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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Fury


Brat Pitt sets Logan Lerman straight about Benjamin Button.

Brat Pitt sets Logan Lerman straight about Benjamin Button.

(2014) War (Columbia) Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Jim Parrack, Brad William Henke, Kevin Vance, Xavier Samuel, Anamaria Minca, Alicia von Rittberg, Scott Eastwood, Laurence Spellman, Daniel Betts, Adam Ganne, Eric Kofi-Abreva, John Macmillan, Saul Barrett, Marek Oravec, Orion Lee, Stella Stocker. Directed by David Ayer

If war is hell, the hell of war are metal tubes and tanks. During the Second World War, America lost tanks and their crew at a terrifying rate. It took (and continues to take) a special kind of warrior to lock themselves in those iron coffins and duel other warriors in an effort to pan-fry or blow off the face of your enemies before they do the same to you.

In the waning days of that war, the tank crew for the tank nicknamed “Fury” is led by Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt), a hard, rough fellow who has only one goal – to get his men back home alive. He’d started killing Nazis in North Africa; now he’s killing them in Germany. However, there isn’t much left of the once-mighty German army. They’re mostly children and old men drafted from villages to protect the Fatherland. Those that refused were hung in the name of the defense of the Wehrmacht.

Inside his tank is his lead driver Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Pena), an even-tempered man with a quirky sense of humor; gunner Boyd “Bible” Swan (LaBeouf), a devout Christian who believes that killing the evil Germans is God’s work (and he’s not far wrong). The mechanic is Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Bernthal), a wizard with mechanical things but an absolute horror with people. Surly and prejudiced against…well, EVERYONE, he’s meaner than a hound dog with a butt itch.

There’s also a second driver whose face and eyeball and a good deal of his skull as well as assorted bits of brain and blood have painted the inside of the tank.

They receive a new second gunner, young Norman Ellison (Lerman) who has not fired a shot in anger at anyone and was originally conscripted to be a clerk-typist for the army who has been forced to start replacing the staggering losses from wherever they can. He has a hard time with this change in duties and when the time comes to fire his weapon at a living human being, he can’t bring himself to do it. His inaction costs another tank crew their lives.

However, even as the Allies are pushing through to Berlin, word comes that a column of battle-hardened SS soldiers are coming down the road to pierce into the heart of the forward command. If they’re successful, they may set the Allies back a bit and add more time and casualties to a war that already has plenty of both. It will be up to the valiant crew of the Fury to stand fast. Will they be up for the challenge?

This was originally thought to be a major Oscar contender but the studio ended up pushing it back from a Holiday release to an October one. I can’t say as I blame them. This doesn’t quite have the feel of a movie that’s going to have a great deal of attention from Academy voters, although there’s a good chance Pitt might get at least some nominating votes.

Ayer was a stickler for authenticity throughout from the uniforms that the soldiers wear, the fashions of the French women that Wardaddy and Norman take a brief break with, and the machines themselves, American Shermans and a fearsome German Tiger. The actors learned to drive the antique vehicle as well as fire the guns it carried. Oddly, they don’t spend a lot of time displaying the claustrophobia of fighting in those tanks, although we get a sense of the limited visibility of the vehicles.

There is a good deal of gore as bodies are burned, blown to pieces and riddled with bullets. While it doesn’t have the visceral you are there feel of Saving Private Ryan, it’s still from my admittedly inexpert viewpoint a pretty accurate representation of tank warfare as it existed in the last days of the war.

The plot is not unlike other movies you’ve seen before, given the characters are pretty cliche including the wise but gruff commanding officer, the nervous rookie having to suddenly re-evaluate his moral code in the heat of battle, the ignorant drunk from the deep South and so on. Pena and Bernthal make the most of their roles and at least offer some personality. Unfortunately LaBeouf doesn’t seem to embrace the role in the same way and quoting the Biblical passages sounds as foreign coming out of his mouth as they would were he saying them in Mandarin Chinese. His Really Awful Mustache doesn’t help matters.

While the authenticity is there, the creativity kind of isn’t. This doesn’t really add anything to the short list of films about tank warfare. Yeah, there’s plenty of camaraderie and some battle thrills. That’s been done. The more interesting elements of the story – how the war affected the men who served in the tank, desensitizing them to what we would consider their humanity, falls by the wayside during the last third of the movie when it becomes a standard “last stand” story. It’s a shame because the movie has a ton of promising elements; it just doesn’t become greater than the sum of its parts but rather, equal to them. Good enough may well be good enough but I was hoping for more.

REASONS TO GO: Drips authenticity. Fine performances by Pena, Bernthal and Pitt. Some intense battle sequences.
REASONS TO STAY: Really doesn’t add much to the tank warfare movies. A little bit too long. LaBeouf is a distraction.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence, some fairly grisly images, plenty of foul language and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the uniforms, weapons and tanks used in the movie were authentic and loaned from various museums around the world including the only currently functioning Tiger tank on loan from the Bovington Tank Museum in the United Kingdom.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lebanon
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Judge

Carriers


The police department of Ferguson, MO makes sure that Topless Day is a big success.

The police department of Ferguson, MO makes sure that Topless Day is a big success.

(2009) Horror (Paramount Vantage) Lou Taylor Pucci, Chris Pine, Piper Perabo, Christopher Meloni, Emily VanCamp, Kiernan Shipka, Ron McClary (voice), Mark Moses, Josh Berry, Tim Janis, Dale Malley, Jan Cunningham, Mary Peterson (voice), Sequoyah Adams-Rice, LeAnne Lynch, Brighid Fleming. Directed by Alex and David Pastor

Zombies are all the rage in post-apocalyptic horror, but as scary as the living dead might be, what could be scarier than a monster you can’t see: a virus. It is not the virus itself that frightens, although the results end up the same whether infected with a virus or having your brains munched on by a walker but what the virus turns us into.

Danny (Pucci) and Brian (Pine) are brothers. Danny, once bound for Yale before higher education became more of a school of hard knocks, is the more reserved and the smarter of the two. Brian, more of a working class stiff, is the more pragmatic particularly in terms of survival. Along with Brian’s girlfriend Bobbi (Perabo) and Danny’s friend Kate (VanCamp) they are headed to the coast, to Turtle Beach, a resort where Danny and Brian have fond memories.

They have some hard and fast rules which essentially boil down to stay away from those who might be sick which is essentially everyone. They carry bleach and surgical masks which they wear whenever they venture out of the safety of their stolen car. The more they can keep to the four of themselves, the safer they’ll be.

As they drive west they run into a father (Meloni) and his daughter (Shipka) who is infected. They’re trying to make it to a complex where a cure is said to be. At first Brian says no way Jose but eventually circumstances force him to help the other two. For their troubles, Bobbi gets infected although she tries to hide it at first. However, there’s no hiding the horrors that are to follow.

 

In some ways this is a bloodless film (although there are a couple of scenes where the infected burble up blood through various orifices). There is little in the way of gore and hardly any violence. Even when the girls are confronted by survivalists who have rape on the minds comes to naught when they discover that Bobbi is sick after they force the girls to strip down to bra and panties. Followers of Joe Bob Briggs and Drive-In Cinema will be sorely disappointed – back in the 70s and 80s there would have been pustules exploding blood, bodies dripping with gore, knife fights and of course the girls would have been naked and likely raped. Ah, the good old days.

But this is a different era and audience sensibilities are different now. This is meant to be more of a psychological horror film as we watch the tight-knit group slowly disintegrate. You have the natural conflict between brothers which always makes for good cinema, but even that is watered down some and the writers gave them the golden opportunity of having one brother be intellectual, the other working class. I mean, how much more conflict do you need?

Apparently plenty because in the hands of the Pastor brothers this is a kinder, gentler apocalypse, one that is suitable for prime time network television. The moral decisions here are fairly basic – survival versus compassion and in a situation such as this, well, there’s really only one decision so even that conflict feels forced and artificial.

Pine, who went on to Star Trek fame not long after this was filmed, has plenty of presence and charisma as he acts the role of leader here. There is a nice dynamic between him and Pucci, who is more of the conscience of the group. Eventually the roles get reversed but while it is a bit jarring in the way they do it onscreen, the actors manage to make it believable nonetheless.

This is a pretty flawed movie which the studio essentially gave up on before Pine’s success brought it out of the vaults and into a brief release. This isn’t the greatest of post-apocalyptic horrors – it could have used a little more edge – but it has its merits and Pine is worth seeing in this role before he went on to become James Tiberius Kirk. Ladies be warned though – he spends a good portion of the film with a surgical mask on.

WHY RENT THIS: Pine and Pucci make an effective team.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Extremely grim and lacks visceral thrills.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence, plenty of disturbing images and a fair amount of cussin’.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After being filmed in 2006, Carriers was shelved until Chris Pine’s success in Star Trek motivated the studio to dust it off and give it a brief limited release.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.8M on an unreported production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix DVD, Amazon (rent/buy/DVD), iTunes, Vudu (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin Fever
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Coherence

In a Better World (Haevnen)


In a Better World

Some father and son heart-to-hearts don't quite have the desired effect.

(2010) Drama (Sony Classics) Mikael Persbrandt, Markus Rygaard, William Johnk Juels Nielsen, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen, Toke Lars Bjarke, Kim Bodnia, Wil Johnson, Elsebeth Streentoft, Camilla Gottleib, Odiege Matthew, Simon Maagaard Holm. Directed by Susanne Bier

All of us have some sort of moral compass that guides them, be it a motivation to do the right thing or one to act only in one’s own self-interest. There are also times in all of our lives when we are required to use that compass in order to make a profound decision, one that may affect not only our own lives but of those around us.

Anton (Persbrandt) is a Swedish doctor living in a small town in Denmark. Well, some of the time anyway – he spends a good deal of time working in refugee camps in what appears to be the Sudan (although it’s never specifically spelled out in the film). Much of his time is spent patching up the victims of a particularly sadistic warlord nicknamed The Big Man (Matthew), who likes to bet his functionaries what the sex of an unborn child but being somewhat impatient, prefers to rip the fetus out of the womb rather than wait for it to be born. His moral resolve is tested when the Big Man himself comes into the refugee camp, demanding to be treated for an infected leg.

He is married to Marianne (Dyrholm) but only loosely. A fellow doctor who stays at home with their sons Elias (Rygaard) and Morten (Bjarke), the relationship between the two has come to a breaking point after Anton cheated on Marianne. Edging closer to divorce, Anton’s infrequent visits home are characterized by separate residences and strained silences.

Elias is bullied at school, particularly by Sofus (Holm), a large blonde kid who doesn’t like Swedes to begin with (apparently there is some hostility towards Swedes in Denmark) but doesn’t like Elias in particular, referring to him as “Rat Face” (due to his angular features and braces). Sofus delights in tormenting Elias, flattening his bicycle tires and stealing the valves so that Elias can’t re-inflate them.

This is observed by Christian (Nielsen), a new kid in town whose mother recently lost a long fight with cancer. Christian is angered at his father Claus (Thomsen), who lied to him when promising his mother would get better but worse still – for wanting his mother to die during the late stages of the disease when she was suffering terribly. Christian has developed an intense hatred of bullies and defends Elias, taking on the much bigger Sofus – beating him mercilessly with a bicycle pump, at last threatening the bully with a knife.

This brings the police into the matter, although both boys defend each other and protect each other, knowing that if the knife is found or attributed to Christian it would mean immediate expulsion. Right about then Anton returns home, staying in the family summer house.

When Anton breaks up a fight between Morten and another boy, the boy’s father Lars (Bodnia) warns Anton not to touch his boy and slaps Anton, causing obvious embarrassment mostly because it was witnessed by Christian and Elias, who have become fast friends. Anton, a pacifist, believes that not responding to the provocation was the right thing to do. Christian and Elias are not so sure, believing Anton to be afraid. In order to prove to the boys he isn’t afraid, he takes them to Lars’ auto shop and confronts the adult bully. Lars continues to abuse and slap Anton, but Anton never flinches. Pleased with himself, he is satisfied that he has taught the boys a valuable lesson. Christian, however, has taken a different lesson away and resolves to do something about Lars – something serious that will forever change the course of his life and that of Elias.

This is the most recent recipient of the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, winning also the Golden Globe for the same category (a very rare occurrence I can assure you). Director Biers constructs a morality play, setting it in a bucolic Danish town where life would seem idyllic, and in a refugee camp. She wisely plays the moral dilemmas of Anton (in treating the Big Man) and his son (in following Christian down a path of vengeance) side by side in parallel stories, emphasizing how similar the two situations are.

She is helped by having two fine juvenile leads. Both Nielsen and Rygaard are convincing, coming off as real kids without saving the day or acting beyond their years. Like all children, Christian and Elias don’t have sufficiently developed moral compasses at this point in their lives, and make decisions essentially based on incomplete information.

Persbrandt is not a name I was familiar with, but he does a terrific job as Anton, displaying the moral ambiguity of a man who cheated on his wife, yet lectures his sons about morality. Anton’s obvious anguish at having violated his own ethics is clear, as is his devotion to his sons. I understand he is one of the most respected actors in Scandinavia – I can certainly see why.

Dyrholm is also fine as a woman who feels completely lost and doesn’t know how to find her way back, or even if she wants to. Marianne can be shrill and sometimes takes her anger out on her son who blames her for not forgiving his dad. Thomsen, as the grieving father, is similarly solid. His grief renders him nearly inert, unable to take action as his son treads increasingly dangerous waters.

I like the conversation this brings up in terms of the use of violence as a tool of vengeance (in fact, the Danish title for the movie is “The Revenge”). Not that violence doesn’t exist in Denmark – of course it does – but it’s far less prevalent there than here, so the impact of the movie was probably more intense in Denmark than here. The truth is we become desensitized to violence, seeing it as a means of getting even, knowing that it solves nothing. Anton may have been ineffective in conveying his message to Christian and Elias, but it’s a good message nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: A quiet little drama that settles in on violence and vengeance. Juvenile leads do a tremendous job.

REASONS TO STAY: Needed to make its points a little more subtly.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence that’s occasionally shocking (some of it involving pre-teens), there’s some disturbing images and some snippets of foul language and sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story Christian reads at his mother’s funeral is “The Nightingale” by Hans Christian Anderson.

HOME OR THEATER: The great African vistas look terrific on the big screen but so too does the bucolic imagery of the small Danish town. In other words, catch it in a theater if you can.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

TOMORROW: Disgrace