Chappie

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DIR: Neill Blomkamp • WRI: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell •  PRO: Simon Kinberg • DOP: Trent Opaloch • ED: Julian Clarke, Mark Goldblatt • MUS: Hans Zimmer • DES: Jules Cook • CAST: Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Sharlto Copley

There is a billboard near my apartment that is resplendent with the latest didactic advertising statement from a particular sports brand that ticks all the boxes which warns passers-by that “There Will Be Haters”. Chappie, Neill Blomkamp’s third film proper since he burst out the gap with District 9 in 2009, would do well to heed the advice of the above quoted sports-brand slogan. Chappie is such a well-meaning, begrudger-effing parable that one can almost hear the hum of cynicism from the exit-doors of so many screening rooms nationwide. It’s oddly ironic that the advice of such a behemoth as that which adorns the billboard I pass daily should ring relevant for a film such as Chappie, because Sony-funding or no, any original science-fiction film with as overwhelmingly positive outlook as this will end up the little guy in any fight it comes up against.

The film begins as it does not mean to go on, with the same kind of faux-documentary footage that commenced Blomkamp’s debut. This totals twenty seconds at most, before we are blasted into a neon-painted impression of a Johannesburg policed by AI droids in the near future. The home-turf feels immediately welcoming to the director’s lens, slotting comfortably into this grimy production design which sings hymns to Mad Max and William Gibson in equal measure.

Neill Blomkamp has recently stated in an interview that the lyrical tableaux of South African rap duo Die Antwoord, whose videos and music were the happy discovery of this writer in the run-up to the film’s release, were directly the inspiration for the film and so it is entirely appropriate that they appear on screen, moments after machine-gun cackles set the picture in motion, and spark the plot to life.

The film’s central spiel involves Dev Patel’s Dion, designer of the police droids central to the plot, and his quest to create an AI with a consciousness, and Die Antwoord (perhaps playing themselves) kidnapping Dion and compelling him to leave the newly born AI in their care that they might teach him to perform heists in order to pay back a local crime-lord they owe. Taken at face value the plot is every bit as mundane as it might seem, but as a vehicle for the genius creation of Chappie, portrayed via motion capture by Sharto Copley, whose performance ought to give Andy Serkis a run for his money as mo-cap king. Put shortly, the simple plot serves as a perfect vehicle to birth Chappie, who’s such a gem he’s worth a thousand stories.

Chappie is at once, gorgeously created, photo-realistic, charming and hilarious. Having blubbered like a baby at last year’s Paddington, from which Chappie is not a million miles, theme-wise, I fully expected the mother-son relationship built up between the robot and his “Mummy” to end in tears but just as it is using the relationships it forms to craft exquisite themes of violence thriving in conditions of social-marginalisation as well as (once again) the purest of ideas that who we are on the inside is all that really matters, it is kicking ass and taking names in equal portions, with Hugh Jackman’s pistol-whipping Aussie antagonist chewing up more scenery than he knows what to do with and clearly having fun while he’s at it. The violence itself is bloody and horrific, as it should be. Violence is often taken on carelessly, with many an implication of immediate death and nary a drop of blood, and it is refreshing to see films such as this when violence rears its ugly head it is swiftly followed by a murky rush of claret to messily stain with contrast against the bubble-gum highlighter colour-pallet Blomkamp has opted for.

The only criticism I can level at this film, from the heart, is the occasionally hammy dialogue, which, honestly, considering what the film sets out to do, is no criticism at all. Every shot seems fairly judged, Hans Zimmer’s score dispenses tension and warmth as they are called for but does not over-saturate the visuals, an issue I see as going hand-in-hand recently with the more hollow fare of blockbuster. Hollowness is an attribute that was readily levelled at Blomkamp’s second feature, the po-faced, underwhelming Elysium, and for good reason; it severely let down the legions of cinema-goers who’d heralded the South African as a visionary saviour of original sci-fi on the back of his debut. Those fans may now rest easy again as Chappie cancels this bum-note completely and moves to directly build on the street-cred of District 9. We’ll take plenty more like this Neill, this’ll do grand.

Donnchadh Tiernan

15A (See IFCO for details)
120 minutes

Chappie is released 6th March 2015

Chappie  – Official Website

 

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Maleficent

Maleficent-Dream-Trailer-2014

DIR: Robert Stromberg • WRI: Linda Woolverton • PRO: Joe Roth, Scott Murray • ED: Dylan Cole, Gary Freeman • DOP. Dean Semler • DES: Chris Lebenzon, Richard Pearson • MUS: James Newton Howard • CAST: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Reilly, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville

‘Star power’ is a curious thing these days, selling more gossip magazines than movie tickets. In an era when franchises, reboots, prequels, sequels and spin-offs dominate the box office, established characters are more important than established actors in producing a hit. While Maleficent seems consistent with this trend at first, retelling the familiar story of Sleeping Beauty with the antagonistic dark fairy as protagonist, the film’s marketing tells another story. ‘Angelina Jolie is Maleficent’ scream the teaser trailers, with posters, banner pop-ups and bus panels solely focused on her name and darkly-horned, chiselled white head. Jolie, whose biggest role in recent years has been a voice in the Kung Fu Panda movies, could not make a more visible return to the big screen than as Maleficent, a larger-than-life presence with an iconic costume and an unmatched capacity for throwing shade.

Taking obvious cues from Wicked, with a nod to Snow White and the Huntsman and marching to the same beat as the phenomenal Frozen, Disney’s Maleficent capitalises on a desire for alternate perspectives on well-known stories, as well as a concurrent trend for difficult, anti-heroic protagonists whose chaotic evil ultimately restores the balance of a difficult world. The film opens with a young, spirited Maleficent ruling over an enchanted moor, the idyllic home of many a magical creature. When invading forces from a nearby kingdom threaten the harmony of her land, Maleficent’s forceful retaliation ultimately results in a devastating betrayal, triggering the chain of events familiar to audiences from Sleeping Beauty. The film recasts the evil spell cast on Princess Aurora (Fanning) as an act of revenge by Maleficent against the king (Copley), and follows the aftermath of this curse on Maleficent herself, the princess and her three fairy guardians (Staunton, Manville, Temple), and the princess’ father, King Stefan.

Maleficent is directed by Robert Stromberg, better known for his Oscar-winning work in visual effects and production design – his talents neither wasted nor unnoticed in how beautifully-rendered, shot and designed Maleficent is throughout. The world of the film, from the colourful, lively moor of Maleficent’s childhood to the grey, thorny forest after Stefan’s betrayal, is well-realised, and simpler moments like the ‘True Love’s Kiss’ are as quiet and visually simple as the battles or Maleficent’s spell-casting are over-the-top. Maleficent’s reveal at the christening, as well as her later appearance to Aurora in the forest, are glitteringly gothic and breathtakingly lovely, emphasised by Jolie’s cool performance and dangerous, velvety tones.

Jolie is pitch-perfect, in every wicked smile, agonised scream, and expression of concern, ranging from dispassionate to urgently needful. Her glowering at the adorable baby Aurora and later curt dismissal of her affection are highlights, with the growing affection she feels towards the child subtly progressed and played, even if it is loosely-motivated by the script. The film plays with her image too, with Jolie’s ground-sweeping gown inexplicably transformed into a catsuit by the time the action scenes roll around; and a curious line about how the man who loves her is willing to cast off the ring he wears just to hold her hand is interesting in the light of how she met her current beau.

Elsewhere, Elle Fanning is cheerful, bubbly and pretty, perfect for a princess, if rather vacant – the fairies wished for her to be beautiful and happy, but couldn’t they have wished for a personality, too? Speaking of the fairies, even if all three were combined into one fairy character, she’d still have little to do, but Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville and Juno Temple  regardless do their best to be funny and charming. Sam Reilly as Maleficent’s shape-shifting minion, Dioval, is quietly impressive, while Sharlto Copley as Stefan (with, for some reason, a Scottish accent replacing his native South African tones) makes for an enjoyable villain. Not quite as deranged as his last bad-guy role in Elysium, Copley’s paranoia and blinkered bloodlust is convincing, if never very well-developed.

Credited to Linda Woolverton, with ten ‘based on’ credits from other sources, the greatest issue is the rather weak script. An inconsistency within the tone, structure, even the language used suggests either a great deal of revision or poor attention to detail.  Many threads feel unfinished or disorganised – the third fairy never grants Aurora a wish (no excuse for that lack of personality I joked about above); The fairies are sometimes interchangeably referred to as ‘pixies;’ and the motivation behind several key moments appears to serve the visuals rather than the plot. Most bafflingly, the final battle between Maleficent, Dioval and the King’s men takes place at an utterly needless time, when what they are fighting for is no longer really an issue, except the film needs an impressive climactic set-piece, and nobody pays to see peace in 3D.

Rather like Frozen, the ending of Maleficent contains a welcome, well-intentioned appeal to female solidarity and sorority, which is just grounded enough in the world of the film to succeed where other plot points fail to take hold. Even if the structure and focus of this film and its characters are easily confused or sacrificed to the visual splendour of its production, its premise and performances are strong, the lead performance particularly transcendental: Jolie really is magnificent as the malevolent Maleficent.

Stacy Grouden

PG (See IFCO for details)
97 mins

Maleficent is released on 28th May 2014

Maleficent – Official Website

 

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Cinema Review: Oldboy

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DIR: Spike Lee • WRI: Mark Protosevich • PRO: Doug Davison, Roy Lee, Spike Lee • DOP: Sean Bobbitt • ED: Barry Alexander Brown • DES: Sharon Seymour • MUS: Roque Baños • CAST: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharlto Copley

 

On paper, everything about this remake of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 cult action thriller seems promising: one of the best films of the past ten years as source material, an ‘auteur’ director in Spike Lee, Josh Brolin starring with the up-and-coming Elizabeth Olsen and the recently excellent Sharlto Copley.

 

The plot is hard to fault, too. Simple in its synopsis but complex in its narrative, Oldboy tells the story of Joe Doucett (Brolin), who is kidnapped and held prisoner with no explanation and with no idea who might want to hold him captive. After 20 years in captivity, Joe is released with a phone and a wallet full of money. With no answers and many questions, he sets out to seek vengence on the stranger who stole 20 years of his life.

 

All good omens that this particular Hollywood remake of a highly respected piece of Korean filmmaking could be the exception to the recent rule of lazily recycling much loved non-English language genre films. With a chequered history in this regard, perhaps Hollywood was learning to give its source material the respect it deserves, letting the spirit of the original film shine through while making the story relevant to a new audience?

 

But alas, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Oldboy has been transformed from an imaginative, gripping and (crucially) original action thriller into a by-the-numbers revenge thriller.

 

Lee takes Park’s complex protagonist and changes him into the standard ‘bad man who learns the error of his ways and vows to reform himself’, explicitly showing the audience in the first act that Joe is a bad husband, an even worse father, a cocksure businessman and a terrible drunk. The original left all this to be implied.

 

See also the signature action set piece, in which the protagonist battles a posse of assorted ne’er-do-wells with a hammer. In Park’s version, this is simply thrilling in its execution, shot (imaginatively) as a cross-section of the building. In Lee’s, it’s shot in a similar way, showing his obvious respect for what is an impressively-constructed long shot. But the scene is let down by the fight’s choreography, which looks more like a dance with its over-exaggerated falls and dives rather than anything approaching peril.

 

The plot has been given the Hollywood treatment, too.  In Park’s Oldboy, the mystery surrounding the main character’s imprisonment and sudden release only deepens as the film progresses, further drawing you in. But Lee unleashes major plot revelations much sooner than Park, leaving precious little mystery in the film’s final third. Where the original perfectly straddled the grey in-between, Lee looks to attain a perfect symmetry in the unfolding storyline between Brolin’s Joe and his mysterious captor. The director seems to have little trust in his audience, pointing out every little plot nuance, just in case we missed it.

 

It becomes increasingly clear that Spike Lee is merely a gun for hire on this project, rather than the ‘auteur’ of his earlier career. A fact confirmed when Lee neuters the original’s brave ending.

 

Most of the supporting cast do an admirable job with some below-par scripting, with special mention for Copley who is unrecognisable here, playing the polar opposite of his deadly mercenary in Elysium. Brolin works tirelessly trying to combine the physically demanding action set pieces with the deep inner turmoil being felt by Joe but, in the end, neither of these entirely convince.

 

There are things to be admired, though. The film looks great. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography combined with the set design give Joe’s imprisonment a washed-out dullness, juxtaposed nicely with the outside world’s vibrancy.

 

Measured against Park’s original, Lee’s Oldboy is dumbed-down and hamfisted (and that’s before mentioning the exaggerated product placement). While the film shows the occasional flash of promise, Lee would have done better to fully embrace the brilliance of the original, rather than using it merely as a blueprint.

Chris Lavery

18 (See IFCO for details)

104  mins

Oldboy is released on 6th December 2013

Oldboy  – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Elysium

elysium

DIR/WRI: Neill Blomkamp •  PRO: Simon Kinberg • DOP: Trent Opaloch • ED: Julian Clarke, Lee Smith • DES: Philip Ivey • CAST: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga

Elysium is South African director Neill Blomkamp’s superb follow-up to the equally excellent District 9. His assured hand takes elements familiar from other sci-fi thrillers and demonstrates how it should be done.

It’s 2154. In the late 21st century, Earth became diseased, overpopulated and polluted. The wealthy constructed an alternative habitat, called Elysium, in a space station. The poor live in sprawling metropolises, such as Los Angeles, fighting illness and poverty. Some of them labour in huge industrial complexes owned by the rich elite, who live out their luxurious lifestyles in the heavens, where its authorised citizens live without worrying about sickness.

 

Young Max da Costa promises his childhood friend Frey that he will take her to the paradise. A work accident and exposure to radiation makes it necessary for Max to get to Elysium, where he can recover. A rogue Los Angelino, Spider, organises illegal transports to Elysium, thwarted by the cold-hearted power-hungry defence secretary, Delacourt. She conceives a plan to overthrow President Patel, whose politicking obstructs Delacourt in what she sees as the proper protection of Elysium. Max unwittingly foils her attempt, and she dispatches the merciless Agent Kruger to get him.

 

Clearly, many elements are not new. The best of humanity living on a space station, while the poor and the sick die off on the planet, perhaps fills the gap that WALL·E glossed over. Policing the poor requires armies of RoboCops. There’s also the creation of something like an Iron Man suit for Max, when radiation sickness threatens to debilitate his body as he sets off on his quest. So, in some respects, Blomkamp’s film is derivative and unoriginal.

 

However, as in District 9, Blomkamp touches on some interesting themes that make his film far more compelling and resonant than other works. The gap between rich and poor has become prevalent in contemporary American cinema. In Time saw poor people struggling to earn enough minutes to keep themselves alive, while the rich lived comfortably on an infinite allowance. In The Purge, the haves employ sophisticated technology to keep out the have-nots. Here, the gap between “the 1%” and the rest manifests spectacularly in the separation of Elysium from the planet, detached from real world problems of pollution and overpopulation, exacerbated by the industries that make their wealth possible and manufacture of the means of repression. Max works in a factory producing the robotic police forces that discipline the labouring class.

 

Access to healthcare is another issue. The rich never get ill, with medical bays in their houses to cure illness should it occur. Hospitals on Earth provide inadequate care. Max’s childhood friend Frey works as a nurse, and her cute daughter suffers from leukaemia. The hospital cannot offer her the care she requires. Elysium promises the facilities that the poor need. Matt Damon’s physical performance requires his body to endure the pain of makeshift surgery. “I don’t want to die” is his refrain.

 

Glimpses of the elite’s idyllic lifestyles appear as a cello plays Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ on the soundtrack. The inhabitants speak French, and Jodie Foster, as Delacourt, contributes a chilling performance as their defender, her compulsion to protect them coming from a resolute but fearsome maternal instinct. Garbed in grey formal suits, with short blond hair, Delacourt resembles, not a little, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF. Sharlto Copley, who played the lead in District 9, gets the best lines, playing Agent Kruger.

 

Max da Costa grew up in a Latino community. A nun encourages him to pursue his destiny, giving him a token to remind him of where he comes from and how beautiful Earth must look from Elysium. The struggles of poor Latinos attempting to emigrate to a better place reflects contemporary concerns with immigration, the Land of Opportunity and the American Dream.
Despite such serious thematic elements, Blomkamp knows his audience.  The film plays as an engaging and exciting thriller.  Pacing is perfect, transitioning swiftly from the necessary exposition to deftly handled extended action sequences, although sometimes frenetic cutting and handheld shots make it a bit difficult to follow the action. We can forgive him for some narrative gaps because he maintains the excitement and tension. Blomkamp returns with cinematographer Trent Opaloch, editor Julian Clarke, designer Philip Ivey, all of whom match the high standards set by District 9.  That film created high expectations that Blomkamp, with Elysium, has surely met.

John Moran

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details) 

109 mins
Elysium is released on 23rd August 2013

Elysium – Official Website

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The A-Team

The A-Team

DIR: Joe Carnahan • WRI: Joe Carnahan, Brian Bloom, Skip Woods • PRO: Stephen J. Cannell, Jules Daly, Tony Scott, Spike Seldin, Iain Smith, Alex Young • DOP: Mauro Fiore • ED: Roger Barton, Jim May • DES: Charles Wood • CAST: Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Quinton Jackson, Sharlto Copley, Jessica Biel, Patrick Wilson

This is a sprawling mess of a movie obviously mashed together by dazed troglodytes under a bridge. What’s the point of it all? Surely there are better ideas for the action movie genre than merely rehashing an old TV series. And why does the fact that working with an established set of characters make it acceptable to produce a script that has all the imagination of a pig’s trough?

The A-Team tells the story of 4 lovable mercenary rogues who are trying to clear their names after being wrongfully imprisoned of stuff. The ’80s TV characters are brought to a cinema screen near you by 4 lovable rogues who are now trying to clear their names after being wrongfully attached to this pointless nonsense. Liam Neeson plays George Peppard’s Hannibal (Colonel) taking every opportunity to tell us that he derives much pleasure from the completion of a plan. Mr T’s BA Baracus (Lieutenant) is played by Quinton Jackson who has no time for dullards. Bradley Cooper is Templeton ‘Faceman’ Peck (Lieutenant) wooing ladies with his leery grin and coiffed thatch, and Dwight Schultz’s endearing non compos ‘Howling Mad’ Murdoch (lunatic pilot) is played by Sharlto Copley repeatedly demonstrating the fact that he’s several pages short of a script. Once these lovable rogues have established themselves as the A-Team, they are allowed to get on with the matter in hand; that being lepping about the shop roaring at each other and waving a variety of ammunition at baddies.

There’s really nothing to say about the performances in the film except that poor Neeson looks like he’s completely lost after taking a wrong turn and found himself in the cooking pot of a hungry native tribe. All the characters merely exist to facilitate the crash, bang, wallops of the action scenes, interspersed with some ridiculous dialogue. Manure shovellor/director Joe Carnahan serves up such sequences in the manner of prison slop, incessantly throwing them with neither thought nor care at the screen. The film hasn’t got the brains to be an ironic pastiche of the’80s TV series and hasn’t got the guts to breathe any sort of new life into it. The A-Team is spineless filmmaking bereft of ideas. The pedestrian action sequences, bad CGI and poor editing coupled with the puerile dialogue and ridiculous plot (not to mention BA’s anti-Ghandi subplot) make for one of the most irritating cinema experiences this year.

I can’t wait for the film version of Simon & Simon.

So rather than waste your money going to see The A Team, why not get your hands on the boxset of the original series – hell, even Boy George pops up in one episode. Now repeat after me: ‘In 1972 a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum-security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.’

Steven Galvin

Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)
The A-Team
is released on 30th July 2010

The A-Team Official Website

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District 9

District 9

DIR: Neill Blomkamp • WRI: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell • PRO: Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson • DOP: Trent Opaloch • ED: Julian Clarke • DES: Philip Ivey • CAST: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Mandla Gaduka

Remember the double features of old? Nope, me neither, but my parents have told me about them, and I did manage to see Tarantino’s failed Grindhouse project. These days, the closest most of us get to a double feature is a Pixar movie, which always include a delightful short before the main feature. Why do I bring this up? Because watching District 9 is a bit like watching a double feature, except both movies seem to be part of the same movie. Let me explain.

District 9 starts off as mock-documentary about the arrival of aliens in Johannesburg, and the attempts of a private security firm to move them from one slum to another. Director Neil Blomkamp creates a believable world in which aliens and humans co-exist in a thinly veiled satire of apartheid, that also exams the dangers of private security firms and the evils of modern corporations. At least he does for the first third or so. In an odd move, after about 45 minutes, the film mutates into a body-horror flick, which in turn becomes a full on sci-fi action movie. All this is impressively staged; the mid section is satisfyingly gooey, and the finale is spectacular. The problem lies in the change between styles.

By starting off as a documentary, Blomkamp develops a distance between the viewer and the action that can’t be closed come the would-be gripping finale. It’s also difficult to warm to Wickus (Sharlto Copley); He’s introduced as just another part of the corporate machine which the movie criticises, making it all the more difficult for the viewer to accept him as the hero once the documentary style is dropped, no matter how desperate his situation becomes. Similarly, the short ‘body-horror’ segment feels at odds with each segment it bookends, an indulgence to play with some gruesome prosthetics rather than an attempt to elaborate on the story.

While none of this quite fits together, the myriad sections are individually brilliant. There’s real humour and insight to the opening sections, making a clear stand against corporate violence against minorities. While this is at odds with the finale, which asks us to enjoy violence meted out to corporate drones, the film ends with a breathtaking showdown inside the slums of District 9 itself. It’s as good a piece of filmmaking as you’ll see all year, full of imaginative alien weaponry and brilliant effects. The effects throughout are stunning, the aliens (known as ‘Prawns’) are beautifully rendered, as is the film’s central image – a giant alien mothership hovering over Johannesburg. It’s a testament to how striking this image is that every time it appears, goose bumps are guaranteed. All of which makes District 9 a frustrating experience. It’s certainly less than the sum of its parts, and you can’t help but wish that Blomkamp had stuck to one style throughout. But those parts are remarkable, singling out Blomkamp as a major new talent.

James Hargis
(See biog here)

Rated 15A (See IFCO website for details)
District 9 is released on 4th September 2009

District 9 – Official Website

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