Chappie (2015) – Movie Review

It might seem almost paradoxical, but I found myself quite taken by the bulk of the film “Chappie” despite the fact that honestly… it’s a pretty wonky film when viewed as a whole. Director Neill Blomkamp’s tale of artificial intelligence and criminal corruption was a peculiar release in 2015 that garnered a generally mixed response from both critics and audiences alike. Some applauded it for asking big questions and delving into a classic morality tale of what constitutes life and purpose. Others despised it for its unlikable characters and messy narrative structure. And me? Well, I’m somewhere in the middle. Able to recognize and condemn its faults while still finding great value in the elements and aspects of the story that do work.

In the not too distant future, robotics and programming expert Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) has helped to create the “Scouts”- robotic police androids that are licensed out to help take back the streets of Johannesburg from criminals and gangsters. One day, Deon secretly steals a damaged Scout body to use as a guinea-pig for an Artificial Intelligence experiment… only to be kidnapped by a group of common street-thugs (Ninja and Yolandi of the rap-group “Die Antwoord”, Jose Pablo Cantillo) who wish to use the robot to pull heists and make dirty money. Dubbed “Chappie”, the “newborn” AI operates on the same level as a young child, and is pulled between his decent creator and his violent “adoptive family.” At the same time, Deon’s work rival Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) learns of Chappie’s existence and, viewing him as an ungodly creation, vows to destroy him along with the other Scouts in order to push forward his own robotic-police units…

In many ways, “Chappie” is a frustrating watch because it’s almost a great film… but it’s not quite there. It’s an almost perfect inversion of that old saying “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” All of the individual elements at play in “Chappie” are engrossing, compelling and incredibly enjoyable. But it doesn’t exactly come together. The film’s biggest fault is the fact that the writing feels rushed and patched together- like Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell had a lot of brilliant ideas for different parts of the story, but couldn’t quite fit them together and rushed into production without a completed script. The pacing is weird, there’s some bizarre inconsistencies in the structure, and just a few too many moments of convenience and coincidence. It needed another draft, plain and simple.

And that should be the kiss of death… but it’s not. Because everything else works so well, that I found myself very willing to forgive the troubled writing and shaky foundation. The story has some clever ideas and heady themes that I found fascinating, and I loved the fact that Blomkamp and Tatchell allow the movie to operate in a morally grey zone- they raise questions, but often leave the answers up to the audience’s interpretation. As always, Blomkamp’s visual direction is a phenomena, and his sense of scope, composition and color is just awe-inspiring. His films always have a unique balance between gritty realism and melodramatic hyper-reality, and he nails that in “Chappie” in the best of ways. And I found all of the characters quite compelling in their own ways. Heck, you might very well find yourself growing attached to the robotic Chappie and the criminals who are “raising” him more than the other, much more human and humane characters.

This is aided by surprisingly solid performances from basically involved. Patel is a joy as always, and it’s great seeing him on- screen once again. Jackman is a delightfully slimy villain who seems to be having a blast chewing the scenery. And heck… I even though Ninja and Yolandi of Die Antwoord did pretty darned good. Particularly Yolandi, whom grows close to Chappie and begins to mother and nurture him in a genuinely loving way- forming the film’s strongest emotional through-line. But of course, the incredible Sharlto Copley shines through as the voice of the titular Chappie. Copley might not be a household name, but he’s quickly become one of my favorite actors working today with his incredible turns in films including Blomkamp’s own “District 9” and the underrated “A-Team” feature film. And his wondrous and childlike take on the character of Chappie is another strong win for Copley.

At the end of the day, it comes down to this. “Chappie” is almost a great film. But it’s not. It’s messy. It’s uneven. And it has a ton of problems. And yet… I feel that it does enough right to be worth checking out. It has interesting themes, plenty of entertainment value, a beautiful scope and fine performances. And to me, that makes up for most of the problems I have with the shoddy writing.

 

7 out of 10 stars

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The Wolverine (2013) – Movie Review

The Wolverine ranks among the better X-Men movies – along with Bryan Singer’s first two installments and Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class.

The Wolverine picks up with the semi-immortal mutant Logan (Hugh Jackman) looking particularly disheveled, after having spent an unspecified amount of time in self-imposed exile in the Canadian wilderness (following the events of X-Men: The Last Stand). Logan, who is tormented by the survivor’s guilt he’s accumulated over the centuries – having outlived every person he’s cared for – and haunted by recurring visions of his deceased love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), has abandoned his Wolverine (re: superhero) alter-ego for an isolated existence.

Everything changes when Logan is approached by a mysterious pink-haired woman named Yukio (Rila Fukushima). She informs Wolvie that her employer Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) – the extremely wealthy founder of a powerful Japanese technology corporation – is on his deathbed and wishes to thank Logan, who saved his life way back in WWII. Logan is hesitant, but  soon agrees to accompany Yukio back to Tokyo, in order to to bid farewell to his old acquaintance – unaware that he’s taken the first step on a treacherous journey that will take him into the sordid underbelly of Japanese society, and leave him permanently altered in a mental, spiritual and physical sense.

The Wolverine is (mostly) a thematically-rich X-Men story that was realized under the direction of James Mangold, a filmmaker who has spent his career bouncing around from genre to genre (see: Girl, Interrupted, 3:10 to Yuma, Knight and Day, etc.). Mangold commits to exploring the depths of Logan’s emotional baggage while he and his collaborators infuse the proceedings with a strong appreciation for – and understanding of – cinema history and tradition. The final result: The Wolverine feels refreshingly different than just about every other superhero movie produced to date… for the first 3/4ths of its running time, anyway.

Many people who were eager to see a unique superhero/comic book adaptation felt their hopes shatter after the original version of The Wolverine – planned by director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) – collapsed in pre-production. There are times (read: the third act) when The Wolverine suffers from muddled storytelling and uninspired spectacle – the same problems that are present throughout the infamous prequel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Still, the majority of Mangold’s film ended up being (surprisingly) close to what McQuarrie had in mind: a thoughtful character study of the eponymous Adamantium-claw wielding mutant, with the occasional action sequence included here and there (for good measure).

Jackman, as Logan, appears to be in the best physical condition of his career here; furthermore, this film offers the most captivating portrayal of the character put on the big screen yet (how true he is to the X-Men comic books’ depiction – that’s open for debate). Under Mangold’s watch, Jackman successfully makes Wolverine feel like the superhero equivalent of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name (from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns): a “ronin” or samurai who is without a purpose, as one of the characters observes early on. There are parts of the score composed by Marco Beltrami (3:10 to Yuma, The Hurt Locker) that recall Ennio Morricone’s music for Leone films like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which helps to hammer that idea home and strengthen the film’s East-meets-West subtext in the process.

Above all else, though, The Wolverine is informed by Noir traditions, beginning with the opening flashback to WWII (i.e. the event credited for inspiring the American Noir movement). Mangold and the film’s cinematographer, Ross Emery (a second-unit director of photography on Dark City and The Matrix trilogy) do a solid job of making Japan feel like the setting for an old-school detective story: shadowy and menacing at night, deceivingly harmless by day. Similarly, Logan is a proper choice for the Noir archetype of an investigating protagonist: he’s emotionally-fragile and vulnerable one moment, and in the next he throws a bad man out a window without even blinking an eye.

Action scenes in The Wolverine are relatively few and far between – which is good, because they have a tendency to be the film’s weakest moments. A major theme in the film is the brutal nature of death and violence, but that only comes across in the movie’s best – and bloodiest – fight sequence. The other combat-heavy beats are too choppy in their structure, save for the much-advertised fight atop a bullet train (which is entertaining, but kind of extraneous to the plot). Likewise, a healthy chunk of the final half-hour (including the climax) includes some hollow CGI-heavy fisticuffs and a ninja battle that is cut-short. The Wolverine feels likes an R-Rated movie edited down to PG-13, and that compromise undercuts some of its successes.

There are many supporting characters in The Wolverine, but a handful of them are either half-baked or unnecessary additions to the plot. Yukio, for example, is the interesting and well-rounded “sidekick” for Wolvie, while Mariko (Tao Okamoto) – Yashida’s grand-daughter – is in part a damsel-in-distress, but her own personal conflict and capabilities help to elevate the character above that basic archetype. Brian Tee, Hiroyuki Sanada and Will Yun Lee all play morally-questionable or corrupt individuals, who populate the neo-Noir setting. None of their characters are all that memorable, but each one serves a purpose in advancing the story.

Too bad the same cannot be said for the mutant Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a femme fatale whose role in the plot needed a rewrite – since her presence raises more questions than it answers (especially when you examine the film’s plot mechanics more closely). One look at the individual resume for each of the film’s credited writers – Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard, Total Recall (2012)) and Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Minority Report) – and you start to suspect that maybe one of them was more responsible than the other – as far as inserting empty action scenes and too many characters into the narrative is concerned.

Fortunately, Mangold keeps things running smoothly – until the last half-hour – and, in the end, accomplishes what he wanted: to do right by the great Wolverine comic book mini-series written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Frank Miller. As such, The Wolverine ranks among the better X-Men movies – along with Bryan Singer’s first two installments and Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class – even though its artistic compromises prevent it from reaching greatness.

 

7 out of 10

Letters to JZ – Part 39: Thoughts

Nothing in life will call upon us to be more courageous than facing the fact that it ends, but on the other side of heartbreak is wisdom.

 

 

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Letters to JZ – Part 38: Thoughts

At some point, you have to realize that some people can stay in your heart but not in your life.

 

 

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Letters to JZ – Part 37: Thoughts – Deborah Reber

“Letting go doesn’t mean that you don’t care about someone anymore. It’s just realizing that the only person you really have control over is yourself.”

– Deborah Reber

 

 

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Letters to JZ – Part 36: Thoughts

Don’t let the mixed signals fool you. Indecision is a decision.

 

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Letters to JZ – Part 35: Thoughts

Why is everyone so obsessed with the idea of love?

If you’re dying to be hurt so badly, I’ve got a baseball bat for that.

 

 

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