I’m playing catch-up again, so I’m going to review two new releases that I saw two weeks ago, starting with Chappie, an action, sci-fi thriller that is directed, and co-written, by Neill Blomkamp, and finishing with the Vince Vaughn fronted comedy, Unfinished Business. Next week, look for reviews of Cinderella, and Run All Night, both of which are infinitely better than the films I’m reviewing this week.
You may or may not know Blomkamp, the South African writer/director who showed such amazing promise six years ago with District 9, an Alien Nationesque sci-fi film that I loved so much that I couldn’t wait for his follow-up. We waited forever for Elysium (2013), and when that sci-fi film came out, I was super disappointed at how heavy handed its social message was. It wasn’t a good film, and Blomkamp has essentially admitted in recent interviews that he agrees with this assessment. It didn’t take him nearly as long to give us more sci-fi, and the result is Chappie, which I thought looked like it could be an R-rated Short Circuit. In many ways, that’s what it is, and that’s also why it stumbles. Terribly. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed parts of Chappie. I’m a bit of a robot/A.I. fanatic, and at least Blomkamp had the stones to refrain from offering us a doom and gloom vision of a world in which A.I. takes over and makes us its slaves. (Really tired of those.) In fact, the sentient robot (voiced by Sharlto Copley) is the most human character in the film. Well, I guess save his waif-like, platinum blonde surrogate “mother,” Yo-Landi, who looks a lot like Lady Gaga. I was actually so intrigued by the actress, who has a little girl look and sound, that I looked her up online. I guess she’s a rap singer in South Africa, and, from the photos you find of her, a bit of a performance artist. (She and her real life husband and co-star, Ninja, who plays the statuesque, super skinny, white gangsteresque guy who wants to turn Chappie into a criminal, are in the music group Die Antwoord. Both go by their real names in the film.)
Somewhere in Chappie there is an interesting film, but it doesn’t really know what it wants to be. Or who its audience is. Chappie is child-like and innocent, and like Johnny Five, makes silly and sometimes embarrassing faux pas. Children would probably find these parts funny; adults might find them out of place and wince-inducing. But all is not light and fun. There are other moments in the film, specifically when Chappie gets dumped into a rough area, and the youth attack him and try to burn him alive with Molotov cocktails, that are truly disturbing. That part bothered me a lot, and it reminded me of the part in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence when the robots are being killed/pulled apart for the onlookers’ amusement. I could barely watch that sequence back in 2001, and I still find it incredibly difficult. For interest’s sake, Steven Spielberg’s film was rated PG-13, but then it didn’t have f-bombs going off left and right.
Another problem with Chappie is that Hugh Jackman’s character, Vincent Moore, is one-dimensional. I got the feeling that he wasn’t onboard with A.I., for religious reasons, but my moviegoing companion didn’t concur. Whatever made him fanatically against A.I., it is never fully explained, and by the end of the film, he’s just another mustache-twirling villain. Sigourney Weaver plays a similarly one-dimensional corporate head. She is wasted in this role. Dev Patel, who plays Chappie’s creator, is good. He displays a lot of child-like enthusiasm, and he has some funny, and at other times intense, back-and-forth with Ninja, but I wouldn’t say that his performance balances out the worst things found in Chappie, because the bad outweighs the good.
Blomkamp’s next project keeps him in sci-fi territory: He will direct the next installment in the Alien franchise. Considering his track record to date, I’m excited and terrified by this prospect. So far, this 30-something writer/director hasn’t lived up to the hype he generated with District 9. I honestly hope he isn’t going to become known – at least to me – as South African’s answer to M. Night Shyamalan. I would hate for that to happen. He shoots in his native country, so he gives the rest of a world an unusual perspective. He clearly enjoys sci-fi, and his references are in evidence. I just don’t know if he should be writing his own screenplays. And sadly, he will be again for the Alien reboot or whatever it’s going to be. (I read that they are going to completely disregard everything that happened in Alien3 and Alien Resurrection, and that doesn’t make me happy at all, especially as Alien3 is my favorite of all the films.) I’ll stay with Blomkamp for at least another film, but if he keeps dropping the ball, I’ll just abandon him, as I did Shyamalan. Too much else out there to command my attention.
Rating: 2 stars out of 5
I’m getting better at actively seeing comedies, but if given the option, I would still choose to see just about any other genre over a comedy. I won’t get into why, because I’ve already covered this territory so many times. Suffice it to say, the only thing that will get me to see a comedy is the cast. I sometimes enjoy watching Will Ferrell; and will typically see a Jim Carrey project. Steve Carrell, too, is pretty good at hooking me. So is Steve Coogan; I adore Coogan. And, of course, Jason Bateman. Vince Vaughn and I have a less than spectacular relationship. I like his smartassness, but he’s pretty uneven in terms of what he can deliver. That said, I will take a chance on him from time to time. Depends on who is with him. Throw in Tom Wilkinson, and top it off with Dave Franco, being adorably dimwitted, and you can get me to see your film. It helped that the trailer for Unfinished Business made the comedy seem likable enough. Written by Steve Conrad, who penned The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which I really enjoyed, Unfinished Business is essentially a classic underdog story. Feeling unappreciated and frustrated, Dan Trunkman (Vaughn) quits his corporate job and sets off, with a soon-to-be retired coworker (Wilkinson) and a Foot Locker flunkie (Franco), for Germany to close a career making deal.
Is the comedy funny? Not really. As I expected most of the funniest bits are in the trailer, and the situations veer too often into raunch territory – an extended sequence involving male genitalia and sexual positions are raunchy “highlights” – which is always a disappointment to me. The cheapest way to get a laugh is to shock with explicit, often taboo, subjects or situations, or to rely on people falling or punching someone or something inappropriate. (Every time I see the trailer for Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, I involuntarily roll my eyes. I see that trailer so often that I’m surprised my eyes haven’t become stuck in permanent roll mode.) Cheap isn’t funny; it’s lazy, and it keeps me away from seeing comedies. I appreciate clever, witty, intellectual humor, but good luck finding those.
What saved Unfinished Business from being a total waste of time – at least for me – was Franco. His character lives in a group home, and he’s seriously clueless, but in the sweetest and most adorable way possible. Every time he was on-screen I smiled. I appreciate that he didn’t try to act “dumb,” instead he came off as kind of naïve and child-like. And the result was charming. Long ago, I used to like James Franco, his older brother, but he got indie weird, so I lost interest. This is my first exposure to Dave Franco, and it was such a pleasant one that I will probably seek out his other films. Or if I see him in a comedy, I will venture forth and see it.
Rating: 2 stars out of 5
I don’t know if either of these films were box office success stories – I am too lazy right now to look – but I doubt it. And I’m sure the critics weren’t effusive in praise for either. As I mentioned earlier, if you want to see something “newer” at the movies, you cannot go wrong with Cinderella, which has a cast culled from The Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey, and which, more importantly, has a Frozen short in front of it. There’s even a new Idina Menzel track to play until your ears explode. As far as Run All Night goes, I really liked it. If you only know Liam Neeson from the Taken franchise, you will come away from this cop/mob drama marveling at how well this Irishman can act. Ed Harris and Joel Kinnaman, a particular favorite of mine, are equally good. But more on both of these next week!
Rating: Cinderella is a solid 4 stars out of 5; Run All Night is also 4 stars out of 5.