Category Archives: Movie Reviews

MOVIE REVIEW: BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE

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Directed by Zack Snyder

Starring: Ben Affleck Henry Cavill Amy Adams Jesse Eisenberg Gal Gadot Jeremy Irons

The two most famous superheroes in the world finally meet on the big screen. In 2013 Man of Steel established a new cinematic universe for characters from DC Comics. With plenty of plot threads left open director Zack Snyder saw the perfect opportunity for a sequel that would not only deal with the fallout caused by an aliens arrival on our planet but how men and women both good and bad would react to this.

The sequel picks up two years later, Superman is a figure of controversy throughout the world as lauded as he is for helping people he is viewed with suspicion by many others. Primary among these is Bruce Wayne aka Batman. After a beautifully shot slow motion introduction showing the murder of his parents (for anyone on Earth who didn’t know Batman’s origin, yes there are probably a few, still this gets it out of the way quickly and shows newcomers why Bruce does what he does) we are plunged straight into the action.

In a brilliant reversal director Zack Snyder takes us back to the climatic events of Man of Steel. In that movie we looked from on high at the destruction wrought by General Zod in his battle with Superman. Now we see it from the ground up as Bruce Wayne leaps from a helicopter and straight into a waiting car so he can zoom to his skyscraper in Metropolis (now located geographically not too far from Gotham). This sequence is terrifically shot as Bruce speeds through the city, buildings crumble around him, cars explode and the viewer can’t be sure what will happen next. Eventually he abandons his car and witnesses the collapse of his building and even though he rescues a man whose legs have been crushed and saves a little girl from falling debris in his mind the damage is deeper. Affleck’s performance throughout the movie is superb but special mention here for the look of intensity he shoots skyward. Played through his eyes you can see for Batman this is the moment, the decision is made. Superman is dangerous and has more power than anyone should have. He must be stopped.

Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck plays a world weary 40 something Batman

As we skip back to present day we see that the city of Metropolis is recovering from the conflict. The beautiful Heroes Park has been built in the middle of the city which contains a monument to the victims and a statue of Superman at it’s center. It’s clear that for a large number of people he is the savior this world needs. Clark Kent and Lois Lane have settled into a domestic life together, sharing an apartment (and in a playful scene a lot more too) as they work alongside each other at the Daily Planet.

A superhero movie needs a villain and in this case it’s one of the most famous in the DC pantheon, Lex Luthor (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is here a long way from the middle aged bald man of the comics. He is now a young, technological philanthropist. With a public persona that is neurotic, squeaky voiced and a mind that is seemingly all over the place audiences maybe shocked. How can this wimpy little guy be any kind of threat but that’s the genius of the performance. Eisenberg plays Lex with two facets. He has a public image of being a little bit bonkers but behind closed doors he is all kinds of cool, cold and calculating. His scenes with Senator Finch (played by Holly Hunter) crackle with danger and menace. His neurotic personality meaning you are never quite sure if he is going to charm her or strike her. We can see he has a history of being afraid of powerful men (an off hand remark about being beaten by his late father), he has to be at the top of the world and Superman represents a threat to his position.

Lex

Actor Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor

Superman is being called to answer for his actions after an incident in Africa where he rescues Lois from local militia but is blamed for the execution of several men. We all know he is innocent but he the Senate hearing wants answers and the calls continue for someone to keep his power in check. This is presented via a series of television interviews with politicians and in a canny piece of casting real world astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

If you are reading this and thinking it all sounds a bit serious you would be right. There are a few one liner’s scattered throughout the film but for the most part it is played absolutely straight. This is a blockbuster movies that wants to challenge you, to engage your brain and for you to ask questions. Who is right, what does power do to us and what would happen if we had to much power? In a world of movies especially big budget ones that require you to just sit back as they go from one explosive set piece to the next a film like this makes a refreshing change. Snyder and DC should be applauded for trying something different.

Does this mean they pull it off perfectly? Absolutely not, no film will ever be perfect and here the first half of the film has some pacing issues and the second throws in a few too many subplots. The latter point was always going to evident though as DC are taking a different route with introducing other heroes into their movies by ways of cameos here before they spin off into their own films. This perhaps could have used some tighter editing and more invention (as three of them are first glimpsed being watched on a laptop screen by another character) but we at least get a flavor of these other heroes and fans will be left wanting more.

Perhaps the most significant introduction of all though is the most famous female hero of all time. It may seem unbelievable that Wonder Woman (played here by Gal Gadot) has never been in a movie before but here she is at last. And what an introduction it is, we glimpse her civilian alter ego throughout the film where she has some fun scenes with Bruce Wayne before finally appearing in all her costumed glory. Instantly recognizable in her famous costume, she leaps into battle with a cry that will have fans punching the air in celebration. It’s cleverly explained why she takes so long to get involved and will leave you waiting with bated breath for her solo film which will be in cinemas in 2017. Special mention to the music here too as her theme is driving and powerful and will end up going round in your head long after you leave the cinema.

Wonder Woman

Gal Gadot brings Wonder Woman to the big screen

Hans Zimmer returns to score the movie, expanding upon his work in Man of Steel (he is joined by JunkieXL who has a co-writing credit for the music). Familiar motifs return and Zimmer continues his ability to make the hairs on your neck stand on end especially Superman’s music chimes in as he rescues a little girl from a burning building. This brief scene is a real highlight and really hammers home how much some people see the hero as a deity, a modern day Jesus who will save us all. This is not a crown that sits comfortably atop our heroes head and in his quite performance actor Henry Cavill keeps Superman relevant to everyday people by not being full of bravado. Some critics will moan and complain about him being dour but this reflects the time we live in, where millions of voices scream their opinions all clamoring louder than the other in their efforts to be heard. Superman just wants to help but he doesn’t know how to help everyone. His greatest weakness isn’t Kryptonite, it’s that he can’t save everyone all of the time. This grounds him and even though he is an alien makes him human.

Superman Rescue

Superman Day of the Dead

Superman is troubled by the worship he inspires

If you can guarantee one thing when watching a movie directed by Zack Snyder it’s that the action will be big, spectacular and intense. You will not be disappointed when the two heroes finally square off. Batman as most of the world knows has no superpowers so how might you ask will he go to toe to toe with an alien with super strength? In this case by using an armored power suit and some very resourceful thinking to make the fight much more even. Their brawl through an abandoned building keeps upping the stakes and is concluded in a very clever and unique way (though you will have to see the movie as this review won’t be spoiling the outcome). There are several other scenes outside the big brawl which also merit mention including an adrenalin pumping car chase involving the Batmobile and a warehouse fight involving Batman and several heavily armed enemies. Snyder also throws in some dream sequences which contain some scary imagery so you may want to check the film before showing it to youngsters.

At the movies end there are enough plot threads left open that will let DC continue making movies and developing their characters. Wonder Woman is next and will show her origin (as it is only hinted at here) before the big team up film Justice League.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a densely plotted, brilliantly acted film full of incredible action and thought provoking characters. You should see it on the biggest screen possible so you can not only appreciate the spectacle but also enjoy a film that has been carefully crafted by a director and production team who obviously care deeply about the world they show us. It tips its hat to several famous comics, most notably the seminal story The Dark Knight Returns but also nods to fan favorites such as Crisis and Kingdom Come. An excellent film that will bear many a repeat viewing.

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MOVIE REVIEW: STAR WARS THE FORCE AWAKENS

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DIRECTED BY: J.J. ABRAMS

STARRING: HARRISON FORD, JOHN BOYEGA, DAISY RIDLEY, MARK HAMILL, CARRIE FISHER

For decades it seemed like a fantasy, a new movie continuing the adventures of the characters audiences had come to know and love from the Star Wars Trilogy. That most glorious of triptychs formed by A New Hope (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). Even when creator George Lucas announced in the 90’s he would be releasing a new trilogy it was to be a series of prequels setting up the events of the three classics.

Before looking at the new movie lets take a look at the where Star Wars stood in the public consciousness. The prequel movies, The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) had been met with a mixed response from fans and critics. While few would argue their innovations when it came to effects or that they contained moments of genuine greatness (Sith’s outstanding moment ‘You were my brother Anakin, I loved you’ is superb) Lucas got lost amongst the technology and the films suffered from poor direction, actors lost amongst effects, weak scripts and an artificial feeling generated from an insistence on shooting digitally against the majority of the time green and blue screens with backgrounds added after. Revenge of the Sith was the strongest of the three and bought back some of the goodwill but as 2005 drew to a close for all intents and purposes Star Wars on the big screen was over.

On the small screen things looked brighter with the CG (computer generated) animated series The Clone Wars providing some wonderfully complex story telling and character development. Yet still audiences were hankering for the magic of those original three films. And then in 2012 reports emerged in the media that shook fans to their core, George Lucas announced the sale of his company Lucasfilm and all its series such as Star Wars and Indiana Jones to Disney.

The House of Mouse had several years before acquired Marvel Comics and was responsible for the juggernaut that became the Marvel Cinematic Universe which by the end of 2015 had released twelve movies that all linked into each other and been huge success’ at the box office. Cinema audiences were ready, prepared to expect story lines told across multiple movies and as the sale of Lucasfilm was announced Disney announced that the work had begun on Star Wars Episode VII for release at Christmas 2015.

Fans clamored for information, who would be back? Who would direct? Would the effects dominate and the story line suffer? Director JJ Abrams (hot off directing the revitalized Star Trek franchise two big screen outings) was hired and alongside writers Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Brave) would shape the script of what may prove to be one of the most popular films of all time.

As the trailers emerged fans got a glimpse of what this new era of Star Wars was going to offer them. Landscapes showing the after effects of conflict in a galaxy far, far away with Star Destroyers and X-Wings half buried in the ground but still soaring high the Millennium Falcon perhaps the most iconic spaceship ever designed. In a moment to send shivers down the spine of any long time fan a voice emerges from the darkness and then the camera cuts to Han Solo and Chewbacca. The former might have gray hair but his charm and charisma were obviously untouched by the intervening years. Fans dared to hope that this was the movie they had been waiting for. A brief behind the scenes video released the summer before showed the production team favoring real sets and practical effects wherever possible. The movie was also to be shot on film, another key ingredient in keeping that authentic feeling and a visual link to the classics.

However using nostalgia alone was never going to create a satisfying cinematic experience for anyone so a new cast of heroes and villains was needed and again we got glimpses of them in the trailers which led to wild speculation over who they were and what their stories would be.

So as December 17th arrived the hype had gone beyond fever pitch in fact it was at boiling point. Midnight showings were sold out everywhere as the film broke the record for pre-ordered ticket sales.

In a breathless opening the audience is introduced to new heroes, hot shot pilot Poe Dameron and his loyal droid BB-8. The little ball shaped droid would prove to be a masterstroke of design, a tiny head with a large ball for a body he rolls through the film providing laughs and a ton of emotion. Not an easy task for something that never speaks. Far from being a poor imitation of R2-D2 this new droid proves to be just as loveable and when the two get to share some screen time it couldn’t be more wonderful. The opening sequence also introduces us to one of the big bad’s, the lighstaber wielding Kylo Ren. Clad in black and with his voice filtered by a mask he carries on the menace of Darth Vader and as we learn more about him proves to be one of the most fascinating new characters.

BB-8

However the two leads are undoubtedly Finn, a Stormtrooper with a conscience who decides to defect from the First Order (who have risen up after the defeat of the Empire) and Rey, a scavenger wasting her life on a backwater planet. Thrown together the chemistry between John Boyega (Finn) and Daisy Ridely (Rey) is fantastic as they flee from the First Order in a chase sequence that starts on foot before taking to the skies in the Falcon (dumped on Rey’s planet and left as garbage). They are then propelled into space with BB-8 on board and charged with returning the little droid to the Resistance (the group carrying on the Rebels fight against tyranny). Here they encounter Han and Chewie and when you see the two veterans back on board the Falcon the hairs will be up on the back of your neck.

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The First Order are desperate to track down BB-8 as the droid is carrying a map to Luke Skywalker who has been missing for years. Turns out he was training a new generation of Jedi till he was betrayed and they were all wiped out. The First Order and their Supreme Leader want the map so they can destroy Skywalker for good and prevent the rise of the new Jedi ever coming to pass.

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As they travel through the galaxy we learn more about heroes old and new, Finn wants no part of the Resistance he just wants to run away as far as possible and Rey is convinced the family she has been waiting for for years on her planet will return. Han Solo has fled his marriage to Princess Leia and returned to the only thing he was ever good at, adventures in space with his best friend by his side. However larger events are in motion and all three will find themselves pulled back into the fight against evil and reunited with people form their past. To say to much more would spoil the plot (though if you are reading this you should have seen the movie by now). Suffice to say on an emotional level all of them go through arcs that are rewarding and emotional for many different reasons.

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So is the film perfect? Of course not but the faults are very minor, the third acts big action set piece is a rehash of A New Hope (but done much more successfully than it was in The Phantom Menace) and one scene on board a freighter featuring some big monsters feels tacked on and echoes a similar scene in Abrams first Star Trek movie (though it allows for a cool cameo from the stars of Indonesian action classic The Raid). These are minor nitpicks though as the film is overall a complete and utter success.

As audiences walked out afterward they could say that YES! It had been done, the film had captured the old magic and bought us all a group of new characters to root for. Mysteries were solved and new questions were asked leaving us in anticipation for the release of Episode VIII.

Star Wars has had a new energy infused into it and is ready to bewitch fans with its magic be they old or new.

MOVIE REVIEW: MAD MAX FURY ROAD

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DIRECTED BY: GEORGE MILLER

STARRING: TOM HARDY, CHARLIZE THERON, NICHOLAS HOULT, HUGH KEAYS-BYRNE

There has been a thirty year wait for Mad Max to return to cinemas, for years the fourth movie has languished in development hell. Many long term fans must have wondered if it would ever really happen and when it was finally announced if it could ever live up to the hype and nostalgic love for the originals.

What no one could have foreseen was director George Miller giving audiences not just one of the greatest action movies ever made but also one of the most subversive, a film that defies every expectation and shows the rest of Hollywood that they seriously need to up their game.

In the last thirty years Miller had directed only three films, all for children Happy Feet and Happy Feet Two and Babe: Pig in the City. Yet he managed to convince a major motion picture studio to give him $150 million to make a new Mad Max. You at home may think it the usual process to allow a director to return to his own film series especially in the age of film makers like George Lucas and Peter Jackson who wield huge control over the films they make. Yet Miller does not have their kind of clout but still managed to convince the executives he was the man for the job. Perhaps the cocaine mountain that the Hollywood higher ups live under was running low the day this was signed off. He could have been replaced with a gun for hire who would have pumped out a cheap and cheerful by the numbers action film which just happened to be called Mad Max, luckily for audiences the stars were in a different alignment.

In an era of endless remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels and spin off’s before release people were asking what was this film. Where did it fit in? Would there be a new origin story? Time for the second piece of subversion, its none of them. It doesn’t bog you down or waste 45 minutes on set up, a guy named Max is alone in a post apocalyptic world and he is driving the same car Mel Gibson drove in the old movies. Got it? Good lets get on with the action.

And it is action from the start. Action staged in a manner that many won’t expect with the iconic car the V8 interceptor sent rolling through the desert in the opening minutes. This isn’t what’s supposed to happen but you should know by now that Miller isn’t playing by the rules. And he breaks the biggest rule of all by making his title character and leading man into the sidekick in his own movie. Yes its true, Max doesn’t say much, he isn’t always centre of the action and he doesn’t always save the day. That honour goes to Charlize Theron who is the star of this film and the focus of the next point of subversion.

Charlize Theron as Furiousa

Charlize Theron as Furiosa

Action movies usually feature damsels in distress, women are generally there to be drooled over and swept into the arms of the hunky hero. She maybe feisty but by the moves end she’ll grow to love him and they kiss right? Nope not here, Theron plays Furiosa a woman on a mission. She drives a huge rig and while heading out on a supply run for uber bad guy Immorta Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne who was the iconic baddie Toecutter in the original) she veers off into the wasteland. Its her journey that is the focus, what she is protecting and where she is trying to get to. Yes eventually Max joins her on the journey but he is there to help and their relationship is built on trust and mutual respect of survival abilities. At no point are they mooning over each other. Theron is regarded as one of the most beautiful women in the world but she isn’t here for eye candy purposes, with shaven head, missing forearm (which she has replaced with a mechanical construct) and sporting a scar from being branded like cattle she is given free reign to play a character who is strong and determined. Her missing forearm is never mentioned in the movie an empowering fact for any viewer who may also be an amputee (fetal or otherwise).

Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne)

Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne)

Subversion continues when her cargo is revealed. She is fleeing to a supposed safe haven with a group of beautiful young women who are supposed to produce the offspring of bad guy Immortan Joe. Now you might expect these women to be helpless and ready to fill the damsel in distress role but again Miller isn’t interested in your expectations so much as confounding them. These women are beautiful but they don’t just sit there and scream, they use weapons, they help on the war rig, they have conflicts and behave like you would want female characters to behave more often in films. The American cartoonist Alison Bechdel introduced the world to the Bechdel Test,a three step guide to how women are under represented and encounter sexism. To pass a film must contain the following

  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,

  2. who talk to each other,

  3. about something besides a man

If you are reading those rules and thinking no big deal go back and watch a dozen action films and you will see how many of them fail miserably to pass this in fact don’t limit it to the action genre as it applies to the majority of films.

With all this talk of Max, Furiosa and the crew another important character is still to be mentioned. Joe has an army of War Boys, shaven headed, pale skinned and kept barely alive by blood donors. Early on Max finds himself tethered to one by the name of Nux (played by Nicholas Hoult) but once freed he sees the truth of Joe’s rule and joins the rigs crew, even finding time for a few romantic beats with Capable (played by Riley Keough). In the trailers he was sold as the psychotic bad guy so his arc proves to be incredibly satisfying and yet again goes against what you might think would happen to him.

Nux (Nicholas Hoult) and Capable (Riley Keough)

Capable (Riley Keough) and Nux (Nicholas Hoult)

The more insecure reader might be wondering if all this gets a bit heavy handed, are these messages being shoved in your face? And the answer is yes they are, is this a bad thing? Absolutely not because they are being shoved in your face through the vision of an almost two hour chase through a blasted wasteland! This is a not a film that feels the need to stop and tell you how important it is, the telling is done through the visuals as you are catapulted into the carnage. When the few brief stops do come its to help the story along and also introduce a further bunch of new characters, a group of mature and elder women riding motorcycles in the desert who just happen to be crack shots with their rifles!

Yet all these glorious factors are just part of the whole package as to what makes this film brilliant, another praiseworthy aspect has to be the production design. The vehicles, the locations, the costumes. Everything has been heightened to ridiculous levels but nothing feels to much or out of place it all feels right and like a natural evolution of where society might go after its fall. When the rig is being chased through the desert by Joe’s army and one of his vehicles has six drummers on the back, a stack of amplifiers on the roof and a heavy metal guitarist whose instrument shoots flames you never once think this is to much, because you can’t help but think how fucking cool it all is.

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Another problem action films have fallen into in the last twenty years is their tendency to cut everything so quickly and shake the camera so much you can barely take in what’s happening. Here you see everything with plenty of beautiful wide shots showing the full extent of the carnage and crashes yet Miller knows exactly when to cut to a close up or crash zoom to a minor detail. You’ll want to watch again and again, not because of what you missed but because of what has been crafted, the astonishing level of detail and the non stop adrenalin of it all.

Vehicular carnage is taken to another level

Vehicular carnage is taken to another level

Yet another strength is what the film doesn’t tell you, fictional narratives can live and die on their world building, the establishment of which can either suck you in or leave you cold. Once again Miller plays this to perfection, who knows why Joe wears his armour, where do the War Boys come from? Do you get answers to these questions, no you don’t but you don’t need them. You can tell he is evil, you can see the Boys are treated as disposable, this is a film that shows you rather than tells you. But then it also does the reverse of this, Furiousa says she wants redemption, she has obviously been party to horrible things and right then you would expect the flashback scene. Only it never happens, let your imagination run wild, it can be more fun sometimes.

So should you watch Mad Max Fury Road? Yes you should and then you should watch it again, you should show it to anyone who claims to be a film fan. This is not just a motion picture its a significant moment in popular culture that will be praised for years to come. Simply superb.

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MOVIE REVIEW: THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA

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DIRECTED BY: ISAO TAKAHATA

STARRING: AKI ASAKURA, KENGO KORA, TAKEO CHII, NOBUKO MIYAMOTO AND ATSUKO TAKAHATA

Studio Ghibli is the greatest animation studio on the planet. Consistently producing films that are beautiful, emotional, full of warmth and heart. Capturing a seemingly forgotten age in hand drawn animation every frame seems to resonate with feeling.

Last year legendary director Hayao Miyazaki hung up his directors cap with The Wind Rises and now co-founder and fellow director Isao Takahata looks to be doing the same with The Tale of The Princess Kaguya. If this does prove to be the directors last film he has signed off with a masterpiece.

Taking eight years to complete and based on a 10th century Japanese folk tale the film has an incredibly unique look, imagine a moving painting done in watercolour and that still does not do it justice. The fact it was all done by hand gives it a warmth no computer animated movie can quite match. Sides of the frame gently fade away, the characters movement is graceful and a mostly muted colour pallet gives the film a very sombre feel.

The bamboo cutter finds Princess

The bamboo cutter finds Princess

A bamboo cutter finds a tiny Princess inside a glowing bamboo shoot. He takes her home to his wife where she shifts from being a tiny person into a baby. The bamboo cutters wife can suddenly produce milk for the baby and they take these signs that they should raise the baby as their own, she is christened Princess as they believe her to be of divine origin. She grows quickly and before long is friends with several children who give her the nickname Lil’ Bamboo (on account of her adopted fathers profession) though her father insists she be called Princess. For a while life seems good as she spends carefree days exploring the country with her friends.

However her adopted father soon discovers riches in the form of gold in another bamboo shoot and their lives suddenly go into huge upheaval as he uses the fortune to relocate the family to the capital and place them amongst societies elite. Princess now lives in a mansion and has a teacher trying to turn her into what society expects a noblewoman to be. On the day of her naming ceremony she overhears men mocking her father for attempting to turn a peasant into a noble through money. This leads to a breathtaking sequence where she flees the capital and the animation takes on a stark quality, stripped back layer by layer as she shrugs off everything that is fake.

Managing to return home unfortunately all has changed and her friends have gone away. She finds herself back in the capital once more where she withdraws into herself. As word of her intense beauty spreads Princess finds herself wanted by some of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the country. But none of them understand that she does not want rich, expensive gifts just the quite simple life she enjoyed in the countryside.

A simple life

A simple life

Takahata’s direction is masterful, the film moves at a sedate pace allowing the viewer to absorb every detail, the mannerisms, the locations and the emotions. Even though the story is adapted from a centuries old folk tale the themes of wishing for a simple life, being true to yourself and life being so fleeting are resonant even now.

The film is visually breathtaking

The film is visually breathtaking

Studio Ghibli have one more film due for release this year and after that the future is uncertain. Reports say they are going on hiatus as they consider what to do now the two founders and most famed directors have retired. Looking back at the exceptional body of work they have produced over the years The Tale of the Princess Kaguya can sit proudly alongside their very best.

All screenshots were taken from www.blu-ray.com

The best site online for Blu ray news and reviews

MOVIE REVIEW: CHAPPIE

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DIRECTED BY NEILL BLOMKAMP

STARRING: SHARLTO COPLEY, DEV PATEL, NINJA, YOLANDI VISSER, HUGH JACKMAN AND SIGOURNEY WEAVER

Neill Blomkamp’s third feature as a director sees him back on familiar ground, a not far in the future science fiction action movie set in Johannesburg. Unlike his début feature it’s not aliens that are the centre of attention this time but robotic police officers. Deployed by a large corporation to work alongside law enforcement and from the opening scenes it looks to be working well as humans and machines are shown working together to take down some extremely violent criminals. This is all framed around documentary style talking head interviews and faux news footage. From reading this you may well be thinking it sounds pretty similar to the opening of Blomkamp’s first movie District 9 and you would be right.

You may also be thinking robotic police officers working alongside humans, large corporation involved this all sounds a bit like Robocop. Yes the shadow of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 masterpiece is writ large through much of Chappie which burdens the film from the start as it can never quite escape the shadow of its forbear.

After the introductory overload of information and quick cuts the film flips back eighteen months (and ditches the documentary angle for regular movie styling) and we get an introduction to the human leads. Dev Patel plays the young engineer responsible for the development of the robotic officers and he is flavour of the month in the corporate headquarters. Drawing praise from his boss (Sigourney Weaver) and envious eyes from fellow engineer Hugh Jackman. He has been developing a rival to the police robot but has found his funding cut due to his creation requiring a human interface to operate and it being considered to large and overpowered for urban police work. When we get to see his creation its not hard to see why either, its a huge, weapon laden beast not a million miles from the ED-209 seen in Robocop (yes another similarity).

Verhoeven called, he wants ED-209 back

Verhoeven called, he wants ED-209 back

Patel’s robotic officers need no such human mind to pilot them and being essentially people shaped can move quickly and nimbly in any environment. However he is not satisfied with simply producing robotic cops who obey all orders without question as when he gets home (inhabited by little robots that talk to him a la Blade Runner) from the office he spends all night working on a programme to create artificial intelligence and finally succeeds. Now just about anyone in the world could appreciate the massive implications of creating an artificial mind and how it might change society across the world yet when he presents it to Weaver her character is completely uninterested! For a CEO of a major corporation this seems incredibly short sighted and unbelievable.

Still this wonky script moment at least lets the movie get on with the plot. Patel steals a damaged officer and takes off in his van intending to download the artificial intelligence into it and see what happens. His plans are ruined though as he is kidnapped by a gang led by real life musicians Die Antwood who are formed of Ninja (bad tattoos and thug life walking cliché) and Yolandi (sensitive artistic type) here playing exaggerated versions of themselves. They reason that by kidnapping the engineer they can get him to shut down all the robotic officers.

Taking him to their hideout (an abandoned warehouse straight from an 80’s action movie) he is allowed to assemble his officer and install it with the software to bring it to life. Once Chappie is created (born) he is an absolute joy to behold like a cross between a young child and baby animal. He cowers and shrinks away from anything until learning it won’t hurt him. The child like innocence portrayed here is astonishing and within minutes the audience can’t help but love him as Patel and Yolandi try to nurture him. Unfortunately things start to go wrong almost immediately as Ninja wants to use Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley) to help them commit crimes. Ninja is incredibly stupid and has no concept that a child can’t go out and rob a bank within five minutes of being born.

This leads to Ninja going crazy and Patel (refereed to as Maker by Chappie) being kicked out of the warehouse leaving the robot alone with Ninja and Yolandi who he will go on to refer to as Mummy and Daddy. The next few scenes are incredibly uncomfortable to watch as Ninja attempts to toughen Chappie up by dumping him in a shitty part of the city where he is attacked by a gang of thugs. He manages to escape but is then picked up by Hugh Jackman and further tortured by having his arm sawn off and a computer chip ripped from his head (the technological McGuffin needed to bring Jackman’s own robot fully online). After this he is dumped in the street and left to fend for himself. It’s an easy criticism of cinema to say that films glorify violence and the director does seem to revel in it here as Chappie suffers horrendous cruelty. Later on when he gets to unleash violence on people its hard to know if you should be cheering or feeling ashamed for watching an innocent soul being corrupted.

Chappie eventually finds his way back to the warehouse and is patched up by Yolandi and another gang member. Finally some scenes of light are allowed as she reads him a bed time story and he gets to do some painting. Yet again this is ruined by the odious Ninja who is still determined to get Chappie to help them with robbing an armoured car full of money which they need to get out of debt with an even more stereotypical gangster type. This leads to some funny moments as Ninja tries to teach Chappie to be a gangster and has him walking with swagger and wearing lots of bling. Our robot friend can’t quite master swearing though “fuck mother” will bring a lot of laughs from the audience.

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For all its dubious character moments (its hard to call any of the humans likeable except maybe Yolandi though even she could be accused of negligence and being under Ninja’s heel) the film is a triumph of design and details. The candy coloured guns carried by the gang, Chappie’s simple expressions, the dirt and grime of the locations. With so many modern blockbusters the fact you are watching effects can be painfully obvious and make the film seem artificial (The Hobbit trilogy being a huge culprit) but with Chappie it is hard to tell where the practical effects end and the CGI takes over it looks that good! One thing that does stick out rather painfully is the amount of corporate sponsorship the film has obviously taken to up its budget. Being a Sony production their branding is all over laptops and Vodacom (the South African arm of Vodafone) whose logo adorns a huge tower gets more screen time than a lot of the actors. This is made even more ironic as the corporation at the heart of the film is rarely taken to task for their actions.

From what you have read so far it may sound like a very bleak film especially whenever Ninja is around but his character does allow for the funniest scene in the film as he tricks Chappie into stealing a bunch of expensive cars. Our hero still having such an adolescent mind finds himself being drawn further into Ninja’s web at the promise of a new body as his will expire in a few days. This certainly helps to propel things along and make the two hour running time seem much shorter. A later action scene where Chappie and the gang face off with Jackman’s own robot is incredibly exciting and well shot.

Jackman’s character is a bit of an enigma, supposedly the bad guy of the piece his concerns about self controlled robots policing the city seem legitimate but he is fobbed off and then goes bonkers because his own robot is being ignored and falls into stereotype mode. He waves his gun around the office (which is ignored by everyone) and claims the robots are Godless and that Patel should join him at church. It seems like a bit of an easy option to make him the God fearing alpha male but at least the performance is full of conviction.

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Amongst all the thug life posturing and third act carnage (the action does not disappoint) the nature of Chappie and what it means to be human seems to get lost. The film while terrific as a loud action spectacle needs to slow down and breathe at points, giving the audience more moments of Chappie learning and experiences that were not (almost) constantly violent could have elevated this to something special.

More scenes like this would have been welcome

More scenes like this would have been welcome

And like this

And like this

As it stands Chappie is a brilliant movie to look at and two solid hours of entertainment but its frustrating that it never answers the big questions it poses and displays a lack of emotion when more were needed. Blomkamp is proving an interesting director but as it stands he is yet to top his début feature and the jury remains out on whether he can find the balance between spectacle and substance.