Chappie (2015) – Review

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I’m going to start this review with a sentence very similar to a lot of other people’s reviews of Chappie that I’ve read: I absolutely loved District 9 and was incredibly excited to see what Blomkamp was able to do with a similar, alternate-reality South African setting, a higher budget, and assumably more experience. I still haven’t seen Elysium, partially due to laziness, partially because I can’t stand Matt Damon, but largely because of the bad things I’ve heard about it. Even Blomkamp himself recently said he “fucked it up”, so I’m still not dying to see it. Back to Chappie however; based on his 2004 short Tetra Vaal,  merging Blomkamp’s brilliant way of creating an overblown, yet entirely believable alternate world with ideas reminiscent of Robocop, Artificial Intelligence, et al, pitting foul-mouthed underworld gangsters against high-tech scientists, and throwing in a couple of sick He-Man: Masters of the Universe references, this is by no means a “safe” blockbuster. In fact, this film is absolutely barmy, whether that’s a good thing or not.

“Right, imagine there was a ROBOT, that was a COP…”

This film is all over the place. That isn’t even necessarily a bad thing; it’s consistently entertaining, and it’s very hard to predict what is going to happen next when you aren’t always entirely sure what just happened. That’s not to say the film is hard to understand, but it relentlessly fires what feel like key scenes at you like a cinematic gatling gun, each offering up new moral questions, plot threads, motifs, or setpieces. For every idea to be fully developed and resolved the film could easily run four hours or more. What we’re left with is not necessarily a film that makes us think about any of the interesting & well-meaning, but ultimately half-baked issues for a particularly long time, but a ridiculously fun rollercoaster that would not be out of place in a 1980’s video store.

Ninja spends the film making silly faces and talking in gibberish, like an alien who’s pretending to be a human.

Another layer to the unique experience that Chappie offers is just how incredibly odd certain aspects of it are, mostly in the casting and direction of the characters. The oddest thing of all is Die Antwoord. Everything about them really. In fact, I was tempted to subtitle this review “Why Antwoord?” or “Die AntWhy?” but they’re both terrible ideas. Yolandi and the embarassingly named Ninja play characters of the same names, who drive around in their incredibly ‘gangsta’ style whilst listening to music by Die Antwoord (or some approximation of music anyway) and wearing Die Antwoord merchandise. This confused me perhaps much more than it should have done, as I tried to work out whether Die Antwoord exist in this movie’s universe and they are playing their own fans, whether they were depicting fictional equivalents of themselves, or what the hell was going on with this cross-promotional nightmare. Ninja is incredibly unlikable, a trait that it seems is not so much the result of good acting, but reality shining through the fiction. Apparently he was a total nob on set, with Neill Blomkamp writing him out of pickups just so he didn’t have to bear with him on set, and an unnamed cast member referring to him as “that pile of shit”. Yolandi, however, is impossible to define. Frankly I find her irritating to look at with her otherworldly make-up & garish clothing, her voice is grating and her acting resembles the panicked enthusiasm of a high school drama fanatic. But somehow she’s so damned likable that I feel immensely guilty for finding her annoying, a really warmed to her character as the film progressed. Dev Patel is once again playing a cardboard cutout of himself, with an emotional range that extends from slightly happy to slightly upset while Hugh Jackman & Sigourney weaver are fantastic, with Weaver playing an unquestionable authority figure and Jackman being so angry even Wolverine would be passing him a Mars Bar to try and calm him down. Most of these characters are so extreme, and feel deliberately two-dimensional without becoming hollow and boring. It’s all like a live-action cartoon. Not an adaptation of a cartoon, literally a live-action cartoon. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for me, but may make outsiders of other viewers.

“I am SO mad right now! 😡 #angry”

Saving the best for last, Chappie himself is truly the star of this film. His character seems to be developed far greater than any human on screen (perhaps in a deliberate move, nudging us towards the central questions the movie presents). Little touches in his movements, intonations in his voice, and subtle expressions created only by a small LED panel & some moving bars on his “face” all contribute to conveying this. You really feel for his character, no matter how much Ninja & co aim to twist his morals, no matter how foul his language becomes in some hilarious scenes, he consistently retains a childlike innocence & an unquestioning loyalty that is impossible to dislike. I’m a special effects snob; bad CGI takes me right out of a film; but I realised through the third act that I had genuinely forgotten Chappie was not really there. His interaction with the real world and actors is pulled off stunningly but filmed in such a matter-of-fact manner. It’s all very reminiscent of the incredible FX work on District 9, and showcases what is clearly a strength in Blomkamp’s filmmaking.

OOOOH THIS PICTURE MOVES!!! Oh and effects are very good.

It’s not going to be a film for everyone, I feel many of the points I made could be seen as good or bad depending on your view, and throwing in countless logical anomalies (“How is this arms dealer so easy to steal from?” etc) it’s easy to see how someone could write a scathing review but I found it entertaining from beginning to end & the two hours flew by and that’s enough for me. It’s so odd I see it becoming something of a cult hit over time, not least because it straddles being far too good to be an all-out B-Movie, but is far too ridiculous to be a mainstream, serious film. Unashamedly unique, there’s a hundred things I’d have done differently if I’d made it, but this is Neill Blomkamp’s film – he’s certainly made it his own. And that’s an increasingly rare trait in big-budget films these days.

7/10

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Possession (1981) – Review

One of the 72 films labeled as a ‘Video Nasty’ in the someone-think-of-the-children hysteria of the 1980’s, Possession was not available uncut in the UK until 1999. The notoriety that comes with the ‘Video Nasty’ label suggests a film will be gratuitously excessive in sex and/or violence and, as is the case with many of them, rather thin on plot. This film is an exception to the second rule at least, directed by the Polish Arthouse director Andrzej Żuławski it is an allegorical, largely character-driven, and often incomprehensible take on the splatter-horror of the 70’s and 80’s.

“You’ve bred RAPTO- oh, wrong film.”

Starring Sam Neill, long before he was being chased by dinosaurs, as a man who works for an unexplained organisation who speak almost entirely in mysterious babble for the viewer to try and piece together, he returns home from an assignment of some sort to his wife and young son. His marriage is evidently falling apart and it is very soon discovered that his wife is having an affair. From here the film meanders along the point as both characters take turns in completely losing it at each other and their surroundings in scenes that could have come across as ridiculous if it wasn’t for the film’s two main strengths: it is shot with a rawness unusual for it’s time – lots of handheld cameras and claustrophobic close-ups create an unconfortable energy, while Neill, and Isabelle Adjani as his wife, give brilliant, extreme performances; most notably in a longer-than-it-ought-to-be breakdown scene involving Adjani enduring what is supposed to be a misscarriage. Barely an inch off some sort of macarbre interpretive dance, Adjani writhes and tumbles around a gloomy subway tunnel screaming and exuding various colours of bloody goo (even from her head) for what feels like a very long time. This scene is representative of many more key scenes in the film – it makes no sense to the plot at face value as she was never pregnant; the miscarriage is visually expressing one of a few fourth-wall-breaking monologues; it continues for an uncomfortable length of time, and on paper it could fit into any of the splatter-gore trash films of the era, but between the heavy-handed direction and devoted acting it is somehow hypnotic to watch, even if you’re watching it with a face expressing a mixture of repulsion and confusion.

I’m not a doctor, but…

The acceptance that what is happening probably isn’t happening but what is actually happening isn’t immediately visible is where viewers either love or hate this film. While I personally like a film that makes you think after it ends, this is a film that takes the idea further into these arthouse roots so that you must read between the lines so to speak and embellish what you find with your own ideas to have even a weak grip on what the majority of the elements in this film actually mean. A film that spends a lot of it’s first act barely skirting the genre of horror, a third act that is brutal, horrific, and very destructive (in terms of character as well as physical), ends on a disturbing final image that on one hand throws a whole new perspective to consider at anyone brave enough to attempt dissecting the film and on the other, provides yet another moment of bewildered horror. A number of sacreligious discussions and images provide the obligatory mix of controversy and self-important intellect in ways that may prove important to an individual’s interpretation of the movie but at face value feel forced and a little bit pretentious.

[Insert religious context]

I can’t say it’s an objectively bad film, as the main cast are excellent while the director has given great care to planting countless pieces to the puzzle that is the purpose of the film, details such as what colours some characters wear at certain points seem important, and small events in one scene tie in to much greater events in another. Even the Possession of the title doesn’t refer explicitly to a single entity. However my view is that a film shouldn’t require this cross-examination and, to an extent guesswork, to be able to say what it was even about; the best films I think make some level of sense on a first watch, rewarding the viewer on repeat viewings with either deeper meanings or a clearer understanding of how or why certain things occur.

Definitely not a film for everyone and, while I appreciate the numerous good points it has, I ultimately found it just too frustrating to make me want to solve the puzzle it presents.

4/10