FIST FIGHT (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout, Sexual Content/Nudity and Drug Material

Directed by: Richie Keen

Written by: Van Robichaux & Evan Susser

Starring: Charlie Day, Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell, Christina Hendricks, Dean Norris, Kumail Nanjiani, Dennis Haysbert & JoAnna Garcia

I may be a tad biased towards FIST FIGHT, because my day job involves education. However, I will attempt to review this film in the fairest way possible. FIST FIGHT has solid laughs, good acting, and packs in surprisingly relevant social commentary. However, this film suffers from a handful of jokes that fail to land and storytelling that’s about as predictable as overused formulas can be. This is a simple little comedy that has more positives than negatives, but only amounts to being decently entertaining.

On the last day of school at Roosevelt High, students are dishing out relentless (downright dangerous) pranks and teachers are counting the hours until they receive their well-earned vacation away from the teenage hellions. When English teacher Andy Campbell (Charlie Day) attempts to help hot-headed History teacher Ron Strickland (Ice Cube), it results in Strickland furiously destroying a desk with a fire axe. Wishing to keep his job, Andy narks on Strickland and is challenged to an afterschool fist fight by the now-jobless Strickland. Not wishing to get his ass kicked, Andy tries to find a way to thwart the confrontation…all while the social media spreads the news of the #TeacherFight and the clock ticks down to the inevitable.

Props to FIST FIGHT for being a hard R-rated comedy. This is filled with crude, explicit and very funny jokes. If you don’t like this kind of humor, you probably won’t like FIST FIGHT. If you find yourself giggling at horribly inappropriate situations and sex jokes, you’re likely to get enjoyment out of this film. Not every joke works, but many of them result in well-earned laughs. The humor mainly comes from a colorful batch of characters working at the school and increasingly desperate lengths that Andy goes to in order to divert the inevitable teacher fight.

Though certain characters are one-dimensional, the dysfunctional faculty is brought to life by capable performers. As timid teacher Andy, Charlie Day is basically playing the high-pitched, hyperactive character that he plays in every film…but this time he has trouble standing up to people. I bet you can’t possibly guess where his story arc will end up. Ice Cube plays his usual tough guy persona as the stressed-out antagonist, though there’s a slightly deeper level to his character that left me pleasantly surprised. To be fair, Ice Cube and Charlie Day aren’t bad in their roles, but they are pretty much playing their usual typecast characters.

On the supporting side of things, Dean Norris earns a huge amount of laughs as the intimidating principal. Jillian Bell is hilarious as the worst school counselor ever, who openly admits to buying home-cooked meth from students and fantasizes about being with legal-aged seniors. Kumail Nanjiani also receives a few good moments as the school’s security guard, who pretty much hates everyone around him. The only performers who fall flat are Tracy Morgan as the loser gym coach (he didn’t elicit a single laugh from me) and Christina Hendricks as a borderline psychopathic Drama teacher (her story arc was underused).

As another highlight, FIST FIGHT surprisingly delivers hilariously accurate social commentary about the everyday stresses that teachers have to endure and how the education system has its problems. This mainly comes in one great moment that hits right before the inevitable teacher fight. I’m sure that loads of educators will adore this specific scene, because it’s oddly therapeutic to watch. As for the titular fight sequence, it’s well executed with over-the-top violence and plenty of laughs. Also, this film realistically portrays how social media can blow up an otherwise small event. We’ve seen plenty of crazy school stories in the news and FIST FIGHT certainly nails how technology can potentially make an already problematic situation even worse.

FIST FIGHT is a decently entertaining comedy. A few of the characters are one-note, some the jokes simply don’t land, and the storytelling is formulaic (to say the least), but the film’s positives far outweigh its problems. Again, I’m slightly biased towards this comedy, because I have an attachment to the material it’s lampooning. As a flawed R-rated comedy that supplies big laughs and a decent amount of charm, I give FIST FIGHT a tepid recommendation.

Grade: B-

THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Rude Humor and Action

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Directed by: Clay Kaytis & Fergal Reilly

Written by: Mikael Hed, Mikko Polla & John Cohen

(based on the video game ANGRY BIRDS by Rovio Entertainment)

Voices of: Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, Peter Dinklage, Kate McKinnon, Sean Penn, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key & Blake Shelton

I wasn’t expecting THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE to be great. After all, this film is based on an addicting cell phone app. That’s the current state of the film industry though, where a TETRIS trilogy gets greenlit and an EMOJI MOVIE is currently in production. I watched ANGRY BIRDS with hopes that it might be serviceable family entertainment. Not up to Disney or Pixar standards, but somewhere along the lines of a lesser DreamWorks film. I was horribly mistaken. THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE is one of the worst animated films I’ve seen in a long time and it’s not like this film doesn’t have good production values behind it either. ANGRY BIRDS features a talented voice cast and has solid animation, but the script is offensively lazy and a large portion of the jokes fall flat.

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On the aptly named Bird Island, easily infuriated Red (Jason Sudeikis) has been sentenced to anger management. In this frustrating program, the red flightless bird reluctantly befriends speedy Chuck (Josh Gad) and explosive Bomb (Danny McBride). Red’s anger management classes encounter unexpected turbulence when a mysterious ship arrives, filled with green pigs. The pigs are led by charismatic leader Leonard (Bill Hader), who quickly becomes popular in the bird community. However, Red becomes suspicious of these pigs and is written off as paranoid by his fellow feathered citizens. Soon enough, the outcast trio of angry birds become the only hope for Bird Island’s unhatched eggs.

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To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t exactly sold on ANGRY BIRDS being a film from the get-go. The marketing was lame, but I heard a few surprisingly positive reviews and the animation looked good. This film was made by Finnish company Rovio Entertainment, the very same company that made the ANGRY BIRDS app to begin with, and currently holds the record for the largest budget in Finnish film history. Apparently those investments paid off for them, because this film banked at the box office and there’s already a sequel in the works. Why am I discussing the production of this film, rather than the qualities of the movie itself? Well, those details seem remarkably more interesting than anything I can really say about this dull slog of wasted animation.

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The film’s story seems to be making itself up as it goes along, with many filler scenes before the all too brief conflict between angry birds and green pigs. This film seems like an origin story for the ANGRY BIRDS universe, but forgets part of why that game was so enjoyable in the first place. You’re launching birds at evil green pigs to retrieve eggs. This movie takes over an hour before it finally reaches that point, not that it necessarily would have been better to watch birds vs. pigs for an hour of screen time. What I’m getting at is that THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE runs way too long. This film could have easily been shortened by 20 or 30 minutes and it would have made for a less painful experience.

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The film’s talented voice cast is completely wasted on bottom-of-the-barrel potty humor and pop culture references. Both of those can be well-executed in kid’s films, but ANGRY BIRDS drops the ball numerous times. There’s a forced SHINING reference with two pigs, a Calvin Klein ad with a pig, cholesterol jokes and plenty of substituted profanity (e.g. “Peck my life” and “Shell yes”). Are we laughing yet? Well, if those don’t do it for you, surely you’ll be rolling in the aisle from lame bird puns, a sequence of a snot-nosed bird flying through the air and smearing mucus everywhere, butts being thrown into other birds faces, and an elongated pee joke that’s already been spoiled in the trailer. It’s a wonder that THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE wound up hitting 3,932 theaters, because this thing feels like it should be debuting direct-to-video in Redbox and discount Wal-Mart bins.

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Are there any redeeming qualities to ANGRY BIRDS? Well, two adult-aimed jokes are genuinely clever and the animation is fun to look at. I’m not going to pretend like I’m the target audience for THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE, because I’m clearly not. However, THE LEGO MOVIE also sounded stupid in theory and wound up being one of the best films of 2014. It’s possible to make any idea, regardless of how idiotic and stupid it sounds, into a great or fun film, if there’s enough talent, effort and love thrown into the project. THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE is not that kind of movie. Instead, this lazy cash-grab will probably occupy bored children for 97 minutes, but likely won’t do much for teenage viewers and adults.

Grade: D

THE NIGHT BEFORE (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

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

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Directed by: Jonathan Levine

Written by: Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, Jonathan Levine & Ariel Shaffir

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Lizzy Caplan, Jillian Bell, Michael Shannon, Mindy Kaling & Lorraine Toussaint

I’m a fan of Seth Rogen. Though his comedies completely hinge on juvenile humor and an overuse of profanity, I really enjoy most of his films. Just last year, I gave good reviews to both NEIGHBORS and THE INTERVIEW. THE NIGHT BEFORE looked like Rogen and crew were taking on the holiday season with hard R-rated style. While the film definitely relies on juvenile humor and contains a ton of profanity (two elements that I’ve enjoyed in the past), it really struggles with its story and characters. The screenplay (constructed by four writers) can’t decide on whether this wants to be your typical Rogen vehicle or a Christmas Eve dramedy. Whatever the film wanted to be, it simply doesn’t function very well as it tries to be both of these things at the same time.

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Ethan, Isaac and Chris are three best friends who have made a tradition of hanging out on Christmas Eve for the past fourteen years. This originally sprung from Ethan’s parents dying in a car accident and leaving him with no family to celebrate the holidays with. Over a decade later, the annual routine of drunk traditions has gotten dull and repetitive as Isaac and Chris both have obligations in their adult lives, while Ethan remains a stunted man-child. Seeing as this is their last Christmas Eve out on the town together, Ethan obtains three tickets to the most exclusive Christmas party in the city. As the hours tick closer to the party, Chris attempts to track down a thief on the streets and Isaac experiences a hallucinatory journey of self-discovery thanks to a box of drugs.

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THE NIGHT BEFORE is an R-rated holiday comedy that falls victim to a wildly uneven tone. On one hand, it plays out like a typical Rogen vehicle, albeit a slightly lazy one. On the other, the film tries so hard to include an emotional core that only shows up for a couple of scenes. This sappy underbelly feels especially unearned during the last 20 minutes of the film. It’s not as if a crude comedy can’t be emotional (e.g. KNOCKED UP), but the story here is basic and relies on overly familiar set pieces. The tone of the film doesn’t match up when in one scene we have a supposedly heartfelt conversation about parenthood and then in the very next shot Rogen is hallucinating that his wife is a dragon beast. This is all complete with cartoony CGI hallucinations that we see. These moments aren’t plentiful, but they do stick out like a sore thumb.

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This all being said, Rogen definitely earns the biggest laughs in this otherwise lackluster film. It’s too bad that those laughs mainly come from two scenes in particular, one of which is mostly revealed in the trailer. There’s a NSFW phone conversation that had me cracking up and a church scene that had me rolling. The rest of the film only contains a handful of chuckles. The plot doesn’t do much to service the talents of its three main stars. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie are wasted here. Michael Shannon has more of a personality as a weird pot dealer than these two performers have as the main characters alongside Rogen. It’s worth noting that Shannon’s mere presence is far funnier than any of the actual scenes he’s been given. The rest of the cast contains a few familiar faces with Lizzy Caplan, Jillian Bell and Mindy Kaling who are decent enough in their roles, but serve more as set-ups to jokes rather than actual characters (which is what this script tries to make them by the conclusion).

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Suffering from unconvincing tonal shifts, stale jokes, and forced sentimentality, THE NIGHT BEFORE is one of the bigger disappointments that I’ve had this year. Rogen is definitely the best part of the film, but everything else is wildly uneven with a handful of chuckles and a plot that strains its running time. Aside from two solid sequences (one of which is given away in the trailer), THE NIGHT BEFORE is a mostly forgettable slog. Just stick to other R-rated Christmas comedies (e.g. THE REF, BAD SANTA) or pretty much any other Seth Rogen comedy out there. THE NIGHT BEFORE is a disappointing lump of coal.

Grade: D+

GOOSEBUMPS (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Scary and Intense Creature Action and Images, and for some Rude Humor

Goosebumps poster

Directed by: Rob Letterman

Written by: Darren Lemke

(based on the GOOSEBUMPS books by R.L. Stine)

Starring: Dylan Minnette, Jack Black, Odeya Rush, Amy Ryan, Ryan Lee, Jillian Bell & Ken Marino

When do you realize that you’re getting old? Some say it’s when you move out of the house. Others say that it’s when you have kids. Personally speaking, I think that you truly start to feel old when Hollywood begins to produce films based on nostalgia from your childhood. That’s certainly happening with GOOSEBUMPS. I frantically burned through R.L. Stine’s books back when I was in Elementary School as well as watched every TV episode from the Fox series that I could possibly see. Even to this day, I still listen to a GOOSEBUMPS-themed podcast (Dune Reads Goosebumps). So to say that I was pretty excited to see familiar horror characters from my childhood come to life on the big screen would be a massive understatement. Having just watched the film a few hours ago, I can say that I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest. Sure, GOOSEBUMPS isn’t going to win any awards, but it’s everything that I could have possibly wanted from a movie like this.

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Zach and his mother have just moved to the small town of Madison, Delaware. Though he’s only been in town for less than two days, Zach has already made a couple of friends: the nerdy Champ and the girl-next-door Hannah. The only thing that seems mysterious in the neighborhood is Hannah’s extremely overprotective father, the one and only R.L. Stine (as portrayed by Jack Black). In order to investigate what he believes might be a possible domestic disturbance, Zach breaks into Stine’s house and discovers a bookcase filled with locked manuscripts. It turns out that whatever R.L. Stine writes down in a book actually comes to life and Zach has accidentally unleashed a horde of monsters upon his small town. It’s up to Zach, Hannah, Champ, and R.L. Stine to capture all of the monsters before their town is destroyed.

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Unlike most nostalgic films that fall flat (I’m looking in your direction, PIXELS), GOOSEBUMPS actually delivers on everything that fans of the books and TV series would want to see on the big screen. The story moves from set-piece to set-piece at a rapid speed. Our characters encounter a ton of various monsters from the books. Everything from evil lawn gnomes to the abominable snowman of Pasadena to a certain evil ventriloquist’s dummy make an appearance. The fast paced storytelling will keep both younger and older viewers constantly engaged in the non-stop adventure. I’d also wager that the jump scares in this film (of which there are a handful) will be legitimately creepy for younger kids. There’s nothing wrong with that though, especially when you consider that the main reason we even have a GOOSEBUMPS movie playing in theaters right now is because the book series scared the crap out of a ton of kids who are now adults.

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What makes GOOSEBUMPS even more impressive is that it’s more than just a film relying on throwbacks and references. The screenplay is very smart and we get fleshed-out characters. Dylan Minnette (who previously starred in an episode of Stine’s HAUNTING HOUR) is a likable lead as Zach. I wouldn’t be surprised if Minnette has a long film career laid in front of him. Odeya Rush (seen in last year’s THE GIVER) is well cast as Hannah and her character is complex right from the start. Ryan Lee (who has also starred in an episode of Stine’s HAUNTING HOUR) is mostly solid as the comic relief character. Though not all of his jokes work, he does get a good amount of laughs. Jack Black steals the show as R.L. Stine. His comic timing and line delivery is spot-on. Black also pulls double duty to provide the voice for Slappy the Dummy as well.

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There’s so much to enjoy about GOOSEBUMPS aside from the performances and smart writing. There are a lot of little nods for fans of the book series. We don’t just get creatures from normal GOOSEBUMPS book series, but also the “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories and the short-lived “2000” books. I actually found myself sitting through the end credits as these weaved together an entertaining montage of various book covers. R.L. Stine makes a quick cameo that you have to keep your eye out for. Also, the last time I saw this many different monsters crammed into one film, I was watching THE CABIN IN THE WOODS. That’s not a bad film to be compared to either.

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GOOSEBUMPS definitely delivers on being a nostalgic, spooky, and fun time that’s perfect for the Halloween season. The writing is far better than it probably has any right to be. The effects bringing the monsters to life (done by Sony Animation) are impressive. The frantic fast-paced nature of the film has an almost rollercoaster ride approach to the storytelling and the script never takes itself too seriously at all, though it does have a number of jump scares that will definitely get younger viewers. Overall, GOOSEBUMPS is a blast and I look forward to making this film an annual viewing for every October.

Grade: B+

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