Movie Review: “Insurgent”

Starring
Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Naomi Watts, Jai Courtney, Mekhi Phifer
Director
Robert Schwentke

No movie franchise embodies the term “meh” better than the “Divergent” tetralogy, because although the second installment is a competently made sci-fi thriller, it suffers from many of the same problems as the last movie – namely, a troubling lack of excitement, suspense and emotion. You’d think the fact that “Insurgent” isn’t bogged down by the same tedious exposition would allow the film to dig deeper into its characters and mythology, but you doesn’t learn much more about the main players by the end of the movie than when it began. That might be forgiven if author Veronica Roth’s universe was the least bit interesting, but the whole faction concept is so silly and contrived that it’s a wonder no one thought to question it sooner. And to think there’s an entire faction dedicated to intelligence.

“Insurgent” picks up several days after the events of the first film, with Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) denying involvement in the attack on Abnegation, instead placing the blame on Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James) and the rest of their sympathizers, who have since sought refuge with Amity. When Jeanine recovers a mysterious box containing a message from the colony’s founding fathers that requires a Divergent to unlock it, she sends bulldogs Eric (Jai Courtney) and Max (Mekhi Phifer) to round up Divergents to put through the box’s rigorous testing process. Meanwhile, Tris and Four unite their Dauntless friends with the factionless rebels – which is led by Four’s presumed-dead mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts) – to take down Jeanine and the whole faction system.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that “special one” Tris is the key to unlocking the film’s MacGuffin, which apparently doesn’t even appear in Roth’s novel, because there isn’t a single original idea in the movie. The generic plot device doesn’t serve much purpose, either, other than to keep Jeanine busy and provide a staging ground for the special effects-heavy final act that puts Tris through a series of virtual reality simulations designed to test her aptitude in all five factions. The problem, however, is that with the exception of the final 20 minutes and a few small character moments, “Insurgent” doesn’t do enough to progress the overarching story to warrant an entire film. The big reveal at the end will undoubtedly change the direction of the series going forward, and hopefully for the better, but the real question is whether anyone will still care by that point.

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Movie Review: “The Gunman”

Starring
Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Jasmine Trinca, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone
Director
Pierre Morel

Lightning doesn’t strike twice, as proven by director Pierre Morel’s recent output. Since his 2008 smash hit, “Taken,” Morel has been unsuccessful in trying to recapture the magic of his wildly popular B-movie. Though the French filmmaker helped turn Liam Neeson into an action star, he’s failed to do the same for John Travolta and Sean Penn. The latter stars in the director’s newest picture, “The Gunman,” an incredibly middle-of-the-road thriller that’s so light on action that the first 45 minutes doesn’t contain a single set piece.

“The Gunman” is a surprisingly small-scale movie, where most of the action takes place in contained locations. This kind of less-is-more approach is always welcomed, but it doesn’t work in the film’s favor, since none of the characters can hold your attention. This self-serious thriller tries to be more than what it really is. In the vein of “Taken,” the drama is redundant, thin and clunky, but unlike that movie, the emotional conflict doesn’t play second fiddle to the action. This a character-driven film, taking way too much time to tell an all-too-familiar story.

Jim Terrier (Penn) is a mercenary with a dark past, but he’s finally found happiness in the Congo. When we meet the sniper, he’s in a loving relationship with Annie (Jasmine Trinca), but that all ends when Terrier and his team kill the country’s minister of mining. Terrier, without telling Annie, has to go on the run. Years later, he returns to the Congo to do some good working for the NGO, but of course, he’s pulled back into the game after some men try to kill him.

Terrier suffers from headaches and memory loss, so fighting to stay alive isn’t going to be easy. Right from the start of the film, we’re served a trite conflict. A sick operative? We recently saw that character in “3 Days to Kill” and “Dying of the Light,” both of which are fairly mediocre movies that still managed to put that idea to better use. Penn is fine in the role, but the material fails him, which is ironic considering he co-wrote the script. The actor is a great writer and director, and he actually covered a similar journey – a man with a dark past getting in the way of him starting over – in his incredible 2001 film, “The Pledge.”

It’s the supporting actors that help bring some flickers of life to “The Gunman.” At one point, Idris Elba shows up in a glorified cameo playing a character named Jackie Barnes. Who wouldn’t want to see a franchise starring Elba as a mysterious Interpol agent? He’s in “The Gunman” for five minutes, and he makes every second count. Elba has some fairly on-the-nose dialogue to deliver, but an actor of his caliber can make every cheesy line sizzle. Strangely, the same cannot be said for Javier Bardem, playing an old colleague of Terrier and Annie’s new husband, who’s an early candidate for a Razzie nomination. His performance goes so big that his character leaves reality far too quickly. Bardem’s scenery chewing never fits this overly dour film.

If “The Gunman” was 20 minutes shorter and more action-oriented, it could have been a blast. Morel knows how to shoot action. He never shows us anything new, but the action is often impressive – quick and brutal, but never jarring. Morel knows how to put together an exciting set piece, but drama is not his forte. There’s nothing emotional about Terrier’s romance or his attempt to start over. Almost everything about “The Gunman” is by-the-numbers, which is fine, but it doesn’t even tell a familiar story particularly well.

  

Movie Review: “Accidental Love”

Starring
Jessica Biel, Jake Gyllenhaal, James Marsden, Catherine Keener, Tracy Morgan, James Brolin
Director
Stephen Greene

“Accidental Love” did not have a smooth production process, and it shows in the stitched-together final product. The comedy was initially a David O. Russell film titled “Nailed,” shot all the way back in 2008. But due to funding issues, the movie never completed principal photography, and what was once Russell’s “Nailed” is now being released under the pseudonym Stephen Greene as “Accidental Love.”

The film centers on Alice Eckle (Jessica Biel), a small-town, roller-skating fast food waitress. On a night out with her boyfriend (played by the always reliable James Marsden), Alice not only gets a ring on her finger, but a nail in her head thanks to a freak accident. Making her situation worse, Alice doesn’t have health insurance, meaning she can’t get the nail taken out unless she magically comes up with $150,000. And until her condition is taken care of, she’ll experience uncontrollable emotions and wild thoughts. Ultimately, Alice heads to the nation’s capital and enlists the help of young congressman Howard Birdwell (Jake Gyllenhaal), who, with the assistance of a few friends and familiar faces, will try to change the health care system in order to get the nail removed from Alice’s head.

Anyone expecting a sharp political satire will walk away disappointed. “Accidental Love,” which was co-written by former Vice President Al Gore’s daughter, Kristen, is a hugely broad comedy. The film has more in common with a sitcom than movies like “Bulworth” or “Wag the Dog,” but that doesn’t mean “Accidental Love” isn’t without its laughs. When a cast includes James Marsden, Tracy Morgan, Kurt Fuller and Bill Hader, not all jokes are going to fall flat. Marsden continues to prove he’s one of the most undervalued comedic actors working today. The former “X-Men” star has no shortage of charisma, so it’s baffling that this guy still isn’t a huge movie star. Marsden is a supporting player here, but he comes away stealing the show, even during the redundant and awkward post-credits sequence. As for Biel, it’s impossible to come away from “Accidental Love” without feeling bad for her. She’s charming and funny in a way audiences haven’t seen from her before, fully committing to the lunacy of this story.

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Blu Tuesday: Exodus, Top Five and More

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.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings”

WHAT: Raised as an Egyptian alongside future pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton), natural leader Moses (Christian Bale) is exiled by his brother-in-arms after it’s revealed that he’s actually a Hebrew. But when Moses receives a message from God, he returns to Egypt to lead 600,000 slaves to freedom by escaping Ramses’ rule and a cycle of plagues.

WHY: Though it’s nice to see a director ballsy enough to make a Golden Age-style epic like “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Ridley Scott’s latest film is a beautiful disaster – astonishing in its scope and unwavering dedication to the classic Hollywood spectacle, but overly long and dull. It’s also terribly miscast, from the whitewashing of Joel Edgerton as Ramses, to supporting actors like Aaron Paul (as Moses’ eventual successor, Joshua) and Sigourney Weaver (as Ramses’ mother, Tuya), who have less than a dozen lines of dialogue between them. Weaver only appears in two or three scenes, but Paul is basically the movie’s third lead, and yet he spends most of the time in the background simply reacting to Christian Bale, who brings his trademark intensity to the role of Moses, but sadly, isn’t provided the material to do much beyond that. As with last year’s other Biblical epic, “Noah,” Scott takes some liberties with the source material, and while they work for the most part (especially the way he stages the various plagues), it doesn’t make the proceedings any more exciting. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” was likely envisioned as a return to the big, glossy cinema of yesteryear, but it only serves as a reminder why those kinds of films have gone extinct.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary by director Ridley Scott and co-writer Jeffrey Caine, a feature-length trivia track, a pair of historical featurettes, some promotional featurettes and nine deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Top Five”

WHAT: Stand-up comedian turned movie star Andre Allen (Chris Rock) wants nothing more than to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor, so on the eve of his marriage to reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), Andre agrees to let New York Times journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) follow him for the day to write a profile piece.

WHY: It’s been eight years since Chris Rock’s last stint behind the camera (2007’s “I Think I Love My Wife”), and considering how poorly received that movie was – not to mention his directorial debut, “Head of State” – it’s easy to see how the comedian might have become disillusioned with the whole Hollywood system. “Top Five” is a marked improvement upon those films, but while the partly biographical, Woody Allen-esque dramedy plays to Rock’s strengths as a writer and performer, it’s also a tad self-indulgent in the way that it mirrors his own aspirations for a more serious career. Ironically, while most people would probably rather Rock just stick to comedy, it’s the serious bits that work best, particularly the subplot involving Andre and Chelsea’s sobriety. I’m still not sure what the title – a reference to an ongoing discussion that Rock’s character has with his friends and fellow celebrities about their top five rappers – has anything to do with the rest of the movie, but the fact that both Jay-Z and Kanye West are barely mentioned, despite being credited as executive producers, might just be the funniest thing about the film.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by writer/director/star Chris Rock and co-star JB Smoove, some outtakes from Andre’s stand-up act and deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Movie Review: “Run All Night”

Starring
Liam Neeson, Joel Kinnaman, Ed Harris, Vincent D’Onofrio, Boyd Holbrook, Common, Genesis Rodriguez
Director
Jaume Collet-Serra

There was a collective cheer among film lovers when Liam Neeson rebooted his career as an action hero, if only because it meant giving the actor a bigger stage on which to ply his trade. But while the “Taken” series has helped raise his stock within Hollywood, even Neeson must realize that his continued involvement in these genre flicks has begun to veer towards parody. His latest movie, “Run All Night,” marks his third collaboration with Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (“Unknown,” “Non-Stop”), and though it’s not any better or worse than their previous action-thrillers, it’s become so tiresome watching the actor play the same character again and again that the film is even more forgettable than usual.

Neeson stars as Jimmy “The Gravedigger” Conlon, an ex-mob enforcer for childhood friend/crime boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) who’s become a shadow of his former self, drowning his sorrows in booze to dull the memories of past sins. When he receives word that his estranged son, law-abiding limo driver Michael (Joel Kinnaman), witnessed the murder of some clients by Shawn’s sleazebag son, Danny (Boyd Holbrook), Jimmy is sent to keep Michael quiet. But Danny refuses to listen to his own father’s instructions to stay low and decides to clean up his mess by killing Michael, forcing Jimmy to shoot Danny instead. Though Jimmy is adamant that he was only protecting his son, Shawn swears to kill them both as retribution, and with the cops and Irish mob hunting them down, Jimmy and Michael must go on the run until they can clear Michael’s name.

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