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Chappie

Objectively, Chappie is a mess.  Everything else depends on you.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

chappieThis one is going to divide people.  I pretty much guarantee that.  See, objectively, Chappie is a giant mess, a film that alternates between working totally and failing to work at all for long stretches because of multiple creative decisions that, again objectively, cripple the film from its full potential and run the risk of derailing the ride.  Whether or not they do depends on how much the stuff it does right offsets for you the stuff it does wrong, and how much its delightfully earnest tone and mood either wins you over or turns you off.  Or, to put it another way, this is Jupiter Ascending all over again.

For me, personally – as a review is simply one person’s subjective opinion, after all – I sort of liked it.  I mean, I didn’t love it and disappointment is a major emotion mixed with that liking because the decisions and things required to make Chappie a better film are so thuddingly obvious that I grow ever more frustrated over them not having been done in the first place, but I sort of liked it.  It is a rather wasted opportunity, though.  After all, that great film was poking its head out so often and so obviously that I couldn’t help but fixate on all of the things that this OK film was doing wrong, much to its detriment.

What Chappie gets right, though – and I feel that it is necessary to get through what Chappie does right first before we dive into the stuff it does wrong – it gets right.  Chappie itself, for example, is pretty much note-perfect.  The film takes the metaphor of the birth and subsequent burgeoning of Artificial Intelligence almost literally with Chappie having a personality akin to that of a 5 year-old.  It’s easily scared, calls out to its “Mommy” when anything bad happens, is overly trusting of people, and is filled with a child-like wonder of the world and a very child-like binary view of right and wrong.

It’s rather pure, basically, a force of possible absolute good and purity, and Chappie never undercuts Chappie, never insults its worldview as naive or stupid, and that kind of sincerity is probably going to be the main thing that divides people.  I personally bought into it.  For one, I still, even at age 20, have a relatively absolute view of right and wrong and can be somewhat naive and overly trusting, so I saw bits of myself in Chappie.  For two, a protagonist of genuine good is a nice change of pace from a gluttony of anti-heroes and villain protagonists that often front more adult entertainment these days.  And for three, Sharlto Copley is brilliant as the mo-cap and voice of Chappie, infusing it with the softness, sentimentality and sincerity required to make the character work.  It’s the polar opposite of his work in Elysium and is yet another example of the surprising amount of range the man has.

Meanwhile, when the film actually sticks to its wheelhouse, it also manages to be interesting thematically, too.  See, despite what the trailers (which I saw after having seen the film) would lead you to believe, Chappie is actually more concerned with questions of parenting, abusive families, and the cycle of poverty and crime that can ensnare even the most kind-hearted if their situation is desperate enough.  Chappie’s maker, Deon (Dev Patel), ends up being kidnapped by a trio of gang members (one played by Jose Pablo Cantillo, the others played by… you know what, I’m gonna hold off on that for a minute) and forced to activate the AI-uploaded police scout robot that he was planning to test at home for them because they need to pull off a $60 million heist, lest they be killed in a week by Johannesburg’s ruthless gang leader.

From there, the central conflict of the film comes from the various parenting styles pushed upon Chappie.  Deon wants it to expand its creative horizons and become a pacifist, shining beacon of humanity and the future but is, by necessity, an absent father.  One of the male gang members wants to pretty much brutalise it into helping them carry out the heist that it has no desire to get involved in – “Heists is crimes” Chappie repeatedly adorably explains – which also involves snuffing out any possible traces of weakness (that mostly manifest as femininity) and bending the truth to get it to co-operate.  Meanwhile, the female gang member adapts very quickly to the mother role and just wishes to support Chappie no matter what it does or what happens to it.

The writing of this is typical Neill Blomkamp melodrama – Deon at one point yells at the gang that they’re all “philistines” as he escapes, in case you needed an indicator of what we’re operating at – but it still mostly works anyway.  Dev Patel is committed to the part, Chappie itself as mentioned is adorable and Copley is fantastic in the role, and the film itself, when it is actually focussed on the theme, follows it through with aplomb, playing it for equal parts quietly sad drama and surprisingly funny comedy.  Again, when Chappie works, and it does for long stretches, it’s great.  Blomkamp’s distinctive visual palette is still in full effect, Hans Zimmer’s score is surprisingly pretty when it’s not drowning every last ‘dramatic’ scene in enough portentous strings to make a Goth dress from, and the film always had my attention for all 120 of its minutes.

Unfortunately, there are also long stretches in which Chappie does not work.  Like, at all.  Specifically, Blomkamp really has a problem with not throwing everything, the kitchen sink, and the kitchen sinks of the next four houses down from him into a story that really doesn’t need them.  It’s not enough that Chappie is mostly about parenting, apparently; Blomkamp also has to throw in questions about the nature of AI, the desire to live, a weapons company that manufactures the security bots that Chappie is born from (headed up by an utterly wasted Sigourney Weaver), a maniacal crime boss who threatens the gang but doesn’t really do anything, and a disgruntled god-fearing gun-nut ex-soldier-turned-programmer (Hugh Jackman) who is angry that Deon’s bots are pulling funding away from his human-piloted Robocop-reminiscing mini-mecha that he really wants out policing Johannesburg despite their police force finding the thing overkill.

Unsurprisingly, this means that Chappie’s scale and scope is unnecessarily bloated and unfocussed, which leads to many prolonged stretches where the film gets away from itself, goes loud and big instead of small and intimate, as it visibly strains to manoeuvre itself into the place required for the third act explosions that it feels that it needs to have to occur.  It means that everything not immediately, and I do mean immediately, connected to Chappie and its troubled parental upbringing is undercooked and one-dimensional – Jackman’s character, in particular, is literally just a walking collection of Evil Villain In A Sci-Fi Allegory tropes that he is desperately trying to force onto an actual character through sheer force of charisma.

Every time the film seems to be building up some head of steam with Chappie, it cuts back to Jackman doing everything but twirl an evil moustache, or arbitrarily reminding us that the walking plot device gang boss is still kicking about, or having an utterly wasted and could-not-be-less-enthused Sigourney Weaver do nothing, or teasing questions about the police force that it will never actually properly address, and all that momentum is drained from the picture.  Blomkamp also self-plagiarises from District 9 a lot during its opening – even adopting, and then immediately dropping which makes one wonder why he bothered with it in the first place, a faux-documentary style for the opening two minutes – which keeps the film from hitting the ground running, his action pile-up finale is the definition of obligatory and astoundingly hypocritical, and it introduces ideas and concepts in its final 5 minutes that would have been far better served in their own separate film instead of just being thrown into an already over-full broth just cos.

There is also, however, one huge, major, utterly confounding problem that nearly kills the entire movie, because it also infests the stuff that the film actually does right.  It’s the kind of decision that keeps the good stuff from hitting with the level of power that it should have and keeps the film, even if it wasn’t a structural mess, from even being in the same league as greatness.  It’s the kind of bone-headed inexplicable decision that people like myself are going to spend years trying and failing to adequately rationalise and understand.  What is that problem?

Well, remember how I said that there were three gang members who are raising Chappie alongside Deon, when the latter can actually show up, and I didn’t name two of them?  Well, see, that’s because two of them are Ninja and Yolandi-Vi$$er from Die Antwoord.  I don’t mean, “Ninja and Yolandi-Vi$$er from Die Antwoord are playing characters,” I mean they are Ninja and Yolandi-Vi$$er from South African piss-take gangsta rap group Die Antwoord, only they’re real gangsters instead of musicians.  Kind of.  Sort of.  In that I don’t think that they’re supposed to be semi-famous musicians in this universe, except that they keep wearing their own band merchandise, and their music is played prominently from cars and such in-universe, and Yolandi actually spends the finale wearing a shirt with Chappie’s name (and, consequently, the film’s logo) and face on it

It is exactly as weird and distracting as it sounds on paper, especially since the film wants you to take them and the film’s world completely seriously but it’s near impossible to do so because, once again, a member of Die Antwoord spends THE ENTIRE FINALE WEARING A CHAPPIE SHIRT!  Instead of being wrapped up in the finale, my brain kept being drawn to that shirt as it kept screaming, “Neill Blomkamp, what the f*ck are you doing?!  Why would you OK that?!”  I might have been able to forgive this if Ninja and Yolandi gave good performances but… well, they’re not actors, let’s put it this way.  They’re both clearly trying, which I guess counts for something, but he’s too awkward, she’s too shrill, they are both really out of their depth, and neither manages to properly become their characters instead of just “it’s Die Antwoord trying to act”.  And they’re in two of the most vital roles of the film, too, which makes it a miracle that any part of the thing works!

Yet, despite the fact that the film is a complete mess that only works about half the time, and even then only about half as well as it should, and the literally inexplicable stunt casting of Die Antwoord in two of the film’s most vital roles… I actually rather like Chappie.  Somewhere, buried within this complete mess, there is a charm and sincerity that is able to escape and spread throughout the majority of the film.  Chappie itself is charming and cute, Copley nails the part, and the film manages to treat its character (and by extension its surprisingly consistent tone) right, which manages to keep the film from failing utterly for me, and the film is interesting and entertaining enough to have kept me engaged the whole time through (not once did I look at my watch).

I am disappointed, because this really should have been better, but that disappointment has, as of roughly 24 hours after sitting down to watch it, yet to turn into anything resembling hatred or resentment or even true dislike of the thing.  Yeah, I do kinda like Chappie.  Not enough to be able to overlook the major systemic flaws that it objectively has, but enough to be kinda fond of the thing.  I’d recommend seeing it, if only so that you can know which side of the divide you’re going to fall on when the debates start up because, again, this one will divide people.

Callum Petch is having an existential time crisis.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

A.I. In Film

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

I’d love to say that’s a quote from a sci-fi action film such as Dredd, or a Japanese anime such as Ghost In The Shell, or any other iconic sci-fi movie dealing with the rise of the machines for that matter. Instead, it’s a direct quote from one of the greatest minds of our time, Professor Stephen Hawking, when speaking to the BBC last year. The crazy nut.

Essentially, it’s a theory that fascinates me, so to tie in with last week’s release of Ex Machina, this week’s release Big Hero 6, the soon to be released Chappie, and the next ‘Artificial Intelligence’ special edition of the Failed Critics Podcast, I’ve decided to take a look at the role A.I. has played in a few famous films.

2001_30
Image courtesy of http://blushots.weebly.com/2001-a-space-odyssey.html

Artificial Intelligence is of course something that already exists in some forms in the real world; whether you’re referring to a Tamagotchi toy or even a digital Mario that can learn to beat its own game without assistance.That said, a sentient form of life created from wires and silicon is still something very much reduced to the realms of science fiction. Although the dictionary definition is somewhat oblique, what we generally mean when we refer to A.I. is the full, true, conscious self-awareness of being in an unnatural device manufactured by a person. A type of intelligence that we possess as humans, that we arrogantly claim does not (or cannot) exist in the same way in any other creature or mechanical computer. An automaton that is rather than simply does.

It is of course frequently used as the motivation of a terrifying baddie in a film, such as the killer androids on the loose in Westworld. But that’s not really an artificial intelligence. It’s more like a malfunctioning pre-programmed robot executing a series of commands. You know, if you want to get all nerdy.

Similarly, whilst there are some grey areas, such as in Paul Verhoeven’s sophisticated and ultra-violent film RoboCop, where you’re asked to consider if it’s a man inside a robotic body or robot with a man inside of it, A.I. doesn’t really refer to cyborgs either. They obviously cross-wires, so to speak, but a human brain inside of a tin can is still a biological entity. More than what we might consider A.I., which is a completely manufactured form of intelligence.

Of course, the very notion of a sentient mechanoid is enough to give even the most sensible minded person the heebie-jeebies. With that in mind, allow me to pick out five different – although equally terrifying – uses of artificial intelligence in film (albeit admittedly slightly predictable choices!)


terminator 2Skynet and the Terminators (first appearance: The Terminator, 1984)

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first, shall we. If the mere concept of an intelligent military computer causing a nuclear war based on its own logic isn’t something that sends shivers down your spine, then maybe the idea of being chased by an unstoppable shotgun-wielding motorbike-riding nightclub-crashing robot is. No? How about a relentless melty-man who can turn his hands into sword-like objects and stab you through the throat? Yeah, now we’re getting somewhere. There are many incarnations of A.I. throughout the Terminator film series, but perhaps none are as chilling as that initial idea of a single sentient machine deciding to wipe out the human race and cause a full scale world war. The clever twist in the sequel, T2: Judgement Day, is that the A.I. is both the hero and the villain of the story, of course. But the lasting legacy of the series that James Cameron started over 30 years ago now is that spine-tingling chill of the first military owned A.I., Skynet, that will inevitably lead to the destruction and genocide of the entire human race.


HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968)

You and your fellow astronaut buddy are on a exploration mission through space, the rest of your colleagues safely frozen in their cryogenic pods. Everything is all hunky dory. Well, right up until the supposedly unerring on-board computer has the awareness to make a decision that you and your crew are expendable. halLogically speaking. That is exactly what the A.I., HAL, does in Stanley Kubrick’s epic 1968 science fiction 2001: A Space Odyssey. It doesn’t necessarily make HAL a villain in the sense that he’s wrong or evil, he’s simply decided of his own accord that ridding himself of the crew will make his mission more efficient and thus heightens the viewers insecurities. Just how necessary are we, really? Maybe that is why HAL is so scary. Not because of his unemotional, sterile voice, as he ruthlessly decides to do away with his crew, but because for the most part he’s an abstract tool; just a solid red light in a metal cube that makes us feel inferior solely by existing in the first place. He’s influenced virtually every version of A.I. in film since, from Ash in Alien to Auto in Wall-E.


TRANSCENDENCEDr Will Caster (Transcendence, 2013)

It’s fair to say that both Callum and I had a difference of opinion over last year’s summer sci-fi blockbuster Transcendence. While the quality of the film overall is not a debate I intend to bring up again any time in the near future, the idea that Johnny Depp’s character, Will Caster, could have his mind transported to that of a quantum computer is an intriguing idea. Is the piece of hardware simply simulating what the mind of its creator would do in a very pre-determined and programmed way; is it actually the mind or soul of a human controlling the machine; or is the computer acting completely of its own volition? Do these even count as artificial intelligence is also a debate I don’t want to get into. What makes it worthy of inclusion on this list is the suggestion that after your physical body dies, you could have your mind imported into a computer. It’s the whole “brain in a jar” scenario that’s been used so many times before, although without a physical biological brain. The film does have an inevitable consequence as it drifts towards being about love rather than anything particularly meaningful, but there’s still a neat little idea tucked away in there somewhere!


Roy Batty (Blade Runner, 1982)

Of course a list of sci-fi films about the use of artificial intelligence wouldn’t be worth its salt without the inclusion of this Ridley Scott classic, adapted from Philip K Dick’s novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’. Whilst theroy batty role of Deckard, the bounty hunter played by Harrison Ford, is probably more synonymous with the movie, it’s the tragic story of the blonde android suffering from an existential crisis played by the charismatic Rutger Hauer that is arguably the most accomplished and well rounded aspect of the story. It begs the question, just because we can create an A.I., should we? Is it fair? It goes right back to science fiction 101 in that man wasn’t meant to play God, dabbling in sciences that we don’t truly understand. Not from a technical point of view; clearly within the context of the film, people understand how to create artificial intelligence, but perhaps not so much the consequences of gifting life and then taking it away. Perhaps the ease at which we’re ready to hit the ‘off’ switch is in turn something we should fear more than pressing the ‘on’ button in the first place.


aiDavid (A.I. Artificial Intelligence, 2001)

All right, I’m aware that perhaps even more obvious than any of the other inclusions, a film literally called Artificial Intelligence worming its way onto my list is not particularly imaginative. Especially when I haven’t even mentioned characters like Robby The Robot, C-3PO, Fassbender in Prometheus or poor ol’ Johnny 5. Nevertheless, I had to include the little boy who will never grow up, abandoned by those who created him to replace their ill son and forced to spend the rest of his time with the creepiest looking sexbot ever and his bizarre teddy bear. It’s quite a sad film, with the whole idea of replacing someone you’ve lost (or are losing) with a Pinocchio-esque robot being a rather moving subject. David narrowly escaping destruction with all the naivety of a real human boy; the apparent genuine feelings of loss and abandonment that David experiences; as well the final 20 minutes of the film, it will make you completely empathetic towards what is essentially nuts and bolts. It’s a marvellous juxtaposition between life and non-existence. The ending to the Christmas special episode of the TV series Black Mirror, called ‘White Christmas‘, drew similar feelings of anxiety about existing forever as an artificial life-form. It’s not a faultless film, of course, but deals with the complexity of A.I. better than most other films ever have.


And that’s it! Look out for the podcast due out this week where I chat to both Steve and special guest Matt Lambourne on the same topic, as well as reviewing Ex Machina in full. Until then, cheerio.

Failed Critics Podcast – COP: Paul Verhoeven (& Next Goal Wins)

PaulVerhoevenThis week sees us welcome Matt Lambourne back to the podcast to help us induct the Dutch maestro Paul Verhoeven, director of Robocop, Total Recall, and err…Showgirls, into our Corridor of Praise. We also get Steve’s review of the highly anticipated documentary Next Goal Wins.

Elsewhere we’ve got Owen talking about the Saw film series, the team’s thoughts on the Star Wars casting and Justice League movie confirmation news, and the longest and most interminable quiz yet.

Join us next week for more of the usual nonsense, plus reviews of Bad Neighbours and Pompeii.

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Failed Critics Podcast: 100 Episodes in and EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!

HerAfter a disastrous attempt at recording our 100th episode last week, we’re back after our brief hiatus with our ‘official’ centenary podcast. And it’s more packed than ever, with no less than six new (or nearly new) release reviews. We argue over whether or not The Lego is awesome or simply just very good; we look at two very different explorations of humans/machine relationships with Her and Robocop, and we still find time to talk about Dallas Buyers Club, The Monuments Men, and Cuban Fury.

We also discuss the Bafta results, make our Oscars predictions, and you finally get the Cutthroat Island review you’ve all been waiting for.

Next week we’ll be ‘live’ from Glasgow Film Festival, with reviews of 20 Feet From Stardom, Mood Indigo, and The Zero Theorem plus loads more.

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Judgement time. Sentence: my favourite movie of 2012

Dredd Karl UrbanYes, yes… before I get into the nitty-gritty, it’s not ‘The Best Film of 2012’, certainly at least from a technical standpoint, and it won’t even make a blip on the radar of the Academy. That said, it fared very well in the Failed Critics end of year reviews for 2012, but I felt it was under-represented. As the movie has just had it’s home-release I decided to give it a 2nd time viewing and provide my thoughts to the masses. I am of course talking about Dredd 3D.

Let’s ditch the 3D moniker right away, it’s both pointless and adds little to the splendour of this film. The film is the fan’s realisation of a dream almost condemned to eternal humiliation thanks to the 1995 Stallone dirge. That said, I’m not a comic book fan, I never read the Dredd comics so I owe no loyalty to the franchise so I feel I’m in a position to give this movie a glowing review without being seen to be unfairly pay homage to the legacy of the ink-work.

The movie is based in a non too distant future whereby most of the United States are barron and large Cities are joined together to form Mega Cities. There is little respect for the stature of law or morality in this image of the future and justice in the form of ‘Judges’ is dished out in an equally nonchalant manner. The movie follows a day in the working life of Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) as he takes rookie psychic Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) on a live-assessment of her capabilities as a Judge. The assessment leads them to investigate a triple homicide at a run-down Apartment Tower occupied by the city’s leading drug cartel, lead by the cruel and violent Ma-Ma (Lena Headey).

As you’d expect, either as a comic fan or a casual viewer, the violence is dished out willingly and readily during the movie. That said it somehow manages to do an excellent job of not making it over-kill. The deaths come with somewhat purpose and they have impact, either in the visceral sense or in the development of the story. Karl Urban does an incredible job with such little real-estate in an acting performance to convey emotion and even intimidate with only his chin on show at all times. Yes, fans…. he never removes the helmet!

Thirlby plays an excellent green and naive heroin but develops nicely into a more confident and even sexy character as she is exposed to the real harshness that she has likely been shielded from before joining the Department of Justice. The show stealer goes to Lena Headey as the psychotic Ma-Ma, who is really building a reputation for herself as a powerhouse female lead on the back of her performances in 300 and more recently as the self-serving Queen Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones. She takes that quality to an all new form of dementia in Dredd and provides a terrifying crime-boss with zero empathy or consideration for human-life which see expends rather casually and somewhat joyfully.

The action never runs dry in Dredd, the dialogue is economical (as it should be) and delivered with tremendous authority, particularly by Urban. A particular highlight comes during the set-piece where by Dredd & Anderson avoid total annihilation when their floor of the building is subject to heavy Mini-Gun fire, the bad-guys expect zero survivors  including the inhabitants of the apartment block. Ma-Ma waits anxiously as he troops plough through the carnage to find the bodies,   yet we only here 3 short single gun-shots and the silhouette of Dredd emerging to toss a bad-guy from the balcony.

Dredd is pure entertainment. It doesn’t have the greatest depth of story or character development, it doesn’t have the very best acting and it doesn’t even had the best effects (although the Slow-Mo drug scenes are quite pretty). But what it is, is a triumph for adult film making. It’s a care-free 18, it’s a barely financially viable proposition these days. I compare it much to the original Robocop, whereby it features nothing of interest to anyone who does not have an interest in on-screen violence. Perhaps this is also a weakness as it maybe threatens the possibility of a sequel.

However, Dredd for me was the film that I most wanted to discuss immediately after leaving the cinema, more than any other film in 2012. It’s entertainment at the detriment of its commercial potential, sacrificed to deliver a fully adult cinema experience. I think the tide of mass-entertainment is creating a niche for this kind of product. The recent success of highly graphic television such as Game of Thrones suggest that the masses do not only want their episodes of Friends rinsed and repeated several times daily and maybe a little Breaking Bad to satisfy their subliminal criminal urges; they actually want violence, bad taste, cruelty and a fucking good anti-hero.

I hope more studios are brave enough to create more films of this ilk, and that we get the Dredd sequels that this movie and its thoroughly adult audience deserves.