Movie Review: “Chappie”

Starring
Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo
Director
Neill Blomkamp

There’s still reason to be hopeful about 20th Century Fox’s decision to hand the reigns of the next “Alien” movie to Neill Blomkamp, but the bloom is likely to be off the rose for a lot of sci-fi fans after they take a gander at “Chappie,” which continues Blomkamp’s series of declining returns after the disappointing “Elysium.”

It is in no way surprising that among the first words uttered by an audience member upon the conclusion of the advance screening of “Chappie” involved the phrase “if ‘Robocop’ and ‘Short Circuit’ had a baby.” After all, the film – co-written by Blomkamp and his wife, Terri Tachell – takes place in the not-too-distant future and revolves around the decision by the city of Johannesburg, South Africa to adopt a partially robotic police force. These aren’t cyborgs, a la the officer formerly known as Alex Murphy: they’re 100% robot, designed by programmer extraordinaire Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). Despite what he’s already achieved in his field, Wilson continues to strive for a greater breakthrough, focusing his sights on the goal of cracking the consciousness code, as it were, and creating the first sentient robot.

As you might expect, Wilson achieves this goal in short order, but his boss (played by Sigourney Weaver) isn’t wooed by his pitch to experiment with his consciousness program on a damaged robot marked for destruction and denies his request. Now, in fairness, his pitch is really, really terrible. Who goes to the head of a company that makes police robots and starts off by mentioning that one of the benefits of sentience is that a robot can judge the merits of art and write its own poetry? But as you might also expect, her denial in no way stops him from deciding to swipe the deactivated robot and do his experiment anyway.

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Movie Review: “Unfinished Business”

Starring
Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson, Dave Franco, Sienna Miller, James Marsden
Director
Ken Scott

Ken Scott, the filmmaker behind “Starbuck” and its Hollywood remake, “Delivery Man,” has reunited with Vince Vaughn, the lead from his bland 2013 film, for another project. The idea of the director and star of that comedy teaming up again isn’t exactly enticing, and neither is the final result, because once again, the duo has failed to deliver with “Unfinished Business.”

Vaughn stars as Daniel Trunkman, a salesman who quits his unsatisfying job and goes off to start his own business. What does Trunkman sell for a living? A product so boring that it’s hardly ever mentioned in the film, and when it is, Trunkman only comments on how dull the merchandise is. Trunkman only has two employees, Timothy McWinters (Tom Wilkinson) and Mike Pancake (Dave Franco), an odd but satisfying pairing responsible for most of the film’s scarce laughs. The small company is in serious need of a sale, so when a financially promising opportunity rises, the boss and his employees will stop at nothing to close the potential deal. Their work brings them to Berlin, where they’ll have to compete against Trunkman’s old boss, Charlie (Sienna Miller), for the sale.

While “Unfinished Business” initially looks to be an ensemble comedy, it mostly rests on the shoulders of its biggest star, which is a shame. Vaughn isn’t an actor that pushes himself to new places. He has a comedic persona which he rarely strays from, often playing straight shooters with a motormouth, and that’s the character he plays once again in Scott’s film. Every comic note Vaughn hits is stale and expected. There’s nothing fresh about his style or approach anymore; it’s tired and outdated. As for Wilkinson and Franco, they’re far more energetic and engaged than their co-star.

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Movie Review: “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”

Starring
Dev Patel, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Richard Gere, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Diana Hardcastle
Director
John Madden

When “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” opened in May 2012, it was viewed as a smart piece of counterprogramming to “The Avengers.” But something strange happened along the way: the senior-targeted dramedy became a box office hit in its own right, earning $136 million worldwide on a modest $10 million budget. Though its success was unexpected, no one could have imagined that it would breed a sequel, and yet here we are, four years later, with the gang reunited for another Indian adventure like some sort of Avengers-style retiree supergroup. Including the words “second best” in the title probably wasn’t intended as a comment on the movie’s quality, but while it’s not as good as its predecessor, “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” still skates by on the delightful charm of its ensemble cast.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has been in operation for eight months now, and passionate owner Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) has grand ambitions to expand by purchasing a derelict hotel nearby. Sonny and assistant manager Muriel (Maggie Smith) travel to the U.S. to pitch their business plan to hotel tycoon Ty Burley (David Strathairn), and he agrees to send an inspector to check out the property. So when American tourist Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) arrives at the hotel claiming that he’s there to write his first novel, Sonny believes that he’s actually the inspector in disguise, waiting on him hand and foot instead of attending to his ceremonial duties for his forthcoming marriage to Sunaina (Tena Desae). Meanwhile, Evelyn (Judi Dench) is offered an amazing job opportunity that could affect her budding relationship with Douglas (Bill Nighy); Madge (Celia Imrie) is forced to choose between two Indian suitors; and Norman (Ronald Pickup) accidentally puts out a hit on his new girlfriend, Carol (Diana Hardcastle).

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Blu Tuesday: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Foxcatcher and The Captive

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1″

WHAT: After being rescued at the Quarter Quell by a secret resistance group, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is transported to District 13, where President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) intends to use her as the figurehead for the revolution. Katniss agrees on a few conditions – namely, that they rescue Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who’s being tortured and used by the Capitol as the voice against the resistance, as soon as possible – and begins filming a series of propaganda videos intended to recruit soldiers for the war effort.

WHY: One of the biggest problems you typically run into with two-part finales like “Mockingjay” is that the filmmakers are no longer forced to think economically in terms of what material is essential to telling the story. Though it made sense to split up the final installment of the Harry Potter series due to the sheer size of J.K. Rowling’s book, “Mockingjay” doesn’t have that issue, especially when “Catching Fire” (which is the exact same length in book form) was adapted just fine into one movie. Add to that the fact that “Mockingjay” is hands-down the weakest entry in the trilogy, and it was always going to be an uphill battle for director Francis Lawrence and writers Danny Strong and Peter Craig. There are some really powerful emotional beats littered throughout, and the rich cast of characters (both new and returning) help keep things from getting too boring, but it often feels like Lawrence is just twiddling his thumbs in fear of getting too far ahead, with most of the film spent setting up the next installment. It’s a necessary slog in order to get to the good stuff (and one that fans of the Harry Potter and “Twilight” series will be all too familiar with), but it’s a slog all the same.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson, there’s a making-of documentary titled “The Mockingjay Lives,” a behind-the-scenes look at Lorde’s curation of the soundtrack, a tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Foxcatcher”

WHAT: Olympic wrestling champions Mark (Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) are courted by multimillionaire John du Pont (Steve Carrell) to train at his private facility as members of Team Foxcatcher in preparation for the 1988 Olympic Games, only for the partnership to end in tragedy.

WHY: It’s easy to see why some people didn’t like Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” – it’s a haunting, emotionally cold movie that keeps the audience at arm’s length the entire time. But that’s by design, not only because it reflects the temperament of its two lead characters, but because in doing so, Miller hopes to distance the film from the true-crime story on which it’s based. “Foxcatcher” feels like the kind of movie Stanley Kubrick might have made in another lifetime, meticulously and shrewdly assembled in such a way that every detail – from shot composition, to the dialogue, to the eccentricities of each performance – serves a purpose. All three main actors are fantastic in their respective roles, and in the case of Steve Carrell and Channing Tatum, it’s arguably the best work of their careers. Tatum plays Mark like a modern-day Lennie Small, a naïve and impressionable oaf who gets seduced into du Pont’s codependent web, while Carrell strikes a perfect balance between the wannabe coach’s ferocious ambition and childlike desire for approval. Without Mark Ruffalo as David, however, the movie wouldn’t work. He’s the soul of the film, the one person with something to lose that you actually care about, and it’s through him that “Foxcatcher” avoids becoming so detached that it shuts out the viewer completely.

EXTRAS: There’s a decent making-of featurette, as well as a pair of deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Captive”

WHAT: When his daughter, Cassandra, is kidnapped from his truck during a routine stop at the local diner, Matthew (Ryan Reynolds) sees his marriage destroyed and the cops in charge of the investigation (Rosario Dawson and Scott Speedman) questioning his potential involvement. But after recent images of Cassandra are discovered online following eight years of dead ends, Matthew sets out to get his daughter back by any means necessary.

WHY: There’s a lot of potential bubbling beneath Atom Egoyan’s “The Captive,” but it’s too often spoiled by gaping plot holes and a slightly disinterested approach to the material. Egoyan’s decision to structure the film using a jumbled chronology doesn’t enhance the narrative or ratchet up the suspense, but rather makes things unnecessarily complex for the viewer, who is forced to piece things together on his own. Cassandra’s fate and the villain’s identity is revealed so early on, however, that there’s no benefit to presenting the story in this manner. Ryan Reynolds delivers a solid performance as the troubled father more interested in finding his daughter than proving his innocence (not that he’s much of a suspect, anyway), but the rest of the cast isn’t as lucky, saddled with one-dimensional roles with little room to develop. (I’m still not sure what purpose Bruce Greenwood’s character serves, unless there was a bunch of footage left on the cutting room floor.) That’s not to say that “The Captive” is a total failure, but when compared to Denis Villeneuve’s similarly themed “Prisoners,” it lacks the cutting edge that made that film such a gripping and emotionally powerful child abduction thriller.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by writer/director Atom Egoyan, a making-of featurette, deleted scenes and an alternate ending.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to March

march

Now that awards season is well and truly over, it’s time to turn our attention to the new movies hitting theaters this month, although from the look of things, there’s not much to get excited about. With the exception of Neill Blomkamp’s latest sci-fi treat, there isn’t a single March release that I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing, and while there’s always the possibility that one or more of these films will surprise, I wouldn’t get my hopes up just yet.

“Chappie”

Who: Sharlto Copley, Hugh Jackman, Dev Patel and Sigourney Weaver
What: When a police droid named Chappie is stolen and given new programming, he becomes he first robot with the ability to think and feel for himself.
When: March 6th
Why: Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” was a disappointment on a number of levels, so it’s nice to see the director hasn’t wasted any time erasing the memory of that movie with a new sci-fi project that appears to have more in common (both tonally and thematically) with “District 9,” the film that put him on the map. The decision to reteam with Sharlto Copley – who was hands-down the best thing about Blomkamp’s previous efforts – was a no-brainer, but if there’s anything that could possibly upstage him this time around, it’s Hugh Jackman (playing against type as the film’s villain) and his glorious mullet. That, or the killer visual effects.

“Unfinished Business”

Who: Vince Vaughn, Dave Franco, Tom Wilkinson, James Marsden and Sienna Miller
What: A hard-working small business owner and his two associates travel to Europe to close the most important deal of their lives.
When: March 6th
Why: It’s hard to believe that Hollywood is still betting on Vince Vaughn, because he’s not the comedy star he once was. He hasn’t had anything resembling a hit in years, and it’s been just as long since his last good film, which isn’t a coincidence. Though Vaughn’s upcoming stint on “True Detective” could prove to be the launch pad for his comeback, audiences will first have to suffer through this barrage of low-brow frat humor whose biggest crime isn’t how dreadfully unfunny it looks, but that it managed to convince a classy actor like Tom Wilkinson to submit himself to such stupidity. Does he owe back taxes or something?

“Run All Night”

Who: Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman and Genesis Rodriguez
What: An aging hitman is forced to take on his brutal former boss in order to protect his estranged son and his family.
When: March 13th
Why: It’s great that Liam Neeson has been able to revitalize his career by playing a bunch of senior citizen badasses with a particular set of skills, but even he must realize that it’s beginning to veer towards parody. Not only does “Run All Night” reunite the actor with director Jaume Collete-Serra, whose previous collaborations include the generic action thrillers “Unknown” and “Non-Stop,” but with some basic rewrites, it could easily be the next installment in the “Taken” franchise. Neeson’s latest shoot-‘em-up does boast a better-than-usual cast with veterans like Ed Harris and Vincent D’Onofrio, but sadly, it looks like just more of the same.

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