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

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Getaway


This is Ethan Hawke's career going up in flames.

This is Ethan Hawke’s career going up in flames.

(2013) Action (Warner Brothers) Ethan Hawke, Selena Gomez, Jon Voight, Rebecca Budig, Bruce Payne, Paul Freeman, Ivailo Geraskov, Dimo Alexiev, Slavi Pavlov, Deyan Angelov, Kaloian Vodenicharov, Danko Jordanov, Velizar Peev, Peewee Piemonte, Esteban Cueto, Kiril Todarov, Georgi Dimitrov, Lena Milan, Silvia Ranguelova, Maria Bobeva. Directed by Courtney Solomon

Some filmmakers accept their limitations and try to work within them. There are directors who specialize in certain types of movies and seem fairly content to making those sorts of films year after year, churning out films that are right in their wheelhouse. Others prefer to challenge themselves.

I’m not sure which kind of director Courtney Solomon is. What he has delivered to us here is basically a 90 minute car chase through the streets of downtown Sofia, Bulgaria with little thought given to plot or logic. The reason for that may be that Solomon is good and filming car stunts – or perhaps he isn’t and wants to get better at it.

Either way. Here we witness Brent Magra (Hawke), a former race car driver now living in Bulgaria after his career went belly-up and he’d turned briefly to a life of crime. Now married to a Good Woman (Budig) with whom he can start over in Eastern Europe, he is working a legit job. It’s Christmastime. What could go wrong?

Well, a lot. He comes home and finds his apartment trashed and blood on the floor. He receives a call on his cell from a guy with a German accent (Voight) who informs him that they have his wife. Just for good measure, pictures are sent to prove they mean business. Brent is to steal a car – a tricked out Shelby Mustang with all the latest gadgets including surveillance equipment inside and out, armor plating and a hands-free phone. It even comes with its irate owner, a Kid (Gomez) who is the daughter of a bank executive who happens to be a brilliant computer hacker and happens to have a gun. Brent is ordered to take her along and drive throughout downtown Sofia causing all manners of mayhem, like driving through a crowded park and ramming police cars.

Soon the entire Bulgarian police force is after him and the Kid and Brent need to figure out what the Voice wants; it’s clear to both of them that once the real deed is achieved the many and various thugs will kill Brent, the Kid, his Wife and a small village in Bosnia. Think of the Voice as a walking talking Monsanto.

It’s hard to know where to begin here. The acting is wooden and Gomez is horribly miscast. I get that she wants to scuttle her Disney Channel reputation and move on to more adult roles but she is about as convincing as a street-wise punk as De Niro would be as Tinker Bell. Hawke, who has done some fine work in the past, seems to be distracted throughout; maybe he’s thinking about how to invest his paycheck.

The big crime here is not the one being committed by the Voice and his gang but by the writers. There are incredible lapses in logic and continuity that are simply beyond amateur. For example, one of the tasks Brent and the Kid are given to do is to blow up a power plant by uploading a virus that overloads the system, causing a shower of sparks. We see the lights go out in Sofia. Cut to the very next scene and all the lights are on. Every. Last. One. When was the last time that your power went out and your lights came on within five minutes? Exactly.

Brent is chased by the cops and the thugs and none of them can shoot very well. Apparently there’s bullet proof glass in the car, but they are seen rolling down the windows on several occasions. Not with bullet proof glass you can’t. The Shelby is smashed and bashed by multiple collisions yet all the delicate electronics continue to work. Even given the armor plating, isn’t it likely a wire or two might be jarred loose?

I could go on and on but frankly this isn’t worth it. Those of you who think Hal Needham was too highbrow for your tastes might be happy as a pig in slop with this mess. For the rest of us, move along. Nothing here to see.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent car stunts.

REASONS TO STAY: Gomez is miscast. One trick pony.  Severe lapses in logic.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action and general mayhem throughout, a few choice words here and there and a few rude gestures to go along with them.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: 130 cars were wrecked in the making of the movie; the wrecked cars were stored in an on-set junkyard.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 2% positive reviews. Metacritic: 22/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Transporter

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Kick-Ass 2

G-Force


G-Force

All things considered, maybe lab testing comestics wouldn't have been so bad.

(Disney) Zach Galifianakis, Nicolas Cage (voice), Bill Nighy, Sam Rockwell (voice), Penelope Cruz (voice), Will Arnett, Jon Favreau (voice), Steve Buscemi (voice), Tracy Morgan (voice), Kelli Garner. Directed by Hoyt Yeatman

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer can be counted upon for loud, action-laden movies with plenty of special effects. So how would he fare with a kid’s movie?

The G-Force is comprised of leader Darwin (Rockwell), commandos Blaster (Morgan) and Juarez (Cruz), computer expert Speckles (Cage) and surveillance expert Mooch. The difference is, not a one of them is a human being; the first three are guinea pigs (and please don’t refer to them as hamsters, it offends them), Speckles is a mole and Mooch is a housefly.

They are the result of a government experiment by FBI nerd Ben (Galifianakis) who has given them the means to communicate with humans. Outfitting them with all sorts of high tech gear, they break into the house of billionaire appliance maker Leonard Saber (Nighy) to find some evidence of nefarious criminal activity.

When all they find is the blueprint for a new coffeemaker, straight-arrow Agent Killian (Arnett) shuts down the team and the animals are dispersed to a pet store. However, Darwin is certain that Saber is up to no good and he knows there is a 48 hour deadline before something really, really bad happens. His mission is to break out of the pet store with new flatulent friend Hurley (Favreau) with the help of psychotic part-ferret Bucky (Buscemi), find out what Saber is up to and save the day. He’ll have to avoid the FBI and their humorless agents who are chasing them, but they have turbocharged hamster balls (of the sort that Rhino used in Bolt) to elude their pursuers.

This is all in silly fun, and those who come to the theater looking for logic and plot or going to be tearing out their hair. Director Yeatman has a couple of visual effects Oscars to his name (one for technical achievement) and does a pretty decent job here, pacing the thing like you’d expect for a Bruckheimer movie – non-stop action with little pause for gathering ones wits.

The voice acting is credible, although Cage goes for the silly voice award of 2009. His nasal, Midwestern-accented take for Speckles is hysterical. Cruz goes for a bit of sex appeal and elevates her character above the typical Latina marine we’ve seen in cliché after cliché since Aliens. Tracy Morgan goes the ghetto route and comes off as kind of a cut-rate Chris Rock.

The live characters are pretty good, too – Nighy is always interesting, even when doing characters that are essentially boring and Arnett plays up the ramrod-stiff Killian to the point of ridiculousness which was certainly his intention.

The filmmakers are shooting for a pre-teen demographic, so there is a surfeit of fart jokes and robots – the global “threat” turns out to be giant robots made up of household appliances that apparently plan to stomp the human race out of existence. Me, I’d just wait ‘em out until their warranties expire.

Still, this is essentially safe and harmless fun that will keep most of your kids more than happy. The younger ones will coo over the lovable furry critters while the older ones will ooh and ahh over the cool robots that are a bit of a sly jab at the Transformers. There is certainly a dumb factor here – those who appreciate kids movies that don’t talk down to kids and treat them like they actually have brains are going to be sorely disappointed in G-Force but those who are looking just for something to keep their kids occupied and out of their hair for an hour or two will be quite satisfied.

Hmm, a kid’s movie that doesn’t pander to kids and treats them with intelligence. Locating a movie like that might be a job that even the G-Force can’t handle.

WHY RENT THIS: Harmless, mindless family film fun.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not what you’d call snappy dialogue or smart plotting. The preposterous meter is off the scale.

FAMILY VALUES: G-Force is suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Ferris wheel shown in the film is located on the island of Okinawa in Japan in a shopping and entertainment district called American Village.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a notable featurettes on super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and also an interesting feature on how the germination for the idea behind G-Force came from director Yeatman’s pre-teen son.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Pontypool