POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 26 minutes

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

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Directed by: Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone

Written by: Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone

Starring: Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, Sarah Silverman, Tim Meadows, Imogen Poots, Bill Hader, Joan Cusack, Maya Rudolph, Will Arnett, Mike Birbiglia, Martin Sheen, Snoop Dogg & Will Forte

The Lonely Island is a trio of comedians/writers who made it big on Saturday Night Live and have already visited the big screen with 2007’s so-stupid-it’s-funny HOT ROD. Though they’ve found success separately (on film) and together (in three albums), it’s been nearly a decade since The Lonely Island made their big screen debut…and now they’re back with this spot-on mockumentary! Placing its fingers firmly on the jugular of modern pop culture and the pop music industry, POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING is sure to please Lonely Island fans and people with a strange sense of humor (both usually fall under the same demographic).

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Meet Conner4real. Formerly a member of the musical trio known as the Style Boyz, Conner broke off into a worldwide solo sensation and gained an enormous fanbase with his first record. When his hotly anticipated second album ConnQuest receives negative reviews and dwindling sales, Conner resorts to desperate stage gimmicks and press antics to keep himself relevant. We watch as Conner’s career flies off the deep end and his pompous attitude begins to get the better of him. As you might imagine, it’s highly entertaining, surprisingly thirst-quenching, and very funny to behold.

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It should come as no surprise that POPSTAR is essentially spoofing Justin Bieber and I won’t deny that it’s well deserved. The title itself a is direct riff on the musical doc JUSTIN BIEBER: NEVER SAY NEVER and there are plenty of nods to stupid actions that the real-life spoiled star has committed throughout his career. However, Bieber isn’t the only target here, because POPSTAR takes on the pop music industry and petty celebrity culture as a whole. There’s a side character who’s essentially Kanye West, gags about three different reality shows clashing, and a gossip show called CMZ (wonder what that could possibly be making fun of). POPSTAR isn’t exactly subtle in its targets or jokes, because this spoof is devouring easy prey to begin with.

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These gags and characters are all executed by a massive cast of big faces, some of which were complete surprises (I won’t spoil those appearances). Besides The Lonely Island (as Conner4Real, his DJ, and his former bandmate), this film has a ton of colorful side characters played by the likes of Sarah Silverman, Tim Meadows, Bill Hader, Joan Cusack, Maya Rudolph, Will Arnett, Mike Birbiglia, and Will Forte. Celebrity cameos/interview segments feature Simon Cowell, RZA, 50 Cent, Pink, Ringo Starr and many more. There are simply too many to list and they’re all crammed into 86 minutes of fun. Seeing as this ensemble cast of comedic and musical talent is so large, certain roles outshine others. As funny as Bill Hader’s flatlining roadie and Joan Cusack’s cocaine-snorting mother are, their presence is limited to scenes that have already been given away in the marketing. Will Arnett is a huge highlight as the obnoxious CMZ host, so be sure to stay through the credits for an extra scene of him.

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The Lonely Island are a musical group and comedic troupe, so they’ve put together a mighty hilarious soundtrack for POPSTAR. With songs about the Mona Lisa being overrated, an obnoxious number about being humble, and songs that tackle social issues in terribly misguided ways, POPSTAR’s songs are horribly offensive, absolutely hilarious and genuinely well put together. One particular music video had me close to crying from laughing so hard. It’s safe to say that The Lonely Island knew precisely what they were doing when they got behind the camera and in front of it for this feature.

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The documentary-style storytelling greatly benefits POPSTAR as a whole. The film cuts together interviews, Snapchat/Youtube videos, news reports, footage from Conner’s concerts, and his day-to-day life. This results in a structure that’s legitimately interesting to watch, even when the material veers into predictable and sentimental territory towards the ending. In a decade or so, POPSTAR might be looked back on as a painfully funny reminder to how ludicrous both the pop culture and pop music scene were in the 2010’s.

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POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING is a silly, highly entertaining ride that had me giggling like an idiot from beginning to end. The film can be a tad too predictable at times and nearly overstays it’s under 90-minute running time, but I had a blast watching this film and imagine that fans of silly comedy will likely have a similar experience. The soundtrack is great. The laughs range from small visual gags to over-the-top set pieces. The mockumentary style lends itself perfectly to the material. POPSTAR is to music documentaries what 2007’s WALK HARD was to dramatic music biopics!

Grade: B+

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 22 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action/Violence

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Directed by: Marc Webb

Written by: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci & Jeff Pinkner

(based on the SPIDER-MAN comics by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko)

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz, Colm Feore, Paul Giamatti, Sally Field, Chris Cooper, Martin Csokas, B.J. Novak, Martin Sheen, Chris Zylka, Denis Leary & Felicity Jones

Sony’s questionable decision to reboot SPIDER-MAN wound up in the 2012’s mixed bag THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. I appreciated that the reboot was attempting to take things in a more serious direction, but the tone was schizophrenic to say the least. The first half of the film and the second half didn’t mesh well at all, not to mention that the Lizard was a poorly constructed villain. It’s two years later and 2014’s summer movie season is kicking off with THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2. Though the general consensus from critics has been slightly lower than that for the 2012 installment, I found this sequel to one-up its predecessor in every possible way. There’s a more cohesive story being told. The villains are far better developed and the viewer is given reasons to feel for Peter Parker’s struggles. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a solid kickoff for Summer 2014 and a sequel that could ultimately shape this new series into being one of the better superhero sagas out there.

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Peter Parker has just graduated from high school and his relationship with Gwen Stacy is on shaky ground. Peter made a promise to her dying father that he would keep Gwen out of his life, due to the risk that comes with his crime-fighting. Naturally, Gwen is sick of their on-again-off-again status and breaks up with Peter, which gives him a whole lot of mixed emotions. Meanwhile, an old childhood friend (Harry Osborne) has returned to town and has taken a special interest in the web-slinging Spider-Man. To make matters even more dangerous, a new villain has been (accidentally) created. This glowing baddie is named Electro and has bad feelings towards Spider-Man. Peter Parker must choose where he wants to stand with Gwen, all while battling the electrifying Electro and another emerging menace found in the mentally unstable Harry Osborne.

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I doubt a Spider-Man film will ever be completely serious. The material doesn’t lend itself well to being a dark gritty tale like THE DARK KNIGHT. It can result in a good popcorn flick that will thrill audiences of every age. That’s squarely where THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 falls. Spider-Man does have his usual sense of humor (which I found a lot more enjoyable this time around) and there are comedy relief scenes. Most don’t stick out like a sore thumb (as they did in the 2012 film) and actually lend themselves to the story being told. One example of this comes in Peter Parker stalling a few henchmen in a hallway. The tone is serious enough to create a lurking sense of danger for both Peter and those around him.

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With a total of three villains presented in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, one might assume that it would suffer from the same overcrowding that killed SPIDER-MAN 3 (though that film also had many other problems contributing to its terrible quality). Rhino only appears for a total of about 5 minutes. Ironically, he was the villain I was looking most forward to seeing in action. I’m sure he’ll be back for some sequels, because Paul Giamatti is clearly having a blast as this Russian-accented thug. Electro and Green Goblin are the centerpiece bad guys of the story. I wasn’t looking forward to seeing Electro (he’s one of the lesser villains in my eyes), but Jamie Foxx did a competent job playing him. The special effects are pretty good, but he does get cartoony in the big showdown (going as far as to play a dubstep version of the Itsy Bitsy Spider).

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Finally on the evil side of things, there’s Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborne/Green Goblin. We’ve seen this villain before portrayed by both William Dafoe and James Franco. Let it be known that I consider DeHaan’s Goblin to be far superior to either of the previous incarnations seen in Raimi’s trilogy. The motivations driving what eventually becomes Spider-Man’s biggest nemesis make complete sense and I loved where they went with Harry’s turn into the psychotic Goblin. The molding of this character contained some of the best scenes in the entire film, though this isn’t to discredit the competent handling of Electro as well.

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As to be expected Andrew Garfield has become a lot more comfortable in the skin of Peter Parker and the suit of Spider-Man. He inhabits the character fully this time around. Emma Stone has great chemistry with him and the complicated relationship is done in a fashion that’s worth paying attention to. This didn’t feel like filler in the slightest, but an integral piece of the story. Some ballsy moves are made near the end that might propel the entire franchise into a brand new world for the web-slinger (there is serious build up for the Sinister Six, which have been announced to appear in a future film).

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The noticeable irks came in some silly looking effects (near video game graphics) in the final showdown between Spidey and Electro. There are a couple of eye-rolling moments in some failed comedy relief, but only a handful this time around. I didn’t completely believe how pieces of the mystery around Peter’s absent parents were revealed. One of the most ridiculous scenes of exposition is featured in an entirely unnecessary stretch that felt like the filmmakers were trying to cram a little too much into this sequel. However, these flaws can be easily forgiven due to just how good everything else winds up being.

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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 does what many (including myself) weren’t quite expecting. It’s a superhero movie that mixes realistic teenage angst into the traditional comic book formula and does it very well. The villains were far better than the schlocky Lizard. There was clearly more heart/creativity thrown into this sequel and its way more exciting/interesting than the 2012 reboot. This is solid superhero entertainment. Will it be the best comic book movie of the year? Not even close (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is leagues better than this), but it’s a highly enjoyable ride! Well worth the price of admission!

Grade: B

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Action and Violence

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Directed by: Marc Webb

Written by: James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent & Steve Kloves

(based on the SPIDER-MAN comics by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko)

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Irrfan Khan & Chris Zylka

The decision to redo Spider-Man seems like a stupid one from the start. Rumors circulated about how everything went down with Sam Raimi’s failed attempts to create SPIDER-MAN 4 (featuring Lizard and Vulture as titular villains). Despite all the outrage from fans and the dumb marketing for the new version of Peter Parker’s web-slinging alter ego, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN opened in July 2012 to become a big success. As a whole, it’s a bit odd to be throwing this more campy costumed hero back onto the big screen when the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy have shown just how awesome superhero movies can be. The real fault of this 2012 reboot comes in an unbalanced tone. Sometimes, the story wants a darker vibe. Other times, it’s just plain cartoony. With this major flaw taken into consideration, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN is just serviceable enough as a superhero flick that probably would have been far more impressive if it hit multiplexes somewhere back in the early 2000’s.

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After his parents up and leave, Peter Parker is raised by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. As a teenager, Peter is picked on at school and constantly made to feel inadequate to his peers. When he finds some clues about his missing father that lead back to the huge company Oscorp, Peter sneaks his way inside and is bitten by a mutated spider. This bite bestows some unusual gifts upon the awkward adolescent (including the ability to crawl on walls, a sense for danger, quick speed, and super strength). Soon enough Peter Parker has become Spider-Man. As he finds love in classmate Gwen Stacey, a monstrous madman is on the loose in the city and the police are after Spider-Man for his vigilante actions.

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That’s the basic outline for THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and it sounds similar to the first SPIDER-MAN flick that hit theaters in 2002. Some details have been changed and inclusions of certain comic book characters that were merely background noise in the original trilogy (Gwen Stacey was a mere side character in the disappointing SPIDER-MAN 3) have been upgraded to front and center protagonists. One plot thread that I did enjoy watching a lot was how the cops were after Spider-Man himself, which glimpsed over three mere scenes in Sam Raimi’s 2002 film. Denis Leary as Gwen Stacy’s father and the police captain adds an extra spark that wasn’t in the first trilogy. I greatly appreciated that addition.

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The romance between Peter and Gwen has some charm to it. It also seems rushed in a couple of places, but the teenagers in this film act like real teenagers. Even the supposed clichéd jock stereotype is shown to have some humanity later on. I felt that Marc Webb’s reboot of Spidey nailed almost every character in a more believable way than Raimi’s 2002 version. However, there’s one character that isn’t quite given the menace he needed. This would be Dr. Connors (a.k.a. The Lizard). Rhys Ifans can make for a great villain. Watch ENDURING LOVE for proof of how scary the man can be. As Connors, Ifans just hams it up. There’s no realistic motivation for the Lizard that hasn’t been seen a dozen times and a switch up in his personality near the end that doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense.

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The effects bringing the Lizard to life look extremely cheesy too. This doesn’t appear to be a villain that Spider-Man should be fighting, but a creation for Syfy Channel original movies. The CGI bringing Spider-Man to life looks pretty cool and I liked the suit a lot better this time around. Where things feel forced is in the comic relief moments. There are a couple of very funny scenes (one of which involves Emma Stone making up an excuse to her father), but the quips Spider-Man constantly says grate on annoying. It almost feels out of character for the Peter Parker we’ve watched develop over the film and that’s where a major problem of the messy tone comes in.

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Sometimes AMAZING SPIDER-MAN wants to be a goofy comic book film and then it mostly seems to be playing things off as a sort of BATMAN BEGINS for Spider-Man. This becomes as confusing as it sounds. There are some laughs seen in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but it always maintained that serious sense for the comic book movie. Lately, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Avengers series) has been evolving into the same thing. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN tries to have it both ways and comes up a tad short for this sole reason. The writing is stellar is some places, but falls victim to a downright silly villain and some bad jokes.

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There are some big things to praise about AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and those mainly concern the good characters/acting on display. Some of the writing is great and if it had a slightly more focused script then this very well could have been the next Batman trilogy. However, the goofy moments and laughable villain take the whole thing down significantly. I am looking forward to seeing what the future films in the franchise bring, but also hope that the big flaws will be cut down and eventually eliminated. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN winds up being a serviceable superhero flick that pales in comparison to a decade full of outstanding ones thus far!

Grade: C+

THE BELIEVERS (1987)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: John Schlesinger

Written by: Mark Frost

(based on the novel THE RELIGION by Nicholas Conde)

Starring: Martin Sheen, Helen Shaver, Harley Cross, Robert Loggia & Jimmy Smits

This is one of those films that has a fantastic premise, but squanders the promise away by not taking advantage of it. Based on a 1982 novel, THE BELIEVERS was a financial success, but critics and audiences said that it was an average cult-satanic thriller. I really was hoping to dig it a lot, but by the end of the film, I had to agree with the majority. This is just average at best. Topped with overacting, convoluted plot-twists and a lackluster ending, THE BELIEVERS falls short of being great or even good.

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Cal Jamison is a psychiatrist who has just suffered a terrible loss. His wife died in an accident involving some liquid and a faulty coffee machine. Trying to get a fresh start on life, Cal and his young son, Chris, move to New York City. His move coincides with the sacrificial deaths of young children. It appears that a cult is on the loose on New York and they’re eyeballing Chris as a potential sacrifice. Anybody who crosses them winds up being punished in some horrible way, which usually results in death or agonizing pain. Can Cal stop the cult? Will he save his child? Is Voodoo creepy as hell? Also, will you care about any of this by the time the overlong running time has concluded. The answers are: maybe, maybe, definitely, and probably not.

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One of the many flaws gracing this could-have-been-so-much-better film involves Martin Sheen’s acting. I really wish the director or any of the cast members told him to dial it back. He seems to overdo every emotion he’s trying to portray. When he’s curious, he’s REALLY curious. When he’s angry, he yells every single syllable with emphasis! I would say that there were other emotions involved, but aside from two scenes of sadness and one moment of love, those are the only traits of his character. So what about this angry/curious man’s young child. He’s one of the more annoying kid actors I’ve seen in cinema. Not quite to the level of Bob from HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, but very close! As far as the side characters go, they exist merely to further the plot along. This includes the love interest, the superstitious housekeeper, and Jimmy Smits in a brief role.

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As far as the script itself goes, there are a few good ideas at play. Some genuinely creepy scenes involve a growing zit that has a nasty surprise in store for a poor woman and Jimmy Smits’ demise is pretty damn gruesome. Things get bogged down in mundane details and some contrived plot twists that all lead up to an ending that gives new meaning to the phrase “over-the-top.” This is the only example of a film that goes from brooding occult thriller to 80’s action cheese in the final 20 minutes. It’s absurd and feels out-of-place. To make matters even worse, the epilogue feels tacked on and worthless as if the director was going for one last shock and failed.

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With all this complaining, one may think that I hated THE BELIEVERS. Actually, I thought the ritual ceremonies themselves and some of the atmosphere were great. The set design and cinematography were quite good as well. This is a professionally made movie that exhibits really solid filmmaking as far as style is concerned. Things begin to go sour where the bad acting and silly script are concerned. The film is too long as well. It’s nearly stretched out to two hours and there simply isn’t enough content to fill it up without dragging.

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In the end, THE BELIEVERS is a film that could use a solid remake to better all the qualities that just aren’t that good with this 80’s version. There are a few creepy moments and some very cool ideas, but for the most part, it’s a missed opportunity that could have wound up being a forgotten horror classic of the 80’s. I don’t feel bad about watching it, but I certainly won’t be revisiting THE BELIEVERS in the future.

Grade: C

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