Saturday, March 21, 2015

Chappie: Like Short Circuit, But With Massive Blood and Death

When District 9 came out, newly touted director Neill Blomkamp showed us a new side of science fiction.  He brought aliens and documentary together within the confines of a third world country in the midst of the slums and poverty and showed not only a poignant message, but a compelling movie as well.  Since then, however, he's kind of been stuck in the same rut, trying to replicate that magic again instead of trying something else new and inventive.  His follow up film, Elysium, was also set in the third world future, but had a different twist than the aliens of the first film.  I actually liked the movie, but it was generally panned by critics.  Now, his third widely released film is still in the same vein of poverty stricken South Africa, but instead of a bunch of aliens, or a disease that causes Matt Damon to wear a super suit, it's about robots.  You've already said everything you need to say about South Africa, Blomkamp... move on.  As far as Chappie goes... it's certainly his weakest effort, but it's not without it's merits also.

Chappie is Short Circuit on steroids.  In the future, in South Africa, crime is at an all time high.  So, a multinational corporation designs robot police so that real human police can stop getting slaughtered.  The robot police work exceptionally well, too well, in fact, and crime hits an all time low.  However, the robot's creator, a nerdly office worker and computer programmer, has this idea of making a robot with what is essentially a soul.  He wants it to be living, feeling, understanding, and evolving (because obviously he hasn't heard of Skynet).  So, he takes a malfunctioning police robot home, uploads software into it, and boom, it has a soul.  Unfortunately for him, a small group of thugs have screwed up their last job and owe a bunch of money to a South African warlord.  So, they steal the nerd and his robot in hopes of teaching the robot how to do a heist.  This small group is played by South African wondergroup Die Antword.  Yolandi, the girl of the group names the robot Chappie and essentially becomes its mother.  Ninja... yeah... his father.  The problem is, Chappie has to learn and grow just as a human does, so he's stuck in a child-like state throughout the time that he's supposed to be learning how to shoot a gun, steal cars, and fulfill the requirements of a fully fledged heist.  Then, if this isn't enough, Hugh Jackman with a mullet is also a computer nerd and kind of a sociopath has designed super huge police robots, but keeps getting the models rejected because they're considered overkill.  So, he installs software that makes all the regular robot police malfunction and his overkill bots are needed more than ever.  His character and motivations are definitely the strangest of the film.

So, yeah, there's a lot going on in the movie.  At base level, there's Chappie.  The innocent, and admittedly adorable, robot who is learning what it means to be human from two pretty heinous individuals.  Then, there's Mullet Jackman trying to sabotage robots in order to get his robots sold.  Then, there's nerd dude who wants to get Chappie back.  Then, there's Die Antword on a time clock trying to pull a heist.  Then, there's all out war in the country and it just becomes something of a mess.  It's too frenetic and it never really stops to enjoy itself.  There are moments of fun and games with Chappie in his developmental stages, but the scene lasts only a short while and it's back to frenetic action and everything hitting the fan all at once.

It's also very Yolandi and Ninja heavy.  They're horrible people (who learn from Chappie as much as he learns from them), but if you're not hugely into Die Antword, this is probably going to be a bit of an annoyance for you.  It's really difficult to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with the film, but sitting in the theater watching it I just felt that it was missing something, something I couldn't put my finger on.  It definitely lacked a focus, and was generally all over the place.  But there was something else.  And even now, having seen it a week ago, I'm still unsure as to what was missing in the film.  If anyone has any thoughts themselves, I encourage you to tell me.  But, Chappie  isn't a bad movie, it's just an overly-packed movie with similar themes found in Blomkamp's other films-- themes that were better told through better filmmaking.  His next venture is an Alien sequel, which, in theory, keeps his film entirely up in space rather than South Africa.  If he can use his efforts in perfecting another aspect of the sci-fi genre, I think he'll re-discover his steps and take us back on an another amazing journey.  Chappie just missed this mark by too much.


The Gunman: A Humanitarian's Action Movie

Dude!  Sean Penn is kinda fu*kin ripped!  Like, you'd think with his shirt off he'd have really saggy skin and just a weird rubbery, but coarse body that hangs... this is getting strange.  I'm just saying, the dude is in shape and it was surprising to see.  The dude is also a self-righteous prick.  This is true.  But, for some damn reason, he's a very watchable self-righteous prick.  He's the asshole that you know is an asshole, but don't mind is an asshole because he's so watchable and [usually] makes good movies. The Gunman is no different.  He's clearly preaching his "humanitarian" side and giving long tedious lectures about relief work in third world countries and other monotonous geopolitical Sean Penn themes... but at least he's fun to watch.

It generally pisses me off to the point where I can't enjoy a film when the trailer is spliced together to be as misleading about the film as possible.  The purpose of a trailer is to advertise a movie, give you a look at what you're going to see, and hopefully convince you to see it.  These days, it's about convincing you to see the movie whether the movie is actually about what you're watching in the trailer or not, who cares, they just want your money.  I was severely mislead by the preview for The Gunman.  Here's what was advertised to me-- a new addition to the "I'm over 50 so I'm actually more badass than these shaved kids today" action films like Taken or The Expendables.  Hell, there were a couple instances in the trailer where it was shoved in your face that The Gunman was directed by the same dude who did Taken.  In the trailer, you've got Sean Penn working for some company... looks like a hit man company where he's hired as a contractor to kill people and this is what he's done for his entire life.  However, someone (Javier Bardem) has turned.  The company is now being led by a new man (Javier Bardem) and he's out to clear house of all loose ends.  So, he sends guys to kill Sean Penn.  When those guys get dead quick, he kidnaps Penn's wife until Penn shows up and has to kill everyone else.  This is exactly what the trailer shows.  It might have been my interpretation on a few aspects, but one thing was certain-- Penn was a badass and Javier Bardem was the villain.

Here's what The Gunman is actually about-- Sean Penn is doing humanitarian work in Congo with partner Bardem and love interest.  He works for a mining company.  The rebels in Congo are being funded weapons by the mining company.  The only person standing in the rebels' way of total anarchy is the Mining Minister.  Penn is then hired by the company to assassinate the Minister, but the caveat being he must leave the country as soon as it's done.  He asks Bardem to care for love interest, does the job, and leaves.  Eight years later, he's back in Congo after having spent most of the time away.  Now, he's actually an honest man, doing honest humanitarian work, digging wells for the desolate. When three rebels show up to camp to assassinate specifically him... he knows something is afoot and because it's Congo-- it must be because of the last time he was there.   So, he goes home and starts putting pieces together and, yes, someone is trying to kill him because of his last job.  It must be Javier Bardem, right?  Because that's what the trailer shows!  NO!  It's not.  Bardem is now just a sloppy drunk who has married love interest and is just a pawn in the larger game of the story.

It's strange that the trailers mislead you because the idea for the movie isn't so terrible that you'd have to be mislead, but it still gave the movie, and especially Bardem's role, a very strange feel to it.  Like I said earlier, Sean Penn is a very watchable actor.  I was excited at the prospect of him being a new action badass, and while there are some very cool action/death scenes... they're few and far between and take a loooooooooong time to get going.  I'm not entirely sure why Javier Bardem decided to take a very small, very inconsequential role.  I understood when I thought he was the villain, but this role wasn't much.  I also don't understand why Idris Elba took the role and is actually second billed.  He's in the movie probably a total of three minutes.  It was just a little bit disappointing expecting an action film that plays out like a more sophisticated version of Taken and winding up with a political thriller that plays out like a much more shitty and pandering version of The Constant Gardner.

The movie isn't without it's merits.  The writing isn't bad... it's just too preachy.  The acting is solid.  There's no doubt about that.  And the story is interesting to a point... but after that point the movie just kind of rolls on with your eyes on the screen, but certainly not glued.  There are cool fight sequences in the movie and that keeps it going, but once you realize you're in for the Sean Penn preachy hour, you may want to just catch this one at home in five years when it runs every other weekend on TBS.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Run All Night Figuring Out How To Use Liam Neeson Is Like A Fine Wine... Insert Wine Reference Here

Fellow readers: I know we're not all alike.  I know that there are some strange movies that I swoon over and special places in my heart for actors you may or may not give a shit about (*cough* Nicolas Cage).  There has been and will always be a special place in my heart for Liam Neeson.  The man knows badass like he was born with it.  He plays badass so well I just kinda assume this is how he acts usually even off set.  Once showed America his badass-ness with Taken, the dude has found his niche.  The problem with that sort of niche is that America is tired trying to decipher which ones are the good ones and which ones are the piss ones.  Sometimes, I'll admit, it's hard to tell.  We all knew that Unknown, Non-Stop, Taken 3, and Battleship were going to be utter shite.  But, I'll admit that I thought Taken 2, Clash of the Titans, The Grey, and A Walk Among The Tombstones were going to be gold.  Unfortunately, the latter two were the only ones worth anything.  So, with the high volume of Neeson movies coming out, you don't want to waste your money on one that isn't as badass as the first Taken.  Well, ladies and gentlemen, I present you with Run All Night.  Probably the best Neeson movie since Schindler's List.  At the very least, the best since Love, Actually.

Plots in a Neeson movie don't usually matter, but they kind of matter this time.  Neeson stars as Jimmy Conlon, the second hand man to crime boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris).  When Shawn's son sets up a drug deal that goes awry, he's left to clean it up with his own incompetent hands.  Unfortunately, caught in the crossfire of this deal is Jimmy's son, Michael.  Shawn's kid decides he has to kill Michael and Neeson intervenes at the last second killing Shawn's idiot son (who really had it coming).  But, because there is some strange code of honor among thieves, Shawn isn't able to let this one go.  He puts out a hit on Jimmy and Michael.  Jimmy must now spend the rest of the night trying to keep his son alive.  The entire movie takes place, essentially, in one night.

On the surface, this sounds like your typical high concept Neeson film that just allows him to kill as many people as possible within the confines of a small time-frame. But, there's much more to it than that.  Jimmy and Michael haven't spoken in years and are, in every sense of the word, estranged.  As Jimmy tries to keep Michael alive, he's also trying to repair their relationship that is all but dead.  He's also trying to keep his kid from becoming himself as well.  He's trying to keep him from pulling a trigger so he doesn't fall into the "life".  There's a wonderful father/son dynamic that paints Neeson, and everyone else in the movie for that matter, as more than a one-dimensional character.

What it really comes down to is that this is still a Liam Neeson action flick.  However, what separates it is the writing.  We all knew Neeson could act, but given the wrong script, it doesn't matter how good an actor you are, you'll come off wrong (Taken 2 and 3).  But, with good writing, a good story, fully-fleshed out characters, and perfectly choreographed action sequences... you're in for a good film.  What's cool too is this is Neeson's third collaboration with director Jaume Collett-Serra who helmed the sub par films Unknown and Non-Stop which were very underwhelming.  But, having worked together enough, the two of them were able to figure out that perfect combination of great action with a great script, despite some terrible directorial choices to freeze time and cheesily wipe from one location to another (a very weak point of the movie).  Run All Night isn't just a mindless action flick, it actually has something to say-- which is as rare as much as it is a delight.


Friday, March 6, 2015

Focus: A Good Conman Film That Unfortunately Loses... Focus

I'm a big fan of conman films (for the best ones check out The Sting and Matchstick Men) and I'm a big fan of Will Smith... so, if you tell me that the two are coming together for a mid-winter movie, my initial instinct is to say that I'm in.  Especially since Will Smith has been on hiatus from the box office, it has to be a hell of a script in order to pull him back into the limelight.  However, with it's February release date I have to wonder... what's the catch?  The catch is that the movie's title is essentially what the script is lacking. Writers and Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have a certain style to their movies.  They write crass comedies that are equal parts vulgarity and heart.  Their previous works, Bad Santa and I Love You Phillip Morris, however, are far better than their latest outing.  That isn't to say that Focus is a bad movie... it just doesn't live up to the expectations nearly everyone will have going into the film.

Without giving anything away, Will Smith plays Nicky, a successful small-time con man.  He meets Jess (Margot Robbie) in a hotel restaurant and the two hit it off.  When Jess tries to pull an obvious con against Nicky and he calls her out on it, she decides she wants to join forces and have Nicky teach her the ways of the grifter.  They plan a massive series of small time capers against drunk and staggering Mardi Gras travelers and wind up pocketing (along with the rest of the team) over a million bucks. The two fall for each other, but Nicky lives by the code that there's no room for love in the conman game.   So, he leaves her with her share of the money and moves on with his life.  Flash forward three years: Nicky is hired by Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) to pull a big con against his business rival.  Nicky agrees and the plan moves along swimmingly until Jess shows up out of the blue as Garriga's current squeeze.  Nicky realizes he still loves her and mixing work and love turns out to be quite the challenge.

That's essentially it.  It's actually mostly fun to watch and try and figure out who is playing who and who is the victim and who has the upper hand and how are things going to get seriously screwed up and how they're going to get out of the next pickle... However, the scenes with Nicky and Jess are, well... boring.  It's unfortunate because Will Smith and Margot Robbie have amazing chemistry together, but it's not fun watching the two of them together.  I mean this in the love aspect of the film.  In the grifting sections they're a joy to watch.  As Nicky shows her the ropes and teaches her the game, you'll find yourself glued to the screen.  But, later in the film, when Nicky is trying to get Jess to run away with him, when he tries to woo her, it's mostly mundane and unfortunately uninteresting.

Another problem the movie has is the tone.  While the dialogue plays mostly like a fun comedy, it's shot with dark, serious colors and shades.  There's a serious overtone to the movie, but the characters are having a great time.  The way the film is shot and presented seems like it may have played out differently on paper.  Are we looking for a comedy with dramatic elements or a drama with comedic elements?  A good conman movie is able to incorporate both organically much like the aforementioned Matchstick Men and The Sting.  This film is difficult to pinpoint just what exactly the directors were going for.  When they're acting out their plan and playing everyone around them, the film is a blast.  It's when it slows down in order to get our two leads together is when the film drags.

I would say that Focus mostly succeeds as a film, but the failures are very evident and quite hard to ignore.  While this isn't exactly the movie to bring Will Smith back into the minds of the average moviegoer it's a better step in the right direction than After Earth was.