CHIPS (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

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

Directed by: Dax Shepard

Written by: Dax Shepard

(based on the TV series CHIPS by Rick Rosner)

Starring: Dax Shepard, Michael Pena, Vincent D’Onofrio, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Adam Brody, Rosa Salazar, Kristen Bell & Jessica McNamee

After both JUMP STREET films banked at the box office, Hollywood seemed to have found an untapped niche: hard R-rated comedy versions of old TV series. After all, Hollywood has been rebooting small shows for the big screen for decades…but they never decided to invigorate these big budget reboots with raunchy material and R-rated sensibilities. However, studios may want to rethink its strategy…because two R-rated comedy remakes of TV shows have hit this year and both have underperformed. Unless BAYWATCH is a total failure from beginning to end, I cannot imagine it being the lesser of 2017’s two TV remakes. By every conceivable measure, CHIPS is woefully lame.

When corrupt cops begin running amok in the California Highway Patrol (a.k.a. CHP), undercover FBI agent Frank Ponch (Michael Pena) is on the case. However, Ponch encounters immediate trouble in being paired with do-gooder rookie Jon Baker (Dax Shepard). Jon is woefully underqualified for his job and frequently reads a bit too deeply into things. Still, the mismatched partners begin to get to the bottom of their case and find a dysfunctional friendship developing between them. Basically, this is a generic buddy-cop comedy that frequently bores the viewer and suffers from abrupt tonal shifts. Also, there are just enough chuckles to build a deceptively funny trailer.

I haven’t seen all of Dax Shepard’s output, but he’s starred in a couple of comedies that I would consider to be woefully underrated (e.g. WITHOUT A PADDLE and LET’S GO TO PRISON). I hoped that I might feel the same way about CHIPS when I rented this film, because this thing has taken a severe beating from critics/audiences and is already being called one of the worst films of 2017 by certain websites. Unfortunately, CHIPS deserves every bit of negative feedback it’s received. The film is inept in delivering laughs or a compelling story. The jokes don’t rise above the levels of occasionally referencing ass-to-mouth (in jokes that seem to rip off CLERKS II from over a decade earlier) and attempt to poorly mimic other better comedies (mostly 21 JUMP STREET and 22 JUMP STREET). CHIPS isn’t very funny, other than a handful of chuckles that have already been revealed in the trailer.

To further complicate the film’s many problems, Shepard’s R-rated CHIPS reboot doesn’t treat itself as pure comedy the whole way through, because things get needlessly dark and the material is frequently played with a mind-bogglingly serious tone. The introduction of the Vincent D’Onofrio’s villain has a cop committing suicide in order to save his hostage boyfriend. Hilarious? This entire scene seems like cheap shock value to make us loathe the villain. However, the usually talented D’Onofrio is phoning it in, so I felt nothing other than sheer boredom when his baddie was on the screen. The finale also sees a showdown that’s mostly uneventful and seems to blatantly copy countless other buddy cop flicks (including a gore gag that’s a toned-down version of 21 JUMP STREET’s most hilariously twisted moment).

As the two mismatched cops, Dax Shepard and Michael Pena are dull. The two have next to no chemistry together in scenes and seem to be woodenly reciting jokes, which weren’t that funny to begin with. Shepard’s Jon has a lame running gag about being prone to vomiting from house smells and it’s just as stupid as it sounds. Also, Michael Pena’s Ponch is a sex addict, so I’m guessing you can imagine from whom most of the film’s graphic nudity and sex humor arrives. Pena’s character’s arc seems like a lesser version of Will Ferrell’s occasionally funny Chazz from BLADES OF GLORY. The rest of the cast members are completely forgettable, with Kristen Bell serving as Jon’s bitchy wife, Rosa Salazar being a half-hearted love interest, and Maya Rudolph and David Koechner popping in for all-too-brief cameos.

CHIPS is a crappy comedy and an even worse buddy-cop mystery. It speaks volumes that half of this film is dedicated to a solving clue that turns out to be a cheap joke. The tone frequently gets too dark and straight-faced for its own good, while the comedy aspect feels dusty and poorly imitates better jokes from far better movies. There are a couple of well-directed motorcycle chases and two minutes worth of chuckles. However, CHIPS remains a woefully unfunny, boring, and audience-insulting piece of non-entertainment.

Grade: D-

HELL AND BACK (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Strong Crude and Sexual Content, Language and some Drug Use

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Directed by: Tom Gianas & Ross Shuman

Written by: Tom Gianas, Hugh Sterbakov & Zeb Wells

Voices of: Nick Swardson, Mila Kunis, Bob Odenkirk, T.J. Miller, Rob Riggle, Susan Sarandon, Danny McBride, David Koechner, Michael Pena, Brian Posehn, Paul Scheer & H. Jon Benjamin

I’m a big fan of ROBOT CHICKEN, so I was interested in seeing HELL AND BACK last October…but it never hit a single theater near me. Cut to almost an entire year later, a co-worker brings up this film in casual conversation and I immediately remember its existence along with my excitement to see it. Seeing that adult-oriented animation is something that’s all too rare, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to check out this hellish comedy. Unfortunately, the laughs never match the film’s high quality of animation, which makes HELL AND BACK a disappointingly middle-of-the-road experience.

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Remy (Nick Swardson), Augie (T.J. Miller) and Curt (Rob Riggle) work at a rundown pier carnival. Unfortunately their workplace/childhood hang-out has hit bankruptcy, which means the three friends will soon be out of a job. When Remy discovers an ancient satanic book, he decides it might be the great money-making attraction that the carnival needs. A petty blood oath ends with Curt being sucked into an otherworldly vortex. In order to rescue their friend, Remy and Augie venture into Hell. The two idiots must band together with an adventurous female demon (Mila Kunis) and a mythological figure (Danny McBride) to save Curt from the clutches of Satan (Bob Odenkirk) and his sadistic underlings.

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The film’s best quality is easily its animation. Stop motion is one of the most painstaking, time-consuming forms of animation and seeing it executed well is a treat by itself. The human characters looked a bit like CELEBRITY DEATHMATCH with a bigger budget. Satan had a mostly musclebound appearance, while his demons look less impressive…but the damned souls are nothing more than green silhouettes. I guess the budget had to run out somewhere. If it weren’t already obvious enough, this film is eye-candy…but the script never provides enough laughs to live up to the high production values.

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HELL AND BACK relies on two different types of humor: stupid and crude. I can laugh at stupid jokes. I can laugh at crude jokes. I might laugh even harder at a stupid, crude jokes. Still, this screenplay gets stupid to a point where it’s lazy…something the animation wouldn’t indicate at all. I wouldn’t say the movie is laugh-free wasteland of a comedy, because there are a couple of solid moments. A five-second punchline stood out as borderline hilarious, but the rest of the movie never reaches that level of ridiculousness again. Another noteworthy running joke features a demon inventing rather mundane tortures, which is kind of clever. There’s even an EVIL DEAD reference, which made me chuckle the first time before it was pummeled into the ground as a tiresome running gag.

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The characters and momentum also struggle. In all honesty, I didn’t care about any of these people. They’re all unlikable douchebags, which may appeal to certain viewers. It doesn’t help that the film squanders a talented cast. Okay, Nick Swardson doesn’t exactly have a great filmography, but the rest of these performers have careers to care about. Lines like “my dick would shoot off its dick” or “I think my shit shit itself” probably didn’t provide them with much motivation either. HELL AND BACK frequently drags in places, despite running at slightly over 80 minutes (counting the credits).

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There might be folks who really have a blast with HELL AND BACK and good on them, but the film didn’t work for me on any level other the animation. I laughed about five or six times, but the rest of the movie felt dull, boring and lazy. When you have a running joke about Devil’s Brew (an extreme hell-brand of beer), a grotesque creature with big flapping breasts, and use profanity to the point where it becomes tiresome, it sort of feels like the writers gave up before they even got started. I wish that this animation had a better script to work with, but alas, that was not the case. HELL AND BACK left me feeling apathetic. Great animation, but not much else to praise.

Grade: C

OBSERVE AND REPORT (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Language, Graphic Nudity, Drug Use, Sexual Content and Violence

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Directed by: Jody Hill

Written by: Jody Hill

Starring: Seth Rogen, Ray Liotta, Michael Pena, Collette Wolfe, Anna Faris, Aziz Ansari, Jesse Plemons, Patton Oswalt & Danny McBride

Most people know Seth Rogen for his goofy stoner comedies. These juvenile (but mostly enjoyable) R-rated flicks usually have a crude sense of humor, lots of profanity and don’t take themselves seriously. This might explain why OBSERVE AND REPORT is the lowest grossing (and mostly ignored) entry in Rogen’s long, successful filmography. Like a comedic version of TAXI DRIVER set in a mall, OBSERVE AND REPORT is a mean-spirited little film that borders on becoming a straight-up character study of a sociopath. Taken for what it is, OBSERVE is an interesting watch if only to see Rogen in a far darker role than he’s usually given.

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Ronnie Barnhardt is a bipolar mall security guard on a power trip. Barnhardt’s life is finally given purpose when an anonymous flasher exposes himself to several mall-goers, including countergirl Brandi (whom Ronnie has a crush on). In an effort to become a “hero,” Ronnie clashes heads with Detective Harrison (the frustrated police officer assigned to the case), tries to woo Brandi, and goes into the process of becoming a cop. Of course, since Ronnie is a raging sociopathic asshole with delusions of grandeur and a bad attitude, none of these things go quite as planned.

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The character of Ronnie is unlike any other role that Rogen has ever taken before or will likely ever play again. This delusional security guard is less of a goofy source of comedy and more like a borderline psychopath who elicits questionable chuckles from his awkward interactions with people around him. OBSERVE AND REPORT might be billed as a dark comedy, but the tone is far more serious than director/writer Jody Hill might have originally intended. This is a movie where things like mental illness, shootings, corrupt cops, and date-rape are punchlines. However, the pitch-black sense of humor in which the film treats these serious topics isn’t as funny as it probably should be.

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Besides Rogen, other big names also pop up in supporting roles, including Anna Faris playing the ditzy, manipulative Brandi. The film’s best performance easily goes to Ray Liotta as the detective who becomes increasingly fed up with Ronnie’s childish antics. The scenes between Liotta and Rogen stand out as some of the best moments in the entire story. Their dialogue exchanges made me wish that the story had been centered more around this rivalry between Ronnie and Harrison. As a rather useless additions with potential built for something bigger, Michael Pena plays Ronnie’s second-in-command (whose ultimate arc feels like a waste of time) and Jesse Plemons only pops up as a trainee for a couple of scenes. The script has a lot of on-and-off plot threads that ultimately wind up playing a miniscule roles in the story. One could argue these are the film’s jokey set pieces, but they aren’t fully treated as such. Ultimately, the story for this darkly comedic character study feels very messy and tonally all over the place.

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OBSERVE AND REPORT isn’t completely underwhelming as the film as its moments and aims for an emotional core underneath its twisted exterior. A memorable slow-motion sequence in the final act also has the second-best use of the song “Where Is My Mind?” that I’ve seen on film. However, OBSERVE AND REPORT feels like a weird mishmash of what could have been a far better and more effective film, if only the script and characters had been further developed. This movie is never as poignant as it occasionally tries to be and never reaches the perfect balance of twisted hilarity and dark content that better dark-comedies have in the past (e.g. THE WAR OF THE ROSES). Overall, OBSERVE AND REPORT is worth one watch if only to see Seth Rogen playing a total sociopath and experience the strangest title of his filmography thus far.

Grade: B-

THE MARTIAN (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Strong Language, Injury Images, and brief Nudity

Martian poster

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Drew Goddard

(based on the novel THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir)

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor & Donald Glover

In recent years, space survival films have hit a resurgence on the big screen. In 2013, we had GRAVITY (which I loved). In 2014, we had INTERSTELLAR (which I thought was good, but far from great). It’s 2015 and now, we have THE MARTIAN. The key difference between THE MARTIAN and the other two aforementioned films is that this movie is an adaptation of a best-selling novel that happens to be directed by Ridley Scott. However, Scott hasn’t exactly been at the top of his game lately. In 2013, he disappointed with THE COUNSELOR. In 2014, he left audiences apathetic with EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS. Now, Scott has returned to his A-game. THE MARTIAN isn’t perfect, but it serves as a highly entertaining blockbuster.

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Astronaut Mark Watney is in the most dire situation imaginable. During a manned mission on mars, a freak storm causes his team to make an emergency evacuation. A piece of debris hits Mark and his captain makes the split-second decision to leave him for dead. However, Mark is not dead. In fact, he’s very much alive and now trapped on a uninhabitable planet, while his unaware crew members fly back home. All is not lost though as Mark has useful equipment left on the planet as well as a ground lab and a food/water supply. However, this won’t be enough to last four years (which is when the next possible NASA mission will arrive). Mark frantically does his best to (in his words) “science the shit out of this thing,”  all while NASA becomes very aware of the situation and scramble to rescue Watney.

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THE MARTIAN excels in making the viewer feel for Watney’s plight. Everything that can possibly go wrong does. You just can’t help but feel frustration at every hurdle the universe seems to be throwing Watney’s way. The atmosphere of desperation doesn’t exactly dampen any of the entertainment value to be had here. This is a really fun movie that’s meant to be taken more as an entertaining sci-fi flick rather than a realistic survival story. I say this because THE MARTIAN gets increasingly ridiculous during its third act. At this point, we’ve accepted that Mark can grow food in Martian soil and create his own water through a recipe, but there are definite moments that almost seem a little too over-the-top and far-fetched.

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Matt Damon is perfect as Mark Watney. He’s a likable presence and seems to have a constant sense of humor in the face of his dire predicament. For viewers who aren’t so science-savvy (including yours truly), there’s no need to worry about getting lost in the techno-babble of Mark’s actions, because he provides a constant commentary and explanation in his video logs. This also serves as an ingenious plot device to get dialogue out of a character who’s the only person on an entire planet. Jessica Chastain is usually solid in whatever role she takes on and there’s no change here. It almost felt like she was playing Murph from INTERSTELLAR as an astronaut, so that has to count for something. Michael Pena, Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan all do well in the side parts of Mark’s other crew members. Meanwhile, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor serve as NASA agents trying to bring Watney home, while Jeff Daniels is the closest thing this film has to an antagonist. The only performance that comes out of left field is Donald Glover serving as comic relief combined with a plot device instead of an actual character.

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As far as spectacle goes, THE MARTIAN looks fantastic. Ridley Scott is no stranger to bringing other worlds to life on film, whether it be ALIEN or PROMETHEUS, and he does the same with the barren, crater-laden landscape of Mars in this film. None of the effects struck me as cheap or cheesy. Every piece of spectacle also serves a purpose and isn’t merely there to wow the audience. For a movie running at over two hours, the story feels very well paced and moves by quickly, save for a somewhat pointless epilogue.

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THE MARTIAN marks another thrilling space adventure in the world of cinema. It’s also a return to form for Ridley Scott (who’s been down and out for the past two years). The performances are all enjoyable. The spectacle is spectacular. The film provides a lot of entertainment combined with desperation. The story strays into a couple of silly areas during the final third, but remains an entertaining blast nonetheless. THE MARTIAN is a surefire crowd-pleaser!

Grade: A-

VACATION (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Crude and Sexual Content and Language throughout, and brief Graphic Nudity

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Directed by: Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley

Written by: Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley

Starring: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Leslie Mann, Chris Hemsworth, Beverly D’Angelo, Chevy Chase, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Charlie Day, Keegan-Michael Key & Michael Pena

In a summer filled with nostalgic reboots (including: theme-park dinosaurs, post-apocalyptic warriors, and time-traveling robots), it seemed highly unlikely that National Lampoon’s VACATION would be getting a modern makeover. Fans of the franchise were naturally skeptical as to whether a new VACATION could recapture the hilarious magic of the better entries from the series. I’ll admit that I’m shocked at how much I enjoyed this film. I borderline loved it for the big, stupid, crude R-rated comedy that it is. VACATION understands what made the original films so entertaining and executes new material in a similar light-hearted, dirty-minded attitude that I’m positive fans of the series (or those just looking for a hilarious comedy) will appreciate. It’s far better than most comedy sequels and also ranks near the original VACATION and CHRISTMAS VACATION in terms of quality.

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Set decades after the original VACATION, Rusty Griswold has now grown up into a husband, father and pilot. However, he’s not the greatest at all three of these things. Feeling a distance growing between himself and his family, Rusty decides to take them on an impromptu vacation to a nostalgic childhood destination of old: Wally World! In a foreign rental car, Rusty drives his wife and two sons on a cross-country road trip that has many stops along the way to the theme park. As you might imagine, things don’t necessarily go as planned. Awkward situations, danger, and lots of laughs ensue.

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The VACATION movies have always used a basic, straight-forward narrative to move from set piece to set piece. This new VACATION is no different in that sense. However, one could argue that the new set pieces are slightly more ridiculous than anything Chevy Chase encountered in the past. That’s where the fun in this new VACATION lies. It’s a comedy that knows exactly what it’s supposed to be and marches with the same light-hearted, dirty-minded sensibilities that made the original films such huge hits. Ed Helms (who I’ve always seen as a straight-man for other goofy comedians) shows that he’s exceptionally good at playing a moronic doofus. Rusty is a likable protagonist and it was nice that they kept this entry in cannon with the rest of the series (Rusty isn’t the only returning character). There’s even a meta-line near the beginning in which Rusty explains that the “new vacation is going to be much different from the old vacation.” Little touches like these help this “reboot” morph into more than just another remake/sequel for a well-known franchise.

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Rusty aside, the new Griswolds are highly entertaining as well. Christina Applegate plays Rusty’s wife, Debbie, and really goes all-out in her role. She mainly serves as the calm, collected member of the family to all the crazy weirdness around her, but she also delivers some great comedic moments. Rusty’s sons have an entertaining dynamic as well. One is poetic and awkward, while the other is a potential psychopath in the making. Other big faces show up in brief parts by Chris Hemsworth and Charlie Day. These two alone are worth the price of admission. I was nearly crying with laughter during Charlie Day’s sequence, so it’s safe to say that his scene was my favorite moment of the film. This new VACATION (much like any other absurd R-rated comedy) can stretch a few jokes for a bit too long. One scene at Debbie’s old college has lots of laughs and then nearly overstays its welcome. Aside from these rare bits, nearly every set piece and joke in VACATION deliver in hysterical fashion.

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You know that a comedy is good when potentially unneeded sentimental moments blend perfectly in with the outrageous laughs to be had. Funny and charming the whole way through, this new VACATION is far better than it has any right to be. Comedy sequels usually don’t work. Some of the most painful, aggravated reviews on this website have been for unneeded comedy sequels. However, 2015’s VACATION knocks it out of the park for me with hilarious laughs and moments that I keep chuckling about hours after seeing the film. It may not hit with everyone, but it more than worked for me. VACATION is a comedy that I plan on revisiting many times in the future.

Grade: A-

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