Chappie


Dev Patel and a new kind of Robocop.

Dev Patel and a new kind of Robocop.

(2014) Science Fiction (Columbia) Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Sharlto Copley, Yo-Landi Vi$$er, Ninja, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Brandon Auret, Johnny Selema, Anderson Cooper, Maurice Carpede, Jason Cope, Kevin Otto, Chris Shields, Bill Marchant, Robert Hobbs, Mark K. Xulu, Sheridon Marema, Shaheed Hajee, Arran Henn. Directed by Neil Blomkamp

Law enforcement is by definition a dangerous job. Police officers are killed in the line of duty all over the world more often than we would all like. Some feel that militarizing the police will protect better those who protect and serve. Using advanced military robotics may well be the solution, they might think.

Johannesburg, South Africa, has gone one step forward in that direction. Rather than put tanks and armored personnel carriers in the streets with gangs armed with rocket launchers and other advanced weaponry, they have put mechanized robots. However, these robots are often used with police officers, since a computer can’t tell right from wrong. However, the programmer for the robot cops, a fellow named Deon Wilson (Patel).

Deon has a whole other idea in mind. He’s developed a program that would give the Scout robots artificial intelligence; the ability to learn, grow, expand and make moral judgments that they couldn’t possibly make in the field. What he doesn’t know is that Michelle Bradley (Weaver), the head of the company he works for, is deathly afraid of even the concept of A.I., knowing that it could mean the end of the human race.

More practical is Vincent Moore (Jackman), an ex-military man whose creation, a clunky AT-AT looking thing whose design was rejected by Bradley, has more practical reasons for being pissed at Deon – he wants his Scout project to fail. He wants it to fail miserably and then let his own devices come save the day. Everyone in the building knows that Moore is a piss-poor engineer but everyone is a little afraid of him because Moore is a little psycho.

After a Scout is badly damaged in the field it is assigned to get scrapped. Seeing an opportunity to see if he can make his creation work, Deon decides to bring home the spare parts to build a robot of his own and see if he can make the A.I. work. Instead, he’s intercepted by a gang led by Ninja and Yo-Landi (Ninja and Vi$$er, respectively) who want him to give them a means of turning off the Scouts so that they can undertake a grand heist that will in turn give them the cash to pay off Pitbull (Selema), a psychotic gang leader who they owe money to.

Instead of an off switch, they get Chappie (Copley), the robot with the A.I. Child-like and frightened, Chappie learns at an astonishing rate. Ninja wants to turn Chappie into an accomplice in the heist while Yo-Landi is more of a nurturing sort. Despite Deon’s best efforts to keep Chappie in the straight and narrow, Ninja and his mate Yankee (Cantillo) are turning on Chappie to the delights of Thug Life and Gangsta Rap.

But Chappie is developing a moral compass of his own and is torn between Ninja and Yo-Landi, whom he address as Daddy and Mommy, and Deon, his creator. What will Chappie become, and what will happen when he gets there?

Blomkamp is the South African director behind District 9 and Elysium. Both are dystopian sci-fi films that are not only well-made entertainment but thought-provoking as well. This is the latest in that particular trend, although quite frankly it’s not as successful as the first two.

Artificial Intelligence is a subject that is moving well out of the province of science fiction and into the realm of science. It’s something we’re getting closer to. The nominal villain of this film, Moore, opines that artificial intelligence is unpredictable and could decide at a moment’s notice that the easiest way to protect the world was to get rid of the human population. He does have a point.

But then again, Chappie is literally a child whose moral development is being overseen by thugs. I can imagine that would raise some red flags, although the Yo-Landi character is a bit more maternal and less harsh than her male counterpart.

Patel who rose to fame with Slumdog Millionaire has become an engaging, charismatic actor who is able to ensnare audience sympathies with just a smile. He has as expressive a face as anyone in the business and he uses it to good purpose here. Jackman for his part rarely plays the villain and while his point of view here at least is relatable, the character’s jealousy and bullying tactics make the character hissable. I hate to say it but Jackman is far too ingrained in the public consciousness as a hero to make as an effective villain as you might like. Weaver is simply one of the most compelling actresses of our time.

Copley supplies the motion capture for Chappie as well as his voice; he does a pretty serviceable job, particularly delivering some much-needed moments of pathos near the end of the film. Copley is no Andy Serkis (but then again, who is?) but he does make Chappie feel like an actual flesh and blood…er, nuts and bolts robot.

Where the movie falls down is in the casting of Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er. They are both highly regarded rappers in South Africa and they have the look of the criminal gang down, but quite frankly they’re both horrible actors. Ninja is stiff and delivers his lines in kind of a colorless gruff voice that gives me the impression that he didn’t really want to be there while Yo-Landi’s child-like voice is so distracting that some of her dialogue simply becomes unlistenable. One wonders if the characters carried the same name as the rappers because Blomkamp, who co-wrote the script with his wife, didn’t trust them to react to different character names while the cameras were running.

Blomkamp makes some tactical errors along the way besides the casting. The dialogue is often cheesy and doesn’t sound like real people talking. The abandoned industrial sites that are the hideouts for Pitbull’s gang as well as Ninja’s are indistinguishable from one another, while having Pitbull brandishing a solid gold machine gun may look gangsta but is impractical to say the least and ludicrous to be more accurate. There’s a lot more I could go into but it would be like kicking a dog while it’s down.

The movie has been fairly negatively received both by critics and at the box office and I can genuinely say that both critics and audience have it right. It isn’t to say that Chappie is without any merit whatsoever and should be avoided like a root canal on a healthy tooth – there is entertainment value here, it’s just that if you go in expecting something along the lines of District 9 you are going to leave disappointed. Blomkamp clearly is a talented director and has some major high profile projects lined up for the near future. Hopefully he’ll do a better job with them than he did with this.

REASONS TO GO: Some genuine moments of pathos. Dev Patel is engaging and Hugh Jackman makes for a decent villain.
REASONS TO STAY: Rappers are TERRIBLE actors. Missteps throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: A lot of violence, even more foul language and some brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chappie’s rabbit ear antennae are a nod to the similar look of Briareos in the manga Appleseed of which Blomkamp is a fan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bicentennial Man
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Wrecking Crew

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


It's a Bollywood world and we're just living in it.

It’s a Bollywood world and we’re just living in it.

(2015) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Dev Patel, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie, Diana Hardcastle, Tina Desai, Richard Gere, Lillete Dubey, Tamsin Grieg, Fiona Mollison, David Strathairn, Shazad Latif, Avijit Dutt, Denzil Smith, Ashok Pathak, Poppy Miller, Neeraj Kadela, Vikram Singh, Rajesh Tailoring, Penelope Wilton, Claire Price, Christy Meyer. Directed by John Madden

In many ways, we’ve lost sight of the respect that is due to the elderly population. Sure, I can get aggravated with them when they chat loudly in movie theaters, or drive slowly on city streets. I don’t, however, agree with the current mindset of sticking them in sterile nursing homes where they wait to die. There should be some dignity in the process.

In Jaipur, the residents of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel have settled into a routine of life. Muriel (Smith) has become co-manager of the establishment, while Evelyn (Dench) has become a fabric buyer for a company which now wants to hire her full-time even though she’s in her late 70s. This puts a crimp in the already awkward relationship with Douglas (Nighy) who is running sightseeing tours but because he is having memory issues is relying on a young local boy to read facts and figures over a radio that broadcasts to a receiver in his ear. He’d very much like to take his relationship with Evelyn further but the two are talking at cross-purposes and Evelyn, a widow, isn’t quite ready to resume romance. And of course, Douglas is still technically married even though his wife Jean (Wilton) has left him and returned to England.

The other residents are also dealing with their own issues. Madge (Imrie) is trying to decide between two wealthy suitors and yet is spending much time with her driver Babul (Tailang) and his niece, trying to make up her mind. Norman (Pickup) who is working at the Viceroy Club, believes he’s inadvertently hired a hitman to take out his girlfriend Carol (Hardcastle).

Sonny (Patel), the owner and co-manager of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, has a lot on his plate. He is preparing for his upcoming wedding to his sweetheart Sunaina (Desai). He also realizes that his hotel is a victim of its own success; there are no rooms at the inn. The only thing he can do is expand and in order to do that, he needs money. A lot of it…and soon. He reaches out to an American hotel chain magnate (Strathairn) who tells Sonny that he’s intrigued by Sonny’s vision and will send an inspector to evaluate his existing property and whose recommendation would be crucial in making his decision.

He has his eye on a property nearby but into the picture steps Kushal (Latif), Sunaina’s ex-boyfriend and a wealthy and handsome young man who seems destined to be better at everything than Sonny.  Sonny becomes uncontrollably and unjustifiably jealous, feeling that Kushal is there to steal everything Sonny has away from him. In the meantime, a new resident named Guy (Gere) from the States is there to write a novel – although Sonny believes him to be the hotel inspector – and falls for Sonny’s mom (Dubey) as a matter of course.

The first Best Exotic Marigold Hotel took me a bit by surprise in that I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. The sequel doesn’t get the advantage of surprise that the first one got, but it still nevertheless connected with me. While in some ways being easily digestible and unsurprising like a bowl of cream of wheat, it does carry with it a flavor of India so that that bowl of cream of wheat has tandoori spices to be sure.

Of course, when you have a cast like this one, it’s really hard to go wrong. Smith and Dench are two of the greatest actresses alive today and both know how to deliver an acerbic line with the best of them. Nighy is likewise delightful, stealing the movie in many ways with his somewhat droll yet hip demeanor.

The script by Ol Parker, who also wrote the first one, doesn’t give short shrift to the backing characters either. Imrie in particular has some truly poignant moments to work with and while Pickup’s Norman is a bit of a one-dimensional bumbling lothario unused to the whole monogamy thing, even he has some depth as you can tell by that sentence alone. There is also a Bollywood-like dance sequence, something that the first film didn’t provide, which is utterly charming.

While a bit pedestrian, the lovely scenery of Jaipur and Mumbai where the film primarily takes place help keep the movie from ever getting boring visually and the performance of the aforementioned cast keep it from getting boring in any other way. While not quite as good as the first, the second visit to Sonny’s home for the elderly and beautiful is an enjoyable feast that reinforces a previously unknown desire to visit the sub-continent one day. If this movie teaches you anything, is that nothing is impossible nor unattainable no matter how old you are.

REASONS TO GO: Dench, Smith and Nighy are wonderful. Delightful Bollywood elements. Nice visuals.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit bland and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of foul language and suggestive comments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Evelyn claims that Muriel is 19 days older than she is, but in reality Judi Dench is 19 days older than Maggie Smith.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Unfinished Song
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest

New Releases for the Week of March 6, 2015


ChappieCHAPPIE

(Columbia) Hugh Jackman, Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Sigourney Weaver, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Ninja, Brandon Auret. Directed by Neill Blomkamp

In a future in which crime is fought by mechanized police forces, a robot is stolen and reprogrammed, given the ability to learn, grow and feel. Renamed Chappie, this is the first truly artificial intelligence with the potential to be a lifeform which makes a lot of people nervous. These people will stop at nothing to make sure that Chappie is eliminated and none like him ever emerge. Not. Ever.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, IMAX (opens Thursday)
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for violence, language and brief nudity)

Hayride 2

(Freestyle) Sherri Eakin, Jeremy Sande, Jeremy Ivy, Corlandos Scott. When the serial killer Pitchfork escapes from custody, a manhunt ensues with the killer taking refuge in a hospital. There the bloodthirsty killer has all sorts of opportunities to work on his craft even further.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Touchstar Southchase
Rating: R (for bloody horror violence throughout and language)

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

(Fox Searchlight) Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Richard Gere, Judi Dench. The success of the hotel has left only one room available, which poses a dilemma for new arrivals of the opposite sex. Expanding with a second hotel takes a lot more of the ambitious manager’s time, considering he is about to get married. Meanwhile the residents continue to adjust to their new lives in India not always as smoothly as they’d like.

See the trailer, clips and featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for some language and suggestive comments)

Unfinished Business

(20th Century Fox) Vince Vaughn, James Marsden, Sienna Miller, Tom Wilkinson. After leaving a large corporate entity to start his own small business, a hard-working savvy entrepreneur travels to Europe with his other two employees to close the deal that will establish his business and take them from sure bankruptcy. However he must overcome nearly every obstacle imaginable – including competing against his old business to win the bid that will save his company.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for some strong risqué sexual content/graphic nudity, and for language and drug use)

What We Do in the Shadows

(Unison/Paladin) Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jackie van Beek, Jonny Brugh. A documentary film crew follows a group of four vampires sharing a flat together which isn’t always as easy as it sounds when you’re the egotistical undead. From the New Zealand lunatics who brought you Flight of the Conchords.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror Comedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: NR

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Dev Patel toasts his participation in an early favorite for the best movie of 2012.

(2011) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Dev Patel, Tena Desae, Lillette Dubey, Sid Makkar, Seema Azmi, Diana Hardcastle, Lucy Robinson, Paul Bhattacharjee. Directed by John Madden

 

Everybody ages. Not everybody gets to grow old and it’s for damn sure that not everybody grows as they age period.

A group of seven British retirees find themselves on a bus for the airport taking them to India. They’re not on a holiday or a tour – they are moving to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a budget-priced retirement facility which claims in their advertisements that they have all the amenities needed so that they might spend their golden years in comfort and luxury.

Their interest is that the Hotel is inexpensive enough that they can all afford to live, as they all (with a couple of exceptions) have some sort of financial difficulty. Evelyn Greenslade (Dench) discovered when her husband passed away that he was deeply in debt and she was forced to sell her home in order to pay them off. Douglas (Nighy) and Jean (Wilton) Ainslie lost their life savings when their daughter’s internet company which they had invested in failed. Muriel Donnelly (Smith), a retired domestic, is going to India for a hip replacement surgery which is the only place where she can afford one. Madge Hardcastle (Imrie) is out to find herself a rich husband who can support her needs. Norman Cousins (Pickup), a ladies’ man, wants one last one-night-stand to tide him over. Finally Graham Dashwood (Wilkinson) who is a retired high court judge, grew up in India and seeks to find a lost love.

The hotel that they arrive at is far from what the advertisements claimed; it is ramshackle, without working phones and is old, decrepit and in need of much repair. Sonny (Patel), the manager, is highly enthusiastic and likable but lacks business know-how. He is desperately trying to get a local businessman to invest in the hotel in order to get it solvent; his mother (Dubey) wants him to come back to Delhi so that she can arrange a proper marriage for him. Sonny however only has eyes for Sunaina (Desae), a call center employee.

The new residents all react in different ways to their environments. Evelyn takes a job at the call center as a consultant to help the employees, including Sunaina whom she forms a friendship with, how to speak to elderly British sorts. She needs the work in order to afford to live at the hotel.

Graham disappears most of the day, rarely talking about where he’s been and what he’s done. He recommends places for the others to explore, which Douglas takes him up on. Jean prefers to stay in her room and read, complaining about everything and everyone. Muriel, whose racially insensitive views made some uncomfortable, begins to come around after her successful surgery and befriends a maid of the Untouchable class. When she gives her some advice on how to better sweep the pavement, the maid is very grateful, despite Muriel’s discomfort.

In fact, all of the residents are being profoundly touched by their surroundings and by each other. Some will find exactly what they’re looking for; others will be disappointed and others will be surprised. All will be confronted by their own mortality and their own shortcomings – and all will be changed by their experiences, and by India.

Madden, best known for directing Shakespeare in Love, assembled a tremendous cast and wisely lets each of them get their moment to shine. The movie is not so much about aging but about living – about never being too old to change and grow. It’s kind of a cross between Bollywood (without the songs and dance), Ealing Studios comedies, and On Golden Pond. While the movie certainly is aimed at an older audience, there is plenty in it for non-seniors to enjoy. It doesn’t hurt that the script (by Ol Parker) is well-written and full of some wonderful lines not to mention a great deal of wisdom.

Each character gets at least a few scenes to shine in; most remarkable are Dench, Wilkinson, Nighy, Smith and Wilton. Imrie and Pickup also fare well in their moments. Dench does a voiceover (which is the vocalization of the blog she’s writing) that is actually non-intrusive and well-written rather than a lot of Hollywood voice-overs which tend to be the writers showing off how well they can turn a phrase. Wilkinson and Nighy are two of the most consistent actors in Hollywood; Nighy often gets parts that are kind of far-out, but here his character is a decent man, worn down from years of living with a shrew. Wilkinson’s characters tend to run the gamut from amoral executives to care-worn fathers but here he is a lonely man, haunted by his past and the repercussions of his decision not to protest an obvious injustice. The inner decency of Graham shows through at every moment; he’s a judge that I would want hearing my case, a man who wins the respect of pretty much all of his compatriots.

This is a movie that you can fall in love with. It allows Indian culture to shine through without over-romanticizing it; you get the sense of the drawbacks of Indian culture as well (the congestion, the poor infrastructure and yes, the smell). However it counterbalances that nicely with the overall accepting nature of the Indian people, the beauty of the temples, palaces and countryside and yes, the people themselves – Patel and Desae make a magnificent couple.

I went in expecting to like this movie but not to love it but I wound up appreciating every moment of it. None of this rings false and to my way of thinking, you get to view the world through the eyes of people who have largely been discarded and marginalized by the world at large. Some of them do indulge in a heaping helping of self-pity but for the most part they find their niche in the world and inhabit it, much like anybody of any age. I know younger people might find the subject matter of seniors trying to fit into the world uninteresting to them but for those who don’t reject the subjects of India and the elderly out of hand, this is a movie you’ll find tremendously rewarding.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing performances. An unsentimental but affectionate look at India. Great one-liners.

REASONS TO STAY: Younger people might find the pace boring and the subject uninteresting.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words scattered here and there, and some of the content is a bit sexual in nature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The novel that Jean is reading is Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, who also wrote These Foolish Things on which this movie is based.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100. The reviews are pretty much positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Young @ Heart

INDIA LOVERS: The area around Jaipur is shown with equal parts crumbling, decaying poverty and ancient beauty. The countryside is equally inviting and for those who haven’t considered visiting India, this acts as a pretty compelling reason to go.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Wild Grass

The Last Airbender


The Last Airbender

Those guys are just teed off because Aang stole their pajamas.

(Paramount) Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Dev Patel, Cliff Curtis, Aasif Mandvi, Shaun Toub, Keong Sim, Seychelle Gabriel, Katharine Houghton, Francis Guinan, Randall Duk Kim, Damon Gupton, Summer Bishil. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

There is the school of thought that all of us were born for a reason. Whether that reason is to accomplish something, or to be with somebody, we all have a destiny we’re meant to fulfill. That’s the idea, anyway.

Based on the Nickelodeon faux-anime series, the movie takes place in a world that has been divided into four nations, each based on an element – Fire, Water, Air and Earth. Each nation has a group of people within it that can bend the element endemic to their nature; Earthbenders can cause rocks to hurl themselves at aggressors, and protect their Bender by creating a shield wall. Waterbenders can encase their enemy in ice, while Airbenders can create a little tornado. Firebenders can hurl flames at those they wish, which can come in very handy when you want to fricassee someone.

However, Benders can only work with the element they’re native to and none other. Only one person, the Avatar, can bend all four elements. He also can communicate with the spirit world, wherein reside dragons and other amazing creatures who act as mentors and guides. The Avatar is reincarnated whenever he dies and while he lives he keeps the world in balance.

However, Aang (Ringer), the most recent Avatar, ran away before he could be fully trained and disappeared. Without the Avatar to maintain balance, the aggressive Fire Nation attacked the Air Nation and wiped it out, and has occupied the Earth Nation while besieging the Water Nation. The world is at war.

A hundred years later, two war orphans of the Southern Water Tribe are hunting for very scarce food on the ice floe. Katara (Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Rathbone) find something buried beneath the ice which turns out to be an ice sphere, which turns out to contain…drum roll please…Aang, who has remained in suspended animation for more than a century. He is completely unaware of what has transpired. However, releasing Aang sends a bolt of light sure to attract anyone in the vicinity.

And it so happens that in the vicinity is Prince Zuko (Patel) of the Fire Nation, who is in disgrace for showing leniency to the soldiers under his command. He has been banished by his own father, the Fire Lord Ozai (Curtis) until Zuko brings the Avatar to the court of the Fire Lord. The beam of light attracted Zuko’s notice and he, along with his uncle, General Iroh (Taub). They march into the village of the Water People and capture Aang. However, Sokka and Katara rescue the lad with the aid of his luckdragon. Okay, it looks like a luckdragon.

At Sokka’s urging, Aang heads up a rebellion, which gains some steam. After awhile, Aang confesses to Katara that he was only trained how to bend Air, and needs to learn Water, Earth and Fire in order to attain his full power. Sokka and Katara must take Aang to the Northern Water Tribe where they still bend water openly, and get him trained. However, Zuko is pretty hacked off after losing his prisoner and is looking for him with a vengeance, and Ozai has sent his slimiest general, Commander Zhao (Mandvi) to trap the Avatar himself. Considering the armed might of the Fire Nation and their infernal machines, can anyone stand up against the most powerful nation on the planet?

The critics have been universally harsh on this one, and I can see some of their points. Certainly the acting is on the wooden side here. I mean, I know they’re supposed to be one with the earth but do they have to be trees?

I know, har de har har har. However, Shyamalan, who has been on a cold streak lately, cast a kid in the lead role that has a certain amount of natural charisma but not enough acting chops to pull off carrying an entire movie. He has some impressive martial arts moves, but mostly what he does is wire work. Ringer would have benefitted from a few more acting lessons before cameras were rolling. However, the boy has a certain natural charm that you can’t teach; hopefully in future movies he’ll be much better.

Another problem is the battle scenes. If you look at most Asian martial arts movies, the battle scenes look realistic and beautifully choreographed. Here, it looks like a bunch of guys waving their arms around. There’s no sense of conflict.

There has been some grumbling that the bad guys are mostly played by Indian actors. I mean, can we just take a chill pill for a moment? The director wanted the four nations to look ethnically similar, so the Earth people look Chinese and Mongol, the Water people look Scandinavian and Germanic and the Fire people look like Eastern Indians. Shyamalan is of Indian-American background; how people would have had a coronary if the Fire People all were African, or Italian. Take it easy people; this is a fantasy movie, not an indictment of any particular ethnic group back here on Earth and certainly not the director’s own. Sheesh.

To the good, the art direction is marvelous. Shyamalan succeeded in creating distinct cultures with their own architectural look, from the steampunk-styled warships of the Fire people to the igloo-like dwellings of the Water people. The costumes and the overall look of the movie is very satisfying, to say the least. The bending effects of fireballs, ice walls, flying rocks and tornadic dust clouds while not groundbreaking are at least reasonably high on the wow factor scale.

The dialogue could have used some work, but then again what do you expect for a movie based on a Nickelodeon animated series? It’s simplistic in places, full of pretentious New Age babble, and portentous pronouncements. I suspect some of the acting performances would have been better had the actors had more naturalistic dialogue to work with.

This isn’t a very good movie, to be sure but it does have some redeeming qualities, despite the critical bashing that it has been taking for awhile. I haven’t seen the original anime that this is based on so I went in as something of a blank slate, without any preconceived notions of how this movie should look or feel. Without any knowledge of the show’s canon, I can safely say that the premise is very intriguing, if a little child-friendly, and I liked some of the concepts here. Unfortunately, those concepts weren’t well-served by the script. The movie did moderate box office in its first weekend and unless it turns out to be word-of-mouth proof, chances are those numbers are going to take a nosedive in the coming days. So, it is sad to say that this will take its place in a long line of recent attempts to create a new fantasy franchise that have ended after a single chapter (see Eragon, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, The Dark is Rising: The Seeker, Inkheart, The Spiderwick Chronicles and The Golden Compass, to name just a half dozen). Maybe the studios should stop looking for the next Harry Potter and try some adult fantasy fiction, like the Wheel of Time, or the Shannara series or perhaps the Magic of Xanth. I wouldn’t mind any one of those making it to the screen.

REASONS TO GO: Great concept and some truly impressive visuals. The set design is just outstanding.

REASONS TO STAY: Really bad acting in some key roles. Battle sequences look just awful. Dialogue too “Nickelodeon Cartoon” to make sense in a live action film.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some fantasy violence and a few battle scenes, but nothing bloody or disturbing enough that you wouldn’t think twice about letting most kids see it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the series this is based on is entitled “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” Paramount dropped the “Avatar” to avoid confusion with the James Cameron movie released in 2009, and also to avoid possible legal action from 20th Century Fox, who had already registered the name.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the sequences are visually impressive and deserve to be seen on a big screen; otherwise, it’s your call.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Death Race

New Releases for the Week of July 2, 2010


July 2, 2010

This will get more than a few pre-teen hearts a'twitter.

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE

(Summit) Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Bryce Dallas Howard, Dakota Fanning, Ashley Greene, Kellan Lutz, Peter Facinelli, Nikki Reed. Directed by David Slade

The third installment in the mega-popular supernatural romance series finds Bella being forced to choose between her love for Edward and her more-than-friendship with Jacob as enemies of the Cullen clan gather an army to take over the vampire world. Even the werewolves are forced to choose a side. Early reviews for this one have it as the best one of the series so far.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard and IMAX

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, and some sensuality)

I Hate Luv Storys

(UTV Communications) Sonam Kapoor, Imran Khan, Samir Dattani, Bruna Abdallah. Jay is an assistant director to one of the top directors of romantic movies in India, but Jay doesn’t believe in love. Simran is in love with love stories, so much so that her life has begun to resemble one. After the two meet by chance, Simran’s life begins to show the influence of Jay’s cynicism, while Jay’s strange encounters with Simran begin to work their way into the fiction of the movie that Jay’s working on. Can there be a happy ending for two people who are so different to begin with?

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: NR (some sequences of sensuality and smoking)

The Last Airbender

(Paramount) Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Dev Patel, Cliff Curtis. This live action remake of a Nickelodeon fantasy animated series is helmed by none other than the King of Twists M. Night Shyamalan. The plot is simple: the world is divided into nations who are able to control the four elements – earth, fire, water and air. When the Fire Nation declares war on the other three, they will have to unite to stave off the menace of Fire – and find a legendary hero who can control all the elements.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Rating: PG (for fantasy action violence)

Paper Man

(MPI Media Group) Jeff Daniels, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, Lisa Kudrow. A middle aged novelist whose life has never measured up to anybody’s expectations finds an unlikely friendship with a teenage girl who is dealing with a family tragedy. He has relied on imaginary friends since childhood, particularly a costumed superhero named Captain Excellent, to help guide his way but his new real friend may be just what he needs to finally grow into the man he was always meant to be.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for language and a scene of sexuality)

Slumdog Millionaire


Slumdog Millionaire

Who wants to be a millionaire?

(Fox Searchlight) Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Saurabh Shukla, Mahesh Manjrekar, Ankur Vikal. Directed by Danny Boyle

When you live in abject poverty, survival is a day to day issue and nothing is guaranteed, least of all the possibility of a better tomorrow. However as difficult as it is to escape the slums, if that is what love requires of you then it must be done.

Young Jamal Malik (Patel) is a contestant on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” He is one question away from the grand prize of 20 million rupees when he is arrested by police and questioned. They are suspicious that a boy like this from the slums, uneducated and unaware even of who is on the 1,000 rupee note (It’s Gandhi for those who are wondering, and for those who aren’t, this particular banknote is about as common as the $1 bill is here) can answer questions that even the highly educated cannot.

After a night of torture, a patient police detective (Khan) sits Jamal down and runs through the tape of the previous day’s show one question at a time.

It turns out that Jamal’s knowledge is hard-fought, obtained from a life on the streets of Mumbai. Orphaned at an early age along with older brother Salim (Mittal), the brothers befriend a fellow orphan, the beautiful Latika (Pinto). The three are taken under the wing of Maman (Vikal) who turns out to be a heartless gangster who has accumulated dozens of children in his “orphanage” to act as beggars. He even, in a particularly gruesome scene, has the eyes burned out of some of their heads with acid to then be scooped out with a spoon like so much yoghurt. Salim leads them on a breakout but when he and Jamal make it onto a train, Salim purposely slips his hand away from Latika’s so that she gets captured.

The brothers wind up working – okay, scamming would be a better word – as tour guides at the Taj Mahal, brazenly telling tourists false facts about the Taj and throwing up bigger lies when their own stories are questioned. They are making good money but Jamal misses Latika, to his brothers’ disgust and urges them to go back to Mumbai and find her. When they do, they discover that Maman has been preparing her as a highly sought after virgin prostitute and is getting ready to make good on his investment by selling her virginity to the highest bidder. Salim winds up shooting and killing Maman. He then uses that to get a job with rival gangster Javed (Manjrekar) and proceeds to throw Jamal out of the apartment they share with Latika. Jamal’s heart is broken because Latika is apparently siding with Salim.

Years later, Jamal winds up working at a call center as a chaiwalla (tea server) and uses the database to find both Latika and Salim but succeeds only in finding Salim. Salim is penitent but Jamal is still focused on Latika. Salim is bewildered by his devotion and responds that she is “long gone.” When Jamal follows Salim to his house, he discovers that Latika is there but is apparently living with Javed. Jamal brazenly bluffs his way into the gangster’s house and confesses his love for her. She is reluctant to go with him, knowing that Javed would be furious but he promises to wait for her in Mumbai’s largest train station every day at 5:00pm “until she comes.” One day she does come but before the two can re-unite, she is kidnapped by Javed’s men (including Salim) in front of Jamal’s horrified eyes. One of the men cruelly slashes her cheek with a knife, driving away from an enraged Jamal.

When Jamal goes back to Javed’s house, he finds that the gangster has moved away. With no way to find his beloved, he decides to take a chance – to go on a game show that she is sure to be watching, and stay on as long as he can. And so far, he has stayed on as long as he can go – because every question has had an answer from some incident in Jamal’s life. But can he answer the biggest question of all – will he wind up with the love of his life?

Director Boyle has had a chameleon-like career, with movies as disparate as Trainspotting, Million$ and Sunshine to his credit. Here he takes Bollywood conceits and blends them nicely with western storytelling and creates one of the most heartfelt movies of the year. Winner of eight Oscars, including Best Picture, the movie captures the poverty of the slums and the heartlessness of those who exploit those in it. There are some exemplary moments in the movie.

The storytelling style has drawn some fire, which I find hard to understand. Yes, it might be a bit serendipitous that the questions on the game show echo things that happened in Jamal’s life in chronological order, but it doesn’t take that much of a suspension of disbelief. The flashback style by now isn’t anything particularly innovative, and I for one had no problem following the story.

Also worthy of note is the acting. The leads Patel and Pinto are particularly stellar; giving performances that belie that this is the first time either has acted in a feature movie (Patel has some television experience in Britain). Their chemistry is noticeable and more believable than some larger-budget pairings between established stars.

Many of the supporting cast, drawn from Bollywood, is also solid. I was fond of the heinous gangster as enacted by Vikal, as well as the smarmy game show host with an agenda of his own, which was played by the veteran Anil Kapoor. Special notice must also be given to the child actors who portrayed the two brothers and Latika at various stages of their life. Some of them had no experience whatsoever and were actually drawn from the slums of Mumbai.

The score by A.R. Rahman is superb, combining traditional Indian music along with hip-hop, r&b, rock and other western forms. The result is, like the movie, an engaging multi-cultural stew that gives us a glimpse of an entirely different world. In that sense, Slumdog Millionaire is science fiction, only it goes no further than our own world and reminds us that as a race we are far more diverse and wonderful than even we know.

WHY RENT THIS: Like other Danny Boyle movies, this one has a great deal of heart. Astonishing performances by first-time feature actors Patel and Pinto. A glimpse at an entirely different world than we in the West is used to.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The hype for this underdog movie may well have exceeded its performance. Some of the scenes of poverty, desperation, crime and torture may be too much for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some graphic scenes of child abuse and depictions of abject poverty. Also some violence, sex and foul language, enough that would make me think twice before letting the kids watch this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the only Best Picture winner to date to win the Oscar without any former or future Oscar winners in the cast.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD release is curiously lacking in anything but the basic deleted scenes-commentary-making of feature-trailer package that accompanies every major release, which considering this won 8 Oscars last year is awfully strange. The Blu-Ray contains all this plus a 41 minute Indian short, as well as an examination of the set-up and execution of the notorious toilet scene.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Box