Weekend Movies: “Insurgent” nuked, Sean Penn panned

pennHard to work up a lot of enthusiasm for this week’s big screen offerings.

“Insurgent” never overcomes the cynical hackwork “commissioned” YA novel –  cut and paste formula fiction without an original thought in it — that was its source. Robert Schwentke’s film is more straight action, which doesn’t hide characters who are cardboard cutouts by design. I like Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer’s inclusion in it, and the twists in the third act.

But “Natural” Girl Next Door Shailene Woodley has discovered makeup, and lip gloss.  The Revolution will never be the same. Widely panned, “Insurgent Daughter of Divergent” will swallow up the box office, but not be a red letter entry on anybody’s resume.

Will it clear $50 million? Probably.

Sean Penn doesn’t work often, but the chance to shoehorn in some of his big political worries — Corporate Collusion in Third World exploitation, CIA manipulation of governments to benefit Big Corp -- in a formula hitman thriller got his interest.

“The Gunman” has solid action beats, decent characterizations, predictable conclusion. I think the mid-60s Alfa Romeo Giuletta that he “borrows” to make an inconspicuous get away steals the movie, and stops it dead in its tracks. Panned pretty much across the board.

“Tracers” may be the Not awful, him or the movie,last chance Taylor Lautner has to star in an action pic.  Not awful, him or the movie, but his box office appeal is gone baby gone and this limited release is all we need to know about his declining fortunes.

The best reviewed limited release of the weekend is a “Fargo” tribute, “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter.” Sort of a film festival favorite, it’s about a young Japanese woman confused into hunting for the ransom cash she sees buried in the snows of Minnesota in the movie “Fargo.” Daft, deft, dark.

“Do You Believe” is one of those movies that turns Christian filmmakers into liars. As in, “We can’t screen this for critics, it’s not ready.” Liars. It is opening in over 1300 theaters, is from the same people who made the angry, victimhood embracing “God’s Not Dead.” It could do well, but the Christians releasing it are liars.

Junk horror (“Ghoul”) and horror spoofs (“Zombeaver,” “The Walking Deceased”) also flesh out a weekend where not a lot is opening wide. Wish I’d seen The Police documentary, but you cannot get to them all.

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Movie Review: “The Walking Deceased”

deceaseIf Hollywood was to adopt “The Walking Deceased” business model, they’d never spend another dime on actors, known writers and L.A. film crews for a horror spoof.
It would be the end of the “Scary Movie” phenomenon, as we know it.
Because “Walking Deceased,” a broad, low parody of “The Walking Dead,” “Zombieland,” “Warm Bodies,” “28 Days Later” and the entire career of George A. Romero, is no worse than most of those.
If you’ve ever seen a zombie movie or TV series, you’ll get the jokes — such as they are.
There’s a nerdy, virginal kid (writer Tim Ogletree) who narrates the story and gives us the “rules” of zombie land. He hooks up with a survivor of the zombie apocalypse dressed and acting like Woody Harrelson and calling himself “Chicago” (Joey Oglesby). Last name? “Style Pizza.”
“Romeo” (Troy Ogletree) is a “vegan zombie,” dreamily staggering through a Texas mall where survivors have gathered, narrating his romantic narration in his head.
“It’s hard to push open sliding doors with zero motor skills.”
Then there are the siblings, Brooklyn (Sophia Taylor Ali) and the nonspeaking Harlem (Danielle Garcia).
Deputy Sheriff Lincoln, who has survived a month-long coma, hunts for his son, whom he insists on calling “Karl” when his name is “Chris.” Two “Walking Dead” gags in one. Andrew Lincoln plays Deputy Grimes on “The Walking Dead.”
The funniest thing in the film may be the kid’s survival strategy. He’s running a strip club, with zombies and his momma pole dancing for tips.
It seemed wittier on the page, with the Romeo/Romero puns and know-the-credits jokes with names and characters. Strictly low-hanging fruit, even for a lame horror parody. But after seeing it, you really do wonder if Hollywood will ever make another if they can do no worse with no budget attempts like this.

1half-star
MPAA Rating: unrated, nudity, graphic violence, language

Cast: Tim Ogletree, Joey Oglesby, Sophia Taylor Ali, Troy Ogletree, Dave Sheridan
Credits: Directed by Scott Dow, written by Tim Ogletree. An Arc Entertainment release.

Running time: 1:23

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Movie Review: “The Gunman”

pennSince we’ve seen this killer’s blackouts and dizzy spells, viewed his X-rays and heard a doctor tell him to avoid any more concussions, head trauma or even loud noises, we know what constitutes “stupid.”
But naturally, that’s exactly what Jim Terrier (Sean Penn) does, a guilt-ridden man whose efforts to atone for his past sins count for nothing when those sins come home to roost.
In “The Gunman,” Penn shoehorns a few of his pet causes — non-governmental aid organizations (NGOs), CIA interference in the Third World and multi-national corporate misconduct — onto an utterly conventional assassin-hunted-by-assassins thriller.
It works better than it should, because the high mileage Penn playing a high mileage killer is an easy fit, and Penn’s got chops.
But “Gunman” plays like a vanity project for an actor long past his vanity project age. With every shirtless moment (he even surfs, in the Congo), every dramatic drag on his ever-present cigarette, every scene with the do-gooder doctor who “got away” (Jasmine Trinca), Penn tests our reserve of good will.
Terrier was the trigger man in the team shooting of a Congolese official who was interfering with rapacious multi-national mineral corporations. Eight years later, he’s digging wells to get fresh water for the villages there. And that’s when assailants show up to get him.
Revenge? A desire for his silence? Terrier makes improbable escapes, implausible ones and preposterous ones as he ventures from London to Barcelona and Gibraltar is search of answers.
Winstone’s the old pal, Javier Bardem plays the old romantic rival who “got the girl.” Mark Rylance is a savvy old colleague and a mysterious Idris Elba flicks away at a pricey cigarette lighter, not revealing his hand until the third act.
I like the hard-boiled dialogue, even the preachier stuff.
“Not all of us wanted to turn our sin into profit.” “Do you keep a diary of all the horror we created?”
Bardem and Rylance stand out in the cast, with Elba and Winstone reduced to set-dressing roles. Penn does his best Liam Neeson in the lead, a hard “ex special forces” type who wipes out whole teams of killers in assorted lovely Spanish settings. The violence is very bloody and personal, and Penn has never had trouble conveying violence.
But the only novelty here is those settings as characters slip into stock “types” and the hard-boiled lines devolve into big speeches, delivered at gunpoint, by hero to villains, and vice versa.
Penn doesn’t work much, and this idea of combining his two careers — as actor, producer and co-writer, and as humanitarian — may have its heart in the right place. But take away the preaching, and this is just Penn’s version of a late-career Mel Gibson movie. He should be better than this.

2stars1

MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, language and some sexuality

Cast: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Jasmine Trinca, Idris Elba, Mark Rylance, Ray Winstone
Credits: Directed by Pierre Morel, written by Don MacPherson, Pete Travis and Sean Penn, based on a Jean-Patrick Manchette novel.
An Open Road release.

Running time: 1:55

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Movie Review: “Tracers”

1half-star

tracers

Taylor Lautner squanders a little more of his “Twilight” heat on “Tracers,” a B-movie thriller built around the urban obstacle course sport of “parkour.” It’s a stunt-heavy chase picture with some arresting camera work, but not much else to recommend it.
Lautner is Cam, a wildly-skilled bicycle messenger with more than his share of bad luck. He’s lost his parents, is in hock to some Chinatown loan sharks (Johnny M. Wu, Sam Medina) and behind on his rent. Then some parkour-crazed hottie (Marie Avgeropoulos) causes a crash that crushes his bike.
She crushes on Cam and gives him a new bike. He tracks her down, and that’s when he falls in with her crew, guys (Rafi Gavron, Adam Raynor, Luciano Acuna Jr., Josh Yadon) who skitter up walls, scamper over rooftops, hurtle cars and leap, balcony to balcony in an effort to prove they can cover the shortest distance between two points — parkour. It’s also called “free running” and “tracing.” That’s what Cam learns.
It took four screenwriters to concoct this “Point Break” style story, with Miller (Raynor) as the group’s leader and guru.
“There are no limits, my friend, only plateaus.” “The real obstacles aren’t out there. They’re in your head.”
These practitioners use their parkour for heists, one of which is staged with a little verve (the rest, not so much). Cam, with reservations, joins in the lucrative fun.
Lautner seems to do enough of his own stunts to have credibility on a bike or clambering down a wall. He’s charismatic enough to make this work, and director Daniel Benmayor (“Paintball”) has the camera crew chase him through some scenes, an invigorating touch.
But the limp, derivative script and thin supporting cast work against “Tracers.” There’s little heft to the villains, little spark with the leading lady and not much to recommend this aside from those chases and Lautner’s mastery of some of the stunts.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 on appeal for some intense violence, perilous action, sexual content and language

Cast: Taylor Lautner, Marie Avgeropoulos, Rafi Gavron, Adam Rayner, Johnny M. Wu
Credits: Directed by Daniel Benmayor, script by Leslie Bohem
Matt Johnson, Kevin Lund, T.J. Scott . A Lionsgate release.

Running time: 1:34

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Movie Review: “Insurgent”

insurgent“Insurgent” doesn’t seriously diverge from the “Divergent/Hunger Games/Maze Runner” formula until its final act.
Up until then, this “Divergent” sequel is Young Adults Save the World generic. It’s action-packed in the extreme, as Young Heroine Tris (Shailene Woodely) and “Dauntless” hunk Four (Theo James) run from the armed, motorized thugs that the smug Erudite elitists send after them, with barely time for a betrayal, a moment of weakness and a break for Shailene Woodley to pile on more makeup and lip gloss.
Not everyone is brave or true enough to make a revolution work. But there’s no excuse for not looking for sexiest.
The blossoming Tris-Four love affair is expedited by the terror of the chase and the convenience of zippered zippered jumpsuits.
New “Factions” are visited, with Octavia Spencer’s Joanna controlling her temper in leading the tolerant sweethearts of “Amity,” who briefly shelter our heroes.
“Go, with happiness!”
“Candor” leader Jack Kang (Daniel Dae Kim) is indeed candid, and to a fault. Naomi Watts introduces us to the “Factionless.” It’s all part of the endless exposition in this post-“Harry Potter/Twilight” teen and tween film universe. There are always new factions, or factionless folk, to introduce and explain.
But this derivative fluff, memorably mocked (along with its myriad YA sci-fi cousins) last fall on “Saturday Night Live,” takes a turn toward interesting the moment Triss, haunted by memories of her slaughtered family, tells us how she wants this insurgency to end.
“We need to kill Jeanine.”
The Divergent girl has become a hardened revolutionary, and she wants the leader (Kate Winslet) who killed those she loves to die.
At that point, director Robert Schwenktke (“Flightplan,” “RED”) and his screenwriters begin to transcend the material, something it took “The Hunger Games” longer to manage. We might think of “The Arab Spring” or the French Revolution and remember that not every insurgency leads to positive change, that every faction will have blood on its hands and that, in armed revolts, might makes right, but not righteous.
The wondrous Woodley is a more convincing tough chick here, James blandly adequate in support, Miles Teller a colorful third wheel and Ansel Elgort (as Tris’s meek brother) a colorless fourth wheel.
The fights are well-staged, the chases dull.
But as “Insurgent” wraps up, it picks up speed and depth, and gives you hope that maybe this series won’t wrap up as the copy-and-paste “Hunger Games” it has felt like, from the moment the books were word-processed onto the best seller lists.

2stars1MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense violence and action throughout, some sensuality, thematic elements and brief language

Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer
Credits: Directed by Robert Schwentke , written by Brian Duffield,
Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback , based on the Veronica Roth book. A Summit release.

Running time: 1:56

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Movie Review: “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter”

kumimage“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” didn’t really happen. It’s an urban legend.
It’s sort of like “Fargo” that way.
That’s the movie that Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi of “Pacific Rim”) stumbles across while beach-combing near Tokyo. It’s buried in the sand in a cave. This VHS must have something to tell her!
A loner, a passive aggressive “office lady” who doesn’t fit in with her colleagues, she hates running into more successful friends, doesn’t call her mother enough and generally avoids human contact.
But parsing the scenes of a waterlogged videotape is something she can manage. She sees a tale of kidnapping and murder in snowy Minnesota. She watches a bloodied Steve Buscemi leave a car on a blizzard-blown back road, cross a barbed wire fence and bury a bag of money.
It must still be there!
Kikuchi’s Kumiko doesn’t say any of this aloud. She and the Zellner Brothers, who wrote and directed this, get that across with just a pained, desperate face. She’s failing at life and work, but this treasure quest could be just the ticket.
She takes copious notes, tries to steal an atlas from the library, traces the TV screen to get the exact fence pattern of the burial site. Then she blows everything she has, and then some, to go to Minnesota to find the loot. In the winter.
The Zellner Brothers mimic “Fargo” in the deadpan nature of the humor here, especially the culture clash as this naive Japanese woman tries to make her way from Minneapolis to Fargo.
“This is not the right time of year to go sightseeing,” one of many helpful Minnesotans (Shirley Venard) assures her.
“Go FARGO,” Kumiko barks.
“You don’t want to go there, honey. Trust me. I’ll take you to The Mall of America. It’s really fun!”
The serene and forlorn snowscapes echo the Coen Brothers’ greatest movie, and the story evolves from quest to odyssey as Kumiko clings to her delusion and we start to wonder if maybe this loon isn’t onto something, that maybe the Coens WERE trying to tell us something. And only Kumiko and the Zellners figured that out.

3stars2MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Rinko Kikuchi, Shirley Venard, David Zellner
Credits: Written and directed by David Zellner, Nathan Zellner. An Amplify Media release.

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“Insurgent” star Octavia Spencer: Still America’s “Best Supporting Actress”

octoctaviaOctavia Spencer has spent the years since her 2012 Oscar night cashing in on the success “The Help” brought her.
She was the mother of a police shooting victim in the critically acclaimed “Fruitvale Station,” an alcoholic helping a much younger drunk change her life in “Smashed,” the fatalistically brave Tanya in the fanboy favorite “Snowpiercer,” the formative aunt in James Brown’s childhood in “Get on Up” and an enterprising mom who somehow raised a crackhead in “Black or White.” She headlined the cult TV series “Red Band Society.”
That’s a pretty good career, and that’s just the last three years.
“I’m very lucky to have great representation at WME (William Morris Endeavor),” the Best Supporting Actress winner says, as if giving another Oscar speech. “That’s their charge, to procure the most interesting work for me. That’s all I want. And they’re doing it, aren’t they?”
Critic fans such as Jackie Cooper of The Huffington Post admire her ability to “not rest on her laurels” and take low-paying, challenging films which “keep her relevant” and ensure she’ll “be around for a long time to come.”
But her newest film? Not low budget, not “indie.” She did “Insurgent,” the second film in the “Divergent” series, for love.
“Listen, there is no bigger fan,” Spencer admits. “I didn’t care what I played. I was just excited to be doing a part in a series that I really enjoyed as a reader. Not quite ‘Erudite’ of me, I know. But I’m such a fangirl!”
Spencer is Joanna, motherly leader of “Amity” in a post-Apocalyptic future where society has re-started, organized into “factions.” The smart, rational types are in “Erudite,” the truth-tellers are “Candor,” the fearless fighters are “Dauntless,” and so on. Spencer, the 44 year-old Alabama-born fangirl, has given some thought as to what Faction this future might sentence her.
“If they forced me into a Faction, they might give me credit for enough wisdom to be in Erudite, the selflessness of Abnegation. You hope that you can be Dauntless in your most fearful moments. And yes, I have Candor. Oh YES. Funny, but that was Joanna’s first Faction, before she moved to Amity. I have Amity. I can be easy to get along with.”
Spencer laughs at her intimate familiarity with the jargon and the world set-up in Veronica Roth’s novels.
“We’re all a little too complicated, as people, to fit into one Faction, aren’t we? And me? I must be DIVERGENT! Or ‘Factionless.'”
She’s too busy to be pigeon-holed, too much the polymath. The end of March sees her second children’s novel in the “Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective” series come out. And she was an unexpected star of last month’s Oscars, even though she wasn’t nominated. Host Neil Patrick Harris enlisted her to watch a locked briefcase where he allegedly hid his picks for all the Oscar winners.
“Not planned, at least on my part,” Spencer laughs. “That was fun, getting all that camera time for that ‘bit.’ I thought it was hilarious.”
So she’s not leery of getting that seat a little too close to the stage on future Oscar nights? Even if none of these critically-acclaimed performances find their to an envelope?
“Honey, if you go to the Oscars and you’re NOT sitting in the front row, that’s a reason to stay home.”

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Box Office: Girl Powered “Cinderella” blows up, “Run All Night” has legs.

boxGeorge Lucas was once quoted as saying “Figure out what 11 year old girls want, and you’re set for life.” Or words to that effect.

That’s certainly true in the land of Disney Princesses. “Cinderella” opened huge Friday and seems headed for a $70 million weekend.

Sure, it’s a laugh-starved, stately stiff of a movie. Reviews were respectful (I thought it a 2 hour bore), but unless word of mouth pounds it, and little girls don’t tweet hate like teen girls do, it will perform.

Liam Neeson has one more “hard man rescues his kid” thriller in him as “Run All Night” jogs to a respectable $11-12 million.

The new film with the killer per screen average is TWC/Radius’s “It Follows,” a horror film that will only see limited release before switching to VOD. That’s a mistake. It’s good, it’ll draw since the word is out. The Weinsteins, leaving box office money on the table? They’re losing their touch.

The crappy “Chappie” is falling off, and the Vince Vaughn comedy “Unfinished Business” has fallen off the table.

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Movie Review: “Eva”

eva22stars1

It’s possible to tell a sci-fi story about the coming age of sentient machines without a “Chappie” size budget, or turning “Chappie” insipid.
“Eva” is a modestly chilling if predictable Spanish science fiction film about “emo” robots. A 2011 vehicle for poly-lingual leading man Daniel Bruhl (“Rush”), it’s obsessed with that one great robotic concern in sci-i — the ineffable extra “something” that makes us human.
Bruhl plays Alex, a robot scientist who returns home to the northern Spanish university town where he grew up, a city that’s become a center for robot research and production.
He’s there to help the local college, where his brother (Alberto Ammann) and ex-girlfriend (Marta Etura) teach.
His mission? Help finish a prototype child robot that the school has been fiddling with. In a world where Alex’s “pet” cat, secretaries, drivers and the valet that the school with its Big Tech ties sends to look after him are robots, people still want a child that won’t grow up.
The plan is to model this ninth iteration of a sentient robot on a real boy. But Alex thinks “Boys are boring,” and boring boys make for boring robots.
Then he spies Eva. Played by Claudia Vega, she is anything but boring. Precocious, beguiling and playful, this ten-year old notices Alex staring at her and flings an instant nickname at him.
“Pervert.”
She’s perfect, if he can get her permission and her parents’ permission to study her, if he can get her to stop turning cartwheels through the snow and answer a few questions.
It turns out she’s his niece, the child of his ex-lover and his brother. That makes for an interesting dynamic as the robotics professors ponder the idea of the robot builder, a guy with whom they have history, modeling a machine after their spirited, smart kid.
The future captured by director Kike Maíllo’s crew is snowy (climate change), a world where people still smoke and SAABs have been reborn as zero emissions vehicles. The robot cat is a digitally animated add-on, and a feeble one.
Bruhl has a nice way of brooding, Etura (“The Impossible”) suggests the hurt and longing of a love that wasn’t meant to be. And young Miss Vega is a pleasant mix of enchanting child and future prom queen of the Children of the Damned. A teasing tantrum tosser, and a little scary.
It gives up its secrets so easily that we can guess where this is going from the opening (literal) cliffhanger. But this film, in Spanish with English subtitles,has one utterly brilliant conceit, one the film returns to, again and again.
What one question would constitute the difference between a person, with memories and emotions, and a machine?
“What do you see when you close your eyes?”
“Eva” isn’t surprising enough to break new ground. But the cast, the gorgeous wintry setting and suggestion of a tech future that is closer than we fear make it a most watchable variation on a well-worn sci-fi theme.

eva1
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence

Cast: Daniel Bruhl, Marta Etura, Alberto Ammann, Claudia Vega, Lluís Homar
Credits: Directed by Kike Maíllo, written by Sergi Belbel, Cristina Clemente, Martí Roca, Aintza Serra. A Radius/TWC release.

Running time: 1:35

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Movie Review: “Run All Night”

RUN ALL NIGHT“Run All Night” is a first-person shooter thriller for the Just for  Men/Grecian Formula generation.
Old men — cops and mobsters — sit in bars, drink their Scotch on the rocks and talk about the “old neighborhood,” their long history and the blood they’ve spilled. And then they spill some more — stabbings, beatings that end in strangulation, and shootings. Lots and lots of shootings.
It makes a fine vehicle for those weather-worn beauties Liam Neeson, as an alcoholic retired hit man, and Ed Harris as his friend, his boss, his brother-in-arms.
Sean (Harris) looks after Jimmy (Neeson). Back in the day, Jimmy’s nickname was “Jimmy the Gravedigger.” He solved problems for Sean. They’ve shared secrets and history, and a body count. Their afterlife fates are sealed, and joined.
“Wherever we’re going,” Sean re-assures Jimmy, “when we cross that line, we’re crossing it together.”
But Sean’s hothead son (Boyd Holbrook of “A Walk Among the Tombstones”) makes a deadly mistake, and Jimmy’s estranged limo driver son, Michael (Joel Kinnaman of “Robocop”) witnesses it. Jimmy kills Sean’s kid to protect his own, and it’s game on. Over one long night, Jimmy tries to keep his tough, mob-hating son alive, and Sean sends his minions out to do them both in.
Neeson is very much in his latter career comfort zone with this brutal, brooding thriller. This is his third film with director Jaume Collet-Serra (“Unknown,” “Non-Stop”), and it’s a stylish series of set-pieces that are like a series of heavyweight bouts.
There’s the Brawl in the Bathroom, the Bloodbath in the Bar, the Assassination in the Apartment and the Table Leg Light Sabre Duel in the Tower. Throw in some well-worn New York locations, a visceral car chase and you’ve got something above your standard Neeson thriller.
The script is loaded with cliches — mobsters threatening “LOOK at me,” a mob boss too principled to move heroin, a veteran Jimmy-chasing cop (Vincent D’Onofrio) trash-talking Jimmy.
Common shows up as another cliche, that hit-man hired to hit a hit man. But he’s as menacing as the rest of this stellar cast.
There are plenty of pleasures in watching these old pros — Harris and Neeson, D’Onofrio, Nick Nolte and Bruce McGill — playing old men of the mob wars trying to summon a young man’s bravado for the dirty job each must do.
“Run All Night” doesn’t re-imagine a worn out genre so much as drop a quart of Marvel Mystery Oil into the crankcase of that vintage V-8 for one last ride through the Mean Streets before “crossing that line” to the eternal damnation most everybody in this story has earned.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, language including sexual references, and some drug use

Cast: Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Boyd Holbrook, Genesis Rodriguez, Common, Nick Nolte
Credits: Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, written by Brad Ingelsby. A Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 1:54

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