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The Last Days of American Crime (2020)

Even by relaxed standards which we judge widely-available Netflix movies during a time of quarantine, The Last Days of American Crime is a staggering waste of 150 minutes. It’s based on a 2009 graphic novel series and even by the sliding scale of shut-your-brain-off action movies, it’s numbing, dreadfully dull, incoherent, and stitched together with hoary genre clichés and little creative forethought. It’s rare that I come across a movie that seems so willfully ignorant to explore the implications of its own premise.

In the near future, the U.S. government is in the final stages of implementing the American Peace Initiative (API), a special radio signal that stops crime in its tracks. It acts as a brain blocker on anything illegal, stopping the user from being able to follow through. Graham Bricke (Edgar Ramirez) finds out the hard way when his bank robbery crew become some of the first test subjects. American citizens are desperate to flee to Canada before the API goes live. Bricke gets seduced by computer hacker Shelby Dupree (Anna Brewster) to pull off one big score. The government is readying to destroy a billion dollars in currency before going digital, and Shelby’s fiancé, Kevin Cash (Michael Pitt), has the connection to pull off the heist of the century.

Firstly, there is not nearly enough material here to justify the gargantuan Avengers-esque running time. You could realistically slice down a whole hour and not impact its middling entertainment value or clarity. While I was watching it didn’t even feel like a movie, more like a series designed to be binge watched, where the plotting becomes much more slack because the filmmakers anticipate their show will be digested in quick succession and that they have earned patience. It irritates me in television and it certainly irritated me here as well. Don’t blithely assume that your audience has infinite patience when you haven’t given them a proper story to properly engage with. Just about every scene could be trimmed down and some of them go on punishingly long, especially scenes where people are getting shot. There’s one late scene that goes on for what feels like five minutes of just watching two characters get shot. It’s so gratuitous, like much else in the movie, that it borders into unintentional anti-comedy.

As for the action, director Oliver Megaton (Taken 2 and 3) delivers very little of note. There’s a car chase here, a shootout there, but no set piece that actually develops or proves that memorable. It’s all just disposable noise that amounts to little, not even fleeting, escapist entertainment. This is a heist movie where the actual heist planning is ignored. The most enjoyable part of a heist movie is the intricate planning and then execution of that plan, combating the unforeseen complications and overcoming for triumph. If your entire movie is centered on a big heist, don’t treat that like it’s another meaningless plot element. I cannot believe the filmmakers failed to realize that if the viewer doesn’t know what the dangers, problems, and scheme of the upcoming heist will be, then everything feels arbitrary and unsatisfying, and it does so here. The actual heist, pulled off around the 90-minute mark, is not worth the buildup and lack of accessibility. It’s just another haphazard action set piece, not the culmination of planning and an important payoff for carefully manufactured setups. If you’re tuning in for fun action, you’ll be sorely disappointed to find there’s more time spent torturing people onscreen than there is for sustained and exciting action.

The awful characters we’re left to spend 150 minutes with are hardly worth that investment. Everyone is kept strictly as stock archetypes, and even when the screenplay tries to develop them, it follows a strictly predictable path to minimal results. Oh, someone has a family member in custody and is being pressured to snitch? Oh, our silent-and-seemingly-conflicted protagonist wants to avenge his dead brother because he cares and stuff? Oh, our oddball criminal scion wants to make a big name for himself outside of his father’s shadow? The fact the movie spends so much time with these characters while giving them so little dimension, little personality, and little to do is another indictment on the bloated pacing. If we’re spending this much time with our criminal rogues, the least you can do is make them interesting and dramatic and colorful. The protagonist’s name is Graham Bricke, which sounds so boring that it must have been generated by an A.I. The femme fatale super hacker lady is really here just to look sad or sexy, here to deliver three uncomfortable sex scenes including a near rape as well. The other notable female roles in this movie include News Anchor, Lesbian 1 and Lesbian 2, Female Tweeker, and Female Cop. Hooray for depth.

There are two characters that had a chance of being interesting but are so mishandled. The first is Kevin Cash, our wannabe gangster. Pitt (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) brings a much-needed dose of energy and theatrics, like he’s trying everything in his power to desperately hold your flagging attention. Even his pathetic overcompensating nature is tiresome. A scene where he, his father, and his younger stepmother (another fine example of female character representation in the movie) shriek and bicker at one another is just embarrassing and misplaced comic relief. He’s boring. The only other potential was with Sharlto Copley (District 9) as a disgraced police officer. We spend plenty of time with him early in the movie, establishing his outsider status, perhaps some regret, and hoping that his position of authority will be better explored as he wrestles with whether the police force is worthy of its state-decreed exemptions to the API. Nope. He just becomes another dude in the final act that could have been replaced by anyone else. It would be like devoting so much time to Henchman #12 and his personal crisis of self in a Bond movie only to watch the lug unceremoniously die in a final action rush. Was that worth the time spent?

Its Purge-like premise sounds intriguing and worthy of exploration until, that is, you really think about how silly it all is. So a magic radio signal is going to inhibit your brain from committing known wrongs, but does that mean that the radio signal will have to blare constantly in order to have a lasting effect, otherwise its enforcement will be limited? What happens to sociopaths who don’t even register right from wrong? They will be able to move and act without abandon. Then there’s the day-to-day corruption, graft, greed from all pillars of society, politicians and Wall Street and officials that exploit their positions for illegal gains. Seriously, if this radio signal inhibits the fruition of illegal acts, would Wall Street just shut down? Would the factory owners who knowingly skirt worker safety for profits be able to operate? Would criminal defense attorneys be able to operate or would they use the ethical justification that everyone, no matter how heinous, deserves legal representation? If you think about a capitalist society, it’s built upon people behaving not so nicely, so would all facets of the economy grind to a screeching halt?

There is one aspect of this world building, even with what the meager story has established, that could be interesting to explore, and that’s the exceptions to this new order. Police officers are getting implants that make them immune to the effects of API, though in a world where a radio wave eliminates criminal acts, do you still need a police force to protect and serve? Regardless, this special class of exception is deserving of further exploration, a socially relevant angle to tap into the inherent advantages offered to the top one percent who don’t think the rules apply to them. In fact, if Last Days of American Crime was going to run with its silly premise as is, and during the pre-activation countdown timeline, they should have presented a story about those who are given the state-sanctioned privilege to act with impunity. Let’s watch the elite get their special exemption chips and plan for the New World where they maintain their vaunted privileges. It would at least make the movie socially relevant as well as a better development of its sci-fi premise.

Watch, dear reader, as I present you two better scenarios with this silly premise. The first is the most obvious and that’s life AFTER the implication of the AFI, presenting life under a new fascist order and a group of revolutionaries trying to thwart the radio waves. Imagine a group not plotting to pull off a bank heist but ridding their community of the AFI and giving them autonomy over their minds and bodies again? There’s an ever-present hostility that forces the characters to keep their thoughts on safe topics, having to communicate with subterfuge to not set off their brain jailers. It would be like a dystopian version of that classic Twilight Zone episode where little Bill Mumy where everyone had to think “good thoughts” or else he would magically banish them to the cornfield. That’s interesting, that’s genuine conflict, that’s characters under great duress trying to escape a fascist nightmare without tipping off the invisible sensors in their own minds that could trigger. There’s a larger goal of freeing their fellow citizens from this tyranny as well. That’s already one hundred times better than simply trying to steal money before the clock strikes zero. If it was only ever going to be “one big last score” then why even bother with the mind-control antics? It could have been anything at all.

However, if you wanted something more low-key, you could take a different path with the idea of the bucket list before the API goes live. Think of two teenagers who don’t have the means to escape and feel like they haven’t fully lived and a whole lifetime of rebellion and adventures they had been dreaming towards will now be snuffed out. The screenplay already floats the idea of a criminal bucket list but why not run with that idea as the core of your movie? Two teenagers making the most of their time together over the course of one long crazy night of cutting loose, testing their boundaries, and acting out the best ways they know how, learning about each other and the depth of their friendship before their minds will not fully be their own. It takes the teenager coming-of-age model, feeling like a stranger in your own body, and gives it a PG-13-Purge twist, with the distant tragedy of the looming tyranny ahead to up the stakes. Even that development would be better than “one last score,” and these are just two ideas I’ve come up with while writing this film review. Think what could be accomplished if a professional screenwriter spent weeks fleshing out a better version.

Alas, the version of The Last Days of American Crime we do receive is powerfully plodding, incoherent, empty and arbitrary, and definitely not worth your precious 150 minutes. With the current state of the world where thousands of U.S. citizens are protesting in the streets over a militarized police state and wanton brutality, it makes Last Days look even more phony and ill-conceived as entertainment. It doesn’t examine the implications of its own fascist police state, it only uses it as a pointless backdrop for an arbitrarily plotted  “last score” heist before it all just falls apart, spent of imagination and intent.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Free Fire (2017)

I don’t understand the praise and hype heaped upon filmmaker Ben Wheatley. He’s got a nice eye for visuals but whenever I see his name attached as a screenwriter, my expectations sink. His 2016 film High Rise was on my list of the worst films of last year. To my mind, Wheatley is Nicolas Refn (Neon Demon) lite, and I don’t even care for Refn. With that being said, the premise and star power for Free Fire looked enough to even out my immediate hesitation about watching another Wheatley film. It looked like fun. How could it not be? Well I’m now debating whether I disliked Free Fire more than High Rise, a scenario with no real winner.

In 1978, two gangs meet in a Boston warehouse to make an exchange of guns and drugs for money. Things go wrong, tempers flare, and bullets are exchanged. Both parties are pinned down, fighting for cover, and looking to come out alive and on top. There’s Cillian Murphy, Oscar-winning Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Michael Smiley, and Sharlto Copley among this dingy dozen.

Exiting my theater screening, I got into a discussion with my pal, Ben Bailey. He was adamant that the story premise of Free Fire could not be done as a feature film and was, at best, the sort of material for a 20-minute shoot-em-up short. I argued that with the proper development there could be a scraggly feature film here but the key phrase is “proper development,” something that is sorely lacking from Free Fire. Ultimately it feels more like Ben’s assessment: 20 minutes of thin material and thought stretched out to an interminable 85 minutes.

Once the shootout commences, it feels like Wheatley just succumbs to the cacophonous confusion of the action and more or less gives up. For a solid twenty minutes or so, the movie is nothing more than a series of disjointed shots of people firing and people taking cover from wooden boxes and planks, rarely if ever coalescing to produce a sense of direction, momentum, and geography. I didn’t know where anybody was and especially in relationship to anyone else. That is a crucial factor in action sequences especially in a limited location action sequence. You need to know who is where and establish different mini-goals and new challenges. Wheatley only introduces new elements late into the proceedings, and when he does they are anticlimactically resolved.  When complications do arrive they are brushed aside and we go back to shooting. Why not involve the guns in those crates as something to be fought over to gain extra leverage? That seems like an obvious goal but not to the characters on screen. I lost track of which characters were with which side, and the movie even tries to make the same joke, as if knowingly acknowledging this aspect forgives Free Fire for its plotting misfires.

As minute after minute of blind shooting went on, I started making connections to a question I have had with Terrence Malick (Tree of Life, Song to Song) movies, namely how does one edit these things? If you’ve never seen a modern Malick movie, first consider yourself fortunate, but the man is known for his whispery, stream-of-consciousness spiritual connections with nature. My question with Malick movies: how does someone know that this shot of light through the leaves needs to be here, and definitely before this shot of a caterpillar moving along a tree branch? How do you edit what is bereft of a traditional coherency? I wondered the same question during Free Fire. Without those mini-goals, how does one edit just gunshot after gunshot after gunshot without any credible change in the story’s impetus as guidance?

Compounding my boredom and general confusion is the reality that these criminal lowlifes are dull characters and not worth the investment. Wheatley and co-screenwriter Amy Jump fail to provide interesting personalities or quirks or anything memorable to enliven these tough-talking bad-shooting bad guys. Some of them have accents, one of them is a woman, one of them likes to smoke pot, but really they’re all slight variations on the same excitable, profane, and shallow archetype, the kind of character that gets their own poster in marketing with a nickname like “The Kid” or something cool-sounding like that, but it’s all posturing. I thought that Free Fire might be reminiscent of the rise of Tarantino knockoff films in the 90s (The Big Hit, 2 Days in the Valley, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Suicide Kings) but this movie actually made me yearn for a Tarantino knockoff.

These people are so lifeless. I didn’t care who lived and who died. They were all boring. Some faces are recognizable like Hammer and Smiley and Murphy but a majority of the characters are not, at least initially visually distinctive. It’s a failing of creativity to separate them, make them distinct. Much of the acting is just reacting to squibs going off and squirming on the ground. If you have a fetish for Brie Larson (Kong: Skull Island) wriggling, this is your film. By default the best actor is Copley (Hardcore Henry) as he seems to be on an uncontrollable improv stint, rapidly saying whatever things comes to mind. Something has to fill the audio between gunfire.

Free Fire wants to be a scuzzy, crazy, fun movie that knows it’s trashy and revels in its bad taste and loony characters with nose-thumbing glee. Instead, Free Fire is a nihilistic and tedious enterprise lacking entertaining characters, coherent action, and most importantly any general sense of fun. Watching characters that are unmemorable, who you don’t care about, fire guns indiscriminately for a long time is not a movie, and it’s most certainly not a good movie. It’s a glorified training manual for firearms. Free Fire takes too long to get started with poorly developed characters and when it does kick into action the movie doesn’t really improve too much. Free Fire is a Tarantino knockoff that doesn’t have the courage of its own B-movie convictions. It thinks just dressing the part is enough, substituting style and a blithe attitude for not even substance but the appearance of substance. It only has one truly memorable, queasy death, so even when it comes to bizarre violence it falters. This is one movie that wants to look cool and irreverent but ends up merely firing blanks.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Hardcore Henry (2016)

Hardcore_(2015_film)Hardcore Henry is an action movie told entirely through the eyes of its silent protagonist. Some critics and fans are calling it the future of movies. Director and co-writer Ilya Naishuller strapped a team of stuntmen with facial camera masks and filmed entirely on GoPro Hero 3 cameras taking in every punch, kick, and jump. It’s an ambitious filmmaking gamble that dares to be something different, but is it worth the effort?

Henry wakes up in a science lab. Estelle (Haley Bennett) informs him/us that she is Henry’s wife and is upgrading him with a bionic arm and leg. Unfortunately, his voice hasn’t been implemented yet. Akan (Danilla Kozlovsky), a menacing albino with telekinetic powers, breaks into the lab and kills everyone but not before abducting Estelle. Henry is battered and left for dead. His only assistance comes from Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), a mysterious and helpful man who tries to direct Henry toward his mission of saving Estelle and thwarting Akan.

The draw of this movie is its propulsive and immersive visual playground, putting the viewer in the mind of its title hero as he narrowly escapes scrapes, scales buildings of dizzying heights, and kills a whole lot of bad guys with brutal efficiency. Its POV experience makes the hardcore violence all the more immersive, though after a while I was wishing we could change things up (more on this below). I must applaud director Naishuller and his crew of limber stuntmen for the sheer creative ingenuity of their stunts and action. With a relatively small budget ($10 million, or roughly the budget spent on bagels on the last Transformers flick), the ambition behind this movie can be startling, and the development of some of its more bonkers action sequences can provide a sky-high jolt of adrenaline like few movies match. The action is also very violent, with heads being blown off, limbs being snapped, bodies bent in two, eyes gouged and used to rip heads in half (this one still confuses me from a mechanical front), and near relentless bloodshed that sometimes even requires our hero to wipe it from his face. For those hungry for near non-stop action shaped to be the equivalent of a living first-person shooter game, Hardcore Henry might do enough to strap in and deliver the goods.

hardcore-henry-STX-EntertainmentI have a confession dear reader: I experienced a fierce bout of motion sickness from this movie unlike anything I’ve ever encountered in a theater. I’m usually rather immune to shaky camera movements and found footage movies. I remember reading about people getting sick and throwing up during screenings of The Blair Witch Project not because of its content but simply from its handheld camerawork. I have never had an issue up until now. After 20 minutes of Henry, I had to sit much further back in my theater. The continuous whipping camerawork caused me a great wave of nausea. I even had to leave the theater for five minutes in the middle of the movie just to re-calibrate my brain. I would warn people about sitting too close to the screen but ideally this movie’s proper place is really your home television. You can choose to take my review with some degree of skepticism thanks to this admission, but no movie ever got to me and forced me out of the theater from motion sickness before. Henry now has that dubious honor.

The gimmick does start to lose its novelty and I wanted to break free from the claustrophobic first-person perspective as well as its paper-thin story. I started thinking there were as many restrictions to the first-person perspective as benefits. It really hampers the hand-to-hand combat choreography, which often just feels like flashes and blurs, herky-jerky editing that doesn’t immerse so much as obscure. This seems to be more of an issue for the first half than the second, which relies more heavily on small arms battles. Chase scenes aren’t added by bobbing up and down from the first-person perspective. You just aren’t able to focus on the object or person of pursuit. I also don’t understand why the entire movie relies upon a fish-eye lens either, which isn’t exactly a normal part of human vision. Its distorted images, subtle but accumulative, added to my overall motion sickness. However, the worst aspect of Hardcore Henry is easily its story or what amounts to its story. This is a movie that looks like a video game and feels like a video game, except somebody else is playing it. The very opening plays out like a video game introduction cut scene, establishing the damsel in distress and the chief villain. From there it’s a series of levels and checkpoints and tips from allies and weapon upgrades and boss battles and interchangeable bad guys. The various Jimmy incarnations pop along to guide you and dole out exposition as required, and there’s even an escort mission involving keeping the real Jimmy alive while his avatars fight off the onslaught of goons. There are several scenes of the villain randomly popping up to deliver exposition, usually on a screen that suddenly comes to life. The eventual plot twists should also be rather predictable. If there is ever a video game version of this movie it should simply be a straight port of the Henry’s plot and thrifty execution.

This chosen plot structure would be less irksome if the movie provided a story or characters to follow. There’s a reason the protagonist is a mute. He is not a person but an indestructible killing machine running on a cheat code. He lacks larger goals other than flee, kill, and save the girl. Estelle is a one-note damsel in distress, a pretty face that we don’t feel a sense of history with. The villain is as completely replaceable as our hero. He’s a telekinetic albino and your guess is as good as mine about anything else. He has no personality beyond one single mode of menacing. He’s a villain that is completely defined by his outer appearance and special abilities. Simply put, he is a super lame villain, which makes the final showdown between Akan and Henry a very limited payoff. I still don’t understand how exactly Henry was able to defeat Akan and his telekinetic powers. It’s like Henry just arbitrarily overcomes them for no discernible reason, as if Henry grabbed some kind of invisible power-up. There’s no really clear reason why just about anything happens for most of the movie. It’s a chase movie where Henry has to outrun or out-murder his faceless enemies while getting objectives from Jimmy, who is easily the movie’s lone entertaining character. For the first half, you keep watching new and different incarnations of Jimmy invariably find you as if drawn by some cosmic magnet. Copley is effortlessly amusing as he goes full tilt Peter Sellers, playing the different characters with comic absurdity and droll black humor (my favorite was World War I Jimmy). There’s a genuine musical number that had me giggling. After a string of nadir-redefining miscalculated performances, it’s nice to be able to say that Copley delivers a fun and entertaining performance for the right reasons. Of course he also has the most screen time by far, so that’s probably also a clear factor. This is a movie that has prioritized the immersive action experience, but after the novelty wore off I was left with listless characters and a poorly articulated story stretched thin from breathless, bloody action set piece to set piece. It was less a movie and more a 90-minute viral video.

hardcore_henryHardcore Henry is a kinetic, propulsive, adrenaline-fueled immersive experience that ultimately is a bit too immersive and narratively flimsy. This isn’t a movie. There aren’t any characters to care about and the story is really the thinnest of tissue to connect from one action sequence (or game level) to the next, stopping at points for free-flowing exposition, weapons upgrade, or a checkpoint. It’s less a fully functioning movie and more of a visual experience, and whether that experience will ultimately justify its gimmick will depend on your threshold for the first-person POV and its scarce story. Here’s what I don’t understand about people saying Hardcore Henry is the future of movies. It’s an immersive experience but movies are already a medium that we can get lost in and transported, no first-person perspective necessary for our empathy to kick in. The recent cinematic action highs, like Snowpiercer and The Raid 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road and Edge of Tomorrow, all delivered exuberant thrills without having to strictly see through their protagonist’s eyeballs. Action moviemaking is more than a you-are-there visceral immediacy; it’s about building new worlds and blowing them up in fantastic ways. I did not feel pushed to the margins of any of those aforementioned film titles. I was completely absorbed and marveled at their ability to entertain and build payoffs. The idea is that Hardcore Henry is all payoff but if you want to wax philosophical, it’s more like an action movie’s pornographic cousin, cutting out the “boring bits” like developing characters that we care about, establishing setups, creating organic complications, and wrapping it all together in the blanket of a story that provides greater audience satisfaction. Those movies are more than just a stuntman’s sizzle reel; they’re movies. Hardcore Henry is only an experience, and it was an experience I wanted to turn off.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Chappie (2015)

Chappie_posterWith each passing film, it regrettably is becoming more evident that District 9 seems to be the possible exception for writer/director Neill Blomkamp. It seemed like a new visionary had broken through who could meld heady themes with rousing sci-fi spectacle, a champion of both the visceral pleasures of genre movies and the satisfaction of narrative complexity. After two more films under his belt and with complete creative control, it’s starting to look like Blomkamp’s sense of storytelling is a bit more limited than District 9 would have lead on. The man is excellent at putting together concepts, and he likes to delve into major themes and messages, but the execution has been hobbled and the themes are simplistic to the point of being childish. Perhaps the man is suffering from unrealistic expectations or perhaps the greater world is finally seeing that Blomkamp has been remaking the same movie over and over with diminishing results each time. If you disliked 2013’s Elysium, you’ll probably have an even lesser opinion on Chappie.

In the near future, Johannesburg, South Africa is being policed by a series of rabbit-like robotic “scouts” created by Deon (Dev Patel). His boss (Sigourney Weaver) is happy with the results but very wary of Deon’s interest in artificial intelligence. Deon takes an old robot and installs his A.I. program, giving it sentience. But before he can marvel at his newest creation, a pair of grimy criminals, Yolandi and Ninja, kidnaps him. They dub the new sentient robot Chappie (Sharlto Copley) and plan on making use of him for a heist. Deon strongly disapproves, promising to come back so he can nurture Chappie’s creativity. Yolandi becomes “Mommy” who wants to encourage the robot’s sensitivity, Ninja becomes “Daddy” and wants to toughen him up, and Deon the absent father figure. At work, Deon’s rival inventor, Vincent (Hugh Jackman), is anxious for any opportunity to promote his own police force, a giant flying mech warrior known as the Moose. Unlike Deon’s robotic scouts, a human operator controls the Moose. Discovering Chappie is exactly what Vincent has been waiting for to destroy his competition.

-1Chappie is a tonally inconsistent mess that ends up being a weird, garish, and unsatisfying hybrid between Robocop and Short Circuit. It jumps around from being a slapstick comedy, a sentimental unconventional family, an urban warfare action thriller, and a science fiction film exploring the possibilities of artificial intelligence. The tonal shifts can be quite jarring; one moment the movie wants you to feel sorry for Chappie getting beaten (he’s a helpless robot!) by a group of hoodlums (why does a robot fear pain anyway?), and the next moment Blomkamp wants you to laugh at the trashy gangster shenanigans. If the film could ever settle on one tone and take the time to develop it properly, Chappie might have been salvageable. Of course this assumes that Blomkamp restrains himself from explaining everything to his audience. He’s not exactly a subtle filmmaking when it comes to his deeper allegories even with District 9, but it just gets insulting how little faith he has with an audience, bludgeoning them silly. At one point, “Mommy” reads Chappie a bedtime story and it’s about the black sheep, the outcast, and just from that alone, we get the thematic connection. That’s not enough. Blomkamp has “Mommy” explain the thematic significance. Okay, fine, now he’s made the message explicit but even that’s not enough. “Mommy” then literally points to Chappie and says, in case anyone still wasn’t getting it, that he is the black sheep. It’s an illusion of greater intellectual depth that unravels as the film chaotically continues.

Let’s get to the biggest problems with the film: Chappie and his would-be adoptive parents are annoying. While Chappie is a technically impressive visual effect with a motion-capture performance by Blomkamp staple Sharlto Copley, the character is far less winsome. Why would a robot be acting like a child? It’s because Blomkamp wants to rely upon easy sentiment and emotional manipulation to get you to feel for his characters when the story alone is incapable of achieving this. Chappie as a personality is something of a blank slate, and this is filled by the trashy gangster wisdom of Yolandi and Ninja played by South African rap duo Die Antwoord. They’re pretty much playing themselves, credited as their stage names, they wear their own merchandise, and their exaggerated, beyond-ironic-back-to-pseudo-reverent garish style is off-putting in large doses. THEY’RE THE MAIN CHARACTERS. That’s right, two non-actors who plays themselves are the main characters. The movie relies on many Die Antwoord tunes to highlight its sense of funky nihilism. As performers, I’ll admit that there is something unique to them, but it’s foolish to give them a whole movie to carry. It feels like Blomkamp took the profane comic relief characters from another movie and said, “Hey, what would it be like to stretch them out for a whole movie and raise a kid?” Either you find a “gangster talking” robot with gold chains hilarious or you don’t.

The world of Blomkamp seems like it’s stuck on repeat, setting his futuristic steam punk tales in the slums of South Africa, but is this location really integral to tell Chappie? It was essential to District 9 because that movie was an allegory about the apartheid, but none of that specific history of culture plays into this movie in any meaningful sense. The setting then becomes inconsequential, though I could level the same charge at the overwhelming movies set in New York or Los Angeles. The world building of Chappie, like much of its narrative elements, feels half-hearted and curiously rendered. Yolandi and Ninja are threatened with seven days to pay off their debt, but you never feel like there’s a sense of urgency, as if the movie would prefer you forget about this ticking clock. This secondary bad guy seems to be the source of all crime in Johannesburg. Deon has created a widespread police force and yet it never feels like the other characters treat this with the magnitude it warrants. Likewise, Deon doesn’t seem to treat artificial intelligence as a big deal. Then again his boss, of a huge robotics corporation I want to emphasize, has to have artificial intelligence explained to her (again, Blomkamp of little faith). There’s also the way the movie is mired in weird office politics. Vincent is jealous that another program was successful and makes his program look bad, so he works to sabotage Deon’s robots so his project will get the go ahead. Vincent’s project is a glaringly obvious rip-off of the ED-209 from Robocop. It seems so strangely isolated, as if Vincent never thought about selling a flying mobile tank to the lucrative military. The most outlandish moment in the movie might be when Vincent points a gun to Deon’s head, threatens him, all within full view of a slew of co-workers, and then sheepishly retreats with the excuse, “It’s not loaded. Just a joke, mate.” How does this guy still have a job? Is the human resources department of the future replaced with robots as well?

la_ca_0105_chappieHere are a small number of other directions Chappie could have gone that I think would be more compelling than what we get, and these just came to me during the movie. Instead of having the robot officers being responsibly used, why not have the world as a police state overrun by these sentinels, an oppressive regime worth toppling. Then Chappie ends up being a robot that’s captured, reprogrammed by revolutionaries, and fights against his programming for what he believes is truly right. Isn’t that a better setting, and far more topical with the current militarization of police forces dominating news? This scenario is better than a work force of robots that most characters shrug over. Then there’s Vincent’s plot to sabotage the robotic scouts (mild spoilers). Instead of just turning the robots off and letting chaos reign, wouldn’t it be a far better angle for him to turn the robots against the civilian populace? Instead of broken robots we have killer robots. Again, it adds a greater sense of urgency but also a route that would seem far more in keeping with the nature of Vincent. Chappie is filled with these hypothetical plot detours you see in your head and wish the film had taken. The movie that Blomkamp delivers is a profane fairy tale that teases a greater experience that fails to materialize.

Chappie is one of those movies you sit and keep hoping it’s going to turn a corner, to get better, to finally capitalize on the setups its been throwing around, to coalesce tonally and magically reveal the madness behind its sloppy methods. Unfortunately, it just remains a disappointing film that feels like several revisions away from proper execution. The plot elements don’t come together. Worst, Blomkamp cannot trust his audience to get even the simplistic metaphors on display. It’s two movies in a row where Blomkamp has miffed on his story. His sense of visuals is unmistakable, and he sure knows how to fill his movies with cool stuff. I imagine his pitch sessions are great with studio execs. It’s just now becoming more apparent that his major shortcoming comes to realizing these stories. There’s a host of other miscues with Chappie. I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’ll never be seeing Die Antwoord as the lead actors in another movie again. Maybe Blomkamp hired them just to get a discount on playing their music throughout the movie. Blomkamp has recently been hired to direct an Alien sequel, and I hope he takes full advantage of this opportunity to creatively leave behind his old stomping grounds. Otherwise in space, no one can hear you yawn.

Nate’s Grade: C

Maleficent (2014)

115231_galWe’ve seen several stories try their hand at reclaiming villains, telling the tales from their relegated and forgotten points of view; after all, history is written by the winners. This technique can be illuminating and fascinating when done right, like Grendel or Gregory Maguire’s popular Wicked novels. However, does the public really have that much knowledge of Maleficent? Did most people even know what her name was? For that matter, do most people even know what the real name of Sleeping Beauty is or do they, like myself, just indifferently refer to her as Sleeping Beauty? That relative audience ignorance provides a wide canvas to retell this woman’s story.

In an ancient kingdom, there were two lands, one with men and one with magical creatures. Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is a cheerful fairy with long angelic-like wings and a pair of horns coming from her head. She befriends Steffen (Sharlto Copley) an orphan with ambition to be the next king of men. He betrays Maleficent, drugging her and cutting off her wings to prove to the dying king that she is dead. Years later, and now king, Steffen has a christening for his new baby daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning), and Maleficent shows up. She curses the young child, declaring that on her sixteenth birthday she shall prick her finger on a spinning needle, fall into a deep slumber, and only be awakened by true love’s kiss. Steffen destroys all the spinning wheels he can find and sends out his daughter into the countryside for protection where she’s raised by three fairies taking on the form of humans (Imelda Staunton, Leslie Manville, Juno Temple). It’s really Maleficent who helps raise her, watching over her and protecting her through the years, regretting the horrible choice she made in anger.

115234_galI’ll start by saying the reason you should see this film, by far, is Angelina Jolie (Wanted). She is terrific. You can readily tell how much fun she’s having with the character, and everything from her command, her physicality, her presence, her vocal delivery, is top-notch. She’s great from start to finish, the perfect embodiment of the character. Would you believe this is her first live-action film role in almost four years? Wow, did movie audiences miss her. If only the remaining movie was as good as Jolie.

It’s a shame then that just about everything falls into a rigid fantasy formula that squeezes any sense of magic dry. Maleficent is the queen of the fantasy half of this world, and after her betrayal by Steffen (more on that below), she seeks vengeance, cursing an innocent child and then remarkably caring for her through a hasty montage. It’s hard to ever accept Maleficent as a malevolent character, and I’m sure that’s by design by the Mouse House. She doesn’t do anything too scary and when the time comes she ends up making the right decisions. There isn’t really much of an exploration of her character here. There’s the pretense that she’s hero and villain but that falls away very quickly, especially with her loving relationship with Aurora. She wants to do right and feels terrible about the curse, but again that’s quickly taken care of. Aurora literally spends five minutes onscreen in her “eternal slumber.” It’s more like a magical nap. If the relationship between Aurora is what makes our heroine whole again, then the climax is saving Aurora, not getting vengeance against Steffen in a dumb CGI battle.

The magical fantasy world also feels oddly underutilized. At least in past Disney efforts like Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful, the worlds at least felt like they had been explored, with many of the magical creatures pitching in during an Act Three battlefield. That isn’t the case here. The opening with young Maleficent (Isobele Molloy) introduces some strange creatures and some fairies, but they end up being little more than background dressing, meant to only communicate the change in Maleficent. In the end, it’s just Maleficent and her trusty crow (Sam Riley in human form) and that’s it. Question: if she can transform her pet into any number of creatures, including a dragon, then why didn’t she do this before? When she’s racing to save Aurora from pricking her finger, would a dragon have not been a faster mode of travel than a horse? Maleficent’s powers are also too ill defined, and her big weakness just happening to be iron feels trite, like her version of kryptonite. The fairy world and its powers aren’t given the examination it deserves. As a whole, the world of Maleficent feels less than magical. It feels more like a series of scenes rushing through a plot holding fast to the beats of recent Disney live-action hits.

I don’t think I’m reading too much into what is intended as a fantasy film for families, but Maleficent is one big analogue for rape. Hear me out. The title character falls in love with a man who likewise tells her he loves her but is just using her to his own advantage. He then drugs her drink and while she’s unconscious has his way with her, leaving her physically disfigured and feeling betrayed. She turns inward, rejects the outside world, and dwells in sadness and seclusion. She doesn’t tell others about her attacker until many years later. The public is quick to blame the victim. And then ultimately, once she feels “whole” again thanks to reaching out to others/support, she is able to confront her attacker and rise above his destructive influence, returning to some semblance of her former self. When looked at in its entirety, does that not sound like an intentional analogy for rape/sexual assault? Maleficent’s character arc mirrors the experiences of rape victims, and the fact that this kind of mature storyline is played out in a Disney summer family film is kind of extraordinary. It’s not so explicit that little kids will walk home asking mom and dad about the persistent nature of “rape culture,” but its presence and articulation is a start. As a rape analogue, it’s not offensively handled unless you are one who finds its very inclusion an offense for a PG-movie. Now, this storyline does transform the character in a way others may dislike. Rather than being a powerful agent of evil, she’s a woman who was victimized by a man and that’s why she turns toward the dark side. For some this will be a disappointing turn of events. I can’t say one approach is better than the other from a feminist point of view, but I credit Disney for following through with uncomfortable symbolism for rape to describe Maleficent’s arc.

91116_galThe rest of the cast fill out their roles but lack the flare of Jolie. Copley (District 9) is proving that he may be best under the guidance of Neil Blomkamp. He was one of the better parts of Elysium but without Blomkamp he makes such mystifying choices as an actor. His voice and performance were powerfully wrong for Spike Lee’s unnecessary Old Boy, and his demeanor is all over the place with Maleficent. To his credit, the character is horribly underwritten and given so little mooring to try and understand his ever-changing decisions and temperament. Fanning (Super 8) is an innocuous Aurora though the actress has often showed much more ability. Here she just laughs a lot. Riley (On the Road, Control) is wasted comic relief and as a companion. The three color-coded fairies are consigned to broad comic relief, usually bumbling and getting into slapstick brawls with one another. I can’t imagine children finding them too funny.

Maleficent the character is given great care by Jolie, the actress. Maleficent, the movie, is slapped together and feels devoid of any sort of engaging storytelling or big-screen magic to leave a favorable impression. It’s a rather expected and unexceptional retelling that hits all the notes you’d expect, though without as many magical fantasy creatures, which seems like an oversight for a world of fantasy. The rape analogue is a bold choice for the filmmakers and deserves credit. I wish I could also give them credit for the storytelling and characterization, both of which are rather flat and rote. The special effects are likewise unremarkable. Outside of the rape symbolism, this is a movie you can likely predict every step of the way just looking at the poster. I was able to even predict the left-turn ending concerning “true love’s kiss,” though Frozen already got there first. If you have low expectations and simply want to watch Jolie and her killer cheekbones be fierce, then perhaps Maleficent is worth checking out. Otherwise, this villain’s retelling feels far too familiar and safe and underwhelming to be worth the effort.

Nate’s Grade: C

Elysium (2013)

elysium-firstposter-full2With the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face, Elysium is a sci-fi action movie with more on its mind than pyrotechnics. It’s writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to 2009’s out-of-nowhere hit, District 9, a film so good that the Academy even nominated it for Best Picture that year, a rarity for a sci-fi flick. The apartheid allegory of District 9 was pretty straightforward, but Blomkamp and company found inspiring and fresh ways to tell a rousing story that worked in tandem with its social commentary. Elysium takes the haves and have nots to an admitted extreme.

IIn 2153, the rich have left Earth for a floating space station known as Elysium. It’s a luxurious paradise where technology can miraculously zap people to complete health. Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is in charge of Homeland Security and protecting Elysium from the less desirables that want to break in. Those “less desirables” would be the inhabitants of Earth. The planet has become an overcrowded, dirty, impoverished slum; Earth as third world. Max (Matt Damon) is an excon working a factory line for a sneering corporate bigwig (William Fichtner) struggling to leave behind a life of crime. His childhood friend, Frey (Alice Braga), works as a nurse at a hospital, but she’s got her own worries, namely a terminally ill daughter. After an accident at work blasts Max with radiation, he has five days to live. If he can just make it to Elysium, he can be cured. The problem is that Delacourt is shooting down spaceships trying to land on Elysium, including ones filled with women and children. To get off planet, Max needs to help in a heist, but it’s prized codes that could lower the defenses of Elysium and make anyone (ANYONE!) a citizen, thus available for medical treatment. To make sure this doesn’t happen, Delacourt relies on a rogue mercenary, Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a crazed madman who leaps at the chance to do dirty work. The hunt is on for Max.

94576_galThe socio-political commentary isn’t terribly veiled here, and maybe that’s because now Blomkamp has bigger targets than South Africa’s governmental policy. I didn’t have a problem with the fact that the inhabitants of luxury are portrayed as all white and that the denizens of the impoverished Earth are mostly non-white minorities (if minorities dominate a future Earth, when do they become majorities?). It’s clear that Blomkamp intends for Elysium to represent the United States. The poor who break through into the Promised Land, many to give their children a better life, or a life at all, only to be deported back to a slum, are clear stand-ins for contemporary immigration, notably Latin America. This is all fine by my book, though I can already hear the persecuted cries of some conservative commentators. It’s not as refined a commentary and that’s fine, not every message needs to be subtle, but I want more with my message than a simple rich vs. poor allusion. We never get to see what the people of Elysium are like, nor what most of that world is like beyond wide idyllic imagery. Fichtner’s character does a good job of symbolizing the callousness of an elite, but then he’s just one guy. The difficulty of maintaining a working wage is given the most care in the film, but much of the higher thinking takes a backseat for the third act movie heroics. The shift is acceptable but it makes a thin development of socio-economic commentary that much thinner.

When it comes to action, Blomkamp certainly knows how to stage a scene to get your pulse racing. The only problem is that there isn’t terribly much action to Elysium, or at least methodically sustained action to satisfy. You always feel like you’re getting a taste of something cooler down the road but it never fully materializes, much like the exoskeleton suit. It looks cool, it provides some progression, but it doesn’t lead to much. What does it accomplish? It allows him a port into downloading the Elyisum codes, but so could anything else. If anything, the metal exoskeleton seems like more of a hindrance, dragging Max down with extra weight and bulk. It pains me to say that the cool exoskeleton, such a prominent marketing feature, could have easily been eliminated as well. The best action in the movie is a heist in the middle that manages to juggle a team of good guys, a team of bad guys, a mark, and a deep sense of urgency for the score. It’s terrific and makes fun use of Blomkamp’s inventive future weapons. The rest of the film is mostly a series of chases, many of which are well orchestrated but only flirt with long-lasting action satisfaction.

The third act on Elysium is an entertaining and noisy conclusion, except Blomkamp sets himself up for limitation. Some spoilers to follow so tread carefully, reader. Elysium gets taken over by Kruger and his team as a defacto coup… except, well there are only three of them. We don’t even get to see them train the robot sentries on enemies or the populace of Elysium. I really don’t know how far-reaching their hastily staged coup is going. We want Kruger to be the big baddie that Max has to fight right before the cusp of the climax, but when there are only two other dudes who aren’t making great use of their fancy resources, it feels too boxed in and restrained. The action is fun while it lasts.

101212_galAnother niggling concern is the glut of side characters and their side stories that don’t feel organically integrated into the hero’s story. The flashbacks to Max as a kid could have been completely wiped out. They don’t add more information to the story and feel a tad too hokey for the movie. Sister Saintly Nun espouses wisdom and promises Max will be destined for one great thing in the future (could I settle for two “kinda good” things?).  The bigger distraction is Frey and her sick kid, a.k.a. the Angelic Sick Child, you know, the type that feels so at peace with things and with no worry. This is a staple of the movies. Her only purpose in the narrative is to goad Max into making a bigger sacrifice, to think of others, not that beforehand the guy was displayed as being particularly selfish. Then there’s Max’s friend Julio (Diego Luna) who serves little purpose other than to carry him out of the occasional scene and to, of course, be sacrificed to drive the hero forward to achieve his goal. There’s a middleman who arranges for people to get identities that will be read on Elysium, if they get on there safely first. The villains are also pretty one-dimensional in their stock villainy: Kruger a sociopathic killing machine and Delacourt a tyrant. None of these characters leave much of an impression to make you want to take time away from the main story arc. Worse, many of them feel vaguely characterized and are clear plot beat generators rather than people. Maybe Max would be better off as a loner.

The acting is also all over the place. The worst offender is Foster (Carnage), who weirdly over enunciates every syllable in an affected future accent. She also seems to bob and swivel her head a lot as she talks, as if the Oscar-winning actress really had to go to the bathroom but was holding it at bay to complete her takes. Damon (Promised Land) is a reliable action hero but realistically, it’s a little curious that the main character would be, by all accounts, white. It makes much more sense for the savior of planet Earth to be like those left behind, but then I don’t really want to wade into deeper racial subtext than necessary. The real treat of the movie is Copley (The A-Team) who is having a ball playing a sword-wielding psycho killer. He provides a notable spark whenever onscreen, bringing a menace that makes you tale notice. Again, I just wish there was more to the character than his vague back-story and bunt motivations.

Despite what has seemed like a fairly negative review from the start, Elysium still a good movie but beware higher expectations forged from District 9’s unique alchemy. There are a lot of familiar plot beats here and everything from the characters, to the action, to the world building feels like it could have been pushed further. It feels like they took the freshness of District 9 and applied it to a more tired-and-true blockbuster formula. Blomkamp drops us into an intriguing world but I wanted more of just about everything. More with the characters, more with the plot, more with the socio-political commentary, more with the ins and outs of this future world and its inhabitants. The ending is also a bit jubilantly naïve given the powers of the Powers That Be. Really, a keystroke sets everything back to scratch. Again, I’m being more critical than I intend to be. Elysium is quite an entertaining movie with great visuals and Blompkamp is certainly a visionary auteur to praise, but it’s hard not to feel a smidge of disappointment with the man when you know what he’s capable of, even with a perfectly fine movie.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The A-Team (2010)

“Overkill is underrated,” quips Col. Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) in this big-screen adaptation of the 1980s hit TV show of the same name. And appropriately enough, like its source material, The A-Team is the very definition of mindless action. It’s completely shallow, goofy, yet over plotted and occasionally too serious for its own good, but like the A-team, the movie delivers when it counts. There is an undeniable pleasure in watching professionals work together, hatch a plan, and then watch that plan come to fruition. The A-Team is like an ADD-child because it can rarely sit still; five minutes won’t pass before something blows up. Writer/director Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces) makes sure to keep things flying on screen so that the audience won’t stop and think about the multitude of plot holes and absurdities. The signature sequence that sums up the movie best is when the A-Team boys have escaped a downed aircraft by hiding inside a tank with parachutes attached. As they tumble back to earth they must try to “fly that tank” to land properly. It’s ridiculous on its face but rather entertaining. But the movie has its tongue firmly planted in cheek, even when it comes time to incorporate the show’s signature catch phrases (you could make an effective drinking game for the amount of utterances of “fool,” and, “I love it when a plan comes together”). The A-Team is overblown, silly, high-octane B-movie that obliterates your senses and thinking abilities, which means it successfully captures the spirit of the TV show.

Nate’s Grade: B-

District 9 (2009)

I can’t believe I forgot to review this some how. The sleeper hit of the summer, District 9 is an intelligent, and rather obvious, apartheid metaphor, and a grandly executed action thriller with a strong moral compass. Aliens crammed into ghettos and being mistreated and abused? Sounds like Alien Nation to those with longer memories, however, writer/director Neill Blomkamp forges a docu-drama that manages to be bristling with ethical questions and kick-ass action. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in all the excitement, so much so that I was trying to will the characters onscreen to take certain precautions. Blomkamp manages to take shots at some easy targets, like shady corporations and mercenaries, but that doesn’t make the movie any less affecting. The movie belongs to actor Sharlto Copley, who begins the film as a dithering bureaucrat and ends as a truly unlikely action hero, and you buy every single step of this man’s satisfying emotional arc. While the Academy is picky when it comes to genre films, Copley deserves Oscar consideration; I haven’t seen a more compelling performance by an actor all year. The special effects are astounding, and they were accomplished on a scant budget of 30 million, which is probably what Transformers 2 spent on one explosion. District 9 makes you feel that movies can still surprise you, as long as we have visionary, intelligent life working outside the studio system.

Nate’s Grade: A

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