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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Chappie

Dodgy accents, weird tonal inconsistencies and Die Antwoord: Chappie is Neil Blomkamp's most South African film yet. There is some good news, however...


Playing out as a mix of Short Circuit and Robocop by way of District 9, Chappie is a glorious mess of a film that looks all the more bizarre to anyone even remotely aware of South African culture. Not only is it a film that is flawed on every technical and storytelling level imaginable, it's portrait of South Africa is so head-scratchingly wrong-headed, I'm surprised that the ministry of tourism hasn't outright banned it.

Now, I know there's probably no such thing as the "ministry of tourism" but a) I can't help but think of government in Orwellian terms and b) this weird Bizarro-world South Africa presented in the film probably has one so why shouldn't we?

To backtrack a little, the plot of Chappie is simple enough: something like three months in the future, Johannesburg is so utterly overrun by crime (hard to imagine, I know) that an international corporation sees an opportunity to introduce an army of robo-cops to the street of Joburg to clean up crime once and for all. With their tough robotic armour, chilling efficiency and advanced artificial intelligence, these robot policemen seem to offer the perfect solution for violent crime. As is the nature of these stories though, once the creator of these incredible machines inserts a program into one of the robot law-enforcers that was critically damaged in the field that grants it not just artificial intelligence but real consciousness, things start to get a whole lot more complicated. Especially once a rival engineer gets wind of this miraculous discovery and a group of rap-artists-turned-criminals hijack the malfunctioning machine with its nascent, baby-like "mind".

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Theory of Everything and Other Bits and Bobs

These are some pretty notable movies that I have neglected deserving of a quick look, but I've got to warn you. Not all of them in a good way.

The Theory of Everything (8/10) has already won a number of awards, not least of all for Eddie Redmayne's extraordinary lead performance, and though it certainly isn't an extraordinary piece of work - it never strays too far from the conventions of its genre - it deserves far more respect than the more sniffy critics out there have given it.

It tells the truly incredible story of Stephen Hawking, as largely viewed through the eyes of his former wife, Jane, and though some may quibble that it doesn't delve far enough into his actual work, as a populist portrait of a great man, in all his complexities, it largely succeeds admirably. Anthony McCarten's screenplay, based on Jane Hawking's own memoirs, is witty, big-hearted and is careful never to reduce any of the film's major characters into anything less than fully-drawn, three-dimensional human beings. It may be based on Jane's own accounts but she certainly doesn't come across as a faultless saint, but as a woman trying (and perhaps ultimately failing) to cope with a truly horrible situation. Hawking himself, meanwhile, is shown to be a true genius but also a flawed, often difficult man but one whose combination of resilience and good humour has allowed him to long outlive the two-year death sentence he received when he was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease some fifty years ago.

Focus

Out of focus.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

After Jess Barrett's attempt to rip off Nicky Spurgeon - who turns out to be a master conman himself - fails spectacularly, Jess and Nicky soon find themselves entangled in a relationship, both romantic and professional, that is constantly undermined and complicated by a game of cat and mouse (or is that catch and release?) that may just prove that there's no honour among thieves after all. Or is there?

What we thought

Harking back to the light crime capers of the past, Focus plays out like a mix of the Sting and Oceans Eleven, with a bit of Intolerable Cruelty thrown in for good measure, but it never really lives up to its obvious influences and predecessors. That it's shallow and ultimately forgettable pretty much comes with the territory, but it's ultimately undone by, ironically enough, a lack of focus.

This isn't to say that there isn't anything to enjoy here. Focus is slickly made, well acted and generally just about entertaining enough. While Margot Robbie and Will Smith offer plenty in the way of eye candy for both the boys and the girls, they also turn in basically likeable performances – even if the material itself isn't exactly challenging. Smith, in particular, is back on solid, if unspectacular, form after being so utterly rubbish in the ghastly After Earth. Best of all, though, are Major Dad himself, Gerald McRaney, who is clearly having the time of his life playing the film's biggest badass and Rodrigo Santoro who makes the very best of what could easily have been an underdeveloped sidekick role.

There are also a number of very enjoyable set pieces along the way. Jess and Nick's first meeting, for example, is a lot of fun and very quickly establishes their undeniable chemistry (which is just as well as they're soon teaming up again in DC Comics' Suicide Squad movie) and snappy rapport, that forms the heart of the film itself. If there is one scene, though, that is almost entirely worth the price of admission by itself, it's a high-stakes gambling scene that happens at the Superbowl between Nicky and a wealthy Japanese businessman, with Jess looking on in abject horror. It's a tense, exciting and expertly crafted bit of slick and smart (if not entirely believable) entertainment that shows just how far off the mark much of the rest of the film is.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Blackhat

For something this bad, you would expect that other Michael to be at the helm, but no, this really is by the guy who made Heat. Shocking, I know.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

After a Chinese nuclear reactor is compromised by a terrorist hacker, the Chinese and American governments team up with a convicted hacker-thief to prevent worldwide calamity.

What we thought

Michael Mann's long and largely illustrious career as a top-tier thriller director has had some bumps in the road before. While films like Heat and Manhunter have been met with near-universal praise but he has also been responsible for relative misfires like Miami Vice and The Keep. Blackhat though, doesn't so much feel like a mere road bump in his career, so much as one of those spiky numbers that some shopping centres and airports employ that are specifically designed to rip your car to shreds should you have the audacity to try and break through a boom – or, worse, accidentally hit the accelerator before that stupid red light in front of the boom turns green. Not that I'm talking from experience, you understand.

It wouldn't be fair to say that Blackhat hasn't received any good reviews – the general critical consensus seems to even out at “tepid”, rather than “godawful” - but it strikes me as being such a major misfire that Mann is going to need a Godfather-level achievement to get past it. It's not just bad by Mann's usually high standards, it's a total trainwreck by any measure. I don't quite know what those other critics were thinking or what movie they were watching but I am at a loss as to how anyone could think that Blackhat is anything other than a total disaster – or, at the very least, a serious mess.

Nightcrawler

Brrrr... is there a chill in here or is it just Jake Gyllenhaal in his best ever role?

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Lou Bloom is a “nightcrawler”, a freelance video-journalist who prowls the streets at night looking for grizzly accidents and violent crime scenes to film and sell to a local TV news station. In such a cut-throat industry, however, Bloom finds himself taking more and more extreme measures to get ahead – a perilous descent down a moral black hole that only feeds into his already anti-social state of mind.

What we thought

Nightcrawler is, all at once, an edge-of-your-seat thriller, a satire on journalistic ethics and a disturbing probe into the mind of a sociopath and, though it doesn't exactly always make for the most pleasant of viewing, it is compelling as hell. Especially for us (amateur or otherwise) psych-majors and philosophy enthusiasts.

Lou Bloom (played with chilling brilliance by Jake Gyllenhaal) seems off from the moment we first meet him, but as the film progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that is no garden variety creep we're dealing with but a full-blown sociopath; a truly deranged individual who would manipulate anyone and anything for his own ends. He's not so much anti-social in the colloquial sense of being shy or introverted but in the more literal, clinical sense. He's a man who clearly despises people and is utterly lacking in anything even remotely resembling empathy. Every interaction he has with other people is done purely as a means for his own ends – as a way to gain his base desires of power, money and/ or sex.

As we watch him blackmail women into sleeping with him, manipulate crime to suit his own ends and almost literally throw under the bus anyone who stands in his way, we get a rare glimpse into a mind hopefully quite unlike our own. Mind you, considering how mental illness is, more often than not, an extreme reflection of “normal” human behaviour, perhaps the film itself is really just an extreme commentary on the cut-throat ruthlessness that lies at the hedonistic heart of unfettered capitalism.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Shaun the Sheep

I wanted to like this one, I really did...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

Based on the hit kids show, Shaun the Sheep is the latest stop-motion animated film from Aardman studios. In Shaun's big screen debut, he and his fellow animals from the farm head off into the big city after a series of unfortunate events causes the Farmer to lose his memories and has him working as a big-shot barber in the middle of the city.

What we thought

I feel like a curmudgeon of the highest order when I say that I didn't really enjoy the Shaun the Sheep movie very much. Not just because I'm a 33 year old man judging a film clearly made for quite young kids but because so much work and so much passion so obviously went into making the film that it feels churlish to point out even its most minor of flaws. Still, however much I admire the film's real achievements, I can't lie, I was pretty bored by it.

Aardman studios, along with the younger and perhaps even more impressive Laika studios, have kept stop-motion animation viable as a real alternative to the now ubiquitous CGI of most major (Western) animated movies. Not only does stop-motion have a very distinct feel from its computer-generated counterpart, the sheer time-consuming difficulty of creating an entire animated film from the intricate manipulation of the minutest of movements of carefully crafted clay figures means that these films are created with inordinate care and attention to detail. Not to say that CGI animated films are not, but we are talking about a whole different ball game here.

Shaun the Sheep (and I'm trying very, very hard to resist writing “Shaun of the Sheep” every single time I write or say that title) doesn't have the moodiness of Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the high production feel of The Pirates: In an Adventure with Scientists or the sheer “I can't believe this was all done by hand” visual wizardry of any of Laika's films, but it is, demonstrably, a film made with great care and great love.