodic fashion. This is usually the downfall of plenty comedies, but SEMI-PRO still keeps things vaguely held together with the glue of this team trying to take the long, hard road to success.

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Familiar faces from other Ferrell movies show up, specifically in Will Arnett as a chain-smoking, easily angered sports commentator. A lot of people who I haven’t seen paired with Ferrell make appearances too. Woody Harrelson being the obvious one and he’s more of a straight-man to all the shenanigans happening around him, but does get in some solid material. Rob Corddry was the show-stealer for me though. I love Corddry in other movies (he’s the best part of HOT TUB TIME MACHINE without a doubt), but he’s hysterical as the boyfriend to Ed Monix’s former flame. He got huge laughs out of me for an unconventional approach to a familiar type of character.

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SEMI-PRO follows a conventional sports-comedy formula of the underdog team trying to beat seemingly insurmountable odds, but this is actually glanced over in a lot of areas. The progression is mainly seen in a typical montage. A couple of unexpected turns also pop up in the final third and I enjoyed this approach to a well-worn type of story. Ferrell and his wacky antics are the main focus, as they should be in a film like this. Also, some might argue that the movie doesn’t go far enough with its R rating (mainly consisting of a ton of creative profanity and one sexually explicit funny moment). Not all comedies need to step as far over the line as they possibly can though. Not everything needs to push the envelope. Sometimes, a purely enjoyable flick like SEMI-PRO can hit the spot just fine.

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At a brisk 91 minutes, nothing is ever allowed enough time to drag. It’s yet another bit of praise for a severely overlooked comedy that seemed to blend into a sea of Will Ferrell flicks. SEMI-PRO is definitely better than both ANCHORMAN films. It’s better than BLADES OF GLORY. I wouldn’t say it’s better than TALLADEGA NIGHTS (which might be my favorite Ferrell comedy), but it’s a damn entertaining film that satisfies for what it is. Like a good basketball game will entertain sports fans, SEMI-PRO will entertain the fans of Will Ferrell.

Grade: B

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