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Its eclecticism ultimately becomes its downfall
The second collaborative effort for writers Neill Blomkamp (who also directed the film) and his wife, Terri Tatchell, "Chappie" draws heavily for its inspiration from such previous works as "E.T" and "Short Circuit," though it is far less playful and hopeful than either of those two films (though it also channels "RoboCop," which is a little closer in tone).
The setting is South Africa in the not-too-distant future where crime has reached epidemic proportions. The cops are currently being assisted by a fleet of mindless robots and androids in an effort to maintain law and order in the country. Deon (Dev Patel) is an inventor working for a major weapons-developer who's come up with what he thinks is the prototype of a droid with an actual consciousness, one that, for the first time in human and scientific history, can be classified as genuine "artificial intelligence." The trouble is that, before Deon can inculcate him with a strong moral code and, thus, make a model citizen of him, Chappie (voiced by Sharito Cooley) is kidnapped by a trio of street thugs who want to train him to fight against the droids the government is using against them. Soon, a struggle develops between Deon and the bad guys over what kind of moral being Chappie will turn out to be.
"Chappie" is filled with moments of dark humor, but those in search of a sophisticated, timely comedy should be forewarned that the humor in the film consists almost entirely of the naive, innocent Chappie talking and dressing like a streetwise "gangsta'."
Because it's pulling from so many disparate sources, the screenplay never establishes anything close to a consistent tone. Part kid-oriented fantasy, part urban jungle melodrama, part technology-run-amok cautionary tale, and part moral fable about what it means to be human, the film is too childish for adults and too dark and violent for children to leave it with much of an audience.
But if you feel you can somehow bridge that gap between conventions and styles, then "Chappie" just might be the movie for you.
Jurassic World (2015)
Basically a technically accomplished rehash of the original film
The characters in "Jurassic World" - which should be titled "Will Humans Never Learn?" - keep telling one another that the paying public needs ever more elaborate sensations to keep them coming back for more. Yet, it's hard at times to tell whether they're talking about the audiences at the park or the audiences for the movie.
This little bit of self-reflective self-awareness on the part of the filmmakers is one of the few interesting things about this fourth entry in a tetralogy that began with the groundbreaking "Jurassic Park" in 1993. The problem is that it's hard to break ground more than once in the same soil, and "Jurassic World" finds no real way to bring anything new to the project.
The movie just keeps playing different variations on the same theme. Thus, instead of "mere" (and, now, apparently passé) full-sized dinosaurs being regenerated out of ancient samples of preserved DNA, we've graduated to "super dinosaurs" being genetically-engineered out of a mixture of all sorts of dino types. All this gene- and species-tampering is taking place at a decade-old amusement park, an improvement, we are told, over the ill-fated one that never quite got off the ground in the 1990s. But humans are humans and playing God, especially for sensation and profit, never ends very well in these sorts of scenarios, so we're primed to buckle our seats and hang on for the ride. We aren't disappointed.
Once we get past that one slight deviation, the plot of "Jurassic World" pretty much replicates the 1993 original, right down to the "unlikely" (though, actually, quite predictable) system malfunction and two lost and imperiled kids having to be saved from becoming Dino-food by an intrepid adult at the park (Chris Pratt plays the role of trainer and dinosaur- whisperer here). In fact, virtually every scene in "Jurassic World" has a corresponding counterpart in "Jurassic Park," only what was once innovative and fresh has now become derivative and stale (apparently, none of the characters here ever seen the original "Jurassic Park" or they wouldn't keep making the exact same mistakes as the previous group).
Pratt has an easygoing, good-ole-boy charm that serves him well in his role as makeshift hero, but Bryce Dallas Howard is given the thankless task of playing a rather insultingly sexist caricature as the manager of the park who's in way over her head when it comes to running the joint, not to mention coping with a crisis of this magnitude (think Kate Capshaw in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom") and is, thus, in constant need of rescuing by the stalwart Pratt.
Under the directorial aegis of Colin Trevorrow, the action scenes and special effects are predictably eye-popping and state-of-the-art - helping to generate the "wow factor" one minimally expects from this series - but the overall air of deja vu that permeates the film keeps this latest dino-blockbuster from being much more than an afterthought in the Jurassic universe.
Terminator Genisys (2015)
Doesn't just settle for a rehash
At the beginning of "Terminator Genisys," you might be forgiven for, momentarily at least, thinking that you've somehow stumbled into a remake of the original 1980s sci-fi classic rather than a sequel to it, mainly because the set-ups to both films are virtually identical to one another.
As with the original, we have a character (Jai Courtney) from the 21st Century traveling back to the year 1984 in order to try and alter the outcome in the future. Only here, the mission is to SAVE Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) - mother of future freedom fighter John Connor (Jason Clarke) - NOT to destroy her. Further complicating matters - as much for the audience as for the characters - is that, once Courtney arrives at his destination in 1984, he finds that the mission itself has greatly changed due to the fact that he has somehow entered into some kind of alternate timeline where Sarah is no longer a helpless victim but a kick-ass fighter who's been raised by a friendly Terminator guardian played by an Arnold Schwarzenegger who gets a second chance at youth courtesy of the magic of CGI (at least for part of the film). Then it's off to 2017, when the alternate-reality rise of the machines and the destruction of mankind is now set to take place (in the original tale, this epochal event occurred in 1997).
If all this sounds super confusing, don't let it get you too frustrated, for that's pretty much par for the course when it comes to these head- scratching, time-bending scenarios - though I do think the screenplay may have bitten off a bit more than it can chew here, piling up irony upon irony to the point where even die-hard "Terminator" fans may begin to feel a mite affronted and manipulated by it all (and non-fans may just throw up their hands in confusion and give up on the whole thing entirely).
All that being said, "Terminator Genisys" turns out to be a considerably better action film than the majority of critics have given it credit for. The storyline, though confusing at times, is, at least, clever and imaginative; the adventure is fast-paced and the special effects reliably state-of-the-art.
But the real reason for watching "Terminator Genisys" is that it affords us the opportunity of once again watching Arnold engaging in the kind of deadpan comic shtick he perfected in this series before he ran off to serve as governor of California for a couple of terms. It's nice to have him - and his poker-faced quips - back where they belong.
San Andreas (2015)
Eye-popping spectacle, silly drama
In "San Andreas," the world's most famous fault ruptures in so spectacular (and unlikely) a fashion that virtually the entire state of California is reduced to one heaping pile of ashes and rubble. And as dams burst and skyscrapers crumble, we're treated to a series of rescue stories involving characters that, quite frankly, we couldn't care less about.
But then, again, no one really goes to a movie like "San Andreas" for thoughtful drama or incisive characterization. It's all about the destruction and carnage, and, in that respect, at least, it delivers the goods - with hyperkinetic action scenes and impressive special effects to compensate for some of the corny dialogue, tedious plot lines and scientific illiteracy that pockmark the picture. And don't think there isn't at least a little time carved out for a burgeoning romance and a few stolen kisses amidst all the death and devastation.
Surrounded by thousands of fleeing, panic-stricken extras, the main actors, led by superhero Dwayne Johnson, include Carla Gugino, Paul Giamatti, Archie Panjabi, Ioan Gruffudd, Kylie Minogue, etc., all playing characters straight out of Stereotypes "R" US (there's even an old couple to share one last embrace before they perish together in an epic tidal wave that all but decimates San Francisco).
My favorite moment comes when a seemingly well-versed, well- travelled character describes San Francisco's landmark Coit Tower as "that tall cement nozzle thing on the hill." A few more choice lines like that one, and "San Andreas" might have been a whole lot more fun.
Inside Out (2015)
Imaginative and insightful
I may be going out on a limb here, but it's probably safe to say that "Inside Out" is the first mainstream animated feature film to be entirely centered around a seriously depressed child.
The reason Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is so depressed is that the personified emotions - Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) - that are responsible for keeping her psyche running smoothly have been seriously flubbing up of late. So much so that Riley runs the risk of experiencing a full mental breakdown if the emotional team can't retrieve all the core happy memories from Riley's childhood that are rapidly slipping away.
Imaginatively conceived by Pete Docter, Meg Lefauve, Josh Cooley and director Ronnie del Carmen, "Inside Out" takes place in two entirely distinct realms: first, in the "real" world, where a young girl has been dragged by her well-meaning but oblivious parents (Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Lane) from Minnesota to their new home in San Francisco; and, second, in the complex inner workings of said child's brain - a place filled with personality islands and memory balls all operated by the aforementioned Emotions from a giant console.
Rare for a movie aimed primarily at children, "Inside Out" is psychologically astute in its observations about human nature while remaining fanciful and childlike in tone and attitude. It explores the things that really matter to a youngster who's suddenly been yanked from a world where everything is comfortable and familiar to one where everything is unsettling and strange. The movie also points out how even the most well-intentioned of adults often fail to take into account children's very real feelings at crucial moments in their lives.
On a technical level, "Inside Out" comes replete with all the visually stunning graphics, fast-paced storytelling, and outstanding voice work that we've long associated with any computer-animated feature produced by Pixar Studios. But it's the less tangible elements of heart and imagination that truly count in this work.
Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)
"Pitch Perfect 2" is an extraordinarily lame female-empowerment comedy that suffers greatly in comparison to the genuinely hilarious "Spy" that was released at roughly the same time as this wholly unnecessary sequel to the 2012 original.
The screenplay by Kay Cannon features one thudding line and one misguided concept after another as the girls gear up to compete in an international contest of a cappella singers.
Directed by Elizabeth Banks, this embarrassing misfire wastes the acting talents of Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin, Katey Sagal and Anna Camp (and that's just the women in the cast).
To all those responsible for this unfunny fiasco, hang your heads in shame.
Wobbly plotting diminishes some of the movie's undeniable virtues
Fans of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin will undoubtedly find much to celebrate in "Max," an old-fashioned a-boy-and-his-dog story updated to reflect our post-9/11 age.
The boy in this instance is Justin (Josh Wiggins), a disgruntled teen whose older brother, Kyle (Robbie Amell), a Marine who trains dogs to sniff out weapon caches on the field of battle, is killed in Afghanistan. After Kyle's dog, Max, develops a sort of canine version of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the dead man's family dutifully rescues him, assigning Justin the unenviable task of rehabilitating him back to the point where he can interact with humans again without instinctively wanting to rip their throats out. This Justin does with the help of his new friend, Carmen (the charming Mia Xitlali), who knows a thing or two about training challenging dogs.
In addition to his canine-raising duties, Justin has to contend with his tough-as-nails military dad (Thomas Haden Church) and his own innate laziness and cynicism. But with the help of Max, a devoted and kindly mother (Lauren Graham), and the love of a new girlfriend, Justin eventually grows into his manhood, demonstrating that rehabilitation is often a two-way street.
There are any number of touching moments in the screenplay by Sheldon Lettich and co-writer/director Boaz Yakin, which, happily, manages to keep the unavoidable suds down to a minimum. However, even the fine performances (especially by Wiggins) can't overcome an utterly preposterous subplot involving Justin's entanglement with a local gun-running cartel, a storyline that not only comes to dominate the second half of the movie but may make the movie itself somewhat less than appropriate for the youngest members of its intended audience.
Ah well, at least the canine stunt work - kudos to both Max and his trainer on that score - is super impressive throughout.
Admirable attempt falls flat
Cameron Crowe's "Aloha" is at its most interesting when it's focusing on Hawaiian folklore and legends and the perpetual conflict between the natives and an American government that is viewed as little more than an interloper by the islanders. Unfortunately, in the screenplay by Crowe, this intriguing aspect is largely relegated to the background while a comparatively banal love triangle takes center stage.
The male point of that triangle is a cynical, morally compromised military contractor played by Bradley Cooper whose return to Hawaii complicates the lives of his ex-girlfriend (Rachel McAdams) and the female Air Force captain (Emma Stone) assigned to be his liaison between the military and the natives on the islands.
While Cooper is trendily worldweary and vulnerable, Stone is upbeat, cutesy and perky to the point of distraction.
Despite an amiable cast that includes Bill Murray, John Krasinski, Danny McBride and Alec Baldwin in supporting roles, there are not a whole lot of buy-in points for the viewer, thanks to insufficiently developed characters and a lack of focus in the storytelling.
Even a nicely executed final scene isn't enough to redeem most of what's come before.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Action done right
"Avengers: Age of Ultron" raises the age-old question of just how much freedom we should be willing to sacrifice in order to ensure a lasting peace. And, as a corollary, how much power should humans be willing to cede to technology, particularly in the form of artificial intelligence, to achieve that goal? It's a theme that more than a few works of science fiction have dealt with over the years.
In this sequel to the box office smash of 2012, Ray Stark, aka Iron Man, has invented a program called Ultron whose purpose is to eliminate the need for war and global conflict altogether. To no one's surprise but Stark's, when the program is prematurely activated, it turns out to have less than noble intentions as it sets about creating a race of cyborg warriors to completely eradicate humans from the face of the planet and to repopulate it with others like himself.
Only the Avengers (embodied by Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Don Cheadle, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Remmer, et. al.) can save the day. And save it they do, amidst supercharged action sequences and jaw-dropping special effects.
Stark certainly means well as he sets about essentially eliminating the need for the Avengers at all, but we in the audience know this is a fool's errand from the start for, if successful, there would be no more entries in this highly lucrative franchise. And we certainly couldn't have that, now, could we?
Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)
High-class soap opera
It's been several decades since I last read Thomas Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd" and even longer since I watched the 1967 movie version thereof, so it's virtually impossible for me to evaluate just how faithful this latest edition is to either the original source material or that earlier adaptation (which starred Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terrance Stamp in key roles). It should, however, be noted that this version runs about an hour less than the one from the '60s. Take that for what it's worth.
The story revolves around Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a strong-willed 19th Century woman who inherits her uncle's farm on the moors of England, and her complex relationships with three potential suitors: the rugged shepherd, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts); the wealthy, middle aged bachelor, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen); and the dashing but callow army officer, Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge). All are in love with her to one degree or another and all present various challenges to her future success and happiness.
As adapted by David Nicholls, a lot of this "Crowd" plays like standard soap opera fare, as Bathsheba flits from one potential beau to another while still trying to maintain at least some semblance of independence in a world that is not exactly supportive of the concept of an independent woman. At times, despite the excellent performances, the character motivations seem strangely lacking, the possible result of trying to cram too much plot into so short a timespan. The result is a story that often feels rushed and disjointed, lacking the smooth transitions one traditionally finds in long-form narratives.
Nevertheless, under Thomas Vinterberg's direction, the bucolic setting, the roiling human passions and the exploration of Victorian Era strictures and morality keep us involved and interested for the duration.