MOTHER! (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Disturbing Violent Content, some Sexuality, Nudity and Language

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Written by: Darren Aronofsky

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Kristen Wiig, Jovan Adepo & Stephen McHattie

Darren Aronofsky is known for artsy psychological headtrips and experimenting with narrative structure. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM put him on the map for moviegoers, whilst THE FOUNTAIN served as an ambitious anthology that split folks down the middle, and BLACK SWAN was a beautiful descent into madness. Also, NOAH saw Aronofsky putting his own fantastical spin on a Bible epic with polarizing reactions as a result. I’ve pretty much loved every Aronofsky film that I’ve seen thus far, so know that’s where I stand when I say that MOTHER! is a brilliant, ballsy piece of cinema that completely blew me away. This is easily one of the most original horror films that I’ve seen in years and is guaranteed to make a lot of people hate it. Those who dig MOTHER! though, will likely love it and not be able to stop thinking about it.

Without giving any spoilers away in my plot synopsis, I’ll say that MOTHER! is about the relationship between a poet (Javier Bardem) and his much-younger wife (Jennifer Lawrence). Lawrence’s character has renovated her husband’s formerly burned down house from scratch and the end result is beautiful to behold, but Javier’s character still can’t get over a troubling bit of writer’s block. When a mysterious couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) show up uninvited and make their way into Lawrence’s and Bardem’s home, tensions begin to flare as Lawrence strongly dislikes their imposing presence and Bardem revels in their company. More guests soon arrive and things quickly spiral into morbid metaphorical madness!

MOTHER! is a film that’s bound to polarize viewers. First of all, this is very much an arthouse horror flick. The narrative constantly uses nightmare logic and plot points/characters are clearly meant to represent things outside of this story. Symbolism is strong in this film. Those who don’t enjoy slow burns and artsy flicks will most likely despise this movie from its strange beginning until the deeply disturbing conclusion. Then there’s the actual message (or messages, depending on your interpretation of events) which may turn certain viewers off. Aronofsky isn’t exactly subtle in certain areas, and there’s enough head-fuckery to guarantee multiple viewings are necessary to catch everything in this detailed piece of art.

Jennifer Lawrence deviates from her mainstream dramedies and teeny-bopper roles to play her ballsiest role yet as this film’s titular protagonist. As Lawrence’s character is put through the emotional gauntlet, the viewer is also pushed through the wringer. I felt that her growing frustration, bafflement and devastation were all completely believable as I felt the same emotions whilst experiencing this film (in the best way possible). Javier Bardem has already proven himself to be a phenomenal performer time and time again. I don’t want to say too much about his character here, but he leaves an unforgettable impression and tackles his difficult-to-understand character with bravado.

In a supporting role, Ed Harris is half likable and half creepy as the first unexpected guest. Michelle Pfeiffer is positively hateable as his wife and will make you want to slap her in the face. She’s so good at being bad in this film. Domhnall Gleeson, Kristen Wiig, and Stephen McHattie also pop in for supporting roles and make the most of the screen time they receive. The other supporting actors, a bunch of random faces, also will gradually piss you off as much as they do Jennifer Lawrence’s character. This film does a fantastic job of making you irritated and uncomfortable towards people simply being assholes. I don’t want to dive deeper into these characters’ actions…because there would definitely be spoilers in those details.

As far as cinematography goes, this movie is incredibly atmospheric and there’s a growing dread that digs inside you as the running time moves forward. Even though this is a slow burn, these two hours rushed by for me and I know that I’ll be rewatching this film many times in the future. It also seems fair to describe MOTHER! as the most unusual home invasion horror flick that you’ll ever see. The film also contains truly disturbing scenes and becomes all-out insanity during its final third. There are genuinely horrific images that you won’t be able to forget after you’ve seen this film and Aronofsky’s demented script puts brilliant spin on centuries-old themes.

If you don’t want to read minor spoilers, skip to the last paragraph. Aronofsky really ticked people off by treating NOAH as a fantasy and though that film wasn’t perfect, I thoroughly enjoyed it. This taken into consideration, MOTHER! seems to be the exact swtich-up of that formula. Here, Aronofsky is retelling Bible stories in the most fucked up, disturbing way possible and it winds up being one of the ballsiest films that I’ve seen in the 2010s. Though there’s an argument to made about the interpretations of artistry and failing relationships, I totally bought this on the not-so-subtle Biblical ideas and characters’ names seem to really hammer that home for me. I adored this film, but can totally understand why someone wouldn’t be into this sort of thing and not care for it at all.

MOTHER! feels like something that Lynch, Cronenberg, or Kubrick would have directed in their heyday. It’s one of the strangest home invasion horror films you’ll ever see, while also serving as a brilliant slice of metaphorical madness for those who really love this film’s sheer darkness and overall message. This is a strange, rough, and fucked up film…and I loved every single second of it. A movie hasn’t left me pondering over it this much in a long time and I can’t wait to revisit MOTHER! many times in the future. This is not only the best horror film that I’ve seen in years and one of the best films of 2017 (so far), I’d argue that this will go down as one of the best films of the 2010s for me!

Grade: A+

DESPICABLE ME 3 (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Action and Rude Humor

Directed by: Kyle Balda & Pierre Coffin

Written by: Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio

Voices of: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Trey Parker, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Nev Scharrel, Steve Coogan, Julie Andrews & Jenny Slate

One of three unexpected animated sequels in 2017’s summer movie season (alongside THE NUT JOB 2 and CARS 3), DESPICABLE ME 3 falls in the middle of its great-to-okay franchise. I feel that the first DESPICABLE ME is overrated and a bit bland, but has enough sweetness and laughs to barely overcome its many flaws. DESPICABLE ME 2 is Illumination’s best film (so far) and a sequel that easily surpassed its predecessor. MINIONS was an okay spin-off that had great moments, but was aimed far more at little kids than previous two DESPICABLE films. DESPICABLE ME 3 serves as an improvement over the first DESPICABLE film and its yellow pill-shaped spin-off, but falls beneath the still-superior second installment. This is a fun piece of family entertainment. Nothing more, nothing less.

Former-supervillain-turned-good-guy Gru (Steve Carell) and agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig) have been serving as husband and wife crime-fighting partners for the Anti-Villain League. After he’s thwarted by 80s-child-star-turned-evil-villain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), Gru and his wife are fired. Things look grim for Gru until he receives an invitation from his wealthy long-lost twin brother Dru (also Steve Carell). It turns out that Dru is looking to get into supervillainy and hopes that Gru will assist him. Meanwhile, Lucy struggles to be a good mother towards Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Nev Scharrel).

DESPICABLE ME 3 has colorful, vibrant animation. The designs on a giant robot and certain backgrounds look pretty darn realistic, even though these settings are populated by cartoony characters. The film also excels in its Minion moments. The Minions were the funniest part of the first two DESPICABLE ME films and they (once again) steal the show here. Their subplot, which involves them revolting against Gru and serving hard time in prison, is filled with hilarious moments and one montage that ranks as one of the funniest bits of the entire DESPICABLE series.

The film falters when it comes to the more emotional side of things. The first DESPICABLE film had Gru adjusting to a newfound family life and the sequel had a love-interest for Gru alongside more hijinks of him parenting a preteen who was developing an interest in boys. The third DESPICABLE ME forgoes any emotional arc for Gru altogether as his brother storyline serves as simple comedic means to an end. The only emotional moments to speak of involve Lucy Wilde trying to adjust to motherhood and Agnes facing a blow of harsh reality towards her wild imagination. The former only makes up about five brief scenes of screen time and the latter is wrapped up in the space of 15 minutes.

The series’ more grown-up moments take a backseat for a plot that’s very predictable and feels like your average kids cartoon. Much like the MINIONS spin-off, DESPICABLE ME 3 is aimed for a much younger audience and barely attempts to put the same amount of effort into entertaining older viewers as it does occupying children’s short attention spans. One positive quality that might give adults a few chuckles comes in Trey Parker’s 80s-obsessed antagonist. His break-dance fighting (ripped off from ZOOLANDER), constant reminiscing over a bad TV show, wacky weapons, and references might get an occasional laugh or two, but this villain isn’t nearly as clever as he could have been and DESPICABLE ME 2’s El Macho still serves as the series’ best baddie.

There really isn’t much else I can say about DESPICABLE ME 3. This film ranks higher than the okay first entry, but is not on the same level of smart writing and emotional weight of the far-superior second film. The vibrant animation and fast pace are sure to keep this fun for children, while adults will likely get a few laughs out of it. The Minions easily steal the show, but that’s always been the case in this franchise. Meanwhile, the actual draw of this third installment in Gru’s long-lost brother doesn’t make much of an impact at all. If you liked the other DESPICABLE ME movies, you’ll like this one. However, just don’t expect anything really special.

Grade: B

DESPICABLE ME 2 (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Rude Humor and mild Action

Directed by: Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud

Written by: Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio

Starring: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Benjamin Bratt, Miranda Cosgrove, Russell Brand, Steve Coogan, Ken Jeong, Elise Fisher, Dana Gaier & Moises Arias

DESPICABLE ME 2 has the benefit of being from the same pair of directors and two screenwriters who made the first DESPICABLE ME. It also serves as an animated sequel that’s superior to its predecessor in every possible way. Because the first film is out of the way and groundwork has already been laid for this franchise, DESPICABLE ME 2 hits the ground running with new material, more imagination, better humor, and memorable new characters. While the first film had a bland plot and just enough charm to barely overcome its faults, DESPICABLE ME 2 is a blast from start to finish.

Having adjusted to family life and newfound parenthood to three adopted daughters, supervillain Gru (Steve Carell) is recruited to The Anti-Villain League and partnered with potential love-interest agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig). Together, Gru and Lucy go undercover at a mall to investigate a possible villain who’s hiding in plain sight. All the while, Gru’s Minions are being mysteriously abducted and eldest daughter Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) finds love in a preteen boyfriend.

DESPICABLE ME 2 has two main plotlines occurring alongside two smaller subplots and hardly receives any time to drag. In careless hands, juggling multiple storylines may have wound up making this family-friendly animated sequel into an overly complicated mess. However, the team of directors and writers seem genuinely interested in furthering their established DESPICABLE universe and wind up with a sequel that’s vastly superior to their previous effort. DESPICABLE ME 2 is smarter, bigger, and funnier than the first film. Some of these qualities can be attributed to all around better storytelling which uses clever twists to produce big laughs and surprising revelations.

While the first DESPICABLE ME suffered from a thin excuse for a villain, this sequel has a much more colorful and entertaining antagonist in play. I won’t go into specifics about this baddie because this sequel slowly reveals their identity for bigger laughs and extra twists, but this person is a far more interesting villain than the last film’s Vector. Another improvement is that Gru’s relationship with his daughters is more believable and focused this time around. He has a unique bond with the cute Agnes, tomboy Edith, and maturing Margo. The interactions between this unusual family result in both heartwarming moments and hilarious bits. It’s especially funny to watch Gru’s escalating distress over Margo’s growing interest in boys.

Gru has a love-interest of his own in Lucy (voiced by Kristen Wiig, who previously played the strict orphanage owner from the first film) and their chemistry feels natural too. Lucy is quirky and Gru is awkward, but the two characters just seem (literally) made for each other. This romantic plotline is further hammered home by Gru’s bad childhood experiences with crushes and aggravated interactions with an annoying neighbor who keeps trying play unwanted matchmaker. It’s also worth noting that DESPICABLE ME 2’s Minions play a major role in the plot. I thought they were easily a highlight of the first film, but they get even funnier in this sequel and contribute to the main story in a big way.

DESPICABLE ME 2 isn’t a perfect animated film in that a few jokes fall flat and older viewers will be able to correctly guess where certain plotlines are heading from a mile away. However, this second DESPICABLE installment packs a few smart surprises for adults alongside big laughs, a soft heartwarming center, and energetic animation that’s always moving. DESPICABLE ME 2 is a sequel that outdoes the original in every way and (at least for me) currently sits as Illumination’s best film yet!

Grade: B+

DESPICABLE ME (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Rude Humor and mild Action

Directed by: Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud

Written by: Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio

Voices of: Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Miranda Cosgrove, Diana Gaier, Elsie Fisher, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig & Julie Andrews

DESPICABLE ME was released in 2010 to massive financial success, launched the popular yellow-pilled creatures known as Minions, and served as Illumination’s first feature film (the company has since become a major competitor for DreamWorks, Pixar, and Disney). Even though this film made a big impression on the animated film market and audiences, I find DESPICABLE ME to be bit overrated. It wasn’t even the best animated sensitive supervillain film of 2010. That distinction belongs to DreamWorks’ MEGAMIND. However, this film sports colorful animation, some clever jokes, and enough charm to overcome an overly familiar storyline and narrative faults.

Bald supervillain Gru (Steve Carell) has been depressed because another supervillain has recently taken the limelight away from bad guys everywhere by stealing Giza’s Great Pyramid. In order to reign supreme as the greatest supervillain of all-time, Gru decides to enact a plan to steal the moon. To do this, he’ll need to steal a shrink ray from rival villain Vector (Jason Segel) and adopt three orphaned girls Margo, Edith, and Agnes (Miranda Cosgrove, Diana Gaier, and Elise Fisher) to unwittingly assist him. As his plan moves forward, Gru begins to grow a soft spot for his three new daughters, much to the dismay of his mad scientist colleague Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand).

DESPICABLE ME walks the tightrope of trying to be colorful and innocent enough for young children, while also supplying enough dark humor and mature jokes for older viewers to enjoy. While it mostly maintains this balance, things occasionally slip too much into little kid territory. There are really fun jokes revolving around Gru living a totally inappropriate life for a family (including one hilarious bit involving a torture device) and his gradual acceptance of his new children is very cute to watch, but the overall story is too simple and not nearly as clever as it tries to be. The latter is especially epitomized by Jason Segel’s lackluster villain. This antagonist is just plain boring and a would-be conspiracy around him feels like a half-baked development in the proceedings.

Steve Carell’s voice is unrecognizable as Gru, aided by a strange accent. Meanwhile, Cosgrove, Gaier and Fisher are convincing as the three adopted daughters, with Fisher’s adorable Agnes guaranteed to melt even the hardest of hearts. These characters are further aided by vibrant animation that breathes life into a world of supervillainy with regulations. One big plot point revolves around Gru trying to secure a loan from an evil bank to finance his diabolical deeds. The film also succeeds in its yellow pill-shaped Minion moments. Some people may utterly despise the Minions with every fiber of their beings, but I’m in the group that loves these hilarious creations. The Minion scenes have just the right combination of potty humor, immature antics, and fish-out-of-water slapstick.

DESPICABLE ME’s plot may be a bit too basic and the overall film is overrated in the grand scheme of things (MEGAMIND is miles better and its second installment is a bit improvement too). Still, this is a fun piece of family entertainment that’s sure to keep younger viewers occupied, while supplying a decent supply of laughs for teenagers and packing in enough sentimentality for parents (especially seeing that the whole movie revolves around a new parent adjusting to having three new additions to his family and growing a heart). DESPICABLE ME is decent. Not great, not really good…but just decent.

Grade: B-

MASTERMINDS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Crude and Sexual Humor, some Language and Violence

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Directed by: Jared Hess

Written by: Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer & Emily Spivey

Starring: Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Mary Elizabeth Ellis & Ken Marino

MASTERMINDS was originally slated to hit theaters in August 2015 and, due to the studio declaring bankruptcy, its theatrical release was postponed until this weekend. When you look at the cast, crew, and source material behind this film, you get the sense that this might be an underrated sleeper hit of 2016. The script is based on a real-life heist of idiotic proportions, the cast features big comedic talent (including 3/4ths of the recent GHOSTBUSTERS remake) and director Jared Hess has tackled quirky comedies in the past (NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, NACHO LIBRE). Though its true story is anything but bland and forgettable, MASTERMINDS somehow manages to be bland and forgettable. The film only received a handful of laughs from an awkwardly silent theater and a majority of those were caused by one particular cast member (more on him in a moment).

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The year is 1997 and the place is North Carolina. David Ghantt (Zach Galifianakis) drives an armored truck for Loomis Fargo and dreams of making a big name for himself. Though he always imagined fighting off robbers, David soon finds himself persuaded to steal over 17 million dollars from his workplace due to the urgings of sexy co-worker Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig) and her manipulative friend Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson). After the initial heist seemingly goes off without a hitch, tensions soon erupt within the group of white trash thieves. This is further elevated by FBI Special Agent Scanlon (Leslie Jones) hot on the case, with David as a prime suspect. Extravagant spending, bad disguises, crazy coincidences, and wacky backstabbing schemes soon follow.

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Look at that cast! Just look at them! Out of the bevy of recognizable faces, only one character sticks out: Jason Sudeikis as a psychotic hitman. He steals the entire show, as if there was much worth stealing in the first place, and provides the film’s only laughs. I cannot overstate how funny Jason Sudeikis is in this film. This is one of the Sudeikis’s best performances and it’s tragically trapped in one of the worst films of his career. Everyone else comes off as various degrees of bland, though the end credit bloopers show that they all seemed to have fun on the set.

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Zach Galifianakis’s only funny bits have already been given away in the trailer (the best of which involves a horribly misguided disguise), meaning there weren’t that many to begin with. His performance is phoned in, but it’s nothing compared to the Kristen Wiig’s hollow love-interest role. Kelly Campbell’s relationship with David might have been interesting in a better film, but I never really understood where she was coming from and eventually gave up on any attempt to care. Owen Wilson’s villainous Steve Chambers has an okay running gag of overspending (a detail that’s completely accurate to the ridiculous true story), but his presence is underutilized. Kate McKinnon is cringe-worthy as David’s mentally unhinged fiancé and Leslie Jones doesn’t get much to do as the FBI agent investigating the case.

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As mentioned before, MASTERMINDS is funniest during Jason Sudeikis’s scenes. If the film had maintained that level of energy and hilarity for a majority of the running time, this would be a very different (far more positive) review. The script frequently stoops to low-brow potty humor, instead of focusing on the hilarity of the ludicrous true crime story that inspired it. The worst joke comes in a fart gag that devolves into a diarrhea scene. Another needlessly unfunny moment has a character farting into another character’s butt. That’s the level that this film is playing on. Jared Hess’s past efforts have showcased a unique sense of humor that works for some viewers and doesn’t quite work for others. I like NAPOLEON DYNAMITE and NACHO LIBRE, but MASTERMINDS feels like it’s attempting to recapture that quirkiness with a bigger budget and frequently falls flat. I wouldn’t be surprised if the studio meddled with this film to the point where it didn’t resemble Hess’s original vision at all or he might have simply lost his touch on this project.

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It should speak volumes that I laughed more whilst reading the Wikipedia page about the 1997 Loomis Fargo heist than I did for most of MASTERMINDS’s running time. I’ll say it again, Jason Sudeikis’s hitman is the funniest thing in this whole damn movie. The rest of it is generic, bland, and lazy. There’s really no discernible excuse for why this film shouldn’t have been hilarious. The material is perfectly honed for this director and the cast seem primed to make this into a goofy romp. Sadly, MASTERMINDS is a disappointment that only contains a handful of laughs and an interesting true story that’s far more entertaining than the film itself.

Grade: D+