Review: ‘Divergent’ (dystopia-ish faction-y grrl power)

It feels like The Hunger Games light, but it’s better than the screen-version of The Mortal Instruments.

In a futuristic, post-something-or-another world that looks like Chicago-After-People, skyscrapers that are two-centuries old inexplicably don’t fall down to crush the Five Factions: Abnegation, the selfless; Amity, the peaceful; Candor, the honest; Dauntless, the brave; and Erudite, the intellectual. Citizens are given an aptitude test at the age of sixteen in the form of a dreamlike simulation to help them determine where they belong. They may choose to stay where they were born or move to another faction, but if they fail to measure up, they become “factionless,” vagrants condemned to the city ruins (nice, huh?) Beatrice “Tris” Prior’s (Shailene Woodley) aptitude test flags her as “divergent,” capable of being in several factions – a frowned-upon condition that jeopardizes the entire system. When she chooses Dauntless over her birthplace of Abnegation, she’s launched on a journey that puts herself, her family, and the entire 23rd century in danger before Buck Rogers can get back to save it.

The Walled City formerly known as Chicago has some issues, mostly the future-tech and weird secrecy. Sorry; this world couldn’t survive even a decade like this (let alone two-hundred years), but it does make for an interesting backdrop for our heroine to be brave and such. Of course, there’s a conspiracy afoot, and Tris is right in the middle of it trying to survive, excel, and find her place in Neo-Chicago. What’s weird is that Tris always seems to be in danger of something, but everyone outside of her little circle (read: the extras in the background) all seem kind of oblivious to what’s going on in a way that undermines suspension of disbelief. Pay attention, guys; the caterers will still be there after the scene.
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Review: ‘Project Almanac’ (decent found-footage time travel flick)

Pretty good, but a little tweaking here and there might have made it great.

David (Jonny Weston) is a high school senior science nerd who dreams of getting into MIT. With the help of his sister and two best buds, he gets admitted – but with a scholarship too small to cover his expenses. Having little choice other than to change his life plans or his mother selling their house, David and his sibling raid the attic for ideas before finding an old video camera. The ten-year old footage of the day his dad passed away also shows his eighth birthday party…and his eighteen year old self walking through the frame.

A late-January film like this has a lot going against it: found footage, time travel, produced by Michael Bay – and don’t get me started on product placement (mobile cameras, game consoles, concert venues – oh, it’s MTV Films, too). To the film’s credit, it’s a self-aware time travel flick, citing everything from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure to Looper, even a “Doctor Who” reference. The science of the time travel technology is certainly part of the story, including the rules. Apparently, your past self cannot observe your in-the-flesh future self for too long in close proximity (this bit of rules-lawyering is shaky) or else you may wink out of existence (yep, even a Time Cop reference). The entire story attaches itself to the idea that observation of future events changes it, yet it conveniently sorts that out when it benefits the plot. Still, for a self-aware time travel flick, it does hit all the right pop-culture tropes and has fun with the idea.
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Review: ‘Chappie’ (should have hired WALL-E’s agent)

RoboCop fused with Short Circuit reimagined as a prequel to The Road Warrior.

In the near future, violent crime in Johannesburg, South Africa has skyrocketed. With law enforcement overwhelmed, the city turns to a robotics company, deploying “scouts” to turn the tide. Scout designer Deon (Dev Patel) is the star of the robotics company but dreams of something other than programming: a true artificial intelligence to determine right from wrong. Rival designer and ex-soldier Vincent (Hugh Jackman) oozes with jealousy over Deon’s success, watching his neural-controlled overkill “moose” robot wasting away from a lack of funds. When Deon cracks the A.I. code and steals a busted scout robot to test his new program, he runs afoul of petty criminals Ninja and Yolandi (as themselves) and activates the robot for them. While “Chappie” (Sharlto Copley) begins to learn at an incredible rate, Vincent figures out what Deon is up to and decides to escalate the situation to his advantage…poorly.

Neill Blomkamp loves the human condition, but his stories often appear hopelessly bleak. Chappie is an R-rated fairy tale with technology instead of magic – strike that: technology AS magic. It’s like a kids movie for adults, perhaps additionally inspired from Robocop (and WOW, does “the moose” look way too much like ED-209 with a VTOL upgrade!) The humor feels just as derived from the Short Circuit franchise with all the gangsta/thuggie spray-painted trappings you can cringe at. At its core, there is an interesting story about a new-born robot finding out what it’s like to come into a bleak world, but with all the other distractions, it just becomes buried beneath everything else. While the film looks big, you can feel the budget constraints; in a city full of crime, no one ever seems to be watching these monitors or guarding anything, even at the place where they make the robot guards!
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Review: ‘Birdman: or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance’ (and why many won’t identify with this)

The mid-life crisis of an actor using a fantasy element that confuses the heck out of people.

Reggin (Michael Keaton) is taking his shot on Broadway with a play he’s adapted, directed, and produced. All the money he has left in the world is tied up in realizing his dream, a personal goal that had to do with why he became an actor. From fussing actors to cutthroat critics, everyone seems to be against him, even his estranged daughter (Emma Stone). But his biggest hurdle to overcome may be the man he once pretended to be, now a delusional personification of the pop culture movie franchise icon the world identifies Reggin with: Birdman.

This is the story of what many career actors fear, that this will happen to them or it’s who they’ll become. For the performance artist with big dreams – the same person who takes money to survive and accidentally gains the prestige that comes with so-called “overnight” success – this could be called “real life.” Anyone in television, film, or theater has met people like the characters in this story: the once-was who fears becoming the has-been, the professional non-professional that can’t be trusted whom you have to trust, the actor who measures success by everyone else’s perception, and so on. With all this award-bait story going on, it’s the addition of a Walter Mitty element of the fantastic that allows the main character’s imagination to be seen as reality or insanity…something that may be step too far for some moviegoers.
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Review: ‘The Lazarus Effect’ (one actress’s valiant attempt to save a thriller)

Flatliners plus (choose ONE) A: Hollow Man, B: Lawnmower Man, C: Lucy.

After a scientist named Zoe (Olivia Wilde) theorizes a serum to regenerate disconnected brain tissue when stimulated electrically, her fiance Frank (Mark Duplass) puts their marriage on hold to secure a grant and complete the project with her. Three years later, a breakthrough restores a canine to life…but (of course) something isn’t quite right with it. The research team is forced to recreate the experiment when a loophole allows their research to be stolen away, but a lab accident pushes them to attempt a human trial; cue the special effects, horror makeup, and existential mumbo-jumbo.

Taking a cue from the “horror in a box” formula (lock your characters in, shake the box, see what falls out), The Lazarus Effect does a fair job of setup – pretty much everything we know from the trailer. At a glance, the story promises tying physics to metaphysics in a way that could might have been Event Horizon cool…until they do nothing with it. The story owes its existence to pretty much any story where science induces instant brain evolution to push a person off the rails, but with too many one-note characters and a severe lack of any explanation, every drop of potential is pissed away. Instead, Ms. Wilde inexplicably terrorizes the team until the film mercifully ends, only then hinting on something that might have made sense if there had been anything prior to support it.
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Review: ‘Hot Tub Time Machine 2′ (No. Just…No.)

Remember how bad you thought the original movie was going to be? That.

After altering the course of human history with his knowledge of the future, Lou (Rob Corddry) has made billions but still acts like a jerk. His son Jacob (Clark Duke) is going dangerously down a similar path of destruction while Nick (Craig Robinson) is feeling the guilt of ripping off songs no one else remembers and calling them his own. When a mysterious assassin shoots Lou in the crotch, Jacob and Nick drag him back into the conveniently relocated temporal hot tub to change the past. Instead, they end up in the future without a clue how to fix the real problem: how to make a sequel work without John Cusack.

To create a sequel intended for fans of the surprise hit (and surprisingly good) original film Hot Tub Time Machine, there are a few minimums that should have been addressed. Okay, fine, you couldn’t get John Cusack back for whatever reason, but every film needs a lead actor – and a lead story, for that matter. Seth Rogan, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, James Franco, or Paul Rudd…was NO ONE available? Rehashing the same issues as the last film with all the secondary characters makes the film drag out into exactly what it is: genuinely funny people ad libbing their way between plot points and hoping there’s enough footage to fill a ninety-minute running time. In spite of a couple of actual laughs, the result is an underwhelming “nope.”
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‘Fifty Spades of Grim’ (A Spoof of You-Know-What)

All the disturbs…two hours shorter and less the price of a movie ticket.