The Top 15 Movies I Reviewed in 2017!

List by Derrick Carter

Throughout the course of 2017, I posted 206 movie reviews on this blog. Though about a quarter of those were rewatches (covering the SAW and CHILD’S PLAY franchises before their latest installments, and also paying tribute to the passing of genre legend George A. Romero), I managed to catch plenty of fresh new films, forgotten flicks, and classics that I simply hadn’t gotten around to watching. As with last year, 2017’s “Best of” list will cover movies that I watched for the first time in my life. This means that old and new films are on the table, regardless of what year they came out. If a film was new to me and I loved it, then I’m including it with my favorite films that I watched in 2017!

Before I get into my 15 favorite films that I reviewed this year, there are some honorable mentions. I had previously seen THE EXORCIST, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, THE THING, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and ALIENS before this year. Otherwise, they would be on this list. As far as first-time watches, I truly enjoyed the groundbreaking drama MOONLIGHT and adored the 80s throwback STRANGER THINGS. Concerning new horror films, THE EYES OF MY MOTHER seriously disturbed me, THE VOID was a phenomenal Lovecraftian nightmare, and THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS was one hell of a zombie film! WONDER WOMAN also wound up as my second-favorite superhero film of 2017. As for indie thrillers, WIND RIVER was a gripping ride and GOOD TIME was a neon-lit throwback to Martin Scorsese’s early work.

Now, without further ado, onto my top 15 favorite films that I reviewed during 2017…

15. MY FRIEND DAHMER: Most serial killer films focus on chilling murders of their subjects, but MY FRIEND DAHMER is not like most serial killer films. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, MY FRIEND DAHMER is a chilling drama that chronicles the pre-murderous life of Jeffrey Dahmer and examines him as a high school weirdo. By somewhat “humanizing” this psycho, the film doesn’t attempt to elicit sympathy towards its titular cannibal killer and instead shines a light on the fact that people we went to high school might very well turn into monsters seen in news headlines. Though there isn’t a single (human) murder to be found, MY FRIEND DAHMER joins the ranks among the best films about real-life serial killers (MONSTER, ZODIAC, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, and THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS).

14. FOUR LIONS: The idea of tackling Islamic terrorism through a darkly comic lens might sound completely misguided on paper, but FOUR LIONS is the best comedy that I sat through all year! The film follows four idiotic would-be terrorists as they attempt to execute a devastating attack, but constantly fumble over their own stupidity and reveal themselves to be bumbling morons. In my opinion, painting Islamic terrorists in this ridiculous light strips some of the power away from them in a similar way to what Charlie Chaplin did to Hitler in THE GREAT DICTATOR or what Rogen/Franco did to Kim Jong-Un with THE INTERVIEW. If you’re down for dark comedy and don’t mind totally offensive punchlines, you should give FOUR LIONS a watch in the near future!

13. HARD BOILED: Last year, LADY SNOWBLOOD wound up being one of my favorite movie-going experiences as I saw it in a packed cinema pub screening. This year, that cinema pub moviegoing experience belongs to HARD BOILED. This shoot ’em up actioner is over-the-top to the point of being ridiculous. Ridiculously awesome! Each gun fight plays out like a carefully choreographed dance and the film features one of the most jaw-dropping single take sequences that I’ve ever laid my eyes upon. Though it relies on a few cop movie clichés, it utilizes these in a loving way that makes the familiar material seem fresh. If you’re into action films and you haven’t seen HARD BOILED, then you need to remedy that immediately!

12. T2 TRAINSPOTTING: In all honesty, I didn’t know what exactly to expect from a sequel to TRAINSPOTTING. I love that film and I know that novelist Irvine Welsh wrote a follow-up novel, but I didn’t know how that might translate into a cinematic sequel. Over two decades after its predecessor’s release, T2 TRAINSPOTTING serves as an amazing companion piece to the original. Using the same cast and experimental visual style (albeit through a much more polished lens), TRAINSPOTTING 2 delivers stellar performances and naturally follows the lives of the four ne’er do wells from the previous film. If you loved the first film, then you’ll probably love this one too. For a full experience, it’s best to watch both of them back-to-back in the space of a single night!

11. NORTH BY NORTHWEST: This may be blasphemy for a cinephile, but I actually haven’t seen many Alfred Hitchcock films. I love PSYCHO, THE BIRDS, and DIAL M FOR MURDER, but the rest of his filmography is basically a mystery to my movie-craving eyes. My first viewing of NORTH BY NORTHWEST took place in the best possible environment (a packed movie theater) and I was blown away by how thrilling this film is. This is basically a James Bond film before Bond ever hit the screen. Cary Grant serves as a charismatic leading man who’s on the run for a murder he didn’t commit. Over the space of his death-defying adventure, we gets lots of suspense, action, and unexpected plot twists. I was on the edge of my seat for this entire film and walked away extremely satisfied. If the rest of Hitchcock’s filmography is anywhere near this great, then I’m in for a real treat as I continue to watch his work.

10. I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE: Blending a Coen brothers style of humor with indie thriller sensibilities, I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE might just be the most underseen and underrated film of 2017! This movie won an audience award at Sundance and then went directly to Netflix, where some people talked about for a couple of weeks and then it just kind of seemed to vanish out of the public eye. This is a vigilante thriller that’s believable in how inept real-life wannabe vigilantes might be and frequently dishes out shocking spurts of graphic violence. This might be the best Coen brothers film that the Coen brothers never made and I can’t wait to see what first-time director/writer Macon Blair cooks up next!

9. BABY DRIVER: What can I say? Edgar Wright consistently makes great films. BABY DRIVER is a passion project that Wright had in the works for years. In a similar fashion to how George Miller carefully planned out every scene, shot, and effect in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, Wright constantly lets the viewer know that they’re in the hands of a visionary storyteller. This stylish crime tale about a getaway driver who (ironically enough) wants to get away from his criminal lifestyle is loaded with colorful characters, hilarious humor, and adrenaline-pumping action that’s synced up to one of the best damn soundtracks you’ll hear all year. I gushed over this movie back in June and I am still gushing about it now. If you want a joy ride of pure fun, BABY DRIVER will satisfy your cinematic craving!

8. THE DISASTER ARTIST: Never in a million years did I think that anything to do with Tommy Wiseau’s so-bad-it’s-good THE ROOM would ever wind up on any “Best of” list. Yet, here we are. James Franco lovingly adapts the nonfiction book about the creation of THE ROOM to the big screen in a way that’s not only hilarious, but also genuinely touching. THE DISASTER ARTIST doesn’t take the easy route of being a goofy comedy about a loser who fails so spectacularly that he kind of succeeds. Instead, this film takes a more complicated drama-comedy approach and shows us the more serious side of oddball Tommy Wiseau…and his strange friendship with would-be aspiring actor Greg Sestero. THE DISASTER ARTIST is a moving must-see for ROOM fans and cinephiles who just love great movies in general.

7. BLADE RUNNER 2049: I’m saying it right now, BLADE RUNNER 2049 is one of the best sequels to ever hit the silver screen. Over three decades after its predecessor’s debut, BLADE RUNNER 2049 recaptures the bleak sci-fi/noir spark that made the original into the cult classic that it is today. 2049’s cast all deliver amazing performances across the board, with supporting actors making the biggest impressions in their small minutes of screen time and Ryan Gosling serving as a fascinating new antihero. Besides delivering a complex mystery that unpredictably shifts directions as it goes along, 2049 also has one of the most beautiful romantic subplots in years and it features a literal “one-dimensional” character. For those who were bummed out by this film’s disappointing box office returns, remember that the first BLADE RUNNER was a box office flop and is now considered to be one of the greatest science-fiction films of all time. A similar classic status will undoubtedly follow BLADE RUNNER 2049 in future years!

6. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES: Seven years ago, if you had told me that a PLANET OF THE APES prequel trilogy would be one of the best cinematic trilogies ever, I would have laughed in your face. It turns out that’s exactly the case though. 2014’s DAWN drastically improved upon the minor flaws of 2011’s RISE, but 2017’s WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is stellar storytelling from beginning to end. Themes of revenge, survival, and forgiveness are examined throughout the film’s ever-changing plot. Performance wise, WAR fully shapes out intelligent ape Caesar (played wonderfully by Andy Serkis) as animal protagonist who’s more compelling than most human protagonists in films and also introduces Woody Harrelson as a monstrous villain who we want to see die in the most painful way possible. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES was the best possible way to conclude the APES prequel trilogy and is one of the best summer blockbusters I’ve ever sat through!

5. IRREVERSIBLE: I originally heard about Gaspar Noe’s rape-revenge drama from a podcast in 2008, but hadn’t bothered to give it a look until earlier this year. Though not strictly a horror film by any means, IRREVERSIBLE is a terrifying cinematic experience as events are told backwards. Unlike other linear rape-revenge stories, we see the revenge come first and travel backwards through the moments that eventually lead up to the violent act of justice. As the film plays out in reverse (ironic considering its title), we put pieces of this depressing puzzle together for ourselves and this already tragic event becomes even more tragic with each new revelation. This isn’t a film for the faint-hearted and it’s about as bleak as they come, but IRREVERSIBLE is an uncompromising masterpiece that deserves to be seen by anybody who loves the serious artistic side of cinema!

4. LOGAN: There will never be a better Wolverine than Hugh Jackman. I’m saying that right now. Over a decade has been spent watching Jackman in the role of this weaponized mutant, so LOGAN serves as a suitable final chapter for Jackman’s reluctant do-gooder. The future X-MEN films have a tough act to follow, because LOGAN is a special kind of superhero story. Relationships between the small cast of characters drives the emotional core of this film forward, whilst the R rating finally delivers something that X-MEN fans have wanted to see since 2000: a bad-ass Wolverine slicing and dicing his way through bad guys. This film also has shades of Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD crossed with a comic book story that’s about as unconventional as they come. Now that Disney is in talks to own the X-MEN franchise, we likely won’t see another film like LOGAN coming from this mutant-based series. LOGAN is a one-of-a-kind superhero film and one of the best comic book movies ever made!

3. EYES WIDE SHUT: Stanley Kubrick’s final film is an underrated masterpiece about the way in which people delude themselves into believing that they’re happy…and also there’s a creepy sex cult involved too. The entire film has a dream-like atmosphere as we watch the main character (Tom Cruise) venture through a single night odyssey that explores the sexual possibilities of cheating on his wife. Kubrick masterfully shows the dire consequences that might result from following our instinctual desires, whilst also putting us into the place of Cruise’s character. This is especially true of the ending which offers two distinct possibilities: one of them is easy and comforting…and the other one is ambiguous and dangerous. Whatever you might think of it or how you might interpret it, EYES WIDE SHUT is sure to keep you talking about it long after it’s over.

2. YOUR NAME: Eat your heart out Studio Ghibli! YOUR NAME just might be one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever sat through. This film has gorgeous animation from beginning to end, while also delivering an entrancing tale of emotions and body-swapping. It’s initial set-up sounds like the anime equivalent of FREAKY FRIDAY, but drastically becomes something far more charming and moving as its complex plot moves along. This might be one of the strangest love stories ever put to the screen, but its emotional resonance is undeniable! The characters are all built up to the point where the viewer feels for their struggles and deeply cares about them. This makes the film’s final third into a very suspenseful and gripping ride. Also, the climax is utterly perfect. YOUR NAME is a masterpiece and deserves every bit of praise it has received so far (and will continue to receive)!

1. MOTHER!: Much like my favorite film of 2016 (HIGH-RISE), I know that there will be people who loathe and downright detest MOTHER! Some will hate it for its sheer artsy nightmare-logic style and others will despise its controversial message, but I adored every single frame of this fucked-up little ditty. The film follows a woman and her husband in an isolated countryside house. After a strange couple pop in and just decide to stay, their lives are shifted in horrifying ways. I can’t get too into details, because it would spoil some of the film’s nasty surprises and metaphorical madness. I will say that MOTHER! is my favorite horror film of the 2010s so far and one of the ballsiest films to ever receive a nationwide theatrical release. People either really love this film or totally hate it. There isn’t much middle ground to be found and you will likely walk away with a very strong opinion about it. One of the film’s trailers promised that “you’ll never forget where you were the first time you saw MOTHER!” and that statement is completely accurate. I’ve been thinking about this unforgettable horror film since its release and I can’t wait to dive into it again and again in future years to come!

Well, 2017 was a wild year for me…both on this site and in my personal life. I’m currently in the process of moving, so reviews will resume sometime in January! I plan to keep this little movie blog rolling, with plenty of reviews (both old and new) being pumped out on a mostly regular basis! A huge “thank you” to anyone who’s read this blog at all during the past year or any new readers who are discovering it for the first time. There was plenty to love in the world of film during 2017 and here’s to a just as great (if not better) 2018!

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, Thematic Elements, and some Disturbing Images

Directed by: Matt Reeves

Written by: Mark Bomback & Matt Reeves

Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer & Terry Notary

2011’s RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was far better than anyone could have expected it to be. This primate-filled prequel wasn’t perfect, but it served as a solid origin story for the ape revolution and left the door wide open for a potentially superior sequel. 2014’s DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES blew RISE out of the water on every conceivable level. This sequel to the prequel was action-packed, had a lot on its mind, and things were again left open for another installment. It’s 2017 and WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is hitting theaters. Rest assured, WAR is bleak, depressing, emotional and brilliantly executed. Who knew that a PLANET OF THE APES prequel trilogy would wind up being one of the best movie trilogies of our time?

After Koba’s attack and subsequent defeat in DAWN, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his herd of intelligent apes have been hiding from military forces for two years. Things seem relatively peaceful until a band of human soldiers accidentally stumble across their fortress. An attack is made and Caesar suffers a devastating loss. Driven by revenge, Caesar vows to kill The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), a crazed military leader who’s taken up residence in a well-guarded military base. On his journey, Caesar is warned by the few companions that accompany him that he’s in danger of becoming like Koba. All the while, the fate of ape kind and the human race hangs in the balance.

I tried to keep my plot synopsis as vague as possible, because WAR throws a lot of unexpected twists and turns at the viewer. The less you know, the more shocked you’ll be. Needless to say that director/co-writer Matt Reeves and writer Mark Bomback have found intelligent ways to tie WAR into the rest of the ape-pocalypse mythos. You might have the urge to go watch the 1968 original after this film has concluded, because Reeves and co. do such a masterful job of tying everything up in believable ways.

Though the APES films have previously wowed moviegoers with their effects by creating real-looking primates from computer graphics and motion capture performances, WAR is the peak of these special effects thus far. To say that this movie looks incredible is an understatement. Your eyes will be fooled into thinking that a chimpanzee is walking, talking, fighting, and killing. It certainly helps that Andy Serkis delivers his best performance yet as complex chimpanzee protagonist Caesar, with tons of emotion and a huge story arc to either overcome or be corrupted by. I know it’s cliché to say at this point (especially regarding this series), but Serkis more than deserves an Academy Award.

As supporting apes, Karin Konoval (playing orangutan Maurice) and Terry Notary (playing chimp Rocket) are especially great this time around. Steve Zahn (as a newcomer chimp nicknamed “Bad Ape”) delivers much-needed comic relief that never detracts from the story’s bleakness and emotional rollercoaster. WAR is very much the apes story because there are only two noteworthy human characters. Woody Harrelson plays the insane Colonel, who seems to be drawing inspiration from APOCALYPSE NOW’s Colonel Kurtz and also serving his own unique brand of evil driven by complex motivations. WAR’s most impressive newcomer is child actor Amiah Miller who plays Maurice’s adopted mute human daughter Nova. Without a single word of spoken dialogue, Miller conveys everything her character is feeling and will likely make you tear up during two of the film’s most emotional moments.

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES appropriately nails the feeling of a depressing war film, but with apes as the main characters. I caught hints of THE GREAT ESCAPE (which were intentional), alongside universal themes that can be seen in other war stories and (even) biblical epics. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES does what all great science fiction has managed to do and talks about complex real-life concepts through a fictional disguise. Yes, it’s a film about an ape trying to get revenge on an insane military commander, but it’s also about so much more than that. I don’t want to go into specifics for fear of spoiling some of the many emotions you’ll feel, but WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES made me cry, laugh, cheer, and sit in stunned silence. I’ve also been thinking about it for hours on end since watching it.

WAR is easily the most mature entry in a series that was already skilled at crafting smart, adult-aimed summer blockbusters. Action, explosions, and sheer spectacle mean so much more when there are well-developed characters, deep themes, and honest emotions carefully placed into them. No hyperbole whatsoever, I rank WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES alongside THE DARK KNIGHT and MAD MAX: FURY ROAD as one of the best 21st century summer blockbusters thus far. If you liked or loved the other APES movies, you’ll adore this one. It’s not just a great installment in one of the best trilogies to ever hit the silver screen, it’s an all-around phenomenal cinematic creation!

Grade: A+

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Graphic Violence and some Language

Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

(based on the novel NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN by Cormac McCarthy)

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper, Barry Corbin, Beth Grant & Stephen Root

Throughout their filmography, the Coen brothers have written and directed plenty of great films. It wouldn’t be a stretch to list them amongst the greatest filmmakers working today and their crowning cinematic achievement will likely go down as their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. This ultra-bleak cat-and-mouse thriller won four Academy Awards and is frequently listed as one of the best films of the 2000’s. As a fan of the Coen brothers, a person who frequently indulges on dark thrillers, and an admirer of cinema as art, I have to say that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is one of my favorite films.

In 1980’s Texas, Vietnam war veteran Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is hunting when he stumbles across a drug deal gone bad. Amongst the blood, corpses and bullet shells, Llewelyn finds two million dollars and one thirsty survivor. After he steals the money and feels guilty about leaving the dehydrated man behind, Llewelyn returns to deliver a gallon of water and finds himself on the run from very dangerous people who want their stolen cash back. Though gun-wielding Mexicans and a good ol’ boy bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson) are searching for Moss, his main hunter is psychopathic Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Moss and Chigurh find themselves in an increasingly deadly game of cat-and-mouse, all while aging Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) chases both men.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN has many amazing qualities, one of the biggest easily comes in stellar performances across the board. Josh Brolin makes Llewelyn Moss into a likable protagonist, even if he makes a few bone-headed decisions. The entire plot is thrust forward by Moss making one giant mistake and it becomes a blood-soaked cautionary tale. Tommy Lee Jones delivers the most restrained performance of the film as the close-to-retirement sheriff, who’s sickened by the increasing violence and crime of the world. The film’s title mostly derives from Tommy Lee Jones’s character’s sullen storyline and the plot’s heavier philosophical content is packed into his scenes.

Woody Harrelson is charismatic as the cocksure bounty hunter, while Kelly Macdonald is convincingly naïve as Moss’s wife. The film’s scariest performance arrives in the form of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. This lunatic kills unfortunate souls in unique ways (e.g. cattle-gun, handcuffs employed as a deadly weapon, sound-suppressed shotgun) and is 100% terrifying. Bardem’s deliberate line delivery and dead-eyed stare create a foe that’s simply hard to read, which makes him even scarier. Chigurh also has a twisted set of principles that are never fully revealed to the viewer, but we see life-or-death coin tosses and chance encounters that end on quietly menacing notes (the “do you see me?” scene sends chills down my spine).

Though its set-up is simple, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN packs in plenty of deeper meanings, careful background details, and parallels between characters that are likely to be analyzed by viewers in many different ways. The quiet ending (that seemingly arrives out of nowhere) is sure to throw a few people for a loop, but I really enjoy how it book-ends the film alongside opening narration that sets up the violence to come. As far as background details go, small things like wires that resemble like nooses in a convenience store owner, Chigurh’s cattle-centric main weapon of choice, and a phone ringing as a symbol of death calling come into play. There’s also one distinct scene that’s repeated between Moss and Chigurh that surely means something, though I’m not entirely sure what.

Besides being pure pleasure for arthouse-loving cinephiles, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN functions just as perfectly as a modern western thriller. The violence is shocking and the tension is so thick that you could cut it with a knife. Most of NO COUNTRY functions without a musical score, which makes the stellar sound design and every line of cleverly constructed dialogue stick out that much more. The film also takes ambiguous turns that let the audience fill in the blank. There are moments that may not suit every viewer’s cinematic cravings, but NO COUNTRY’s unconventional storytelling seems to work for a bigger audience than most arthouse dramas would typically appeal towards.

When I was in high school, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was one of the most intense books I ever read. Through sheer filmmaking prowess and careful eyes behind the camera, the Coen brothers masterfully translated Cormac McCarthy’s simple-yet-profound tale into a masterpiece of a movie. The suspense and fast-paced action will please those who want a modern western thriller, while the deeper meanings and carefully placed dialogue will thrill serious film lovers. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is easily one of the best films from the 2000s and definitely belongs somewhere in my top 20 all-time favorite movies!

Grade: A+

TRIPLE 9 (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language throughout, Drug Use and some Nudity

Triple9 poster

Directed by: John Hillcoat

Written by: Matt Cook

Starring: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Gal Gadot, Clifton Collins Jr. & Teresa Palmer

I’ll apologize in advance for sounding harsh towards this movie. Dammit, TRIPLE 9 could have been something special. Look at that cast! Watch the red band trailer! Read the plot description! This sounds and looks like an all-around awesome flick in the vein of Michael Mann’s HEAT and Martin Scorsese’s THE DEPARTED. Yet, TRIPLE 9 is a deeply underwhelming experience. There’s a fantastic movie hiding somewhere in this hodge-podge of solid performances, iffy writing, and stand-out moments mixed with well-worn clichés. Still, the end result is a decent crime-thriller that settles for being okay and never reaches any of its full potential.

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The city of Atlanta has become a bullet-filled battleground between suicidal cops and murderous criminals. Certain individuals are playing both sides of the law. Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Franco (Clifton Collins Jr.) are two cops trying to bring in some extra cash on the side. The corrupt pair are working for sadistic Russian mobster Irina (Kate Winslet) alongside career criminals Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Russell (Norman Reedus) and Gabe (Aaron Paul). These ragtag thieves attempt a high-stakes heist, which goes south in a bad way. They manage to escape, but not before causing a very public scene.

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Fresh-faced cop Chris (Casey Affleck) and grizzled detective Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson) become obsessed with these masked robbers. Meanwhile, the gang plans another high-stakes heist that needs one long distraction. This comes in the form of a Triple 9 call, meaning that a cop would need to take a bullet and possibly bite the big one for their heist to work. Marcus decides that Chris would be a perfect candidate for this scenario, but things don’t quite go according to plan.

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Great moments are hidden within TRIPLE 9’s messy screenplay. The opening heist is intense, while a street chase gives a glimpse into how action-packed this movie might have been with better writing behind it. TRIPLE 9’s big problems mostly boil down to a lazy, shoddy screenplay. Mind you, the film isn’t entirely clichéd and predictable. There’s enough here to keep someone entertained. The screenplay only lacks in bringing smart thrills, fleshing out clever twists and distinguishing itself from hundreds of other corrupt cop and heist films out there. I won’t give away specific plot points, but the story frequently sets up high stakes and almost never delivers on them. This is especially true of the anti-climactic finale. It felt like someone didn’t want to have events play out naturally and simply rushed the final scenes so the movie would be over in a hurry.

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Since the writing is a mixed bag of “meh,” the characters in TRIPLE 9 aren’t much better. Even with A-list talent behind them, I didn’t care about most of these people. Because these characters are mostly wooden, the grisly violence that stacks up as the film moves forward didn’t have as much of an impact as it probably should have. I felt more pity towards a silent security guard’s gruesome injury than I did for most of these cops/criminals’ deaths. The two biggest highlights of the cast are Woody Harrelson as an underutilized (but memorable) detective who has seen his fair share of shit and Clifton Collins Jr. as a scummy stone-cold psychopath.

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Anthony Mackie’s Marcus is played as a disappointingly one-dimensional crooked cop, unlike Chiwetel Ejiofor’s crook with a sympathetic reason driving his despicable actions. Kate Winslet (known for playing much more upbeat roles) lets her evil side shine as a sadistic Russian mob wife and chews the scenery like it’s going out of style, making the most of her limited screen time. Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus have both shown they have great talent in other projects, but are totally wasted here as two throwaway thugs. In a sense, TRIPLE 9’s A-list ensemble cast feels like a detriment. The screen becomes overcrowded with stars being squandered in poorly written roles.

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Only one performance sticks out as noticeably bad and that’s Casey Affleck as head-strong good cop Chris. We know we’re supposed to root for Chris. How do we know this? Because he’s the only main character who isn’t a total corrupt, amoral scumbag. To be fair, Affleck wasn’t given much to work with. This character feels like a cardboard cut-out of a protagonist, but that’s still a piss-poor excuse for his bland performance, seeing that every other cast member managed to make the most of their walking clichés.

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TRIPLE 9 has its moments and keeps things interesting enough to be considered an okay crime-thriller. However, there was such potential shining in every second of screen time and none of it was fully realized. Aside from a handful of great sequences and solid plot twists, TRIPLE 9 never does anything truly remarkable or notably special to stand-out in an overcrowded genre of cops, robbers, and Russian criminals. Okay, maybe that last detail isn’t in every crime-thriller, but that makes this even more underwhelming. TRIPLE 9 is a decent enough way to kill two hours, but you might as well watch any number of superior crime-thrillers instead.

Grade: B-

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 2 (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, and for some Thematic Material

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Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Written by: Danny Strong & Peter Craig

(based on the novel MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Natalie Dormer, Willow Shields, Jeffrey Wright & Stanley Tucci

This year marks the conclusion of THE HUNGER GAMES. Fitting snugly into the young adult fiction void left by HARRY POTTER and TWILIGHT, Suzzanne Collins’ teeny-bopperized version of BATTLE ROYALE made huge waves on the big screen. While I didn’t care for the first film at all, I found CATCHING FIRE to be surprisingly well-executed. Like seemingly all modern book adaptations, the final novel of the series was split into two separate films. As a result, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 felt like a feature-length first act. Picking up from the exact final seconds of Part 1, MOCKINGJAY Part 2 returns to the level of quality that CATCHING FIRE brought to the franchise. This is a very dark, intense, and satisfying final chapter to the HUNGER GAMES saga.

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Katniss’s propaganda campaign worked wonders for the rebels of Panem and the nation is in the midst of a full-blown revolutionary war. While the united Districts may have a massive army of soldiers, the sinister President Snow still has a few dirty tricks up his sleeve. He’s employed brainwashing techniques to turn Peeta against Katniss and has rigged the Capitol with hundreds of deadly booby traps. As this war progresses towards its darkest final hours, Katniss (aided by a handful of former Hunger Game survivors and freedom fighters) sets out across the deadly city landscape to assassinate President Snow. However, she discovers that there are few people that she can trust in this war.

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MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is dark, really dark. This fourth and final HUNGER GAMES installment is more horrific and intense than any of the previous chapters. Though it still contains a slight level of silliness, I found myself sucked into this story more than I was during the entirety of Part 1. Instead of merely using the repeated formula of a group of individuals trying to kill each other in a booby-trapped stadium, MOCKINGJAY Part 2 instead makes the viewer realize how big and bad the war raging in the Capitol is. As a result, the script is far more mature than I expected it to be. There’s a very strong anti-war message that’s undeniable as lives are lost on both sides and certain individuals twist the chaotic violence for their own personal gain.

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As far as the cast goes, Jennifer Lawrence has never been better as Katniss. The character has a quiet intensity for most of the film that feels convincing (especially given everything that’s happened to her throughout the past three movies). Lawrence’s strongest scene comes from her character having a pure emotional meltdown during a moment in the final third that was completely believable. I imagine that particular scene is bound to get a few fans crying in the theater. Though MOCKINGJAY Part 2 still has an annoying love-triangle aspect (which did remind me of the horrible TWILIGHT movies), I felt that both Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth brought their A-game as Peeta and Gale. They are more than just eye candy for teenage girls and actually serve a purpose in the plot.

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Julianne Moore returns for a much bigger role than she had in Part 1 as President Coin. Next to her side is the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final on-screen performance. Though he only receives about 5 minutes of total screen time, Hoffman is just as talented as he ever was. Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson reprise their roles, but don’t necessarily have a ton to do in this final chapter. The colorful-haired Stanley Tucci also pops in for a one scene appearance, while Jena Malone (who plays one of my favorite characters in the whole series) is mostly regulated to the sidelines for about three good scenes. Natalie Dormer, who was an important player in Part 1, only receives about a handful of lines and mainly stands in the background as an extra gun. Donald Sutherland owns the role of President Snow as a menacing politician who’s always the smartest, and most dangerous, person in the room. Most of the supporting cast members aren’t necessarily given a ton to do, because this is Katniss’s story.

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MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is beautifully shot and has many stand-out sequences. Creative booby traps provide some of the more exciting moments (an oil pit being a definitely highlight). There’s a nice atmosphere of tension and hopelessness (despite us knowing full well how this story is probably going to play out). Though most of the CGI works well, there’s one scene in a sewer that looks as if it took a page out of RESIDENT EVIL or (more recently) THE SCORCH TRIALS with some silly-looking creatures. There’s also a minor plot hole that annoyed me for a few minutes when it popped up. The running time runs a tad too long thanks to this film having the same amount of endings as RETURN OF THE KING. There were about three shots where the movie could have ended perfectly and it kept going as if to show us every minor detail to the point of annoyance.

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Truthfully told, there’s no reason why MOCKINGJAY couldn’t have just been a three-hour long final movie. The decision to split the story in two films was purely financial and contributes to pacing problems. Part 1 feels like the first act of a movie and Part 2 feels like the last two acts of that same movie. With some complaints aside (silly monsters, an ending that overstays its welcome, and a few wasted performances), MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is on the same level as CATCHING FIRE for me. It was nice to watch a young-adult movie series that started off on a shaky note and became something far better than it probably should have been by its finale. THE HUNGER GAMES franchise has left a mark in cinema as a new blockbuster sci-fi saga that will be remembered for years to come. MOCKINGJAY Part 2 serves as a more than satisfying final note to go out on.

Grade: B

NORTH COUNTRY (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences involving Sexual Harassment including Violence and Dialogue, and for Language

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Directed by: Niki Caro

Written by: Michael Seitzman

(based on the book CLASS ACTION by Clara Bingham & Laura Leedy Gansler)

Starring: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek, Michelle Monaghan, Jeremy Renner & Woody Harrelson

NORTH COUNTRY sounds like a surefire winner on paper. You have an important story being brought to life with an A-list cast. Though it bombed at the box office, the film even managed to garner two Academy Award nominations (Best Actress and Supporting Actress) and rightfully so. Based on the Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Company case, NORTH COUNTRY showcases great performances and a hard-hitting issue that happens to be driven by a muddled script trying to tell two tonally different stories at once. One involves a court case over sexual harassment in the workplace and is obviously the more important and compelling of the two. However, screenwriter Michael Seitzman tries to tie this into a story of a woman returning to her childhood home. He seems focus too much on the less-interesting latter.

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After years of abuse, Josey Aimes has decided to leave her spouse, take her two kids with her, and move in with her parents. While her mother seems to support Josey, her father less than approves and is ashamed by her presence. In order to make ends meet and earn some real money, Josey starts to work at the Mesabi Iron Range. The company is less than welcoming and Josey (along with her female coworkers) are subjected to frequent sexual harassment. To boot, an ex-boyfriend of Josey’s happens to be working at the mine and instigating more verbal/physical abuse towards her. Josey decides to file a class-action lawsuit against the company, but struggles to find members of the community that will stand in support of her case. It’s all a fictionalized take on an actual court case that changed the working world forever, but the film seems to only marginally focus on that…changing into something else entirely by the conclusion.

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Aside from the important issues being addressed (however glossed over they might wind up being), the main reason to watch NORTH COUNTRY is for the cast. I mean, look at those names! I was originally sold on seeing this movie because of the plot, but the A-list talent in this film got me even more pumped up to watch it. Charlize Theron has proven herself to be one of the best actresses working today and demonstrates both vulnerability and strength in equal measure as Josey. Seeing as her character is subjected to slut-shaming from the very beginning, it makes the viewer reevaluate how they treat certain people in our society who do get pregnant at 16 years-old and what not.

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Frances McDormand is sympathetic as a union representative whose health is slowly declining and Sean Bean has a side role as her husband. Meanwhile, Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins are outstanding as Josey’s parents, especially Richard Jenkins as the seemingly emotionless father who you want to punch in the face on multiple occasions. Jeremy Renner plays Josey’s ex with a sort of scumbag glee. Aside from playing Jeffrey Dahmer, I never really saw Renner in any antagonist role. So this was a nice change of pace. Woody Harrelson is great as Josey’s lawyer/possible love interest. All in all, the performances are great from everyone in this film and that would warrant at least one viewing in my eyes.

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NORTH COUNTRY is certainly effective in moments. These are the infuriating scenes of sexual harassment, the indifference of the higher-ups, and Josey’s courtroom scenes. However, the movie teeters close to Lifetime Original Movie territory whenever it goes into Josey’s past with little reveals coming to light (especially a bombshell in the final third that almost feels like a cop-out). Whenever the former moments are on, the movie is great. Whenever the latter is being focused on, the movie dips into mediocre and easy clichéd storytelling. I really wish that the movie had been a more accurate representation of the real court case that it was inspired by and not loaded with a lot of fictional soap opera level drama that seems to detract from the important issues being discussed.

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NORTH COUNTRY is a decent flick thanks to great performances from an awesome cast and the upsetting issues being discussed, but it’s weighed down by a subplot that really had no business being in this film. Charlize Theron’s performance is well worth the rental price alone and the rest of the impressive cast also boost this film’s quality above simply being a movie-of-the-week melodrama. However, it seems as if NORTH COUNTRY is two movies under one title. The first is a compelling drama inspired by one of the most important court cases in recent history. The second feels like a Lifetime script that somehow got a budget of 35 million. I really wish the former stood out more than the latter, but they’re given equal screen time and that’s the problem. NORTH COUNTRY is worth a watch, but don’t expect it to be as amazing as it could have been.

Grade: B-

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 1 (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, some Disturbing Images and Thematic Material

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Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Written by: Danny Strong & Peter Craig

(based on the novel MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Donald Sutherland, Natalie Dormer, Sam Claflin, Robert Knepper, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci & Jeffrey Wright

HUNGER GAMES has been filling the void of good young adult book adaptations left behind by the (mostly) phenomenal HARRY POTTER saga. It’s staggering how popular this series is and I’ve been excited for MOCKINGJAY Part 1 to a certain degree. I actually didn’t care for 2012’s THE HUNGER GAMES (it was a silly teeny-bopper version of BATTLE ROYALE) and found last year’s CATCHING FIRE to be a remarkable step up in quality on pretty much every level. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 falls somewhere in between those two films. It’s not great entertainment, but never sinks to the silliness of the first film. The biggest problem that knocks this film down in quality is obvious in the title, but more on that in a moment.

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When we last left two-time Hunger Games survivor Katniss Everdeen, she had been used as part of a rebel plot against the Capitol and was being taken to the supposedly destroyed District 13. That’s where we pick up in this movie. Katniss witnesses the cruelty that the evil President Snow has brought onto her District and others (including executing those associating with the Mockingjay symbol and oppressing everyone even further). She becomes the face of a rising revolution and the tables begin to turn on the Capitol, but this is violent revolution and lives will be lost on both sides. That’s the general plot of this film and it leaves us with a huge “see you next November” final scene (more so than CATCHING FIRE did).

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Production values on MOCKINGJAY are fantastic. Seeing this world come to life was actually my favorite part of this third entry. With the plots of the previous two films revolving around battles-to-the-death in complex arenas that provided many dangers (besides the group of teenage killers running around), it didn’t seem like enough time was spent on developing this futuristic society enough for the viewer to care about the overall struggles of the huge class system. Jennifer Lawrence slips right back into Katniss mode with little effort and has made the character her own at this point. The same can be said for every returning cast member. The new additions (mainly Julianne Moore and Natalie Dormer) are good in what they’re given to do (which doesn’t amount to much other than a few conversations). The overall plot is compelling, but there’s a problem that sticks out like a sore thumb…

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The main issue that many (including myself) will likely have with MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is that “Part 1” at the end of the title. Greed might have ruined what could have been a stand-out conclusion to an entertaining trilogy. The whole movie (as compelling as it is) feels like a first act stretched to feature-length. If you’re still waiting for things to get fully going by the time the end credits roll, then I feel you because that was my exact reaction. The main character of Katniss is given remarkably very little to do in this film other than utter some lines and encourage others to fight back against a corrupt government. Nearly every piece of action you’ve seen in the marketing is taken from one scene that happens early on. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is far more focused on this revolution beginning than actually showing the revolution taking place. It’s all set-up and filler. While I enjoyed details about it, there will be viewers who wholly dislike this film for that reason and it’s a valid point.

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Despite feeling like a stretched first act to a really solid movie, the film does have a handful of intense scenes. The political subtext isn’t as subtle as many might prefer it to be, but the messages in MOCKINGJAY Part 1 are far more mature than most of the young adult adaptation counter-parts this year. Most of the character bonding moments are filler. We know who these people are and we don’t need to see them bond anymore as we want to see the action (which has been building for two movies) come to fruition. These were merely included to pad out the running time even further and they feel useless.

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In a world where studios are milking every closing chapter of young adult franchises for all that they’re worth, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 isn’t a bad set-up film for a good finale. However, it still remains a set-up film for the finale. One giant MOCKINGJAY movie would have done the job just fine and it seems like studio greed might be slightly spoiling this final book adaptation. As far as books being split into multiple movies go, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS and THE HOBBIT are both getting the concept right. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 feels like BREAKING DAWN Part 1 in the sense that this all could have been wrapped up in the opening hour of a 2-3 hour long final film. At any rate, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is disappointing, but still worth a watch. You just might want to skip it in theaters and watch it at home before going to see MOCKINGJAY Part 2 next year.

Grade: B-

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+

SEMI-PRO (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Sexual Content

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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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