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

JUPITER ASCENDING (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Violence, Sequences of Sci-Fi Action, some Suggestive Content and partial Nudity

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Directed by: Lana Wachowski & Andrew Wachowski

Written by: Lana Wachowski & Andrew Wachowski

Starring: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Sean Bean, Tuppence Middleton, & Terry Gilliam

Ever since the MATRIX sequels, it seems like people are quick to rip apart the Wachowski siblings. While I don’t necessarily find RELOADED and REVOLUTIONS to as all out terrible as many do, I can fully admit that they’re nowhere near the level of the original MATRIX. The siblings quickly moved on from their newly carved science fiction trilogy to work on other interesting (if not financially successful) titles. V FOR VENDETTA is one of my favorite movies. I didn’t bother watching SPEED RACER (it doesn’t really appeal to me), but it looked like it was visually stunning. CLOUD ATLAS wound up being one of my favorite films of 2012 and I consider it criminally underrated. This all being said, JUPITER ASCENDING is the Wachowskis taking on aliens and winds up as an enjoyable (though flawed) space opera.

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Jupiter Jones is an illegal immigrant making her living through cleaning houses. She lives a fairly boring and mundane life. However, her world is far bigger than she imagined. For some unforeseen reason, Jupiter has become marked for death by an evil intergalactic ruler. Rescued by a splice (half-man, half-wolf) named Caine Wise, Jupiter discovers the true origins of Earth and her ultimate destiny. This also puts her in the path of the powerful Abrasax dynasty (three heirs with different motives). Jupiter is put on an adventure that will decide not only her fate, but the fate of mankind.

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JUPITER ASCENDING is a fun, goofy science-fiction adventure. The scale is highly ambitious and so are most of the ideas at work, although some plot points are familiar. The Wachowskis incorporate a concept used in their MATRIX trilogy through a not-so-subtle way (complete with long-winded speech from a villain). Even so, there’s a lot of creativity to be seen which include little winks at alien mythology (e.g. crop circles, conspiracy theorists, etc.). Some of the ideas don’t necessarily work though. Creatures called splices (half-man, half-animal) play a big part in the proceedings. While some of them look cool (Channing Tatum, a rat-like henchman), others look downright ridiculous (an owl guy and an elephant pilot). The sillier looking creatures kept me from being fully immersed in the story, which essentially boils down to a dysfunctional family feud over who owns the Earth.

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Performances range from good to awful. Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum are enjoyable in their roles, but they don’t necessarily seem to make these characters their own. Sean Bean is a welcome presence as a disgraced splice (half-man, half-bee) and there aren’t any other real heroes of note. The Abrasax dynasty reminded me a lot of the Henry VIII and his violent children. I kept thinking that their characters resembled the Tudors in space. Douglas Booth and Tuppence Middleton are solid in their roles as two powerful heirs, but Eddie Redmayne is awful. He uses a misguided soft-spoken, weirdly accented delivery that becomes unintentionally hilarious at points. Redmayne is supposed to be the menacing big bad villain, but comes off instead like a spoiled brat.

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Mixed bag acting and somewhat derivative story aside, JUPTER ASCENDING has great action sequences and lots of them. The design of some of the aliens (aforementioned splices, little green men, and winged reptiles) can be a tad distracting, but there’s still much excitement to be had in these long scenes. This being said, there are some downright painful moments of comic relief involving Jupiter’s family back on Earth. It’s a bit jarring to go from an intense space battle to a family dinner of people yelling at each other. These latter scenes feel like they’re from a completely different film. However, they’re mercifully short-lived compared to all the aliens, spaceships, and intergalactic politics.

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Though it’s far from great or arguably good, JUPITER ASCENDING is a decent flick. The film has its share of problems (silly creatures, brief tonal shifts, and Eddie Redmayne’s annoying villain), but has more strengths (beautiful visuals, huge ambition that pays off in areas, cool plot points, and exciting action scenes). I was entertained from start to finish and that’s really what I hope for in a space opera. There are definitely flaws in the film, but it’s nowhere near the disaster that many are calling it. You might be surprised by how much you actually like JUPITER ASCENDING.

Grade: B-

MAX PAYNE (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violence including Intense Shooting Sequences, Drug Content, some Sexuality and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: John Moore

Written by: Beau Thorne

(based on the video game MAX PAYNE)

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Beau Bridges, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Mila Kunis, Chris O’Donnell, Kate Burton & Olga Kurylenko

MAX PAYNE came out when movies based on video games were a craze. Though it was number one at the box office in its opening weekend and considered a relative financial success, this 2008 actioner has been forgotten over time. There are valid reasons for that as odd casting decisions, a constrictive PG-13 rating (pandering to the widest possible audience), and its one-note story weigh the film down. Watching MAX PAYNE is the equivalent to watching someone else play a video game and never getting a turn with the controller. The visuals are pretty awesome, but the rest of the film lacks a soul.

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Max Payne is a loose-cannon detective who doesn’t play by the rules. Though stuck in the cold case office during his day job, Max’s night life consists of hunting down potential suspects who might be responsible for the homicide of his family. After a failed one night stand with a mysterious woman, Natasha, who winds up dead, Max gets caught up in a ring of conspiracies and murder. As his fellow officers search for him, Max sets his eye on a mysterious street drug that could be related to Natasha’s murder. The web of lies goes far deeper than he initially expected and Max may end up confronting his wife’s killer after all.

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MAX PAYNE’s first major problem is in the story. The film moves at a rushed ADD-addled pace through overly familiar motions. It never settles on letting one plot revelation or point settle before moving on to the next one. The script is a jumbled mess of bland characters and clichés. One of these clichés is insultingly bad as everybody has seen it used before in just about every cop thriller of this kind. The character of Max Payne himself is woefully underdeveloped and I couldn’t have cared less if he were to die within the first 20 minutes. Speaking of which, another cliché that sticks out like a sore thumb are bad guys with terrible aim. There are literally 10 guns being fired at Max Payne in a couple of scenes and nobody manages to even graze him. This is unintentionally hilarious in a moment where two villains are firing at him from a mere couple of feet away all while Max is running in a straight line. This silly action movie trope is nothing new or infuriating, but it’s on full over-the-top display in this film!

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The best praise that I can throw onto MAX PAYNE is in its spectacular visuals. Director John Moore seems to have gone out of his way to bring a dark world to life through colorful visuals and bleak atmosphere. I can praise this stuff endlessly and there are also a couple of good action scenes to boot. Though the bad guys have horrible aim, one shootout in an office building is pretty cool. This all being said, the restrictions imposed by the PG-13 rating are all too clear. If someone is making a gritty and violent cop thriller (based on an M rated video game, no less), the logical thing to do would be use the R rating for its bloody and sexy advantages. The shoot-out scenes are remarkably bloodless in spite of people being killed at point-blank range and a potential sex scene is going out of the way to cover up nudity. It feels like the film was trying to be one thing and frequently hindered by (the studio’s insistence on) a PG-13 rating.

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Besides a lame script and forced PG-13, the casting feels totally off in MAX PAYNE. You’ve got Mark Wahlberg as this vengeance-driven, hardened cop and he just doesn’t sell the role at all. Part of the reason might be a significant lack of character development given to Max, but most of it is that Mark Wahlberg seems to be trying way too hard to seem intimidating. The second major casting mistake comes in Mila Kunis as a Russian assassin and she’s not remotely convincing in her part either. Beau Bridges, who starred in this film at the urging of his children, is serviceable enough as Max Payne’s former cop friend. There’s also the strange choice of casting Chris O’Donnell as a corrupt henchman in a shady organization.

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MAX PAYNE is not an outright failure, thanks to a few good action scenes and strong visuals, but it’s still likely to disappoint fans of the acclaimed video game. The casting feels off for just about every role, especially Mark Wahlberg attempting to sell himself as a violent cop. The PG-13 rating suffocates what could have been a far darker and more violent film, providing that the cliché-ridden script underwent revisions in the process. All things considered, MAX PAYNE is a pretty-looking mess.

Grade: C-

EXTRACT (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, Sexual References and Some Drug Use

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Directed by: Mike Judge

Written by: Mike Judge

Starring: Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis, Kristen Wiig, Ben Affleck, J.K. Simmons, Clifton Collins Jr., David Koechner, Beth Grant, T.J. Miller

Mike Judge has gained quite a following of fans with his hysterical workplace comedy (OFFICE SPACE) and a long-running animated sitcom (KING OF THE HILL). Though I have yet to see IDIOCRACY, I hear it’s pretty damn funny too. EXTRACT is a movie that has fast been forgotten since it’s release almost five years ago. Though it includes some colorful characters and moments of dry humor that work in the story’s favor, this is a mostly bland comedy wandering aimlessly in search of an interesting plot strand to grab hold of.

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Joel (Jason Bateman) is a self-made company owner and the central character of EXTRACT. Though his work life is going very well, he finds himself sexually frustrated with his exhausted wife who just doesn’t seem to care anymore. After an accident, caused by some dysfunctional employees, results in a worker getting injured. Joel finds himself faced with a variety of problems. Some of these are caused by himself (such as hiring a gigolo to clean his pool to see if his wife would be unfaithful given the circumstances), but most are caused by a recently hired temp, named Cindy (Mila Kunis). Faced with an impending lawsuit, a cheating spouse (a role that seems wasted by the usually great Kristin Wiig), and a thief in the company’s midst, Joel’s problems are colliding.

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From that synopsis, you might notice a lack of intriguing details. That’s because EXTRACT feels more like a slice-of-life comedy. The problems come from the both the slice that was cut and life that it happens to be from. For the most part, these are both dull. With any good characters backing this plot up, EXTRACT could have been entertaining. The real issue comes in the character of Joel. We rarely leave his side and he’s the most focused character of the entire film. There’s just not much to him. He’s not very likable and the holes he keeps getting himself into don’t result in many laughs, but rather a growing distaste for this asshole. With a great performance Joel might have been molded into a character that the viewer would enjoy watching. Jason Bateman seems to be just reading off a teleprompter for most of the film and the same can be said about nearly every other cast member here.

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The most colorful characters are regulated to a few minutes of screen time and nobody leaves a lasting impression after the credits have ended. There are doubtful to be any Joel T-shirts or memes, unlike the countless Lumberg or Milton impressions and quotes that are frequently brought from OFFICE SPACE. I wouldn’t be comparing the two, but we’ve seen what Mike Judge is capable of in his past work and to make another workplace comedy (albeit in a different environment) you have to expect some form of comparison.

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Besides being in a search of an interesting plot thread, EXTRACT also seems to be looking for a solid tone to roll with. Sometimes, the movie wants to be funny. Other times, it’s a bit more dramatic. It seems like Mike Judge kind of wanted to do a more serious workplace comedy with hints of OFFICE SPACE or KING OF THE HILL. There’s some dry humor that works. The funniest scenes usually involve Joel’s annoying neighbor (played by a nerdy David Koechner) who doesn’t take hints to leave, even if the door is literally slammed in his face. Ben Affleck is actually decent enough as a drug-addicted bartender and best friend of Joel, but again, this is a character forced into the backdrop. The comedy aspect of the film seems to fall flat in 3/4ths of the jokes presented. It’s like someone with a sense of dry humor repeating the same joke that wasn’t funny in its first time around.

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It’s not that EXTRACT is particularly bad. It’s just mediocre and almost flavorless. In the past, Mike Judge has made a hilarious cult hit and a funny animated sitcom (along with BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD). EXTRACT was his latest directorial effort in the cinematic world. It just feels bland. If it were any flavor of the many extracts that the main character would manufacture in his company, EXTRACT would be vanilla. Take that as you will.

Grade: C

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