A moviebrief roundup of this week’s new films.
Three films opened this week in wide release, including the Sacramento market, and were disappointing at various levels. I actually enjoyed watching them all, albeit for different reasons, but each is seriously flawed. And it’s an odd week for actor Dev Patel who has half of his 2015 film work thrown into a single weekend – although the two films (“The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “Chappie”) aren’t really competing for the same demographic.
“The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is the best of the three, largely because the others are even more deeply flawed. It has the very common problem of sequels to conceptual films in that it can’t simply rely on the original concept. The first film was simple – just a consideration of the question “What would happen if a bunch of British senior citizens ended up living in a hotel in India, where living costs are cheaper?” Of course, it came with internal conflict between the characters, but there was very little plot. Revisiting those same people in the same place then becomes difficult – suddenly there needs to be stuff going on, an actual story, unless one completely remakes the first film (as in “The Hangover Part II”). So we’re given an underlying storyline about a need to expand the hotel, and then each character is weighed down with some specific additional element of personal drama. And it all just gets unnecessarily busy. For example, one character mistakenly thinks he has put out a contract (a hit) on another character, which seems like it will become an awkward running joke throughout the film, but it serves no purpose other than to get the characters in the same place at the same time – something which could have occurred with far less fuss. If you ever had a cast where you could happily watch characters play Bridge around a table without the need for parallel three-act storylines, this would be it. It’s still moderately pleasant to watch because of that extraordinary collection of talent, but if you’re somebody who can happily watch a movie multiple times, you’d probably be better off re-watching the original.
“Chappie” has been eagerly awaited by many, advertised with the reminder that’s it’s from the filmmaker behind the hugely popular “District 9.” The problem being that also made the less well received “Elysium.” Sadly, “Chappie” continues that slide into Shyamalanesque, one hit wonder territory, with narrative that’s so uneven it feels like pieces of films made for different audiences stitched together. The film has moments of childlike wonder, thought provoking questions about artificial intelligence and ethics, neat special effects, and scenes of extreme violence – but little cohesion between them. Neill Blomkamp comes across as a filmmaker with neat ideas and a good director’s eye, who needs a really strong writing partner. This isn’t helped by having actors as good as Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver, in roles that seem to have more to do with the production’s appeal to investors than their suitability for the underdeveloped parts. Meanwhile, two of the more central roles are played by the members of South Africa’s rap duo Die Antwoord, who appear to be playing themselves as characters in a film rather than inhabiting other characters. The end result is a mess: In the sweet moments it could be a remake of “Short Circuit” and appeal to 10 year olds and in the harshest scenes we see bodies being ripped apart by gunfire or sheer force. It feels like a film that might have found its footing, and its audience, better within the bounds of a PG-13 rating – and while I have no idea if the final edits were the same in each country, it has a more young teen friendly rating in most countries of release.
“Unfinished Business” is not a great film – but it seems to come out of the gate with much lower expectations than the other two. Vince Vaughn plays an overworked and under-appreciated corporate salesperson who decides to start his own company with two other guys who coincidentally end up in the parking lot at the same time as him. And if certain members of the casts of the above two films were under-utilized, the use of Tom Wilkinson as the older member of the team again seems to have more to do with the appeal of names on the cast list in different markets than it does with any need for such a talented actor. But what carried the film for me was the performance of Dave Franco, generally the more appealing of the Franco brothers, who plays Mike Pancake, the third member of the team and a young man with some apparent intellectual challenges. He’s at once quite smart (in the work he does) but apparently lacking in any common sense and he’s the source of most of the comedy (that works) in the film. It reminded me, in part, of the brilliant job Trevor Fehrman did as Elias in (the much better) “Clerks 2” – wide eyed, innocent, gullible, and just plain stupid all rolled into one. It’s worth noting that “Unfinished Business” does tackle a couple of topics, childhood bullying and adult sexuality, better than many films of this type – while there are jokes about both topics, there’s also deeper consideration and they aren’t merely punchlines. Although early reviews have been weak, it’s fair to say that the test screening I attended had much of its dialog obscured by the volume of laughter from the audience – it’s not a great film but it certainly has some very funny moments along the way.