Tuesday, March 17, 2015

CHAPPIE Is B-Movie Silliness Disguised as High-Concept Blockbuster


- Please don't suck. Please don't suck. Please don't suck. That is the rallying cry and internal monologue of film geeks as a much-anticipated movie begins - especially one in which the quality of the movie is far from guaranteed going in. CHAPPIE was a movie that I really wanted to be good. Really wanted to be *great*. I still will go to bat any day of the week for District 9. That movie blew me away back in 2009, and it seemed to send a strong message that its co-writer and director, Neill Blomkamp, was a major new voice in blockbuster filmmaking - here was a guy who was here to stay. Suffice it to say, the expectations for Blomkamp's follow-up, Elysium, were sky high. And the movie was ... meh. Blomkamp's visual flair was still evident, but the story felt flat and uninspired. With that in mind, CHAPPIE had a (possibly unfair) feeling of make-or-break for Blomkamp. Would it be a return to form, or another stumble? The stakes felt even higher with the news that Blomkamp would be directing the upcoming Alien sequel. Fans (myself included) wanted reassurance that that beloved franchise was in good hands. So ... here's the thing: I'm still pretty confident that Blomkamp can and will deliver the goods when it comes to badass sci-fi visuals and hard-hitting action scenes. At the same time, Chappie *really* makes me want to see Blomkamp teamed with some great writers on Alien and whatever other projects he tackles subsequently. CHAPPIE has some really cool visuals, but overall it's the weakest film Blomkamp has done to date. It's got script problems - big ones. And the result is a movie that ends up being jaw-dropping, but in all the wrong ways.

There are a lot of things in CHAPPIE that I admire in theory. I dig the basic concept - that of a police robot destined for the scrap-heap, salvaged by his creator and implanted with an upgrade that allows him true sentience. I like the visual aesthetic of the film, and the design of Chappie. In general, I'm a big fan of Blomkamp's gritty, 80's sci-fi-inspired design sense. I even like, in theory, the concept of casting the punked-out members of South African rap-rave band Die Antwoord as principle characters. I mean, why not? The whole film has an 80's sci-fi aesthetic, and a lot of beloved 80's genre movies have memorable appearances from musicians trying their hands at acting, from Bowie in Labyrinth to Isaac Hayes in Escape From New York. In theory, it's a bold, sorta cool movie. In theory.

But in practice, in the execution, so much of CHAPPIE ends up eliciting eye-rolls rather than fist-pumps. The story has numerous beats that feel off. Sometimes the film feels like it's straight-up ripping off Robocop. Witness Hugh Jackman as Vincent Moore - a loose-cannon engineer whose war-machine robot is pretty much just the ED-209. Sometimes, the movie seems tone-def about its characters. Die Antwoord's Ninja and Yo-Landi (playing odd alternate-universe versions of themselves) essentially go from being the movie's villains to its heroes without any real narrative arc driving that turn. And sometimes, as with the film's bat$%#&-crazy ending, the plot twists feel less like the work of a visionary and more like the fevered fan-fic of an overstimulated ten year old.

The underlying problem here is that Blomkamp seems to constantly be thinking about how best to deliver big, ain't-that-cool moments while also trying to infuse his films with legit social commentary and meaning. But the two halves do not form a cohesive whole. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that, for example, I get how the movie's ending perhaps seemed cool - could have been cool - on paper. But in practice it's laughable, because there's no semblance of human emotion driving it. Stuff happens, and we - and the characters - are asked to just go with it without the slightest hint of dramatic weight or emotional resonance. It's the same reason why Ninja sort of sucks as an antihero. There's no depth to his character - nothing to make us find it in our hearts to root for him when all we know of him is that he seems like a relatively heartless tool. But he's punk and named Ninja, so I guess we're supposed to embrace him? Yo-Landi is at least a little more sympathetic - she seems to genuinely care for Chappie. But that's all there is to her. How did she end up with Ninja? Are they supposed to be a band in the movie? Why does she stay with him despite him seeming to be an abusive maniac? The characters here all feel like cardboard cut-outs. Hugh Jackman's Vincent is similarly confounding. I'm all for having a crazy, over-the-top badguy in this sort of film. But Vincent just does stuff without any discernible motivation. He wants his ED-209-esque war-bot to get approved for mass-production and deployment, and he tries to accomplish that - and quell fears that it's dangerous - by taking it on a joyride of mass-destruction? This is a movie largely devoid of recognizable human behavior. At one point, an enraged Vincent pulls a gun on his office-mate in the middle of a crowded cubicle farm -- and everyone seems pretty unfazed.

The office-mate who has the gun pulled on him is Dev Patel's Deon - who is initially set up to be the movie's main hero. But it shows how structurally broken the film is that Deon ends up disappearing for long stretches of the movie - letting the increasingly aimless Ninja and Yo-Landi take center stage. Deon is the young robotics rock star who created the line of police-bots that spawned Chappie. And a movie primarily about Deon teaching a newly-sentient Chappie about morals and humanity in order to fight off a soulless robotic force guided by Vincent could have been a fun sci-fi premise. But the movie gets so bogged down in everything else - in the Die Antwoord stuff, in endless scenes of Chappie learning to be gangsta (which often come off as just silly) - that by the third act we're not really sure *what* this movie is or what it's trying to be.

The one thing that CHAPPIE really has going for it is Chappie. The visual f/x around Chappie are honestly some of the best and most seamless motion-capture CGI I've ever seen in a film. At most points in the film, you'd be hard-pressed to say with certainty that what we're seeing is CG and not some sort of practical f/x work. Chappie looks fantastic, and a lot of that also has to do with the amazing mo-cap work done by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley - who voices and gives life to Chappie. Copley kills it. He not only makes Chappie feel real and alive, but he makes him likable despite a script that does him no favors, and that makes him grow from simple and child-like to omniscient super-being in a span of minutes.

CHAPPIE has some pretty solid action, but nothing in the same league as District 9. The big difference, of course, is that District 9 had a ton of emotional weight behind its big action set pieces. CHAPPIE - tone deaf as it is - more often than not fails to get the ol' adrenaline pumping. The basic building blocks of good action are there - Blomkamp knows how to stage some kick-ass asskickery. But the plot and emotional arcing of the movie is so all-over-the-map that it's often difficult to discern a.) character motivations, and b.) filmmaker intentions. Is a scene meant to be disturbing or fun? Are these characters supposed to be kewl or off-putting? And, oh ... couldn't the film have found a better use for the great Sigourney Weaver than just having her play a generic hard-ass CEO?

The more I think about CHAPPIE, the more I begrudgingly admire some of its weirdness. I mean, the fact that Blomkamp gives so much screentime to the (admittedly sort of fascinating) Yo-Landi and Ninja, the fact that Hugh Jackman's villain is a complete nutcase whose actions make no sense, the fact that the ending is so completely bugnuts insane - all of it sort of endears me to this movie. And if CHAPPIE were some weird midnight-movie oddity, then it might be easier to enjoy as just a strange B-movie in the vein of so many nutty sci-fi B-movies from the 80's-era golden age that Blomkamp clearly has an affection for. But this film clearly aspires to more than B-movie novelty. Like each of Blomkamp's movies to date, it wants to say things about society and class, and to have deeper thematic texture than your average sci-fi shoot-'em-up. And CHAPPIE - even more so than Elysium - just sort of falls apart as anything other than B-movie action. It goes to show that you can have the best f/x in the world - and the biggest of ambitions - but without a smart script and great characters, you're left with a dud. CHAPPIE, sadly, is a dud. You've got to give it credit for daring to be weird in certain ways, but you've also got to dock it points for being generic and brain-dead in too many other ways. Robocop this ain't. I've not yet given up on Blomkamp, and I remain hopeful that he can evolve into a visual stylist who helps breathe life into great scripts from other writers. But CHAPPIE is seemingly damning evidence that the guy can't do it all on his own.

My Grade: C

Monday, March 16, 2015

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE Is Another Kick-Ass Action Flick from Millar and Vaughn


- KINGSMAN is one of those everything-and-the-kitchen-sink action movies that, if you're of a certain geeky sensibility, is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Like many, I've become a big fan of director Matthew Vaughn over the last several years. And I think that the creative partnership of him and comic book writer Mark Millar is a winner. Millar is a guy whose books always interest me. He is one of the best premise people out there - his comics always stem from a great high-concept idea, and yet, Millar always puts character first. The one issue with Millar is sometimes that of tone. His comics sometimes, quite simply, go a little overboard in terms of delivering shock value - and the shock value can on occasion undermine the story he's trying to tell. Enter Vaughn, who is a perfect ying to Millar's yang. Vaughn has a knack for distilling Millar's stories down to their core themes - he keeps the gonzo action and over-the-top sensibilities, but tends to cut out the stuff that distracts from the big-picture storytelling. So here's the thing: I really dug Millar's comic miniseries The Secret Service, on which KINGSMAN is based. But I freaking loved the film. It's got incredible action, tons of self-referential wit, insane action, humor, and a number of incredibly entertaining performances. After a long delay and an underhyped theatrical release dwarfed by the behemoth that was 50 Shades of Grey, it might have been logical to assume that KINGSMAN was a dud. But - good news! - it's actually one of the most fun and flat-out entertaining action films in quite some time.

The basic premise here is that a London street kid called Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is recruited into a top-secret international spy organization by Harry Hart - aka Galahad (Colin Firth) - a veteran spy who once worked with Eggsy's deceased father. The members of said organization - The Kingsmen - are mostly recruited from the upper crust, and the standard agent is a James Bond-ian blend of dapper, suave, and impeccably posh. Suffice it to say, the lower-class Eggsy doesn't quite fit in, and seems a longshot to make it all the way in the group's series of recruitment challenges, designed to narrow down the field of rookies to a select few. But the Kingsmen will soon need all the help they can get: a mad man named Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) - who happens to be the head of one of the world's largest communications companies - is formulating a plan that would cull the world's population, by mind-controlling regular people (via their cell phones, of course) and turning them into crazed, homicidal lunatics.

I was sort of blown away by KINGSMAN's script. There's a ton of plot, character work, and action packed into the film's running time, but nothing feel's overly rushed or truncated. I will say though, in an era of action movies in which plot is so often just "Big Bad trying to steal all-powerful item", it's pretty refreshing to see an action movie villain with a.) a well-thought-out scheme, and b.) actual conviction. Samuel L. Jackson's Valentine is a great villain - not just because Jackson is funny and fully committed to the part, but because there's a lot of thought put into his plans. It's not just the plotting that's impressive though. The character work is razor-sharp. The dialogue zips and zings. The characters each feel distinct and full of personality. The humor works. There's great quips and memorable lines aplenty. Good stuff all around.

Colin Firth kills it as Galahad. Many seem surprised at how well Firth adapts to action. But really, the Galahad character is sort of an extended riff on Firth's gentlemanly persona. And a big part of the fun of KINGSMAN is seeing Firth kick all kinds of ass in gentlemanly style. "Manners maketh man" is Galahad's credo, and that extends to everything from sipping tea to taking out a roomful of thugs. Firth really is fantastic though - it's one of the most fun and memorable action movie performances in a long while. He nails every quip, but also brings a lot of heart to the role - especially as pertains to his father-son relationship with Eggsy.

Taron Egerton is a huge find. He makes Eggsy anything but generic. Rather, the movie's protagonist is a street-smart, big-hearted hero-in-the-making who adapts in My Fair Lady fashion to the Kingsmen's ways, but who also holds strong to what he learned from the ol' school of hard knocks. I really admired that the film seemed to pull no punches with respect to the theme of class and class warfare - instead going all-in and making it a driving force of the film's plot and characters.

There are many additional noteworthy turns in the film. I'll mention Mark Strong, because he's just generally awesome, but also because he makes the Kingsmen's resident trainer and mentor figure Merlin an all-around badass. I'll also mention Michael Caine, as senior Kingsman. Caine is on point here, and has some surprising moments that are key plot drivers. And then there's Sofia Boutella, who plays Valentine's chief henchwoman - a fierce and fiercely loyal assassin with gleaming razors for legs. Yep, you heard me. Boutella is a villain for the ages - a pulp-fiction femme fatale who destroys in several action scenes that leave you on the edge of your seat.

The overall vibe here is reminiscent of Vaughn's Kick-Ass, but even more amped up - with a Tarantino-esque genre-mash, anything-goes feel. And again, the fact that the film has a few things on its mind - class, wealth, etc. - gives it a bit more meat to chew on than your average over-the-top action-fest. But action-fest it is. The movie is pull-no-punches violent and gory - but in a mostly cartoonish way that fits with the film's comic-book tone. Vaughn goes big - and he retains Millar's fanboyish sense of merry-prankster glee at giving the audience a little something extra with the action and gore. But there's also an almost Spielbergian optimism to the film that is not necessarily drawn from the comic. Despite the uber-violence, the big set-pieces and action beats are just plain fun, and almost entirely character-driven in nature. It's how the movie is able to pack so much in - every big action set-piece is jammed with great little character moments that advance the story while also being decidedly awesome.

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE is one of the best cinematic surprises of 2015 so far. I hope the Vaughn/Millar collaboration continues, because the two definitely seem to bring out the best in each other. And while we're on the subject, I wouldn't mind seeing a KINGSMAN sequel. The characters and universe that the film introduces us to are so fun and likable that I was left wanting more. And that, to me, is the sign of an action movie's job well done. Manners maketh man, and Millar and Vaughn maketh another movie that kicks some serious ass.

My Grade: A-

Monday, March 2, 2015

JUPITER ASCENDING Is Flawed But Visually-Stunning Sci-Fi


- It's funny ... back in the days when The Matrix ruled pop-culture, I never really counted myself as a huge fan of the franchise, or of the siblings who directed the film and its sequels. Only later, when the Wachowskis' work became less commercial and more esoteric, did I fully appreciate the duo's status as some of the last original voices working in blockbuster filmmaking. Speed Racer was the film that converted me. An ahead-of-its-time anime-come-to-life, the movie was a sugar rush of visual splendor matched with the giddy storytelling sensibility of classic animation on acid. Then came Cloud Atlas. That movie divided audiences, but won a passionate fanbase - myself included - for its unbridled ambition and go-for-broke mentality. Coming right at a moment in which blockbuster filmmaking felt more by-the-numbers than ever, Cloud Atlas was the rare film that melded next-gen visuals with big ideas and real thematic substance. Now, the Wachowskis continue to push limits with JUPITER ASCENDING. It's big, epic, uber-detailed space opera. It's the kind of story that, these days, might feel more at home in videogames or comic books - because it doesn't hold back on any of its inherent geekiness. To that end, the movie feels overstuffed and, often, hard to follow. But I refuse to jump on the bandwagon of those deriding it as out-and-out bad. No movie with this much visual brilliance or sheer spark of imagination could be called bad. As someone who finds it admirable that the Wachowskis are steadfastly sticking to original stories, I for one support the movie - and urge open-minded fans to give it a look.

JUPITER ASCENDING gives us a fairy-tale spin on space opera, casting Mila Kunis as the aptly-named Jupiter Jones - a hard-working, down-on-her-luck cleaning lady who discovers that her destiny lies not in cleaning well-off people's toilets, but in the stars. As it turns out, Jupiter is actually the reincarnation of an interstellar monarch. Since the original died, her god-like offspring battle for control of the family's holdings - namely, planets (including earth) that are used as harvest grounds for resources. Feeding off the populations of their planetary conquests, the intergalactic one-percenters kill and destroy as a means of maintaining their own power and immortality. So rather than play nice with her power-hungry quasi-family, Jupiter instead sides with a scrappy group of rebels looking to bring down the evil regime. Chief among them is Channing Tatum's Caine - a genetically-modified soldier who finds star-crossed romance in the maid-turned-monarch.

There is A LOT going on in this movie. It feels like we're seeing one small slice of a vast universe, and the result is a lot of disorientation. Some of that, I think, is cool. There's a sense of wonder I got from the movie bombarding me with random side-dishes of concepts and characters that, in some other film, would have been the main course. Oh, this movie has lizard people? And androids with video-faces? And soldiers whose DNA is spliced with that of animals? This movie sometimes comes off like the sci-fi equivalent of one of New York's hottest clubs as described by SNL's Stephon - there's a little of everything, and tons of weird $#%&. All of that would be all good - even sort of awesome, if it didn't seem to come at the expense of the story. For a space opera, the opera part feels a little soft. There's so much stuff jammed into the movie that the big character beats end up feeling glossed over, and the movie rarely has the emotional punch you want from a movie of this nature. Jupiter seems to take most things in stride, and Tatum's Caine is too stoic to give the film the sort of Han Solo-esque badassery it sorely needs.

Part of the problem is the casting. Kunis is good as the girl-next-door, but less so as the would-be Chosen One who helps to take down an empire. She handles the action ably, but never quite gives us much in the way of gravitas. Tatum is okay as Caine, but sort of bland. The boyish, All-American Tatum seems miscast as a brooding badass. Sean Bean seems more at home as Caine's grizzled mentor, but his character is one of the film's weakest - going from friend to foe with lightning speed and not enough dramatic weight behind his decisions. The real MVP of the movie is Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne as the angry-whispering despot Balem Abrasax. Camping it up to the extreme, Redmayne is a lot of fun as the film's pulpy Big Bad. He's one of the few in the cast that goes big.

But really, the star of the movie is its incredible visual f/x work and world-building. In IMAX 3D, the film is a stunner. In a world where so much of what we seen in blockbuster filmmaking feels like stock footage pulled from other genre flicks, the worlds of JUPITER ASCENDING are truly things of beauty. There's so much coolness going on here - the sets, the character design, the costuming - all of it is absolute eye candy - especially if you're into painterly sci-fi visuals (and I am). In turn, the action sequences in the film are pretty spectacular - with some fantastically-choreographed set pieces that remind us why the Wachowskis are among the best in the biz at creating unique and memorable action scenes.

JUPITER ASCENDING has so much raw potential. This is the kind of fictional world that feels well-suited to be a multimedia creation, that could and should be further explored in comics, videogames, etc. But there's just too much world-building stuff going on in the movie, and as presented in the film, it rarely feels coherant, or built on a solid foundation. I think the Wachowskis actually tell us too much. There's a power in these sorts of movies to letting the audience fill in the details. Think about Star Wars, and how a simple mention of "The Clone Wars" fueled fanboy imaginations for decades. The Wachowskis could have focused a bit more on the big, iconographic elements of their world and less on cramming in everything and the kitchen sink. At times, JUPITER ASCENDING has a surreal, Alice in Wonderland through-the-rabbit-hole quality. At times, it takes on the social commentary aspect of comedic dystopian sci-fi - think Terry Gilliam's Brazil (there's actually a lengthy sequence that is a direct riff on Brazil, and even features a Gilliam cameo). At times, it's pure blockbuster pulp in the vein of Star Wars. It's a pastiche of influences, to be sure. But it's all sort of a hazy jumble by the film's end. I wanted to see more of the world, but I still wasn't quite sure what this world was to begin with.

Still, there is so much imagination on display in this movie. I'd gladly take more JUPITER ASCENDING's and less cynically-made sequels or reboots. I say: shame on critics who call artfully-made films like this "bad." Open your mind and recognize that movies can have good aspects and less-good aspects, but that if they present you with something you've never quite seen before, then hey, that's something that's praiseworthy. Story-wise, JUPITER has some issues. But there's enough that's interesting and unique - even mind-blowing - in the film that sci-fi fans owe it to themselves to at least give this one a look - preferably on the biggest screen possible.

My Grade: B