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.

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Review – X-Men: Days Of Future Past

Marvel’s most well-worn franchise is back to the future and back to its best in this exhilarating time travelling romp that resolutely refuses to take itself too seriously.

Setting aside the slightly needless set piece involving Magneto raising the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium and chucking it over the White House like a giant donut, X-Men: Days Of Future Past is a genuine contender for blockbuster of the year

Setting aside the slightly needless set piece involving Magneto raising the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium and chucking it over the White House like a giant donut, X-Men: Days Of Future Past is a genuine contender for blockbuster of the year

It’s been 14 years since X-Men arrived like a juggernaut into cinemas and ushered in a new paradigm in Hollywood that shows no signs of abating.

The franchise’s high water mark X2 (2003) still remains one of the most fully realised comic book movies. The same, however, could not be said of its sequel The Last Stand (2006) and the two standalone films featuring the evergreen Wolverine – all of which validated the law of diminishing returns.

1970s era Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) re-enters cerebro with Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

1970s era Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) re-enters cerebro with Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

As seems to happen with most money-spinning comic book series these days, the clocks were turned back and the reboot switch was flipped with X-Men: First Class (2011), an effective superhero flick that used recent history (the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis) to posit an alternative reality in which mutants played a significant part.

The golden thread that linked First Class and X-Men 1.0 was Hugh Jackman’s pithy cameo as Wolverine and the character inevitably plays a crucial role in bridging the two time periods for Days Of Future Past.

Military scientist and businessman Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Military scientist and businessman Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

The other golden thread is director Bryan Singer, who has come home after a patchy recent run that included Superman Returns (2006), Valkyrie (2008) and Jack The Giant Slayer (2013) and in the process delivered the best film in the franchise since his last turn in the big chair with X2.

Wolverine is zapped back in time to 1973 by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to avert a future wherein seemingly invincible man-made robots called Sentinels are within a hair’s breadth of wiping out mutant kind. The situation is so grim that friends-turned-enemies Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) have joined forces to make a last stand (not that one) against the metallic beasts.

Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) sets her sights in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) sets her sights in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Meanwhile, back in ’73, Wolverine must convince a younger, more disillusioned Xavier (James McAvoy) to break Magneto (Michael Fassbender) out of the Pentagon in order for him to help them stop the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing military scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), whose murder convinces President Nixon’s government to implement Trask’s Sentinel programme.

Using time travel to change an event in the past in order to alter the future invariably brings to mind the likes of The Terminator and Days Of Future Past doesn’t try particularly hard in hiding its obvious debt to that film as the Sentinels turn the planet into a mass graveyard in its dystopian opening reel.

1970s era Magneto (Michael Fassbender) tries to stop traffic in X-Men: Days of Future Past

1970s era Magneto (Michael Fassbender) tries to stop traffic in X-Men: Days of Future Past

The film also owes a debt to Star Trek, specifically First Contact and The Voyage Home in its ambition to strike a tone between serious and light-hearted. It’s a tough balance to strike, but one the film carries off with aplomb.

The scenes involving a young Peter Maximoff, aka Quicksilver, are great fun and Evan Peters has a blast in the part of the mutant who’s faster than a speeding bullet. The slo-mo Pentagon kitchen sequence involving a gleeful Quicksilver concocting an elaborate way of getting past the gun-toting guards is an ingenious fusion of special effects, balletic choreography and music (Jim Croce’s Time In A Bottle) that pays off to highly satisfying effect.

A future Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

A future Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Singer just about manages to avoid things slipping into Village People ridiculousness, although Simon Kinberg’s script slips into over-exposition and needless anachronisms, to the extent you half expect Jackman to break the fourth wall and ask ‘are you keeping up?’.

A strength of the film, aside from John Ottman’s nicely judged score, is its ability to juggle a sizeable cast. With the exception of Halle Berry’s increasingly redundant Storm and Anna Paquin’s much-discussed reduction in screen time, pretty much everyone gets their moment to shine, in particular Nicholas Hoult, who continues the good work he put in during First Class as Hank McCoy, aka Beast.

Future Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Future Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Jackman, Stewart and McKellen slip into their respective roles as they would an old pair of shoes, while Lawrence gives Mystique a very human dimension and McAvoy expands greatly on what he did in First Class.

The biggest plaudits must go to the excellent Dinklage, who offers up a different sort of villain from the ones we’re used to seeing. Even the very worst of humanity think they’re doing the right thing and Trask is no different. Singer wisely cast Dinklage, whose diminutive size suggests a harmless industrialist, but whose character exbibits ambitions that are world-changing indeed.

Setting aside the slightly needless set piece involving Magneto raising the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium and chucking it over the White House like a giant donut, X-Men: Days Of Future Past is a genuine contender for blockbuster of the year.

Review – Prisoners

The mark of Scandinavian crime drama seeps into every gloomy frame of this brutal and nihilistic English language debut from director Denis Villeneuve.

Prisoners may retreat into traditional thriller territory, especially in its final act, but it offers no easy answers and paints a very troubling picture of God-fearing American suburbia

Prisoners may retreat into traditional thriller territory, especially in its final act, but it offers no easy answers and paints a very troubling picture of God-fearing American suburbia

Prisoners opens with carpenter Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) uttering the Lord’s Prayer before his son (Dylan Minnette) shoots his first deer. It’s a symbolic moment – a violent act performed in God’s name, one in which forgiveness is spoken of but ultimately ignored.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) demands action from Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to find his daugher in Prisoners

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) demands action from Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to find his daugher in Prisoners

Keller is a deeply religious man whose New Testament nature gives way to Old Testament retribution when his young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) goes missing along with the daughter of his good friend Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) during a Thanksgiving dinner. Panic and grief give way to murderous vengeance for Keller when the police, led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), are forced to release their chief suspect, the mentally challenged Alex (Paul Dano).

Prime suspect Alex (Paul Dano) is interrogated by Detecive Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Prisoners

Prime suspect Alex (Paul Dano) is interrogated by Detecive Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Prisoners

Loki implores Keller and his wife Grace, who’s become virtually catatonic through grief, to let him do his job, which involves methodically following whatever leads the case throws up. But blinded by rage and convinced that Alex knows where the girls are being held, an obsessive Keller takes it upon himself to act as judge, jury and, if necessary, executioner to find the ‘truth’, sucking Franklin and his wife Nancy (Viola Davis) into his increasingly disturbing descent.

Keller Dover takes the law into his own hands in Prisoners

Keller Dover takes the law into his own hands in Prisoners

Cinematographer par excellence Roger Deakins infuses Prisoners with an almost suffocating dread – woods haven’t looked this spine-tingling since The Blair Witch Project. Not only does the film coldly nod in the direction of Scandi-drama, it also owes a lot to the slate-grey creepiness of David Fincher (in particular Seven and Zodiac), whose most recent film is, of course, his remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Another Scandi-connection can be found in the atmospheric soundtrack provided by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

As well as the obvious religious overtones, it’s also easy to find a 9/11 allegory in Prisoners – a wounded America (religious everyman Keller) goes in search of revenge against its quarry (Alex) and is prepared to sacrifice its moral superiority to quench its thirst for vengeance.

Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are dragged into Keller Dover's quest for vengeance in Prisoners

Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are dragged into Keller Dover’s quest for vengeance in Prisoners

Aaron Guzikowski’s script asks some troubling questions, most notably, to what lengths would you as a parent go when your worst nightmares are realised. Given the right material, Jackman can really act and shows he’s far more than the Wolverine with a raw and powerful performance as Keller. Jackman’s natural physicality lends a ticking time bomb nature to his character, someone who you believe will do anything to get his daughter back.

Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo) protects Alex (Paul Dano) in Prisoners

Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo) protects Alex (Paul Dano) in Prisoners

Gyllenhaal, who played a political cartoonist dragged into tracking down a serial killer in Zodiac, gives Loki (another Scandinavian connection) a stoical implacability that nicely mirrors Keller’s bull-in-a-china-shop aggressiveness. His pronounced blinking suggests an appalled bewilderment at what his character is investigating and contributes to what is the latest in a line of fine performances from Gyllenhaal.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) on the case in Prisoners

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) on the case in Prisoners

The heavyweight supporting cast are uniformly excellent. Dano, normally a little too over-the-top, dials it right down as the tragic Alex; Howard and Davis are entirely believable as a couple who suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the moral line and don’t know what to do; while Melissa Leo is reliably great as Alex’s impassive Aunt Holly.

It’s not until you watch the film that you realise just how rare a commodity it is in American studio cinema these days. Prisoners may retreat into traditional thriller territory, especially in its final act, but it offers no easy answers and paints a very troubling picture of God-fearing American suburbia.

Review – Les Misérables

The most exhilarating rollercoasters are the ones that feel like they’re about to go off the rails at any second and come crashing to the ground.

Les Misérables movie poster

Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables – “an epic spectacle on such a grandiose scale as to leave you exhausted”

An experience not too dissimilar is had sitting through Tom Hooper’s unashamedly grandiose and wholly cinematic version of the enormously popular and reverred stage musical (itself based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel) that begins in 1815 and culminates in the 1832 June rebellion in Paris.

Hooper certainly had his work cut out for him, if for no other reason than to deal with the pressure of meeting the heady expectations of countless thousands of theatregoers who have adored the musical since its premiere in 1985.

Despite working with a far larger canvas than he’s previously been used after The Damned United and The King’s Speech, Hooper has taken the decision not to play safe with the material and to go for it instead. It’s a brave approach and one that is vindicated throughout the film’s 158 engrossing minutes.

From the first scene, the camera (with the assistance of CGI) emerges from the sea and glides over a storm-ravaged ship before coming to rest (momentarily) on the soon-to-be ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), part of a chain gang being forced to pull the vessel into dry dock. The camera then propels away to prison guard-turned policeman Javert (Russell Crowe), who makes it his life’s mission to hunt down Valjean after the former prisoner breaks parole.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) searches for redemption in Les Misérables

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) searches for redemption in Les Misérables

These first moments set the tone for what is to follow. This is no staid or stagey adaptation; Hooper wants you to know you’re watching a movie.

Just as the director seems to love attaching his camera to a bungy cord, so too does he delight in using that other device not available to a theatre production – the close up. When a scene calls for a confrontation or a big display of emotion, Hooper gets in tight, refusing to let go until every last drop of despair, grief, elation or anger is wrung out.

The angelic Fantine (Anne Hathaway) in Les Misérables

The angelic Fantine (Anne Hathaway) in Les Misérables

This is most affectingly handled in the scenes with factory worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who’s thrown on the street after she’s discovered sending money to her illegitimate daughter Cosette and desperately turns to prostitution to support her child. As Hathaway sings I Dreamed A Dream, Hooper locks the camera in close on her anguished, emaciated face in one continuous, bravura take.

The centrepiece of the film, it’s Hathaway’s Oscar-bait moment and she nails it. She gives it absolutely everything and delivers a shattering, show-stopping performance that runs the gamut from quiet grief to dead-eyed resignation that breaks the heart. If her delivery of the line “Life has killed the dream I dreamed” doesn’t have you welling up, nothing will.

There’s often a dishonesty in musicals as the vocals we hear are actually recorded in post-production. This may result in a cleaner sound, but the performances can lose their authenticity. Another brave move Hooper made was to have his cast sing  live on set, a decision that pays off handsomely and helps to draw out raw and believable turns from his fantastic ensemble. When the cast perform Do You Hear The People Sing?, in this instance you really can.

Idealistic revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) in Les Misérables

Idealistic revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) in Les Misérables

Previously best known for looking angry and chewing on a cigar as Wolverine, Jackman gives the performance of a lifetime as Valjean, who takes Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) into his care away from the unscrupulous Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) and raises her as his own as a promise to Fantine – an act borne out of kindness and a quest for redemption.

Jackman’s experience in musical theatre is brought to bear, most prominently during his hugely impressive solo numbers Valjean’s Soliloquy, Bring Him Home and Suddenly. He’s matched by the brilliant Hathaway, whose selfless, tragic Fantine is so angelic as to give Mother Teresa a run for her money.

Obsessive lawman Javert (Russell Crowe) in Les Misérables

Obsessive lawman Javert (Russell Crowe) in Les Misérables

Equally impressive is Eddie Redmayne in what is sure to be a star-making turn as Marius, the idealistic student revolutionary who turns his back on his privileged upbringing to lead the rebellion, falling for Cosette in the process. Redmayne brings an intensity to the role that has you rooting for him and his rendition of the sorrowful Empty Chairs at Empty Tables is spine-tingling.

Crowe doesn’t have the singing chops of the others and it shows. There’s no question he gives it his all as the devoutly law-upholding Javert, but the role makes demands on him that he is unable to meet.

Hooper goes to town with the lighter moments involving the Thénardiers and Cohen’s and Carter’s outrageously colourful performances nicely counterpoint all that tragedy and suffering.

Special mention must go to Melanie Ann Oliver’s and Chris Dickens’ superb editing. Despite being over two-and-a-half hours, it moves along at a cracking pace, with the musical numbers bleeding into each other and cut in such a way as to leave you breathless.

Les Misérables at times almost overwhelms itself with its own bombasity, but Hooper somehow keeps the show on the road and delivers an epic spectacle on such a grandiose scale as to leave you exhausted. This is one rollercoaster ride you won’t want to get off.

Bravo!