Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Chappie

If it hadn’t been for that one scene in “Birdman”, Oscar season has been very light on explosions, as usual. So after watching some really great artistic accomplishments, it’s time to blow stuff up again… finally. It’s still going to take a few weeks until summer blockbuster season kicks off earnestly, but spring usually gives us a few more experimental action pieces. Case in point, “Chappie” and “Kingsman”, one of which has been a big success so far.

„Chappie“ is Neill Blomkamp’s third movie and stars Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman and the South African Rap/Rave duo Die Antwoord. It is set in Johannesburg in the near future and follows the robot Chappie, voiced by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley, who is the first actually functional AI, created by Dev Patel’s young programmer Deon Wilson. Deon works for a weapons manufacturer and has invented a robotic police force that has been adapted by the Johannesburg police force.

There has been much talk about Neill Blomkamp lately. This is due to him having a hugely anticipated movie coming out and his next project already announced, one little known property called “Alien”. After his Oscar nominated debut feature “District 9”, Blomkamp has been lauded as one of the most interesting young directors working today. Then his follow-up “Elysium” failed with the critics and people started worrying if he was a one-hit-wonder, similar to one M. Night Shyamalan. So obviously his third movie has been eagerly awaited. Personally, I think that three movies are not enough to see a trend. Akira Kurosawa took ten movies to create his first masterpiece. Of course, then he started to crank them out one after another. So whatever my opinion of “Chappie”, I am still going to be there for whatever the next “Alien” film will be called hits theatres.

Whatever your stance on Blomkamp, he is a visual effects wizard. “Chappie” looks amazing. The scout robots look realistic and cool, explosions and firefights are as good as they get. Also a staple of Blomkamp’s work, the film takes place in his backyard, Johannesburg, a fascinating city. It gives the film a unique feel and is part of Blomkamp’s inspiration. Speaking of inspiration, for this film, it is split in two. On the one hand, this is based on Blomkamp’s first short film, “Tetra Vaal”, which is also the name of the weapons company in this film. On the other, it is heavily influenced by his love for the music group “Die Antwoord”, borrowing a lot of the stylistic elements from their music videos and songs.

But before we dive into Yo-Landi and Ninja’s involvement in this film, let’s look at the other players involved. By now it is clear that Blomkamp can get a good performance out of an actor. Specifically Sharlto Copley, his childhood friend, who has been a part of all of his three feature films, and is great in all of them. He also plays fundamentally different roles in each film. Here, he gets to play a child again, as Chappie needs to learn what the world is all about. Between Wikus van der Merwe, Kruger and Chappie, this might be the most standard fare he has done for Blomkamp, but it is effective nonetheless. The standout in this film is clearly Hugh Jackman’s mulleted villain Vincent, rival to Dev Patel’s Deon, a religious aussie ex-soldier who has invented another robot, the Moose, that gets overshadowed by the immense success of Deon’s scout program. His antipathy towards Deon comes from a believable place, as he is worried about the implications of a fully functional and unshackled AI… there’s also a bit of religion playing into that, but he still has a point. Finally, Sigourney Weaver is in this movie as Deon’s and Vincent’s boss. The role didn’t necessarily require her talent specifically, but it is always nice to see her in these films, showing her love for the sci-fi genre. Most importantly however, her involvement in this film led directly to Neill Blomkamp getting hired for another “Alien” film, which is awesome.

Alright… Enough beating around the bush… “Die Antwoord” are terrible. Oh my god, are they bad. And what’s even worse, they play themselves. They are bad at playing themselves. I don’t really know if I can truly convey how irritating they are. It even took me a while to actually figure out that they are really playing future versions of themselves. Until that point, I was wondering why Yo-Landi and Ninja are wearing “Die Antwoord” merchandise. One thing that can be said about the two is that they are apparently completely above self-flattery, as they are playing not only themselves, but also two of the most stupid characters I’ve ever seen. Also unlikeable. Also annoying. Also did I mention irritating? When I said that Blomkamp knows how to get a good performance from an actor, I meant actor. If he takes away one thing from “Chappie”, it’s that he has to stop trying to cast his favourite rappers in his films. He tried to have Eminem in “Elysium”, he got Matt Damon. You can’t really go wrong with Damon. For “Chappie” Blomkamp could have gone out on the street and grab the first two people he met and he would have been better off. At least I will now always have an answer to the question which movie was ruined by a bad performance alone.

Because honestly, I loved everything else about this film. Apart from some small script issues where focus could have been shifted to some of the bigger questions, maybe giving Patel and Jackman more time together, everything apart from “Die Antwoord’s” acting is so enjoyable. I didn’t even mind the heavy influence that “Die Antwoord” have on the setting and design of parts of this movie. If only someone else had played them.


All in all, as long as you can manage to somehow replace “Die Antwoord” in your head, “Chappie” is a really good Sci-Fi film. It gives you a lot of stuff to think about and discuss, between religion and science, it has some really good acting… and “Die Antwoord”… and the effects are amazing. It also prepares us for the AI driven films coming up, although I doubt that Ultron will be as fundamentally nice as Chappie. Also he’s probably going to aim a little bit higher than car theft.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Outside Hollywood Episode 9 - The 87th Academy Awards

After a prolonged winter break, Outside Hollywood is finally back. I'm sure our two listeners missed us. This time, we talk about the Oscars, all the winners and losers, the individual films, and the ceremony itself. Also we take a look at the biggest news that dropped in the last few weeks... namely Spider-Man.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Whiplash

I really tried hard to find a good opening joke, but I blanked… Anyway, that’s not going to stop me from doing this: Badumm-Tss… You see, because it’s about a drummer…

„Whiplash“ stars Miles Teller and Oscar winner J.K. Simmons and is directed by Damien Chazelle. It follows young and hopeful Jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Teller) as he tries to become the best at what he does. He comes closer to this dream when prestigious teacher and conductor Fletcher sees him play and decides to make him part of his studio band. Only when Andrew is at his first rehearsal does it become clear that Fletcher is not only very strict but also a violent and abusive teacher. But Andrew is determined not to give up and to impress Fletcher.

All bad jokes aside, I’ve played in a Jazz band for a short time and my conductor was a nice person. However, it is a huge part of a conductor’s job to tell you when you are doing something wrong. There’s not many things that are more embarrassing than being the one guy who messed it up and being singled out for it. And that’s all without chairs being thrown around. So the relationship between Andrew and Fletcher is a very interesting one.

Andrew as portrayed by Miles Teller, who is brilliant by the way, is single-minded. He wants to be one of the great Jazz drummers of his time and he puts all his energy into that. He practices alone after everyone else has left and he doesn’t have time for friends. He is not liked by anyone in the conservatory he is attending and his family doesn’t seem to grasp exactly how good he is at the drums. The longer the film goes on, we find ourselves in the same spot his father is, wondering whether we want him to proceed, because he clearly isn’t putting his own happiness first. And this is where Fletcher comes in. His philosophy is that if he is able to stop you from being great through abuse and strictness, then you weren’t great to begin with. He is the obstacle that Andrew has to overcome and in the end the question remains whether Fletcher was actually trying to help him succeed or if he was his enemy all along.

The film relies heavily on Simmons and Teller, to the extent that Miles Teller is in every single scene and the fourth billed supporting cast member, Melissa Benoist, has four scenes in the whole movie. Both actors give an incredible performance, Miles Teller did all his own drumming, which is pretty amazing, because this is not simple stuff. It surely helps that he started drumming about ten years ago, but unless he already played Jazz, I’m thinking the extra lessons he got were certainly necessary. Simmons also gets to stretch his fingers a little bit on the piano, but most of his time is spent creating a character where you can never really be sure whether he is the devil or just an extreme version of Burgess Meredith’s Mickey from the “Rocky” franchise.

If so far you’re thinking, well this sounds all very nice, but Jazz? Somehow doesn’t scream conflict now, does it. Believe me, this film will prove you wrong. I watched it a week ago and I still randomly launch into an acappella version of the song Whiplash from time to time. This movie will have you on the edge of your seat more than most blockbusters have lately. That is mostly due to the two incredible performances, but also because of the tight editing, which also got an Academy Award by the way.


All in all, I fully expect “Whiplash” to show up in my Top Ten list at the end of this year, and we still have ten months to go. It is one of the most intense films I’ve watched and definitely has one of the best showdowns ever put to film.