Review – Chappie

Humanity’s last hope may not be human as the poster to Neill Blomkamp’s latest dramatically implies, but it also isn’t any good.

A mess from start to finish, Chappie adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests Blomkamp is nothing more than a one-trick pony

A mess from start to finish, Chappie adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests Blomkamp is nothing more than a one-trick pony

Instead, Chappie is a mess; a further misguided step backwards in what was once a career full of real promise for its writer-director.

In promoting the film, Blomkamp has taken the admirably honest approach of conceding that he “f**ked up” his previous picture Elysium (2013) by not having developed a strong enough narrative and script out of what was a promising concept.

Chappie's creator Deon (Dev Patel)

Chappie’s creator Deon (Dev Patel)

The same charge can also be levelled at Chappie; an intriguing idea crippled by a shoddy script and a tone that drunkenly veers between family friendly cutesiness and over-the-top sweary violence; usually involving a pair of ridiculous cartoon gangstas played by South African rappers Die Antwoord.

Blomkamp returns to his native Johannesburg for this near-future parable in which robots have been purchased from multi-national weapons manufacturer Tetravaal by the police to help restore order to the streets. Their creator Deon (Dev Patel) goes one better and develops the world’s first artificial intelligence, which he installs into a terminally damaged droid he’s stolen from his employers. However, the ‘bot is droid-napped by street thugs who want to use it to help them pull a heist, but don’t count on forming an emotional attachment to the sentient cyborg, which they name Chappie.

Street thugs Ninja (Ninja) and Yolandi (Yolandi Visser) in Chappie

Street thugs Ninja (Ninja) and Yolandi (Yolandi Visser) in Chappie

The social awareness that gave Blomkamp’s 2009 debut District 9 and the first half of Elysium its edge is nowhere to be seen here; rather the film paints with broad strokes (weapons manufacturers are bad and only care about money, in case you may have suspected otherwise) and lacks the satirical edge of his previous work.

Sections of the film simply make no sense, such as how on earth Deon is able to smuggle both a droid and the all-important ‘guard key’ out of a (supposedly) highly secure weapons firm without being spotted, and for it to take several days before someone finally realises it’s gone.

Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a surefire Best Hair 2016 Oscar winner, in Chappie

Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a surefire Best Hair 2016 Oscar winner, in Chappie

Likewise, it’s not clear exactly what Tetravaal employee Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman, great hair) is doing at the company bearing in mind his attack robot ‘the MOOSE’ (a shameless homage to ED-209 from RoboCop, to which Chappie owes a huge debt) has been sidelined by the firm’s CEO (Sigourney Weaver, looking lost). He also strolls around the office with a gun, which one imagines would contravene health and safety guidelines.

The character of Chappie itself is vividly realised by Weta Digital and the motion capture blends seamlessly into the environment. Unfortunately, Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley delivers an exaggerated performance in the mo-cap suit that soon becomes annoying.

Chappie (Sharlto Copley) goes all street

Chappie (Sharlto Copley) goes all street

However, it’s not nearly as aggravating as the turns put in by Ninja and Yolandi Visser as Chappie’s street outlaw ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’. Resembling rejects from Mad Max, both (Ninja especially) are desperately out of their depth and struggle to register a single convincing emotion between them. A moment towards the end with Ninja on his knees, arms outstretched and screaming in anger (in slow motion no less), is already a low point in 2015 cinema.

The wooden spoon is reserved, though, for Brandon Auret, whose ludicrous performance as crimelord Hippo is so bad it’s almost passable. Served with awful dialogue (which is subtitled even though it’s perfectly understandable), Auret’s wild-eyed gurning provides the biggest laughs as he roars, on more than one occasion, “I want EVERYTHING!”.

A mess from start to finish, Chappie adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests Blomkamp is nothing more than a one-trick pony.

Advertisements

Review – Blackhat

The heat is strangely missing from Michael Mann’s fumbled first foray into the mysterious playground of computer hackers.

There is much to like about Blackhat, but too many mishandled moments means you'll be reaching for the proverbial control-alt-delete buttons come the end

There is much to like about Blackhat, but too many mishandled moments means you’ll be reaching for the proverbial control-alt-delete buttons come the end

On first glance, it’s obvious what drew Mann to such material; hacking demands a methodology and an obsessiveness as life-consuming as the cops and criminals who do battle on the mean streets of the writer-director’s numerous crime movies.

The film’s release just weeks after the hack on Sony Pictures and on the back of a growing list of other big name incidents also lends the film an up-to-the-minute relevance.

It’s odd, therefore, that Blackhat never quite catches fire in the same way as his other crime thrillers, in particular Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995) and Collateral (2004).

Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) goes on the run with Lien (Tang Wei) in Blackhat

Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) goes on the run with Lien (Tang Wei) in Blackhat

It doesn’t help that the film starts badly with an extended visually clichéd sequence of data infecting a Chinese nuclear power plant’s systems. The intention is clear – something so small can cause something so big – but it feels old hat and the film is further blighted by indulging in other computer movies chestnuts, most notably by having screens bleep when information is typed in (what computers actually make those sounds outside of the movies?!).

Baffled by who is responsible for the power plant incident and a subsequent hack on a US trade exchange, Chinese official Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) convinces FBI Agent Carol Barrett (a typically solid Viola Davis) to temporarily release convicted coder Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth, doing his best) from prison to help with the investigation. As they edge ever nearer to the truth of what is actually going on, the threat grows, as does the attraction between Hathaway and Dawai’s sister Lien (Tang Wei).

Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) is tasked with finding the hacker in Blackhat

Captain Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) is tasked with finding the hacker in Blackhat

Blackhat grinds to a halt for the techie bits, which usually involve one or more of the cast watching the beautifully coiffured Hemsworth bash away at the keys of a computer keyboard with a stern look on his face (the fact he’s a butch alpha male is explained in a throwaway moment early on when he starts doing press-ups against the wall of his cell).

Likewise, the chemistry between Hemsworth and Tang is pretty weak and the romance between the characters is as unnecessary as that between Colin Farrell and Gong Li in the otherwise underrated Miami Vice (2006).

Viola Davis plays FBI Agent Carol Barrett in Blackhat

Viola Davis plays FBI Agent Carol Barrett in Blackhat

However, the film comes alive when it takes to the streets, dispenses with much of the dialogue and has its camera tracking the characters like a bird of prey as they go to work. An early fight in a restaurant bodes well and the promise is delivered during two fantastic gun battles; one set in a shipping yard, with the noise of bullets thudding into the containers a particular highlight, and another, bloodier exchange on the streets of Jakarta.

This latter gunfight especially reminds you of just how much of a natural Mann is when it comes to knowing where to place the (now de rigueur DV) camera while letting the raw punch of gunfire do much of the work.

Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) has a view to a kill in Blackhat

Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) has a view to a kill in Blackhat

The director’s neo noir style comes to the fore during the numerous night scenes in Hong Kong, which allow the director to cross between beautifully lit narrow lanes and expansive streets bathed in colour and often flanked by banner advertisements of faces or eyes that underscore the film’s tone of being watched by forces of which we have little understanding.

In addition, the momentary flash of a binocular lens on a coffee pot in one scene also underscores the difference between the ultra-professionalism of Mann’s main characters and everyone else (while also bringing to mind the moment in Heat when a cop accidentally bumps against the side of a van during a surveillance operation).

There is much to like about Blackhat, but too many mishandled moments means you’ll be reaching for the proverbial control-alt-delete buttons come the end.

Review – Birdman

At one point in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fluidic and freewheeling latest a character points out to Michael Keaton’s actor-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown that he “confuses love for admiration”.

Birdman is a very good piece of work, at times brilliant; I just wish I could have soared with it as much as I'd hoped

Birdman is a very good piece of work, at times brilliant; I just wish I could have soared with it as much as I’d hoped

It’s a charge that can be levelled at Birdman; a whirlwind of industrial wizardry and an actor’s dream that’s very easy to admire, but more difficult to love.

It will be fascinating to see how Birdman is regarded in five or 10 years time. Iñárritu has a habit of making films that profess to profundity at the time of release, but come to be dismissed as the river of time flows; his English-language debut 21 Grams (2003) and its emperor’s new clothes follow-up Babel (2006) in particular.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and his nemesis/alter ego in Birdman

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and his nemesis/alter ego in Birdman

One suspects his latest will weather more favourably, if for no other reason than the career-defining central performance by Keaton, an actor whose scarcity in front of the camera is all-the-more tragic in light of his turn as the calamitous and anxiety-ridden Riggan Thomson.

Thomson has ploughed his finances and fragile soul into staging a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story in the hope of injecting new life into a flagging career defined by playing the superhero Birdman in a series of big budget movies.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) prepares for opening night with fellow actor Lesley (Naomi Watts) and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) in Birdman

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) prepares for opening night with fellow actor Lesley (Naomi Watts) and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) in Birdman

His troupe of actors includes the deeply insecure Lesley (Naomi Watts) and the revered, but unpredictable Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), while backstage his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) tries to keep the production afloat and he struggles to connect with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone). With opening night fast approaching, the cracks in Riggan’s splintered psyche start to widen and the voice of Birdman in his head manifests itself in his everyday life.

Keaton has spoken in interviews of the huge technical demands placed on the cast to ensure they hit their marks so as not to spoil one of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s lengthy shots, which have been masterfully stitched together to give the impression of a single, unbroken take.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) goes toe-to-toe with method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) in Birdman

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) goes toe-to-toe with method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) in Birdman

As a technical feat, it’s second-to-none and Lubezki deserves his plaudits for a job very well done. However, the many tricks Birdman has up its sleeves end up getting in the way of the film itself and become a distraction from the character-led comedy drama going on in spite of everything else. Similar accusations have been levelled on Wes Anderson’s work, which has often divided critics and filmgoers alike.

The film has some interesting things to say about what constitutes art in the social media age and cheekily gives Thomson the final word when confronted by an embittered theatre critic (played by Lindsay Duncan) who promises to wield the Sword of Damocles on the play because she hates what he stands for.

Riggan Thomson's long-suffering daughter Sam (Emma Stone) in Birdman

Riggan Thomson’s long-suffering daughter Sam (Emma Stone) in Birdman

By focusing so tightly on the emotionally fractured Thomson, Iñárritu asks us to question what is and isn’t real, right until the film’s final shot. Meanwhile, the presence of Birdman is akin to a winged devil on his shoulder whom Thomson must confront if he is to salvage his imploding soul.

Bottled up within the claustrophobic confines of the theatre for the most part, the wild ride the camera takes is matched by Antonio Sánchez’s jittery jazz drum score, which rattles around in the head, but doesn’t distract as much as some critics have suggested.

Birdman is a very good piece of work, at times brilliant; I just wish I could have soared with it as much as I’d hoped.

Review – Foxcatcher

The desire to win is eclipsed by the aching need for love and acceptance in Bennett Miller’s riveting true life drama that is akin to a light being slowly extinguished.

The American Dream is writ large on many films, but rarely has it been so perverted than in the mesmeric Foxcatcher

The American Dream is writ large on many films, but rarely has it been so perverted than in the mesmeric Foxcatcher

More disquieting than many horror movies, the nauseating dread that Foxcatcher instills grips like a cold and clammy hand around the throat and refuses to let go well after the credits have rolled.

Just as Miller’s previous film Moneyball (2011) uses a sport (baseball) to explore the insecurities and fallibilities of men, the wrestling of Foxcatcher is of a more metaphorical nature.

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) brings his A game with brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) in Foxcatcher

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) brings his A game with brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) in Foxcatcher

While the surroundings of John du Pont’s (Steve Carell) Foxcatcher estate are as grandiose as they are expansive, the dark skies that hang overhead like a guillotine tell a very different and troubling story.

Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is flown out to the estate at the behest of du Pont, who announces that he wants Mark to lead his wrestling squad, ‘Team Foxcatcher’, and win gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

John du Pont (Steve Carell) lost in the mist in Foxcatcher

John du Pont (Steve Carell) lost in the mist in Foxcatcher

While they come from opposite ends of the societal spectrum, Mark and du Pont are very alike; each man lives in the shadow of another, lacks a father and has a burning desire to be recognised for their own achievements.

Talk of glory and “making America great again” may strike a chord, but it is a delusion both men are willing to believe for their own sake. Mark has long lived in the shadow of his more popular and charismatic older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who is also a gold medal-winning wrestler, but has a stable family with wife Nancy (Sienna Miller, who has little to do) and their kids; while the sense of entitlement and arrogance inherent in du Pont is undercut by the inadequacy he feels in the presence of his aged mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who views wrestling as a ‘low’ sport.

Dave Schultz's wife Nancy (Sienna Miller) in Foxcatcher

Dave Schultz’s wife Nancy (Sienna Miller) in Foxcatcher

Du Pont’s state-of-the-art facilities and Mark’s natural ability initially make for a formidable team, but Mark’s self-destructive nature and Du Pont’s unpredictability breeds a toxicity that is allowed to fester, especially when Dave is lured to Team Foxcatcher with promises of wealth and greatness.

The impressive Tatum plays Mark as a pathetic, childlike figure ripe for exploitation. From his hunched, shuffling gait to his monosyllabism, the glory of winning gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics has been replaced by an emptiness no amount of medals can fill.

Good times: Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and Team Foxcatcher's John du Pont (Steve Carell) in Foxcatcher

Good times: Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and Team Foxcatcher’s John du Pont (Steve Carell) in Foxcatcher

An early scene has Mark giving a talk about winning to a bunch of bored and confused schoolkids and upon receiving the cheque we discover it’s his brother the school had originally booked before it cuts to Mark standing in line for a burger which he hides away in his car to eat.

Later in the film, du Pont suddenly gets more hands on with training when he spies his mother being wheeled in. While the team is content to indulge the show, she is soon bored and quickly leaves; with his most important audience gone, du Pont takes a back seat once more.

These moments speak to the fraudulence of both men and subtly shift the ground beneath our feet so we are never certain of what either will do next. Some have cited the film’s slow pacing as being glacial and boring, but that’s to miss the coiling tension that Miller winds up before exploding into acts of random violence.

The wheels come off for Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) despite his brother Dave's (Mark Ruffalo) help in Foxcatcher

The wheels come off for Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) despite his brother Dave’s (Mark Ruffalo) help in Foxcatcher

Much has been made of the training session scene between Mark and Dave that speaks volumes about each brother without either barely saying a word. It’s one of a number of examples where the visuals and reactions of characters do more than a thousand lines of dialogue ever can.

Tatum has never been better and holds his own against Ruffalo, who has the more difficult role of a man torn between his family, the love he has for his brother and the temptation of du Pont’s pay cheque. Carell, meanwhile, disappears into the role of du Pont, imbuing him with a Nosferatu-esque stillness and a detachment that only a man of his great wealth could have. Whilst he looks down his considerable nose on those around him, his heavy-lidded eyes disguise an unnerving capriciousness.

The American Dream is writ large on many films, but rarely has it been so perverted than in the mesmeric Foxcatcher.

Review – American Sniper

The dehumanising effects of combat come to the fore in Clint Eastwood’s visually powerful, but ultimately conventional examination of one man’s war.

Eastwood has fashioned an efficient and, at times, muscular war movie, but in spite of its cracking central turn American Sniper just misses its target

Eastwood has fashioned an efficient and, at times, muscular war movie, but in spite of its cracking central turn American Sniper just misses its target

Eastwood made his name playing masculine, violent men and since turning his hand to directing has largely stuck to his guns, to varying degrees of success.

His undisputed masterpiece, 1992’s Unforgiven, was a slow ride to hell as it laid bare the sickening emotional consequences killing someone might actually have on its assorted gunslingers, while his celebrated Gran Torino (2008) found its Dirty Harry protagonist forced to face both his own mortality and the changing face of his country.

The 'most lethal' Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in American Sniper

The ‘most lethal’ Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in American Sniper

In his latest, Eastwood’s stoical leading man is Chris Kyle, a “legend” among his brothers in arms for having chalked up 160 confirmed kills in Iraq and on whose self-explanatory book American Sniper: The Autobiography Of The Most Lethal Sniper In US Military History the film is based.

We are introduced to Kyle (Bradley Cooper) on just another day in Iraq, with a woman and child in his sights. They may be carrying an explosive device or they may not; it’s up to Kyle to make the judgement in order to keep his fellow marines safe.

Chris Kyle's (Bradley Cooper) nemesis in American Sniper

Chris Kyle’s (Bradley Cooper) nemesis in American Sniper

The film flashes back to varying, defining points in his life, from a childhood hunting trip with his father in which he is taught to be a sheep dog to protect the sheep from the wolves, through to his decision to enlist as a US Navy Seal following the 1998 US embassy bombings. The red, white and blue-blooded all-American gets his chance to put his training into practice in the aftermath of 9/11 and the allied invasion of Iraq.

As Kyle racks up kill after kill – men, women and children – over the course of four tours, the cracks begin to show, both on his psyche and his marriage to Taya (Sienna Miller), while his notoriety leads to a bounty being placed on his head by the enemy.

A rare moment of happiness for Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) and wife Taya (Sienna Miller) in American Sniper

A rare moment of happiness for Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) and wife Taya (Sienna Miller) in American Sniper

Whilst visually arresting and bolstered by a central performance of considerable nuance and intensity by Cooper, American Sniper isn’t anything we haven’t seen before.

Kyle’s back story feels rushed, as if Eastwood is conscious of cutting to the action, while the Iraqis are either faceless enemies, cardboard cutout villains or fodder for Kyle’s sniper rifle.

The most promising character we see from the ‘enemy’ side is a Syrian sniper who incurs Kyle’s wrathful vengeance after shooting one of his friends. Steven Spielberg, who was on board to direct before walking away from the project, wanted to beef up the character and escalate the psychological warfare between the two shooters. It’s a premise that Eastwood, for good or ill, has chosen not to focus on.

The consequences of being a soldier in Iraq takes its toll for Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in American Sniper

The consequences of being a soldier in Iraq takes its toll for Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in American Sniper

Aside from a couple of unnecessary slow motion set pieces and a special effects shot of a bullet flying through the air that belongs in a cheaper movie, the various scenes of sharpshooting are disturbing in the matter-of-fact way they are portrayed. The rifle’s sights add an air of detachment from the death we are witnessing, with the exception of a horribly uncomfortable moment when a distressed Kyle has in his sights a young boy undecided whether to fire at an American convoy.

A particularly evocative sequence comes late on when Kyle and his buddies are engaged in a firefight during a sandstorm. It’s a potent image, loaded with hellish intent.

Miller is excellent, but is hamstrung by unoriginal dialogue (“Even when you’re here, you’re not here!”) and little screen time which undermines the scenes she and Cooper share back home. The director tries to emphasise Kyle’s worsening psychological scarring through these moments, but doesn’t give them the time to breathe.

Eastwood has fashioned an efficient and, at times, muscular war movie, but in spite of its cracking central turn American Sniper just misses its target.