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chappie ver6 Chappie (2015) Movie Review

With unappealing one-note characters, retread concepts and implausible motivations, ‘Chappie’ is a further downward step for director Neill Blomkamp.

As in crappy.

Opens: March 6 (Sony)

Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Along with its innumerable other shortcomings, Chappie is one of the annoyingly growing number of films in which any and every character — here they run the gamut from techies to gangstas to robots — can instantly break into any computer system whenever they need to in about two seconds; a quick flurry of finger moves over the keyboard and they’re invariably in, no problem. Is there ever a movie in which characters do this and then can’t get in? This is but a minor irritant in a film well endowed with major ones, notably: unappealing one-note characters, retread concepts, implausible motivations and a ludicrous survival rate given the firepower expended upon the central figures. After the surprise and promise of District 9, this represents a further downward step for directorNeill Blomkamp in the wake of the highly uneven Elysium.

At least ever since the original RoboCop 28 years ago, audiences have come to grips with the notion of cyborg and/or mechanical crime fighters, and Chappie merely flips the equation, with geeky Johannesburg police force artificial intelligence engineer Deon (Dev Patel) announcing that one of his robot cops has crossed the line to become a thinking and feeling being.

This is too much for hard-line engineer Vincent (Hugh Jackman), who believes that the manmade soldiers are there to obey orders and not think for themselves; they have, after all, helped bring down the violent crime rate in Jo’burg. He’s also devised a giant new crime buster named The Moose, which his boss, Michelle (Sigourney Weaver), refuses to activate. But you don’t introduce a critter like this unless you intend to use him later on.

Unfortunately, much of the interim time is spent in the company of a trio of unsavory punks who know little but how to strike menacing poses, shriek threats and brandish weapons. In deep on the wrong side of a debt to a local crime lord, skinny and stupid Ninja and motherly punk Yo-Landi (played by the self-same Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser of the rave rap group Die Antwoord), along with relatively even-keeled cohort Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo), manage to kidnap Chappie — whom Deon has just begun to teach about the human world — with the idea of using the robot to pull off a major heist.

Chappie, a man-size construct made mostly of what looks like gunmetal, is an eager sponge at this early stage of life, absorbing and imitating everything he sees and hears like a child. It’s supposed to be hilarious when, after his brief tutelage with the straitlaced Deon, Chappie begins speaking filthy and nasty like his new guardians, is adorned with gangsta-style bling and is taught how to be a cool badass. Instead, it comes off as cheap and even depressing, one more young soul lost to the underworld.

After persistently threatening Deon to within an inch of his life, the crims just let him go, even though he works with the cops and knows the location of the dump where the lowlifes live. Just as far-fetched is Vincent pulling a gun on Deon in the former’s office. But what permanently tips Chappie over from a drama that might deserve one’s sympathetic charity to something ridiculous is a rant by Deon about the punks’ pernicious influence on Chappie that ends with the young man fulminating that Ninja is nothing less than … a philistine! Now that’s telling him.

Ultimately, Chappie is pulled this way and that by people for whom he fills different roles: For Deon he’s the invention of a lifetime; for Ninja and Yo-Landi, he’s the child they’ll never have; and for Vincent, he’s the representation of what he hates, a sentient being rather than an unthinking soldier made to follow orders.

And for the audience, Chappie is a charmless and irritating bugger. The way he’s designed, with the barest semblance of a face, there’s no entry point to invite human feelings for him, and his often frantic speech patterns are off-putting. Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley not only voiced the character but performed the role on-set so the other actors could relate to him, his character’s actual look subsequently “painted” over the actor via CGI. The technique works flawlessly, but that doesn’t make the character lovable.

As the action mounts toward the end, any sense of plausible logistics and physical realities are tossed aside, as characters just sort of magically get from point A to B and end up right where they need to be to force an encounter or showdown. When The Moose is finally unleashed, its destructive power proves rather less all-encompassing than suspected. And while the renegade, anti-establishment outlook of the director, who wrote the script with hisDistrict 9 partner Terri Tatchell, remains unmistakable, it’s so pro forma and predictable here as to feel rote.

With the partial exception of Visser, whose punky veneer nicely melts into motherly concern and warmth, the actors are straitjacketed with unlikable characters notable for their ill-advised judgment. No one’s any fun here, even in their villainy. With the exception of the police office, most of the action takes place in particularly unsavory sections of Jo’burg, and the film at times sports a wan video look, especially in certain daytime exteriors.

Production companies: Columbia Pictures, MRC, Kinberg Genre Productions
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Screenwriters: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Producers: Neill Blomkamp, Simon Kinberg
Executive producer: Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Trent Opaloch
Production designer: Jules Cook
Costume designer: Diana Cilliers
Editors: Julian Clarke, Mark Goldblatt
Music: Hans Zimmer
Visual effects supervisor: Chris Harvey

Rated R, 120 minutes

unfinished business ver7 Unfinished Business (2015) Movie Review

Vince Vaughn and Dave Franco headline Hollywood’s latest raucous male-bonding romp.

Take your business elsewhere

Opens: March 6 (Twentieth Century Fox)

Cast: Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson, Dave Franco, Sienna Miller

Director: Ken Scott

In the years since he strutted onto the scene — lean, handsome, mouth running a mile a minute — in Doug Liman’s Swingers (1996), Vince Vaughn has become one of the poster boys for the mainstream American comedy: from romantic (The Break-Up) to bromantic (Old School), pretty good (Wedding Crashers) to very bad (Fred Claus) to frankly unnecessary (Delivery Man).

His new film, Unfinished Business, falls into that last sub-category — perhaps not coincidentally, as it, too, has been directed by Ken Scott (Delivery Man was Scott’s remake of his own homegrown Quebecois hit, Starbuck). A guys-gone-wild romp in the well-worn tradition of Todd PhillipsHangover franchise, this is the latest example of a movie that doesn’t work hard enough to freshen up formulas used and abused by filmmakers like Phillips,Judd Apatow, Nicholas Stoller (Neighbors), Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses) and others.

Indeed, Unfinished Business will seem woefully familiar to most anyone who’s been to a movie theater — or taken a long plane ride — over the past 10 years. Male sexual panic gags involving penises? Check. Drug-fueled bacchanals shown in slow-mo? Check. Car hijinks (here involving a German-language GPS)? Check. Disposable, misogynistically conceived female characters? Check. Lessons learned (don’t be a bully; never give up; appreciate what you have)? Check.

And check, please.

Vaughn plays Dan, a St. Louis sales exec who quits his job toiling for a bullying boss named Chuck (Sienna Miller, gamely overdoing a brassy American accent) and starts his own company with two fellow workplace outcasts: retirement-age Timothy (Tom Wilkinson) and sweet-natured but slow-witted Mike (Dave Franco, you-know-who’s little brother). The unlikely trio travels first to Maine, then to Europe in an effort to beat out Chuck for a lucrative deal with a firm fronted by Jim Spinch (James Marsden, smarming it up).

Needless to say chaos ensues. But Unfinished Business never works up enough momentum to get us into the anarchic spirit of things. The movie unfolds, choppily, as a series of half-hearted set pieces written and directed with little flair or commitment and no connective tissue between them; some of those sequences scarcely run long enough to register, as if the studio couldn’t decide whether or not they were worth keeping in the final cut. Like The Wedding Ringer, another mediocre male-bonding flick released during the early-2015 dump months, Unfinished Business goes through the motions, offering up ostensibly outrageous sights and situations — a hotel maid who’s actually a sex worker; Mike’s quest to master a certain coital position; a professional negotiation hashed out amid the glory holes of a gay club — either so derivative or so listlessly staged as to barely warrant a raised eyebrow.

When it’s not indulging in lowbrow sex humor (not a bad thing in itself, mind you), the script, courtesy of Steven Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness), tosses around some very lame jokes — sometimes repeatedly. Much is made, for instance, of the fact that a main character’s last name is Pancake; are you laughing yet? Even one of the movie’s more gently amusing bits, Mike’s serial mispronunciation of words like “exploit” and “imperative,” is run into the ground.

There are a couple of good lines strewn here and there — Dan references Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” while telling his overweight son (Britton Sear) that masturbation is OK — but most of the dialogue is in-one-ear-out-the-other forgettable.

Vaughn’s work here might be best described as functional — he does a very slight variation on the same persona he’s been playing for years: the brash guy with a heart of gold. As appealing and assured a comic performer as he is, the actor hasn’t stretched or challenged himself in a long time; Unfinished Business makes one hope, more urgently than ever, that he has something else up his sleeve on the next season of True Detective.

Meanwhile, Wilkinson’s role consists essentially of uttering words like “pussy,” “titty” and “cock,” as if the prospect of an actor of a certain age — and a Brit, at that! — cursing is all the comedy anyone needs.

If the movie has a bright spot, it’s Franco. Speaking in stoner-surfer cadences, his face regularly expanding into an infectiously goofy grin, the actor is the one person onscreen who seems determined to cobble together what little he’s given into a distinctive character.

As a director, Scott is workmanlike though uninspired, displaying little visual imagination and even less sense of risk. Undemanding audiences may be satisfied, but Unfinished Business is the cinematic equivalent of sub-par fast food (think Carl’s Jr. or Jack in the Box); it’s cheap, easy and maybe even tasty for a second or two, but leaves you feeling queasy and undernourished. In other words, take your business elsewhere.

Production: Regency Enterprises, New Regency Pictures, Escape Artists, Studio Babelsberg
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson, Dave Franco, Sienna Miller, James Marsden, Nick Frost, June Diane Raphael, Britton Sear
Director: Ken Scott
Screenwriters: Steven Conrad
Producers: Arnon Milchan, Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Steve Tisch, Anthony Katagas
Executive producers: Steven Conrad, David Bloomfield
Director of photography: Oliver Stapleton
Production designer: Luca Tranchino
Editor: Michael Tronick, John Poll, Peter Teschner
Costume designer: David Robinson
Composer: Alex Wurman
Casting: Rachel Tenner

Rated R, 91 min.

out of the dark Out of the Dark (2015) Movie Review

A family finds itself in peril after moving to a remote village in South America in this supernatural thriller

Even the title is forgettable

Opens: Feb. 27 (Vertical Entertainment)

Cast: Julia Stiles, Scott Speedman, Stephen Rea, Pixie Davies, Vanessa Tamayo

Director: Lluis Quilez

Here’s a helpful bit of advice: If you have the opportunity to move with your family to a remote village in South America and move into a spooky old house that was once a medical clinic, say no.

If course, if people behaved reasonably there would be very few horror movies made. So that’s exactly what young couple Sarah (Julia Stiles) and Paul (Scott Speedman), along with their adorable young daughter Hannah (Pixie Davies), do in Spanish director LluisQuilez‘s feature debut, Out of the Dark.

Sarah is take a job at her father Jordan’s (Stephen Rea) paper manufacturing company, while Paul, a children’s book illustrator, will work from home. So far, so good, at least until ominous looking, masked children begin making mysterious appearances. Could they have something to do with the Festival of the Saint’s Children, the annual commemoration of events 500 years earlier when the village’s children were burned alive by the conquistadors? Or do they have a more recent provenance?

The by-then-numbers thriller features the usual genre tropes, with a particular emphasis on placing its youngest main character in constant jeopardy. Poor Hannah gets trapped in a dumbwaiter shaft, suffers a horrible skin rash and is eventually spirited away into the jungle by the feral children.

Director Quilez manages to invest some visual stylishness into the proceedings, aided immeasurably by the hauntingly atmospheric Colombian locations. And screenwritersJavier Gullon, David Pastor and Alex Pastor at least had the ambition to throw some social issues into the formulaic mix, with the storyline eventually revolving around corporate malfeasance.

But for most of its running time the film is sluggishly paced and hopelessly dull, with Stiles and Speedman unable to bring much life into their beleaguered characters. The veteran Rea fares better, especially when his patriarchal figure turns out to be rather more complicated than he initially seems, but it’s nonetheless frustrating to see this superb actor in such B-movie level material.

From its generic title to its familiar child in distress storyline to its hackneyed depiction of things going bump in the night, Out of the Dark is thoroughly forgettable. But at least everyone involved got a nice trip out of it.

Production: Apache Entertainment, Dynamo, Participant Media
Cast: Julia Stiles, Scott Speedman, Stephen Rea, Pixie Davies, Vanessa Tamayo
Director: Lluis Quilez
Screenwriters: Javier Gullon, David Pastor, Alex Pastor
Producers: Belen Atienza, Andrew Calderon, Cristian Conti, Enrique Lopez Lavigne
Executive producers: Belen Atienza, Jonathan King, Jeff Skoll, Nick Spicer
Director of photography: Isaac Vila
Production designer: Inigo Navarro
Editor: Bernat Vilaplana
Costume designer: Bina Diagler
Composer: Fernando Velazquez
Casting: Ana Isabel Velazquez

Rated R, 92 min.

lazarus effect ver2 The Lazarus Effect (2015) Movie Review

A group of young scientists makes the mistake of raising the dead in this low-budget horror film.

Flatline.

Opens: Feb. 27 (Relativity Media)

Cast: Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Donald Glover, Evan Peters, Sarah Bolger

Director: David Gelb

You’d think that the young scientists in the new horror film The Lazarus Effect would know better than to attempt to raise the dead. After all, Hollywood has demonstrated time and time again — in countless films including Frankenstein, Pet Sematary and Flatliners — that the results usually don’t turn out very well.

And so it goes again in this latest effort from the prolific Blumhouse Productions, which will clearly be profitable, especially considering its obviously miniscule budget.

In one of the more interesting career segues in recent times, it’s directed by David Gelb, whose sole previous credit is the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. He makes the transition to horror with reasonable effectiveness, although it’s hard for viewers aware of his previous work to not chuckle when some of the characters enjoy a sushi meal early in the proceedings.

Star in Holiday Comedy ‘Let It Snow’

Set almost entirely within the confines of a laboratory in Berkeley, California, it concerns the efforts of a ragtag group of researchers led by the driven Frankenstein, uh, Frank (Mark Duplass) and his more philosophically minded fiancee, Zoe (Olivia Wilde). The team also includes Nike (Donald Glover), who has a not-so-secret crush on Zoe; Clay (Evan Peters), who partakes of a toke now and again while working; and videographer Eva (Sarah Bolger), who’s documenting the experiments.

The group’s study began as an effort to prolong the time window in which a recently deceased person can be revived, but unbeknownst to the university sponsoring them, they’ve expanded its parameters considerably. And their work seems to be paying off, as they succeed in reviving a dead dog with the use of a gloppy white serum and a well-timed jolt of electricity.

Unfortunately, the canine soon begins acting weird, exhibiting aggressive behavior, refusing to eat and climbing on Zoe’s bed to stare ominously at her while she sleeps.

“This thing could go Cujo on you in a hurry!” warns Clay, obviously a Stephen King fan.

Zoe has more thoughtful concerns. “What if we ripped him out of doggie heaven?” she worriedly asks Frank.

When the university gets wind of their activities, they promptly shut the project down, with a pharmaceutical company swooping in to seize all of their results. Its representative is played by Ray Wise (Twin Peaks), whose agent apparently has the ability to snare him a role, however brief, in every horror film made.

Fortunately, or not, they’ve managed to hold onto at least one batch of the serum, so they decide to go rogue and replicate the experiment under cover of night. But a freak accident results in Zoe getting electrocuted, so she becomes the subject instead.

The screenplay by Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater begins promisingly enough with its slow-burn examination of the various moral issues involved. But once Zoe is resuscitated, the proceedings descend into familiar horror-film tropes, with Zoe, who’s haunted by horrific memories of a traumatic childhood incident, suddenly exhibiting the ability to read thoughts and move objects with her mind. Death clearly doesn’t become her, as she’s transformed into a vengeful, Carrie-like figure who begins laying waste to her colleagues in extremely violent, albeit PG-13 rated, fashion.

Becoming progressively less interesting as the body count rises and Zoe’s eyes turn hellishly black, the film squanders whatever potential it had, not to mention the talents of such performers as Duplass and Wilde, who clearly deserve better.

irector Gelb displays a reasonably sure hand in his debut narrative effort, although he relies far too heavily on predictable jump scares and a recurring motif in which the screen goes black for a few seconds before revealing the next scary visual.

“This is too much weird shit,” declares one of the characters, as if anticipating the eventual bad reviews.

Running a swift 83 minutes, The Lazarus Effect would have been perfect as the bottom half of a low-rent, 42nd Street double bill back in the days when such things existed.

Production: Blumhouse Productions, Mosaic Media Group
Cast: Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Donald Glover, Evan Peters, Sarah Bolger
Director: David Gelb
Screenwriters: Luke Dawson, Jeremy Slater
Producers: Jason Blum, Jimmy Miller, Cody Zweig
Executive producers: Matt Kaplan, Jeanette Volturno-Brill, Luke Dawson, Gloria Fan
Director of photography: Michael Fimognari
Production designer: Melanie Paizis-Jones
Editor: Michael N. Knue
Costume designer: Pamela Lee Incardona
Composer: Sarah Schachner
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Venus Kanani

Rated PG-13, 83 min.

everly Everly (2015) Movie Review

Salma Hayek plays a woman fending off an endless series of would-be assassins in Joe Lynch’s ultra-violent action film

Salma Hayek kicks ass, and looks great doing it

Opens: Feb. 27 (RADiUS-TWC)

Cast: Salma Hayek, Hiroyuki Watanabe, Laura Cepeda, Togo Igawa, Akie Kotabe, Gabriella Wright, Caroline Chikezie, Jennifer Blanc

Director: Joe Lynch

Action movies don’t come more basic than Everly, in which a scantily clad Salma Hayekmows down an endless number of would-be assassins with aplomb. Set entirely within the confines of a single apartment and featuring enough baroquely and extremely violent showpieces to make Takashi Miike jealous, Joe Lynch‘s determinedly B-movie exercise is strictly formulaic but should well please genre enthusiasts who will relish watching the sexiest female badass since Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.

The atmosphere is set immediately with the opening sequence featuring Hayek in the buff, with an ornate tattoo covering the entirely of her back. We soon learn that she is a prostitute who’s been held prisoner for years by a vicious yakuza boss (Hiroyuki Watanabe) who has now put out a lucrative contract on her after she dared to rat him out to the authorities.

Cue the relentless violent mayhem, as a wave of killers, including a gaggle of her former hooker colleagues, attempt to finish her off. Fortunately, Everly seems have extensive experience handling heavy weaponry, including machine guns and grenades, and an apparently inexhaustible arsenal with which to fight back.

And fight back she does, clad for a good portion of the film’s running time in only sexy lingerie and high heels before switching to a more practical ensemble of yoga pants, a low-cut tank top, and sneakers. But whatever she’s wearing, the 48-year-old Hayek looks as gorgeously sexy as she did nearly twenty years ago in From Dusk till Dawn.

In a possible nod to the not exactly dissimilar Die Hard, screenwriter Yale Hannon sets the action during the Christmas season, providing the opportunity for such jolly moments as when Everly attempts to clean up the aftermath of bloody carnage to the strains of “Deck the Halls.”

More imaginatively, he’s come up with some fiendishly unique characters, including two of Everly’s most formidable opponents: “The Sadist” (Togo Igawa) and his inevitable cohort “The Masochist” (Masashi Fujimoto). The latter is particularly hard to kill since he thoroughly enjoys receiving every bullet pumped into him, while the former happily suffers through a demise involving ingesting sulfuric acid with literally gut-busting results.

Other highlights include Everly’s fending off an attack by a vicious dog by throwing him a ball to chase that turns out to be a live grenade; a group of killers dressed up kabuki theater-style; and her interactions with an ill-fated, sympathetic henchman (Akie Kotable) aptly dubbed “Dead Man.”

In a half-hearted effort to inject some emotionalism into the otherwise lurid proceedings, it turns out that Everly’s survival instincts are fueled not only by self-preservation, but also her desire to protect her estranged mother (Laura Cepeda) and five-year-old daughter who she hasn’t seen in years, both of whom inexplicably manage to enter the apartment during a lull in the bloody mayhem.

Director Lynch, previously responsible for such efforts as Knights of Badassdom and Wrong Turn 2, stages the action cleanly and kinetically. And Hayek delivers a fully committed performance, handling the role’s intense physical demands with commanding authority. While it’s hard not to wish that she had been afforded a more expansive vehicle to show off her kick-ass moves, she can clearly give such male counterparts as Jason Statham andDwayne Johnson a run for their money.

Production: Crime Scene Pictures, Anonymous Content
Cast: Salma Hayek, Hiroyuki Watanabe, Laura Cepeda, Togo Igawa, Akie Kotabe, Gabriella Wright, Caroline Chikezie, Jennifer Blanc
Director: Joe Lynch
Screenwriter: Yale Hannon
Producers: Rob Paris, Andrew Pfeffer, Adam Ripp, Luke Rivett
Executive producers: Ricky Budhrani, Paul Green, Rizal Risjad
Director of photography: Steve Gainer
Production designer: Ondrej Nekvasil
Editor: Evan Schiff
Costume designer: Momirka Bailovic
Composer: Bear McCreary
Casting: Elaine Grainger

Rated R, 92 min.  

ana maria in novela land Ana Maria in Novela Land (2015) Movie Review

Edy Ganem of “Devious Maids” plays the dual roles of a twentysomething slacker and the glamorous star of her favorite telenovela in this identity switching-themed comedy

Ganem’s virtuoso turn enlivens otherwise familiar comic proceedings

Opens: Feb. 27 (Fluency)

Cast: Edy Ganem, Michael Steger, Luis Guzman, Elizabeth Pena, Tamara Taylor, Mercedes Mason, Nestor Serrano, Juan Pablo Gamboa

Director: Georgina Garcia Riedel

A familiar switching identities plot is given a Latino spin in Ana Maria in Novela Land, starring Edy Ganem (Devious Maids) in the dual roles of a telenovela-obsessed, twentysomething slacker and the glamorous star of her favorite show. While this effort directed and co-scripted by Georgina Garcia Riedel lacks true comic inspiration, it provides some genial laughs along the way. Although most likely to attract its target audience, it may achieve some crossover success thanks to the popularity of such recent and current television shows as Ugly Betty and Jane the Virgin.

Ana Maria has neglected both her professional and personal lives to concentrate on watching and live tweeting about the soapy Pasion sin Limites, much to the consternation of her worried parents, especially her mother (the late Elizabeth Pena, to whom the film is dedicated, in her final screen role).

One night while watching the show at home Ana Maria is transported, thanks to an errant lighting strike—as usual, logic is in short supply in these scenarios—to the show’s glamorous environs and becomes the sexy spitfire Ariana. Believing herself to be dreaming, she happily embraces her new surroundings and is eagerly receptive to the romantic advances of the hunky Armando (Michael Steger), the son of Ariana’s wealthy, older fiancé Eduardo (Juan Pablo Gamboa).

Ariana, meanwhile, is aghast to discover that she’s now in a drab suburban home, surrounded by people who she presumes to be her kidnappers.

Ganem, with the aid of expert hair and make-up designs, delivers a virtuoso comic turn in her two roles, humorously conveying both characters’ culture shock as each tries to adjust to her new surroundings. Ana Maria, for instance, is nonplussed to discover that the bathroom in her television setting doesn’t contain a toilet, while Ariana marvels at the bowl of flowing water she’s apparently seeing for the first time.

Ariana is also startled to discover that she now has a sister, Ana Gloria (Mercedes Mason), who’s preparing for her upcoming wedding. Ariana sincerely informs her that she has no intention of sleeping with her new husband.

Further plot complications involve the characters in the telenovela turning into zombies—don’t ask—and the evil machinations of the family’s scheming lawyer (Luis Guzman).

Despite its relatively brief running time, the film runs out of comic steam long the convoluted proceedings reach their conclusion, with the spoofery having the feel of an overextended variety show skit. But it’s mostly enjoyable nonetheless, thanks largely to the charms of its young star who is clearly destined for bigger things.

Production: Synthetic Cinema International, Steakhaus Productions
Cast: Edy Ganem, Michael Steger, Luis Guzman, Elizabeth Pena, Tamara Taylor, Mercedes Mason, Nestor Serrano, Juan Pablo Gamboa
Director: Georgina Garcia Riedel
Screenwriters: Georgina Garcia Riedel, Jose Nestor Marquez
Producers: Andrew Gernhard, Shane O’Brien, Zach O’Brien
Executive producers: Jose Nestor Marquez, Valerie Stadler
Director of photography: Tobias Datum
Production designer: Laurel Frank
Editor: Phillip J. Bartel
Costume designer: Lauren Oppelt
Composer: Mandy Hoffman
Casting: Valerie McCaffrey

No rating, 93 min.   

tracers Tracers (2014) Movie Review

Taylor Lautner stars in this parkour-themed action thriller

The “Twilight” star displays some impressive moves in this otherwise routine actioner

Opens: Mar. 20 (Lionsgate)

Cast: Taylor Lautner, Marie Avgeropoulos, Adam Rayner, Rafi Gavron

Director: Daniel Benmayor

First introduced to movie audiences in the hit 2004 French film District B13 and later showcased in such efforts as its 2009 sequel and the American remake Brick Mansions starring the late Paul Walker, the athletic form of motion known as parkour seems to have passed its sell-by date. But the propulsive discipline is once again employed, this time as a showcase for Twilight star Taylor Lautner, in Daniel Benmayor‘s action thriller opening theatrically next month after receiving its premiere exclusively on Direct TV. But while the hunky actor displays impressive physicality while clearly often doing his own stunt work in this fast-paced effort, Tracers is unlikely to scare up much more box-office than his previous solo starring effort, 2011’s poorly received Abduction.

The actor plays Cam, a NYC bike messenger scraping by to make ends meet, living in a garage and deeply in debt to a Chinese gang who clearly mean business if they don’t get their money soon. Cam’s luck gets even worse when his bike is totaled when he runs into the sexy Nikki (Marie Avgeropoulos), so he’s understandably intrigued when she gifts him with a new one shortly thereafter.

It turns out that Nikki is connected with a group of parkour enthusiasts to whom Cam is drawn by their impressive athleticism. He starts hanging out with them after practicing his own moves wherever he can, and is eventually welcomed by the group’s leader Miller (Adam Rayner), also Nikki’s boyfriend. He informs the eager new acolyte that parkour is “just a state of mind.”

Cam faces a moral dilemma when he discovers that the group uses their formidable skills to pull off daring heists. Motivated by both his attraction to Nikki and his desperate financial situation, he soon joins in on the nefarious action.

The Point Break-style plotline is merely an excuse for an endless series of scenes showing off the parkour practitioners in action. Fortunately, the sequences are excitingly staged by director Benmayor and cleanly photographed by D.P. Nelson Cragg, Largely avoiding the frenetic editing endemic to so many current action movies, the film showcases its athletic performers in excellent fashion. Even more impressively, Lautner is obviously doing many of the strenuous moves himself, demonstrating an admirable commitment to the extensive training that was obviously required. Another thing in the film’s favor is its extensive use of NYC locations, with the city for once playing itself instead of being impersonated by Toronto.

Otherwise the proceedings are thoroughly routine, with Matt Johnson‘s screenplay (the thin story took no less than three people to concoct) featuring such predictable elements as a brewing romance between the two leads and a not so surprising plot twist involving one of the main characters. Add to that the underwhelming performances by all involved—Lautner, as usual, is far more compelling in action than speaking—and Tracers seems destined to disappear from theaters quickly without leaving much of a trace.

Production: Saban Films, Cowtown Cinema Ventures, Temple Hill
Cast: Taylor Lautner, Marie Avgeropoulos, Adam Rayner, Rafi Gavron
Director: Daniel Benmayor
Screenwriter: Matt Johnson
Producers: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, D. Scott Lumpkin
Executive producers: Robert Cotham, Douglas K. Bratton, Jon Brumley
Director of photography: Nelson Cragg
Production designer: Dan Leigh
Editor: Peter Amundson
Costume designer: Jenny Gering
Composer: Lucas Vidal
Casting: Richard Mento

Rated PG-13, 93 min.

 

focus ver5 Focus (2015) Movie Review

Will Smith and Margot Robbie team up in a globetrotting heist flick from the writer-director team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

The con is on the audience

Opens: February 27 (Warner Bros.)

Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro

Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

A romantic caper stocked with con artists, good looks but little sizzle, Focus is no Trouble in Paradise, House of Games or The Grifters. This ultra-slick, fantasy-inducing visit to an international wonder world of wealth and deception plays more like an inventory of thieving and gambling techniques than a captivating diversion, even if it’s hard not to be voyeuristically pulled in by some of its ruses. Will Smith and the film’s sexy vibe will likely spur moderately good initial box office, although the vague, undescriptive title won’t help.

A prominent, specially invented screen credit goes to oneApollo Robbins for “con artist adviser/pickpocket design.” And well deserved it is, as the almost continuous display of Mr. Robbins’s tricks of the trade serves as the virtual raison d’etre of this how-to manual of criminal deception (the press notes state that Robbins first gained notoriety by pick-pocketing the Secret Service while entertaining President Jimmy Carter and has picked the pockets of more than 250,000 people). Nifty montages demonstrate the clever use of diversion techniques and the importance of distraction in making anyone susceptible to having their load lightened as bit.

All this comes by way of a tutorial proffered by Nicky (Smith) to novice Jess (Margot Robbie) after they meet on the job, so to speak, in a swank Manhattan restaurant. Shortly thereafter in New Orleans, Jess proves herself an adept student, impressing Nicky with her slick skills in depriving French Quarter celebrants of their booze money. For his part, the old pro heads up a large team of highly trained operatives that manages to separate revelers from more than a million bucks over a long weekend. And there are the after-hours fringe benefits for the on-the-roll old pro and quick learner.

Nicky’s dominant character trait is that he firmly believes he can get away with anything, and it’s this unassailable confidence that feeds the high point of the third feature from the writer-director team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (I Love You Phillip Morris;Crazy, Stupid, Love). Flush with cash he’s not supposed to bet and with the beauteous Jess by his side in a luxury suite at the Superdome, Nicky begins some friendly wagering with big-bucks Chinese businessman Liyuan (BD Wong, a hoot), who doesn’t object when Nicky, on a clear losing streak, keeps doubling the bets until they stretch into the millions. An aghast Jess goes ’round the bend with anxiety over her lover’s recklessness, but this is nothing compared to her distress in the aftermath of the high-stakes showdown.

At the tale’s mid-way point, the action shifts to three years later in Buenos Aires, where Nicky alights in the world of Formula 1 auto racing to scheme with arrogant team owning rich boy Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) in pulling a scam on the rival McEwen outfit; Nicky will pose as a disgruntled Garriga employee willing to sell a secret fuel additive to the competition. Big surprise, though: pretty boy Garriga’s girlfriend is Jess, who insists to Nicky that she’s now “out of the game” but then signals that she’d like to run off with him.

Suspecting he’s being played, Garriga sends his tough old enforcer Owens (Gerald McRaney) to snoop on the American in what inevitably becomes a contest among experts at playing the long game, of who—Nicky, Jess, Owens, Garriga or perhaps a dark horse out there—will be in a position to play the final card once everyone else’s hand is empty.

Unfortunately, since the major characters’ salient character traits are insincerity, opaqueness and untruthfulness, it’s hard to invest much interest in any of them. The film is all but a feature-length commercial for high living in nothing but the most luxurious hotels, the best restaurants and the most expensive clothes, and yet it’s not exactly a goof or cartoon of glamorous characters committing crimes against those who can live with it, a la the Oceans films, nor a sophisticated battle of equals, as in Lubitsch’s immortal Trouble in Paradise.

Rather, Focus occupies an uncertain middle ground between a lark and a caper with serious underpinnings. The writers trot out sordid backstory about Nicky’s father and grandfather that’s supposed to explain his go-his-own-way behavior, but the baggage seems to oppress Smith as well, to keep him from being as funny and fun to be around as before; here, the actor feels older, less spirited. This also diminishes any desire one might have for Jess to end up with Nicky, no matter what the script may intend. Nicky might be the zen master of con artists and believably becomes an awe-inspiring combination teacher/lover for Jess. But a good prospect for long term mate? One would bet against it.

Robbie builds on the strong impression she made in The Wolf of Wall Street a year ago with a vigorous and, it must be said, highly watchable turn as a promising student made good.Adrian Martinez inspires much mirth as Nicky’s outsized and good-humored cohort in crime. Also notable is McRaney as a bird of prey ready to pounce on Nicky at any moment; McRaney (financier Raymond Tusk in House of Cards) seems poised to take on any rolesRobert Duvall might have played were he in his sixties.

Focus is nothing if not sleek and luxurious; it’s a fantasy portrait of the upside of a sort of criminality that’s portrayed as relatively benign, that is, without victims of physical harm. The Buenos Aires locations of the second half provide backdrops that are welcome in their relative unfamiliarity in Hollywood films.

Production: Di Novi Pictures, Zaftig Films
Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney, Adrian Martinez, Robert Taylor, BD Wong, Brennan Brown, Dominic Fumusa
Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Screenwriters: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Producer: Denise Di Novi
Executive producers: Charlie Gogolak, Stan Wlodkowski, Steven Mnuchin
Director of photography: Xavier Grobet
Production designer: Elizabeth Mickle
Costume designer: Dayna Pink
Editor: Jan Kovac
Music: Nick Urata
Casting: Bernard Telsey, Tiffany Little Canfield

R rating, 105 minutes

ejecta Ejecta (2014) Movie Review

Close encounters of the third kind prove less than benign in this low-budget sci-fi horror film

Visually muddy and often incoherent in its storytelling, this genre effort nonetheless boasts some imaginative touches

Opens: Feb. 27 (IFC Midnight)

Cast: Julian Richings, Lisa Houle, Adam Seybold

Directors: Matt Wiele, Chad Archibald

Clearly intended solely for sci-fi/horror genre enthusiasts, the latest effort from the screenwriter of such twistedly original efforts as Pontypool and Septic Man determinedly demonstrates the malicious effects of close encounters of the third kind. Featuring a standout performance by Julian Richings as the unfortunate victim of such an occurrence who also finds himself menaced by government forces, Ejecta is ultimately too disjointed and incoherent to have the desired impact. But it certainly features some arresting moments during its wild ride.

The central character is the elderly Bill Cassidy, who recounts his experiences online under the handle “Spider Nevi.” Still suffering from an encounter with an extraterrestrial who literally messed with his head nearly four decades earlier, he’s attracted the attention of alien chasing documentary filmmaker Joe Sullivan (Adam Seybold), who visits him at his secluded farm on the eve of a solar event that has potentially catastrophic consequences.

The timing of their meeting proves fateful, as a UFO happens to land nearby at the same time, with the duo finding themselves being chased by mysterious creatures going bump in the night. The action is fleetingly captured by Sullivan’s video camera, injecting a found-footage style into the proceedings.

An interwoven storyline depicts the hapless Cassidy being captured by government forces and brutally interrogated by the no-nonsense Dr. Tobin (Lisa Houle, Pontypool), who’ll stop at nothing to get the information she needs.

Featuring but three main characters and clearly shot on a shoestring budget, the film co-directed by Matt Wiele and Chad Archibald manages to infuse some imaginative elements into its familiar genre tropes. But the non-linear storytelling is often hard to decipher, the visual style is muddy at best, and the denouement is underwhelming.

That it works to the extent that it does is due to Richings’ fearsomely committed performance in the central role. Looking desperately frail, the British actor who’s become a mainstay in Canadian cinema and theater is hauntingly compelling as a man physically and emotionally ravaged by past and present horrors.

Production: Foresight Features
Cast: Julian Richings, Lisa Houle, Adam Seybold
Directors/editors: Matt Wiele, Chad Archibald
Screenwriter: Tony Burgess
Producers: Chad Archibald, Cody Calahan, Jesse Thomas Cook, John Geddes, Matt Wiele
Executive producers: Jesse Thomas Cook, Matt Wiele, John Geddes
Directors of photography: Cody Calahan, Devin Lund
Production designer: Jason Brown
Costume designer: Melissa Shouldice
Composer: Stephanie Copeland

No rating, 87 min.

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