A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Chappie” 4.12.15

Writer/Director Neill Blomkamp burst onto the scene in 2009 with the Science Fiction game changer, “District 9”, which many could say (minus maybe Duncan Jones’ “Moon, also released that same year), is one of, if not the best Science Fiction films of the past decade. It carved out a new niche in Science Fiction infusing faux-documentary elements, guerilla filmmaking, and a visceral-like quality usually only found in War films. It also contained many allegorical themes, mainly using his story of alien life forms who land on earth only to be ousted and pushed into “ghettos”, clearly Blomkamp’s take on the rising number of illegal immigrants and how they are treated once they enter into this country. Blomkamp’s follow-up, 2013’s “Elysium”, once again saw Blomkamp digging into more allegorical themes in a movie about classicism and two planets that separate the rich from the poor. “Elysium”, at least in my opinion (and most likely the opinion of everyone else) wasn’t half the film “District 9” was. But that would have been a tough feat to pull off. Considering how influential the former film was. As for his more recent film, what first piqued my interest about it a long long time ago was that film news websites were saying things like “Neill Blomkamp teams up with rap/rave group Die Antwoord on his newest film”. I immediately took notice as many people who know me know how much of a Die Antwoord fan I really am. And it seemed to make sense that the most unique voice coming out of Africa in film would team up with the most popular musical group from the same country (that and both Blomkamp and Die Antwoord have expressed their deep love and admiration for one another to the press). It was only befitting that the two would team up for a film. What also drew me to this particular project, despite its less than favorable reviews, was not only the casting of Die Antwoord (Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er), but Hugh Jackman (who I have a newfound respect for because of 2013’s “Prisoners”), the legendary Sigourney Weaver (any Science Fiction director’s dream to have cast in their film), Dave Patel from “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), and finally third-time collaborator Sharlto Copley (playing the voice of the robot of the titular character. Even in spite of it not getting such great reviews, given the film’s pedigree it was almost a given that I would see it while it was still in theaters.

The film first introduced us, as did “District 9” did, to a decaying, crime ridden Johannesburg, South Africa. And through a series of interviews with Ph.D types, discusses the city’s elite police force, robots which are manufactured by a company called Tetravaal. The company is the leading distributor of the droids. Within the company there are two developers, Deon (played by Dev Patel) whose sight is set on making a more human-like robot. One that can think and feel emotions on the same level that humans do. The company’s other developer, Vincent (played by Hugh Jackman) has developed his own machine called MOOSE, which can be remote-controlled and handled solely by the company employee’s themselves, which puts the two in competition. Both developers are assets to the company, but are given very little help financially in getting their prospective projects off the ground by the head of the company, Michelle (played by every Science Fiction director’s dream of having her star in their film – Sigourney Weaver). A shift in plot brings us to a visceral car chase scene after a drug deal whose occupants include both Yolandi Vi$$ser and Ninja from Die Antwoord, playing fictionalized versions of themselves (or are they?). Ninja is threatened and told by the city drug lord, “Hippo”, that he needs to pay back $20 million dollars lost in the deal or else they will both be killed. Desperate and not knowing what to do, Ninja and Yolandi come up with a plan to kidnap Deon so that he will help them manufacture a killer robot to help them pull of a heist so they can pay back the money the $20 million they owe. It’s at about this same time that Deon finally figures out the right formula to create his project of making a robot that closely resembles a human. While in transit of taking hardwired parts to make said robot, he is kidnapped by Yolandi and Ninja and taken to a remote, abandoned factory in which he is forced at gun point to create this human-like robot by the two gangsters (or shall I say “ganstas”), and completes putting together a robot that can mimic humans of whom they name “Chappie”. After doing so, Deon isn’t needed anymore, so Chappie becomes Ninja’s and Yolandi’s project in teaching and training him to become the first robot “gansta”. So that they can use his bulletproof armor and apathetic conscience to pull of the heist that will allow them to pay the money back.

Does the premise of creating the world’s first A.I. gangster sound silly? It sure does. But it’s also a heck of a lot of fun if you don’t take the movie too seriously (which I think is what turned off many critics about it). This is essentially Die Antwoord’s film. Both Yolandi and Ninja get the film’s most screen time, and for a musical duo of non-actors (except for their starring role they did a few years back in a short filmed by Harmony Korine) their characters are mostly drawn out well and come across as believable. Both artists/actors essentially play themselves, and Blomkamp seems to have clearly been inspired by the group’s aesthetic. As everything from the set design, music, graffiti, costume, and film’s music seems lifted from what I call the Die Antwoord aesthetic (otherwise known as “Zef” culture which broken down into laments terms is the band’s own “gangsta” lifestyle). The two of them essentially teach and educate Chappie on said lifestyle, which is in conflict to his creator Deon’s, who wishes for a more law-abiding and morally conscious Chappie. It’s within these so-called “training” scenes in turning Chappie “gangsta” that the film produces its most laughs, poking fun of itself and never seeming to take things too seriously (much like the band members themselves). Yolandi takes on the role of “Mummy” to the robot and Ninja taking on the role of “Dada”. Ninja being the one most responsible for turning Chappie into a gangster robot (imagine a robot version of James Franco’s “Alien” from Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers”). It’s from here that the plot grows increasingly more and more preposterous, as Chappie is conflicted by both the “gansta” lifestyle of his kidnappers and the more morally conscious embodiment of his programmer Deon, who desperately tries to get him back.

I had a lot of fun with this film, even though as hinted at I’m partially bias being in that I’m a fan of Die Antwoord, whose performances in the film are borderline if not full on self-parody, which I found amusing and interesting to watch when put into the context of the film. It also has a great electronic throbbing score by the legendary Hans Zimmer (whose work up to this point in film composing has always been more orchestral). The concept of the film itself is strong enough even if the plot is jarring and the execution seems funny and pointless.

This wound up being a film that I was much more entertained by than I was in its ability (or lack thereof) to be believable or to be taken too seriously. As you have to suspend quite a bit of disbelief to enjoy it. As I was able to going into it which ultimately wound up being the case here. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to anyone, except for die-hard fans of the genre and even more so, fans of Die Antwoord. But for those looking to kick back with something that doesn’t require much thought on behalf of the viewer other than to be somewhat of a standard slice of contemporary Science Fiction, I can assure you there are a lot worse ways that you can spend your time outside of watching this film. However, that being said, let’s just hope that Blomkamp takes his next project, the “Alien” reboot, a bit more seriously as he’s going to have quite a bit of fine tuning to do.

[B-/B]

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A Trip To The Movies – “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” 2.28.15

I’ll just flat-out start by saying this was probably the most highly original, inventive, and exciting film I’ve seen to have come along in a while. In fact, had it of come out last year, it wouldn’t most likely have, it would have, landed a coveted spot on my “best films of the year-end” list. What’s so interesting about this film is that it kind of came out of nowhere. In fact, I don’t even remember how I heard about it. Since I really don’t read any film news/review anymore that’s not where I took notice of it. I do however somewhat regularly look at cumulative scores and saw that this one was graded rather highly. Then I saw the name of the title and it piqued my interest. And merely based on that and that alone, plus seeing a tagline that it was “the first Iranian Vampire Western”, I thought to myself well at the very least this sounds interesting. What I “didn’t” know while watching it is that it’s an American film. Even though all of the characters in the film are Iranian actors who speak in the Persian language and it’s written and directed by an Iranian-American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour who has lived in America for practically her whole life. Which is ironic because the film feels totally foreign, and different from just about any other American film I’ve seen, bringing us into a poor desolate land known as “Bad City” which feels like a world far, far, away when in actuality it was shot right here in the States in Bakersfield, California.

The film opens with an old man, Hossein, a heroin addict who seems to be at the end of his rope in terms of his addiction. The only saving grace in his life is the assistance of his son, Arash, who is at his father’s beckoning call because like most sons (at least that I know) does just about anything to save his father. Anyways, Hossein owes quite a bit of money to the local town drug dealer, Saeed (whose look seems to be taken straight from Ninja of the rave/rap African group Die Antwoord). Saeed takes one of Hossein’s prize possessions much to the chagrin of Arash. Saeed seems to be the focus of the story, at least for about the first quarter of the film, along with his hooker, junkie, drug partner Atti. But one night Saeed happens to stumble across a young woman, called simply “The Girl”, that follows him to his apartment, which in that point in the story it shifts gears completely and this “girl” or young woman of whom I speak of becomes the central focus of the story. What’s even more notable is that said woman is a vampire, who goes around town wreaking havoc but does so with a conscience. She seems to only prey on the weak, sick, and degenerate members of society. It is by this chance encounter between the town drug dealer Saeed and the girl whom Arash crosses paths with, which involves the major subplot of the story, one that mirrors the one from “Let The Right One In” (2008) and the American version “Let Me In” (2010). But don’t be fooled, besides the reference, it’s undeniably unique enough (not to mention they’re adults and not children) to separate itself from those films. It is through their relationship that the rest of the story unfolds, and all of the characters previously mentioned are reintroduced back into (or out of, depending on how you want to look at it) the story.

As you can probably already tell by my comments at the beginning of my review I absolutely loved just about every aspect of this film. There is just so much I want to talk about that I feel like I would be doing it a great injustice to leave any of them out. But for the sake of not writing a novel, I will try to keep it to just the key elements of the film in which I really liked. First off was its stunning black-and-white cinematography. I’ve always thought a film is better when shot in black-and-white. As it takes the viewer away from the color palette and allows the images to speak for themselves. In this film this approach works brilliantly as it’s maybe the best looking black-and-white film since as far back as I can remember. This format also gives this chilling, noirish tale a look of authenticity that works perfectly given the content of the story. It’s also about as stylishly shot from a design angle and has a look and sometimes feel of an old Jim Jarmusch film (especially in the hipster department). The cool, sleek, and cold feel and tone matches the images on-screen magnificently. Another thing I think is important to point out, is that for a movie with this much style (Quentin Tarantino came to mind for me at times) it’s also loaded with substance. The central story and the many shifts in character arcs make it completely and utterly compelling from start to finish. There’s also a great “meta-ness” to the whole affair. While it certainly is a horror film at heart it also combines elements of film noir, westerns, comedy, drama, and romance. All genres that are balanced quite well considering how dense of a film it winds up being. The last thing I think that’s important to point out is that there is scene after scene of sheer beauty that seem like they have the potential to be iconic movie history (an example would be the dancing scene between John Travolta and Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction” (1995) – but imagine not just one but several scenes like that). Which had me looking up the screen with a shit eating grin for practically the entire film, so engaged by the style, story, and characters that I had to pass up a bathroom break in fear that I was going to miss whatever was next. This is hands down the most unique, stylish, and fresh take that breathes new life into what is otherwise a tired genre, that being the vampire film. It’s only two months into the year and this one has already secured a spot on my top 10 list of 2015.

[A-]