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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Big Hero 6


Hiro and Baymax get stealthy.

Hiro and Baymax get stealthy.

(2014) Animated Feature (Disney/Marvel) Starring the voices of Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Daniel Henney, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk, Maya Rudolph, Abraham Benrubi, Katie Lowes, Billy Bush, Daniel Gerson, Paul Briggs, Charlotte Gulezian, David Shaughnessy, Terri Douglas. Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams

We are not a one of us who knows what we’re truly capable of until we test ourselves. Whatever motivates us – ego, greed, tragedy, desire, altruism – it remains for us to see what we can do.

Hiro (Potter) is a robotics genius. In the alternate world of San Fransokyo where Japanese immigrants rebuilt the city after the 1905 earthquake and meshed the architecture of Occidental and the Land of the Rising Sun to create a more quake-resistant city. The San Francisco Institute of Technology is one of the finest cutting-edge schools in the nation and the city is a jewel of natural beauty married to technological advances.

Hiro’s brother Tadashi (Henney) is, like Hiro, a genius at robotics. Whereas Hiro is out for financial gain in underground street Robobattles, Tadashi is creating a robot that will genuinely make the world a better place. Tadashi attends SF Tech with his friends Honey Lemon (Rodriguez), Go-Go (Chung), Wasabi (Wayans) and Fred (Miller) under the tutelage of Professor Robert Callaghan (Cromwell) who is respected and admired by his students. Tadashi is urging Hiro to come join him at the school after Hiro graduates high school but Hiro is none too eager to join up with, as he terms it, Nerd Tech. However, he grudgingly agrees to sign up after Tadashi pesters him enough.

Then tragedy strikes and Hiro discovers that there is something terrible going on, something involving his own invention – mini-bots that can be controlled by brain waves – and a kabuki-masked villain. Using Baymax (Adsit), a robot that Tadashi was working on, Hiro and his friends will have to develop armor with different powers in order to stop a catastrophe from happening and to bring the bad guy to justice.

 

This is the third straight fall release from Disney Animation to hit a home run (Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen preceded it) and quite frankly after a less-than-satisfactory year for animated entertainment at the box office, trust Disney to set things right in that regard. This is a natural, with cuddly soft robots resembling the love child between Gigantor and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, both references likely to fly right over the head of most younger readers.

While the cast isn’t particularly well-known – no Tom Hanks or Paul Newman or Billy Crystal here – it is pretty solid and a bit younger and hipper than the voice cast that Pixar generally uses. T.J. Miller as Fred is especially fun; reportedly he ad-libbed a lot of his dialogue. The main roles of the brothers are less well-known voice actors and come off as fairly bland typical animated prince guys.

The city of San Fransokyo while not dazzling visually is inventive, clever and looks like it could be a real place. Sure some San Franciscans may take umbrage at the liberties the animators took with their home town but as an ex-resident I have to say that I’m delighted to see The City by the Bay portrayed both in an animated feature and a Marvel comic. It is after all one of the most charming big cities in the country.

 

While this is definitely more Disney than Marvel, there is plenty here to keep those who aren’t still drinking out of juice boxes plenty to cheer about. The humor can be dry and acerbic as well as broad enough to land a 747 on. Kids will laugh, their parents will too. It’s a win-win.

There are some moments that actually brought a tear to my eye which is something in the animated feature world had previously been reserved only for Pixar films. This isn’t a movie that’s talking down to anyone and at the same time isn’t afraid to tackle issues that most kidflicks shy away from. That’s pretty refreshing and while it deals with some pretty tough subjects it doesn’t turn maudlin nor does it pander. What we end up with is a way in to conversations that some kids sadly are forced to have when they are far too young. You’ll get what I mean when you see the movie.

This is the first Marvel property to be developed by Disney as an animated feature. While it isn’t a part of the cinematic universe that the House of Ideas has created (for one thing, characters in the comic include Silver Samurai and Sunfire, are actually part of the X-Men universe and unavailable for Disney) it does have a fresh four-color look all its own. However, those coming to the theater expecting an animated Guardians of the Galaxy will leave disappointed; this is clearly separate from anything else Marvel has done. Which is, in my book, a good thing.

REASONS TO GO: Inventive and fun. Surprisingly moving in places.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t retain the Marvel “feel.”
FAMILY VALUES: There is some action and peril, a bit of rude humor and some thematic elements that may be too much for the littlest of tots.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third consecutive non-Pixar and non-Studio Ghibli animated film that Alan Tudyk has voiced, making him the John Ratzenberger of Disney.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Iron Giant
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Whiplash

Astro Boy


Astro Boy

Love the hair, Toby!

(2009) Animated Science Fiction (Summit) Starring the voices of Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Nathan Lane, Bill Nighy, Donald Sutherland, Charlize Theron, Eugene Levy, Matt Lucas. Directed by David Bowers

In the soul of a machine there beats the heart of a young boy. Where does the machine end and the human being begin?

The year is 3000 and the world is terribly polluted. The citizens of Metro City have created for themselves something of a utopia by floating their city high in the atmosphere and creating an army of robots to wait on the citizenry hand and foot…or cog and wheel, as it were. Those who disagree with the policies of the repressive government headed by President Stone (Sutherland), a megalomaniacal tyrant, are sent to the surface to live amongst the garbage.

Dr. Tenma (Cage) is a brilliant robotics specialist and as it turns out, Minister of Science for the current regime. The President wants Tenma to create the ultimate war machine so he can wage war on the surface dwellers; not so much because they’re a threat but so that he can regain a higher approval rating and win the upcoming elections. The Peacekeeper is Dr. Tenma’s solution; what it needs, however, is a power source that won’t konk out on it mid-Peace.

That solution comes courtesy of Dr. Elefun (Nighy) who has extracted the core of a comet and discovered two opposing energy sources; the stable and pure Blue Energy and the unstable and unpredictable Red Energy, which predictably is much more powerful than the Blue Energy. Just as predictably, the President wants to use the Red Energy as the Peacekeeper’s power source despite the objections of his scientific staff. The result is a catastrophe; the Peacekeeper goes out-of-control ballistic and is only just barely restrained. There is a casualty however; Dr. Tenma’s young son Toby (Highmore)  is caught in the crossfire and is vaporized in front of his very eyes.

Understandably, Dr. Tenma is grief-stricken and withdraws from his position. Half-mad and wracked by guilt, he determines to replace his son with a robot, one that will pass for him physically and is cloned from the DNA of a single strand of Toby’s hair, which remains on his ballcap. Dr. Tenma also adds some enhancements for robo-Toby (Highmore) to adequately defend himself, knowing that once word of the advanced robot reaches the President he’ll want it for himself.

However, something odd happens. At first, the new robot is the perfect copy of his son, complete with all his memories and personality quirks, but he isn’t quite the same. For one thing, he very quickly becomes aware that he isn’t human – perhaps it’s the jet pack built into his feet, or the machine gun that comes out of his tush. Yes, that’s what I said.

In any case, Dr. Tenma rejects his artificial son and the robot winds up falling to Earth following an encounter with the military. There he is befriended by a group of scavengers reporting to Hamegg (Lane) who runs a battle arena where robots battle one another, most of them built from scraps and spare parts his scavengers pick up for him. The robot is christened Astro Boy and eventually is befriended by Cora (Bell), one of the scavengers but the military eventually comes looking for him and you and I and everyone in Japan knows that eventually Astro will be going robot a robot with the Peacekeeper.

Astro Boy originally appeared as first a manga and then a black and white anime in Japan back in 1951, showing up in the United States in the 60s as a color series. It has appeared occasionally in one form or another on these shores on television since. The creator of Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka, is considered the father of modern anime and is credited with the distinctive large-eyed look of the genere.

Fans of the original manga and anime series will not be pleased at some of the subtle differences that have been wrought by Bowers who was co-director of Flushed Away for Aardman. For example, Dr. Elefun who in the series adopted Astro Boy is relegated to little more than a cameo here. In some ways, the rejection of Astro by his dear old dad is much crueler here than it was in the series as well, which may upset some young boys who might be feeling much the same as the robot.

Still, fans and non-fans alike will thrill to the visuals of this movie. Imagi Animation Studios, a Hong Kong-based studio, were responsible for those and they show themselves to be nearly the equal of Pixar in that regard. Both the utopian Metro City and the dystopian surface are wondrous to look at. Even Astro himself is a joy to behold.

What is not so much a joy is a good deal of the voice acting. Granted, the script is not super well-written but it felt like many of the actors phoned in their performances. Cage, who can be very emotional when he wants to be, is curiously flat here as the grieving father. The movie needed raw emotion to draw its audience into the story but that is never provided; consequently, the audience feels disconnected from the movie and that makes it really hard to love it.

There are some good elements here and certainly it is an attractive movie to look at, but like a vacuous blonde, once you get past the good looks you realize there is nothing of substance here. While I look forward to Imagi’s future endeavors, they have yet to learn the simple secret of Pixar’s success – that no animated movie, no matter how beautifully drawn it is, can survive a poor story but a movie with a great story that is beautifully drawn will be a classic that will last for years to come.

WHY RENT THIS: Exquisitely drawn visuals and a chance to re-visit an anime icon.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wooden voice acting in many instances and a plot that could have used some shoring up.

FAMILY VALUES: This is action a-plenty, and scenes of a young boy placed in mortal peril. There are also a few mildly bad words which are probably nothing your average 8-year-old hasn’t already heard and most likely coming out of your mouth.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Japanese version of the movie uses Astro Boy’s original bodyform, facial characteristics and hairstyle, while the U.S. version is updated on all three counts.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of short films utilizing characters from the movie, but for my money the most interesting extra feature is a featurette showing the evolution of Astro Boy from Tezuka’s original drawings until now.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39.9M on a $65M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

TOMORROW: Gulliver’s Travels (2010)