Tomorrowland (2015)

tomorrowland06Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Brad Bird. Screenplay by Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird. Story by Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird and Jeff Jensen. Produced by Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof, Jeffrey Chernov. Music by Michael Giacchino. Photographed by Claudio Miranda. Edited by Walter Murch & Craig Wood. Production designed by Scott Chambliss. Costumes designed by Jeffrey Kurland. Starring George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key.

Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland is a requiem for our retro-future, a passionate attempt to reconstruct the spirit of golden-age science fiction, and a heavy-handed stab at moralizing. In the 1950s and 60’s, pulp magazines overflowed with spectacular visions, ones that brimmed with gosh-golly optimism. They predicted that by the twenty-first century we’d be commuting to the moon daily, spending our leisure time flying with jetpacks, and living within glistening metropolises.  Well, that didn’t happen, naturally, and Tomorrowland offers a reason why, as well as a firm plea for more positive thinking. It believes, and it wants you to. But no amount of believing, unfortunately, can repair Tomorrowland, which asks us to invest all our capital on wonder, then fails to pay up.

After a nattering and jokey prologue, we open on the 1964’s World Fair, where a kid named Frank enters an engineering competition and soon finds himself admitted to a wondrous place known as Tomorrowland, a bustling conclave where builders and dreamers can work, limited by nothing but their imagination. Cut to the down-and-out present, where a young girl named Casey (Britt Robertson) spends her time sabotaging attempts to demolish NASA sites. The world has lost its ability to dream, but Casey hasn’t. One day she’s given a mysterious pin that puts her in temporary touch with Tomorrowland, and she goes on the road to find a way to go there for real. Eventually she encounters an older Frank (bitter George Clooney), and a girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who has a big secret. Soon they’re all being chased by a grinning gang of evil androids.

I have protected plot secrets, what little there are of them. What I will say, however, is that the movie never makes clear why much of this is happening. Bird shares screenwriting credit here with Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus), who must truly believe that the longer you delay a reveal, the more weight it will inherently have. Tomorrowland’s first two acts are nothing but teases and portents and goalpost moving, where numerous opportunities to have characters explain to each other what is going on are bafflingly skipped (at one point a robot actually shuts down rather than listen to Casey holler questions at it). This isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker; building anticipation can be fun, especially as Michael Giacchino’s bubbly score soars, and we find things like spaceships under the Eiffel Tower, as if we’re in a nuttier version of a National Treasure movie.

But Tomorrowland’s third act, which is when all the cards should be turned up, is a big mess. Not only will you be mystified at major plot points that go confusingly unexplained, and not only will you be underwhelmed by the ultimate Tomorrowland we arrive at after two hours of drumrolls, but you’ll be surprised at the thematic incoherency. Did a movie about the virtues of unlimited invention really just pull out the “man should not have created this” and “evil robot fight” tropes? After two hours of hearing about how special Casey is, does it really come down to just that she’s very good at being positive? Did a movie about the power of optimism just end with a climax where stuff gets blown up real good? And could villain Hugh Laurie’s sledgehammer-subtle rant about man’s obsession with entertaining apocalypses have come at a worse time? (As far as ambition and achievement go, last weekend’s Mad Max: Fury Road blows Tomorrowland out of the multiplex.)

Bird, following up successes in animation (Incredibles, Iron Giant) and live action (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), tries gamely to make this work. Although it’s based on a Disney theme park attraction, the movie’s ideas are clearly fueling a labor of love. But Bird’s direction of actors is iffy (it doesn’t help that they’re complete ciphers), his comedic touch is leaden, his CGI effects always look cartoonish, and his command of story has sadly forsaken him. Tomorrowland’s ambition feels like an attempt to hybridize the can-do spirit of Walt Disney and the suburban wonder of Steven Spielberg, but those things are harder to copy than it looks. The message is admirable; we need a dash of more hope in our entertainment. And we can start by hoping the next time somebody makes a sincere movie like Tomorrowland, they enlist a story that is more than just an empty bag of tricks.

Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)

PitchPerfect202Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Elizabeth Banks. Screenplay by Kay Cannon, based on the book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Capella Glory by Mickey Rapkin. Produced by Elizabeth Banks, Paul Brooks, Kay Cannon, Max Handelman, Jeff Levine. Music score by Mark Mothersbaugh. Photographed by Jim Denault. Edited by Craig Alpert. Production designed by Toby Corbett. Costumes designed by Salvador Pérez Jr. Starring Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin, Adam DeVine, Katey Sagal, Anna Camp, Ben Platt, Alexis Knapp, Hana Mae Lee, Ester Dean, Chrissie Fit, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Flula Borg, Kelley Jakle, Shelley Regner, John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks.

2012’s Pitch Perfect, a musical about collegiate a Capella groups, was a hit partially because it came as a complete surprise. An original female-driven property is a depressingly hard sell in Hollywood circles, but audiences—despite what marketing executives think—are always hungry for something fresh and snappy. It was a modest success in theaters and found a fervent following on DVD, perhaps because at home fans could linger on the sassy dialogue and buoyant performances while fast-forwarding through the ill-advised, Bridesmaids-inspired moments of gross-out comedy. A sequel was inevitable, and so now here is Pitch Perfect 2, a movie that, like many sequels, tries very hard to resynthesize the formula of the first movie, with some mixed results.

In a lot of ways, Pitch Perfect 2 is more of a product than a movie: a collection of lines and moments and soundtrack cues in search of a plot. The original was built upon a sturdy underdog structure, with a hero team so disrespected than even other a Capella groups mocked them. Here, returning writer Kay Cannon has no choice but to go through contrived motions to make them all underdogs again. Humiliated during an embarrassing set (in front of President Obama no less), the Barden Bellas, looking more than ever like a campus organization that are maybe due for a tiny budget reduction, are stripped of their title and their on-campus standing is seriously threatened. Only through a loophole do they find a possible solution: competing in the world a Capella championships and defeating the reigning favorite, a utilitarian and ostensibly soulless German team called Das Sound Machine, who are intimidating bullies both onstage and off. “I’m feeling a lot of sexual confusion,” admits the flustered Becca (Anna Kendrick) during an icy confrontation with the perfectly-toned queen of the German group (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), although it’s another German (Flula Borg) who gets some of the script’s best putdowns.

In theory, this is a decent competitive hook to hang your sequel on, and one sequence, involving an intense riff-off inside a mansion, has a wonderfully maniacal energy (there’s no way I’ll tell you who else is in that mansion, by the way). And Pitch 2 trims out some of Pitch 1‘s less-successful contributions: there’s no vomit gags, for one, and the runner of everyone using “aca” as a prefix to every word is only briefly and perfunctorily kept alive. But Pitch Perfect 2 still has a lot of characters to half-heartedly service and a lot of running gags to refresh, and it feels like those concerns drive everything. Kendrick’s Becca is kept pointedly divorced from some of the action this time, stuck in an existential crisis by her internship under a venal music producer (Keegan-Michael Key, very funny). Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), who shared breakout star status with Kendrick last time, is trapped in her own subplot with the callow Bumper (Adam DeVine) – their headlong romance is funny as a concept, but not really in execution (I’m not a huge Wilson fan, but the weak link is most certainly the loutish and unpleasant DeVine). The script casts around for subplots and doesn’t provide a sense of real momentum. Even an appearance by valuable series alumnus Anna Camp doesn’t bring up the energy like it should.

The other Bellas are a mixed bag. Super-positive Chloe (Brittany Snow) is just pathetic this time around, two of the girls are so nondescript that even Becca can’t tell them apart, and Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean) is simply a source of lazy lesbian jokes. While the mad ravings of soft-spoken Lily (Hana Mae Lee) are still amusing, there’s the problematic Flo (Chrissie Fit), a Guatemalan refugee whose every line of dialogue is simply mean-spirited stereotype humor. There’s also a new freshman Bella, Emily (Hailee Steinfeld),whose chief character trait is that she is exceptionally dull. Steinfeld is a fine young actress, but she’s given no character to play here, which makes the film’s unsubtle attempts to groom her as franchise lead (the established actors have already aged out) pretty bewildering. It makes sense to start rotating in new blood if this series is going to go for the long haul, but Emily doesn’t even seem to fit the sardonic universe of Pitch Perfect–she seems like a freshly-scrubbed teen on loan from the Disney Channel.

PP2 was helmed by Elizabeth Banks, making a welcome feature directorial debut (Banks also reprises her role as one of a pair of very funny color commentators, along with John Michael Higgins). She has a future ahead of her as a director, but the film’s busy camerawork and over-editing occasionally obscure the choreography and sap some of the energy; even the climactic number is iffy when it should be triumphant. It’s hard to blame her for the movie’s flaws, though: despite some funny moments and truly terrific song-and-dance numbers, Pitch Perfect 2 is a calculated encore that feels a little too much like a shrug. It never comes up with a fully-realized reason to exist, but all the same I’m happy that it does. In other words, it’s sort of a middling aca-mplishment.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

avengersMarvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures present a film written and directed by Joss Whedon, based on the comic books created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Produced by Kevin Feige. Music by Brian Tyler & Danny Elfman. Photographed by Ben Davis. Edited by Jeffrey Ford, Lisa Lassek. Production designed by Charles Wood. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård, Claudia Kim, Thomas Kretschmann, Andy Serkis. The best parts of 2012’s The Avengers had less to do with the slams and crunches of comic-book action and more to do with the giddy thrill in watching iconic heroes meet, argue, tussle and find commonality ground before finally uniting and standing tall. Such moments can be found in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, but the novelty has, inevitably, worn off, and in a calculated effort to stave off staleness, returning writer-director Joss Whedon has basically piled everything—plot, character, humor,  action, everything—sky high. It’s an entertaining sequel—eager to please, eager to reference every moment in the increasingly interconnected Marvel universe, and stuffed with dialogue and character invention and spectacle. But it’s also rushed and busy and exhausting, a manic whirligig of a movie that is very much too much of a muchness. By much. Here again we team up Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), some fresh from starring in recent solo projects, more or less. We join them in media res on a mission to attack an Eastern European fortress and recapture a magical doodad, our heroes so simpatico that a fluid single tracking shot captures them all in blissful action. Returning home to the Avengers tower, Iron Man—aka super-genuis Tony Stark, is panic-stricken by the alien-invasion events of Avengers 1, and so he (with Bruce “Hulk” Banner’s help) creates an artificial intelligence defense program named Ultron, “a suit of armor around the world.” This, naturally, ends up being a bad idea, as Ultron evolves, upgrades into a robot body and decides the best way to end human conflict is to eradicate the source of it: humans, everywhere. Ultron is played by James Spader via motion capture—the performance is excellent, and the character benefits from Whedon’s penchant for unexpected zingers (Tony Stark is his father, after all). But despite his ability to build hordes of metallic warriors and his designs on world devastation, he doesn’t generate much menace or pathos—none of the qualities that previous villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) had by the bucketload. His motivation is a shortcut cliché, and he picks up a pair of inhuman sidekicks, both of them somewhat underwhelming: the super-speedy Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and telekinetic brainwasher Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson).  Before long we’re meeting other crucial characters like Vision (Paul Bettany), and the movie imports some supporting characters from the other Marvel movies, making room for Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård…heck, there’s even a scene meant to explain why two of the Marvel leading ladies (Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman) aren’t even in this movie. It’s a lot. Whedon, who cut his teeth on television, is gifted at managing an ensemble. He reliably refuses to make a wall-to-wall action noisefest, and he infuses as much as possible with personality and wit. His real love for these characters shines through (he even gives a lot of the spotlight this time to Hawkeye, making up for his disuse in Avengers 1). But there’s a true difference between intricacy and plate spinning, and as Whedon bounces from scene to scene, character to character and beat to beat, we can’t help but notice many of these things don’t have all the weight they should and/or would. The film’s best relationship is a burgeoning romance between Hulk and Black Widow—both actors have chemistry, and they have a symbiotic connection where each can bring out the other’s beauty and beast. But nothing really gets a chance to breathe right. Age of Ultron is fun, to be sure, but it lacks that magic zing. The action set pieces, as character-driven as they are, become a little numbing, and one can’t help but feel that Whedon (whose last film was a Much Ado About Nothing update) is sometimes shackled to the Marvel machine rather than working with it. There’s a scene early on where every Avenger attends a party at Stark tower, and they are all loose, funny, charming, sexy, sweet and compelling. Call me crazy, but I can’t help but feel that Whedon (and I) would actually prefer a two-hour movie of that party rather than the fireworks in Age of Ultron.

The Divergent Series: Insurgent (2015)

la-et-mn-the-divergent-series-insurgent-trailerLionsgate presents a film directed by Robert Schwentke. Produced by Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shabazian. Screenplay by Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback. Based on the novel by Veronica Roth. Music by Joseph Trapanese. Photographed by Florian Ballhaus. Edited by Nancy Richardson, Stuart Levy. Production designed by Alec Hammond. Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Octavia Spencer, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet.

There is an early moment in The Divergent Series: Insurgent where three heroic fugitives stow away on a train, realizing—too late—that the car is already occupied by menacing vagrants. The young leader of the bums sneers threateningly. There is a brawl. Brutal. Bloody. Several extras die. Just when all hope looks lost, hero guy Four offers his given name. “I’m Tobias!” Everyone relaxes. Smiles all around. Except for the dead kids, of course, who are dead.  “We’ve been looking for you,” shouts the leader. Conflict over. Roger Ebert once coined the term “idiot plot,” which is a plot that only functions if every single character is an idiot. Insurgent may very well contain cinema’s first idiot fight.

Welcome back to the universe of Divergent, which has as its lynchpin maybe the silliest high concept to ever grace popular fiction. Some sci-fi mythologies enrichen as they go forward, but Divergent’s only grows more and more nonsensical. In a (sigh) post-apocalyptic future, you see, the world (well, Chicago) has split into five rigid factions: Dauntless (soldiers), Amity (farmers), Erudite (scholars), Abengation (civil servants) and Candor (truth-tellers). Hold your questions, please. Children are made to pick a class based on aptitude tests, but a small percentage have multiple characteristics and are labeled as Divergents. They are outcast and villified, guilty of being able to walk and chew gum at the same time.  Is this a tortured parable for how teenagers often feel unfairly persecuted for their innate, super-duper specialness? Is it anything else?

Our heroine is Tris (Shailene Woodley), who is a unique Divergent snowflake. We are told a million times. Not shown once, but we are told. Previously on Divergent, she quashed a revolution and her mother (Ashley Judd) died, and Tris blames herself for this. Tris’ boyfriend is Four (Theo James), who has devotion, but not much in the way of conversation, and has one scowling facial expression. As Insurgent opens, these kids are on the run from a gang of jackbooted thugs (Jai Courtney, terrible) and trying to ferment rebellion against the would-be Erudite despot Janine (Kate Winslet, cashing a paycheck). What good luck that they run into an army of the classless, led by Four’s mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts, who has direct deposit). Four doesn’t trust his mother. Tris doesn’t trust herself. The movie’s top-to-bottom clichéd dialogue, meanwhile, doesn’t trust the audience, spelling everything out with clanging obviousness.

There’s more plot in Insurgent, including a magic box that only a divergent can unlock (no guesses as to who the best candidate for that job is). And there’s also more world-building, as the heroes seek refuge in the various factions of dystopic Chicago. But the more we see of Divergent’s boilerplate environs, the less there is to see. Puzzling over the series’ wacky premise was an activity for last year, yes, but this sequel tries to flesh out the universe and yet it only prompts more pronounced bafflement. How can a society even pretend to function this way? To what end? Why is every single character so aggressively one-note, when the very premise stipulates that some of them must be multi-faceted? And here’s a spoiler-free question about the entire last quarter of the film: huh?

No, really. What?

Recognizable actors swim in and out of view. What are we to make of a movie that casts a wonderful performer like Octavia Spencer for two scenes and does nothing with her? Or Winslet and Watts, for that matter? What a thankless task it is to be an adult in these movies. Plot holes abound–not tiny-sized regular nitpicks, but sloppy ones like certain characters showing up in places they should not be able to get to, or conveying information they should not have. The world of Divergent is such a trash dump that you pray for a ray of sunshine, or at least a rueful smile from its heroine. Not even during the big love scene with Four does Tris smile, which, I think, should be the time. I’m aware of The Hunger Games, but when did young adult fiction in general become so uniformly, pointlessly bleak and cynical? At what point did its ambitions tilt less towards babysitters and more towards Terminators?

Let it be said that Shailene Woodley is the real thing. A gifted performer with real charisma, she has proven herself in movies like The Fault in Our Stars and The Spectacular Now. But she is not an action hero, and the movie’s hard-edged obsession with gunplay (there’s a lot) feels even more misplaced when it pivots so heavily on Woodley’s timid frame and cracking voice. The presence of her Spectacular Now and Fault in Our Stars co-stars (Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort) only bizarrely illustrates what little chemistry she has with James’ dull-as-dishwater Four. Nor is Woodley well-served by the thin emotional content, either; one sequence holds Katniss–I mean, Tris–in close-up as she spills a tearful confession—it’s meant to be a triumph of emotional storytelling, but it comes across as embarrassingly overwrought. Director Robert Schwentke, doing mercenary work, never finds a consistent tone, and his style throughout is flat and thoroughly uninspired.

It goes without saying that the Divergent series will continue. Insurgent’s ending guarantees that, with an obligatory revelation and cliffhanger that feeds into Allegiant Parts 1 & 2, due next year. That’s a lot of screen time for such a reedy story, but then, the Divergent series is (unintentionally) all about trading the conformity of society for the conformity of rebellion. The ultimate point, of course, is that teens would do well to reject the labels imposed upon them by others. It’s a good piece of advice, one I’ve heard before. Think how much post-apocalyptic bloodshed could have been spared if someone had just preserved a copy of The Breakfast Club.

Cinderella (2015)

cinderella-ball-gown-still-2015Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Kenneth  Branagh. Screenplay by Chris Weitz. Produced by David Barron, Simon Kinberg, Allison Shearmur. Music by Patrick Doyle. Photographed by Haris Zambarloukos. Edited by Martin Walsh. Production designed by Dante Ferretti. Costumes designed by Sandy Powell. Starring Cate Blanchett, Lily James, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Nonso Anonzie, Stellan Skarsgård, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell.

What a wonderful movie Cinderella is: enchanting, romantic, generous, sumptuous, heartfelt, thoughtful. This remake of the 1950 Disney animated classic, directed by Kenneth Branagh, reverently retains all the elements you remember (some handed down from the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault), but doesn’t slap them together carelessly. It has an ambition to be good and the patience to make it so, and it’s not afraid to embrodier, expand, and—dare I say—even improve upon the inspiration. Disney has made a fortune recently in reinterpreting their perennials, but this one shrugs off its lesser stablemates and stands proud.

The movie is as lovely and strong as its heroine, and that’s one of the biggest surprises. The 1950’s version of our title character was pretty and nice, but that’s about it; the Disney animators were clearly more interested in the pixie dust, talking mice and wicked stepmother. This Cinderella rights that wrong and creates a specific, well-rounded Ella (The “Cinder” comes later)—one who cares about romance but does not let that define her. In a lengthy prologue, her mother teaches her to “be courageous and kind,” and that good advice she takes to heart as she grows up and soon finds herself orphaned and in the care of her disdainful stepfamily. We see how she accidentally banishes herself to the attic through her own generosity, with nothing but (non-talking) mice as company, but she preserves her own spark of good cheer. She is fetching and smart and anxious and teasingly progressive, and James plays her to perfection. All Cinderellas eventually end up at the royal ball, of course, but this one lets us savor her sharp intake of breath when Prince Kit (Richard Madden) touches her side.

Yes, Kit. Not Charming, because this Prince is more than a cardboard cutout. He calls himself an apprentice, and so he is, but one of governance, a subject he takes seriously. He meets Ella one day in a forest, and their mutual attraction gains something by the way both of them instantly challenge the class divide without realizing it, and before any Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo shows up. The King (Derek Jacobi), meanwhile, is not a pompous cartoon but possesses dignity and warmth, which is countered by a court full of schemers that want the Prince to wed for political reasons, not love.

Everyone is bestowed depth here. Well, maybe not Cinderella’s two spiteful and stupid stepsisters (Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger); those figures exist to be caricatures, lest their hurtful behavior be felt a little too much. But Stepmother (Cate Blanchett) is dimensional and complex, not standard-issue wicked, her every action speaking to misplaced anger and self-loathing. Blanchett’s performance is broad but appropriately restrained—she doesn’t overplay, nor is she overused, and a late scene uses her as a perfect foil for our heroine, displaying with certainty what a selfless and good queen Ella could be.

The movie has all the elements of a Disney classic, placed in perfect proportion. We have Helena Bonham Carter as a scatterbrained fairy godmother, but her jokes are funny (“I do shoes really well”) and she doesn’t overstay her welcome. We have lavish and colorful production design that at every turn evokes animation come to life, but it never swallows up the actors. We have sweep and grandeur, but the movie never misses a chance for a little detail that makes everything sing. Branagh’s hand as director is light but sure, and Chris Weitz’s smart screenplay understands that fairy tales live not in their spectacle or their action, but in the way that they share keenly-felt lessons and truths.

Of course, we all know how Cinderella must end, although let’s not spoil too many details. Branagh’s movie is so good that it finds the precisely right closing notes: not simply with good winning, but with good being proven, even in personal and momentous ways that we do not expect. Here is a modern fairy tale that has the courage to end not with numbing action, but with something far more important: a young girl’s ultimate demonstration of self-worth. That’s real magic.

Note: the film is preceded by a short, “Frozen Fever.” Elsa and Anna fans will love it.

Chappie (2015)

maxresdefaultSony presents a film directed by Neill Blomkamp. Written by Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell. Produced by Simon Kinberg. Music by Hans Zimmer. Photographed by Trent Opaloch. Edited by Julian Clarke, Mark Goldblatt. Production designed by Jules Cook. Starring Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver.

How the mighty have fallen. In 2009, director Neill Blomkamp made District 9, a low-budget but large-canvas sci-fi blockbuster that melded action with significant social commentary, which was treasured by sci-fi fans who seek out the new and different. His 2012 follow-up, Elysium, was a confused and overall much-less successful sci-fi adventure, prompting worries that perhaps Blomkamp was a one-hit wonder. Now Blomkamp returns with Chappie, a story of thinking robots…that is pretty darn stupid. It’s a catastrophic misfire made entirely out of spare parts (it liberally quotes Robocop, Short Circuit, and Terminator 2), and while it pantomimes some thought-provoking ideas, in its heart it’s a shockingly dumb shoot ‘em up playing with sci-fi tropes, peppered with R-rated gore.

Indeed, the only thing that really distinguishes Chappie is both its gruesome violence and its mean-spirited tone. This is as unremittingly nasty a sci-fi epic as there ever was. It posits a future (well, 2016), where the police department of Johannesburg, South Africa has been replaced entirely by robot soldiers that target criminals with horrific impunity (in an opening sequence that, like many things, the film fails to really think about). The robotics firm CEO (Sigourney Weaver, cashing a paycheck) has two troublemakers on her payroll: Deon (Dev Patel), a fresh-faced engineer who may have cracked the code for artificial intelligence and Vincent (Hugh Jackman), a ridiculously over-the-top madman who wants to unleash a remote controlled lumbering war machine (named “Moose”) as an ultimate crime fighter. Vincent is one of those corporate villains that the movies love: a guy who no one ever notices is a dangerous psychopath because the plot demands it.

Deon plans to use a discarded robot as a guinea pig for his new intelligence program, but he’s kidnapped by a violent gang led by Ninja (played by…Ninja, of the South African rap group Die Antwoord). Ninja and his cohorts Yolandi (Yo-Landi Visser, also of Die Antwoord) and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) force Deon to do his experiment for their benefit, since they’re deep in dept to a mobster and a gun-toting robot sounds keen.  Thus, Chappie, a sentient robot, is born.

Chappie is played by Blomkamp staple Sharlto Copley in a blend of motion capture and CGI that is, let it be said, uniformly excellent. But as a character, Chappie is a non-starter, bereft of much personality and blessed only with the dependency (and overall emotional maturity) of a child. His speech, which he copies entirely from the severely limited vocabularies of the dumb gangsters, is irritating, and watching him be indoctrinated into a villainous thug lifestyle is seriously depressing, in ways that I don’t think Blomkamp fully intended. The movie has a hole where its hero should be, as Chappie throughout is singularly dim-witted, impressionable, and ultimately subsumed by the movie’s obsession with violence.

But Chappie is at least an innocent corrupted by the world around him. Almost everyone else on screen is utterly loathsome. The three gangsters, adorned with vulgar tattoos and squatting in a warehouse piled high with trash and disgusting graffiti, are deeply unpleasant to watch and fatally uninteresting, yet the movie cannot get enough of them. Yolandi comes off best, because, as the sole female in the group, she becomes Chappie’s de facto mother; she comes closest to feeling like an actual human being. Ninja, on the other hand, starts as a noxious pest and ends up as a monument to Blomkamp’s disinterest into anything approaching solid character development.

What ultimately scuppers Chappie, really, is that it is a supremely dark and yet bathed in self-denial, and although Blomkamp’s world-building and action sequences are well-conceived, his story hasn’t been thought through. It’s heartbreaking to see Chappie become such a nasty gangster machine, and when the robot saves the day in a bombastic climax, Blomkamp appallingly wants to stimulate fist-pumping more than the disquiet he has actually earned. He always piles sci-fi ideas into his basket, but this time he especially seems to do it just for show, perhaps because now working for a big studio he is prisoner to the philosophy that all thoughtful sci-fi must end with a million gunfights. Chappie is a pretty sad and ugly film.

Focus (2015)

Focus-2015-MovieWarner Bros. Pictures presents a film written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Produced by Denise DiNovi. Photographed by Xavier Pérez Grobet. Edited by Jan Kovac. Music by Nick Urata. Production designed by Beth Mickle. Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Adrian Martinez, Gerald McRaney, Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong.

The movies love stories about con artists. And why not? Since the very beginning, the motion picture has essentially been a 24-frame-per-second magic trick, and what is grifting if not a type of magic where the prize ends up in your pocket and not the true owner’s? We are told several times in Focus that con artistry is all about distraction, manipulation and misdirection, and so are movies: why invent editing if there weren’t things we were meant to see and things we weren’t? Alas, Focus is a trick that doesn’t quite work like it should. It’s got suavity and charm, but it isn’t surefooted, and we never forget it’s just an exercise.

The movie is great to look at: it’s slickly photographed by Xavier Pérez Grobet, globetrots to some picturesque locations, and it stars two of the most good-looking people in the world: Will Smith and Margot Robbie. He’s a professional con man named Nicky, she’s a pickpocket and amateur grifter named Jess looking to graduate to bigger and better. They meet one snowy night in New York; after she incorrectly sizes him up as a mark, she asks him to be her mentor, following him to New Orleans on Super Bowl weekend and ingratiating herself into his crew. She has real skills and is good at learning on the job, and although both she and Nicky are aware of the pitfalls of workplace romances in the world of scammers, some things are hard to resist.

To say that Nikki is a good con man is a gross understatement. He’s smart, cool, collected and perceptive, and he runs his operations with tight control. Some of his schemes are ingenious in their simplicity. Others have such intricate, hidden infrastructures that they reach preposterousness and then lap it. This stuff—as our heroes bathe in luxury and vie for more of it – is exceptionally fun to watch, even when it borders on ridiculous. Which it does often, like during a very tense (and very long) betting duel between Nicky and an impetuous Japanese businessman (B.D. Wong). Petrified of his own feelings for Jess, Nicky breaks ties with her, and then we cut forward three years to Buenos Aires, where a down-and-out Nicky finds himself in the uncomfortable employ of a dangerous billionaire racecar owner, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). Nicky is on his game as he plots with Garriga to gift the millionaire’s competitors with stolen (and faulty) equipment, until one night he meets Jess again…this time in the arms of Garriga…and I think that’s quite enough of the plot, don’t you? Trust me, you do.

What Smith and Robbie generate in Focus is that rarest of movie elements: real chemistry. One of the most entertaining things a movie can do is show us two characters falling in love and make us believe it. Smith as Nicky fondly recalls the wit and ease of a Cary Grant, but joined to the aggressive likability that Smith has made his brand. Robbie, an Australian who impressed as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jersey-flavored sugar-and-spice  wife in The Wolf of Wall Street, makes a solid case for movie stardom. They’re great together. It’s no surprise that the movie’s second half keeps contriving ways to pair them up, even after she warns that Garriga’s the violent-and-jealous type. Well, that’s what she says anyway.

That’s the key disappointment about Focus: its stakes never feel real. The story that co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have concocted is loaded with twists, but by anticipating them, the movie keeps a touch so light that even from minute to minute we don’t really believe what it’s doing — it’s got too many extraneous bits that call attention to themselves. Like the great con artist movies, Focus loves to pull the rug out from under us, but it doesn’t quite have a knack for getting us to step on the rug in the first place. The performances and story seem out of sync when they should click together: Smith and Robbie’s romance is cute but doesn’t really seem to inhabit the same world as the danger personified by Santoro’s overacted villain. Like an imperfect flim flam, Focus grabs our attention, but out of the corner of our eye we can see all too clearly what it’s really doing.

Hot Tub Time Machine 2 (2015)

Adam+Scott+Craig+Robinson+Hot+Tub+Time+Machine+qKC31TVNiyRlParamount Pictures presents a film directed by Steve Pink. Written by Josh Heald. Produced by Andrew Panay. Photographed by Declan Quinn. Edited by Jamie Gross. Music by Christophe Beck. Production designed by Ryan Berg. Starring Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Clark Duke, Adam Scott, Gillian Jacobs, Chevy Chase, Collette Wolfe, Bianca Haase.

2010’s Hot Tub Time Machine delivered exactly what it promised: there was a hot tub, it was a time machine. In that seriously vulgar—and pretty funny, if you can look past that—movie, four estranged friends renewed a bond and also came to terms with their troubled pasts, essentially by rewriting them. The mean-spirited party animal Lou (Rob Corddry) made himself into a billionaire software entrepreneur. Failed musician Nick (Craig Robinson) became the world’s most successful recording artist, mainly by passing off endless song covers as originals, since in this new timeline the originals don’t exist anymore.  Jacob (Clark Duke) learned the truth about who his father was (it was Lou, and it was ugly) and has now settled into an agonizing life with his selfish lout of a father. Adam (John Cusack), meanwhile, sorted out his romantic life and ended up married to Lizzy Caplan in a nice house.

In Hot Time Time Machine 2, Cusack is out of the picture, perhaps because his character got the happiest resolution out of the last movie, or perhaps because Cusack wanted too much money. Cusack’s absence (which is commented on) may foretell the quality of this sequel, because without his sense of sad-sack wistfulness that anchored much of the original, Hot Tub 2 casts its lot mainly with a bunch of jerks.  The central figure is now the drug-addicted moron Lou, and backing him up are a compulsive plagiarist and a spineless dweeb. And there’s no discipline, either. Like many sequels, Hot Tub 2 takes shortcuts to get back to the series’ central gimmick, and it is so convoluted with endless time travel trips from future to present to past that I’m not sure it makes any sense. And sometimes sequences go way too far, with not enough reason. Take a look at the poster of Hot Tub 2 and you’ll have an idea what the movie is: a cheaper, scruffier, coarser version of the first, with not as much soul.

But…somehow that’s okay. Well, sort of. It helps that the film’s leads are so good at riffing; they somehow turn Hot Tub 2’s demonstrable lack of momentum into a virtue, as odd as that sounds. The movie’s central conceit for getting back in the tub involves tracking down the murder of Lou, which happens in the present in the middle of one of the millionaire’s wild bacchanals. The gang (with still-alive Lou) travel into the future and inhabit their future bodies, which have seen better days (Nick calling the bearded, crazed version of Lou they see in the mirror “Gandalf the Poor” is one of the more printable putdowns). The three navigate the future and try to suss out clues, and soon pick up a fourth time traveler: Adam, Jr. (Adam Scott), Cusack’s long-lost son. Scott, playing a sweet-faced riff on his character from Parks and Recreation, is very funny in the movie, and makes a good match for the three established regulars.

Since he’s the new guy, however, Scott is put through back-to-back sequences that verge on supreme miscalculation, one involving a futuristic game show and the other a trip to the hospital. These scenes have real moments of comic ingenuity (like a bit of very practical medical advice, or anything that deservedly turns the karmic tables on Lou), but they go to uncomfortable extremes. Other moments are more successful: a futuristic drug trip for Adam, Jr., the guys’ reactions to the ridiculous nature of the plot (and Jacob’s relative ease with figuring it out), and a moment where Adam Jr.’s fiancé (Gillian Jacobs), blindsides us with the setup to a perfectly-delivered punchline.

The only defense I can give to the sloppy mess that is Hot Tub Time Machine 2 is that I laughed a lot at it, despite its numerous flaws. It’s not a great comedy, and it sure isn’t a perfect movie, and it’s so rough around the edges it feels like it was slapped together over an industrious weekend. But there’s something so proudly twisted and rebellious about it that I have a sneaky affection for it. It’s so unapologetically mean-spirited, and yet so fast with its jokes that it kind of…gets away with murder.

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

54da64ad8a2fdf64645fdc15_fifty-shades-of-grey-reviewUniversal Pictures presents a film directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Screenplay by Kelly Marcel, based on the book by E.L. James. Produced by Dana Brunetti, Michael DeLuca, E.L. James. Photographed by Seamus McGarvey. Edited by Anne V. Coates, Lisa Gunning. Music by Danny Elfman. Production designed by David Wasco. Starring Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Marcia Gay Harden.

Fifty Shades of Grey is kinky trash that wants to re-orient itself as a tragic love story, which means it dials down the kink and tries mightily to misplace the trash. To be sure, this long-awaited adaptation of E.L. James’ controversial erotic bestseller (which began as Twilight fan fiction) isn’t exactly chaste, and the most notorious scenes are more graphic than your typical blockbuster. But they’re also timid, and are built in service of a “sincere” romance that, alas, doesn’t actually exist. The result is a slick, well-made drama that’s ultimately as vacuous as its key relationship.

For Dakota Johnson, who plays the virginal heroine Anastasia Steele (yes, that’s her name), the movie is an acting decathlon. It’s hard to think of an actress who has recently been put through an ordeal that could so easily be humiliating or degrading. That she survives practically unscathed is a dual testament to both her skills as an actress and to the notion that she has better things ahead of her. If she tries too hard to quiver her lip and generate heat between herself and multi-billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), whom she meets when conducting an interview for a friend’s journalism school assignment, maybe it’s because Dornan, as Grey, is the ultimate nowhere man. He’s an empty suit, and although he looks good in one (and out of one), there’s no spark, no real human interaction between them. He persistently seems as distracted as Bruce Wayne would at a fundraiser when the bat-signal is fired.

Grey, of course, has a secret: he’s into bondage and sadomasochism, and he’s already eyeing Anastasia as his new playmate, in behavior that is clearly predatory but is meant to resemble genuine affection, or at least a rich man’s simulacra of it. He haltingly pursues Ana, plying her with helicopter rides, cars, priceless gifts and unrelenting attention, but apparently all their moments of human connection happen offscreen. As Anastasia finds herself drawn to this mysterious man, we don’t get enough of his personality to truly understand how she sees him except as a ticket to consumerist fantasyland. Soon he deflowers her, a preamble to his pitch to join him in a bedroom stuffed with bondage apparel, where she will be the submissive to his dominant. He calls it his playroom. “Where you keep your Xbox?” she wonders. It’s tossed off as a joke, but, yes, it is a place where he keeps his toys, Anastasia among them if she signs a complex contract that effectively sells her into sexual slavery.

This becomes a sticking point between the two of them, as well it might; it doesn’t help that Christian is a possessive creep who never met a stalking opportunity he could pass by, even showing up unannounced when she visits family in Georgia, making the visit all about him. To the story’s credit, it does see Christian’s obsessive actions as poisonous and unhealthy, but that is mainly because it purposefully conflates such behavior with the S & M scenes, implying that anyone who participates in such activities must be severely damaged.  She staves off signing the contract, but he is fixed on it, and when their relationship reaches a breaking point, we don’t sniffle like the movie wants us to, we cheer because our heroine has finally woken up and smelled the coffee.

In actuality, a lot of emotionally balanced people do all sorts of things behind closed doors, but that wouldn’t fit the story’s Puritanical need to shock us with some of these pretty tame details. The creepy stuff is the contract and Grey’s need for utmost control, not the actual sex. As for the sex scenes themselves, they are done tastefully…far too tastefully for what should be lurid. If you’re going to make a superficial erotic thriller, there’s ways to do it, but not by sounding the unconvincing clarion call of true love. Fifty Shades of Grey wants us to hope that these two work out their issues, but doesn’t give us much reason why we should care. The film inevitably sets up a sequel, but the only one worth making would be the ultimate conclusion of this story, Fifty Shades of a Restraining Order.

Project Almanac (2015)

still-of-sam-lerner,-allen-evangelista-and-jonny-weston-in-project-almanac-(2014)-large-pictureParamount Pictures presents a film directed by Dean Isrealite. Written by Jason Harry Pagan, Andrew Deutschmann. Produced by Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Michael Bay. Photographed by Matthew J. Lloyd. Edited by Julian Clarke, Martin Bernfeld. Production designed by Maher Ahmad. Costumes designed by Mary Jane Fort. Starring Jonny Weston, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Sam Lerner, Allen Evangelista.

When the young heroes of Project Almanac receive the blueprints to a working time machine, they are ecstatic. They compose a mental checklist of things they’d like to accomplish, including walking with dinosaurs, killing Hitler, and acing last week’s Chemistry project. Well, only one out of three turns out to be possible, since this is a time machine that can reach only a few weeks into the past. And so we have a group of teenagers that would love to visit Woodstock, but instead have to make do with last month’s Imagine Dragons concert. What a disappointment.

And so, unfortunately, is Project Almanac, a found footage sci-fi thriller that once upon a time had a different title (Welcome to Yesterday), a different release date (last summer) and possibly a plot that made a lot more sense. Removed from last year’s schedule and now dumped at the end of January with little fanfare, Project Almanac, in its finished state, bears the hallmarks of last-minute reshoots and editorial tinkering. Many time-travel stories can’t hold up under scrutiny, but this one fails the test of its own logic, as it presents “rules” that can be casually broken, characters that are written inconsistently, and a plot that just doesn’t add up. We can accept that messing with the past can have unpredictable consequences; if a butterfly can affect the weather half a world away, think of what some silly teens could do. But positing chaos theory does not mean your movie can devolve into narrative chaos, which Project Almanac does (and the bumpy found footage aesthetic does not help).

That’s a shame, because Project Almanac gets an A for effort in trying to target a more subjective and nightmarish form of time travel story: more Twilight Zone than Back to the Future. The setup: our hero is David (Jonny Weston), a technological genius who is accepted to MIT but gets disastrously stiffed on scholarship and grant money. Looking for some financial security, he discovers a hidden panel in his father’s old basement workshop containing blueprints for a working time machine. David decides to build it and enlists the help of his friends Adam (Allen Evangelista) and Quinn (Sam Lerner), and his sarcastic sister Christina (Virginia Gardner). She films everything, leading to the inevitable found footage-inspired question of why on Earth someone would record some of these things (except for our benefit, of course). She even captures on camera an after-hours raid on the high school science lab, a choice that seems questionable at best.

With Christina spending much of her time behind her camera, however, the movie senses a pretty girl shortage, and so it supplies another one in the form of the uber-popular Jesse (Sofia Black-D’Elia). She is inadvertently entangled in the group’s plans and soon graduates to willing participant, then later gravitates into David’s romantic orbit. It’s a cute spin on the idea of the high school girl who likes the guy with the coolest car, I suppose. The group uses their newfound abilities to ace finals, win the lottery, and spend a whole day at Lollapalooza, and then David starts abusing the machine it in order to perfect the trajectory of his relationship with Jesse, Groundhog Day-style.

Don’t even get me started on how these kids constantly avoid their past selves; wouldn’t trip after trip create a real traffic jam? Let’s just say that at some point Project Almanac quite definitively falls apart, specifically as David spirals into a reality nightmare and the world stops making sense…in a way that doesn’t make sense, if that makes sense.  This leads to a frantic closing sequence that tries to make us feel something other than complete confusion and fails.  This is probably the first found footage movie ever that could inspired a debate about whether, given the nature of the story, the footage in question should even exist at all. But the real issue isn’t the questions; it’s the lack of well-crafted characters and stakes to care about. This is a film that name-checks Back to the Future, Looper, Terminator and Timecop, and you know you’re in trouble when you wish you could watch any of those instead. Yes, even Timecop.