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Chappie: Oddly Charming

Chappie; Neil Blomkamp, Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo

chappie

Neil Blomkamp loves robots and aliens more than human beings and maybe that’s why all his stories so far have had something to do with the man versus machine concept. After making his smashing debut in 2009 blockbuster “District 9”, Neil became a much sought after filmmaker. But the overnight success didn’t last long as his big-budget sci-fi drama “Elysium”, his second film turned out to be a disaster. And his latest outing “Chappie” feels like it’s been made from nuts and bolts of his earlier films and the pieces don’t fit the way they should.

In “Chappie”, he envisions the world where robots aid police force in bringing down crime rate. They don’t just aid, but even risk their lives to save their human counterparts. In one such operation, a droid gets severely broken beyond repair.

Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is the chief designer of the robots that have been successfully assisting the Johannesburg police department in fighting crime and his organization is proud of his work. But Deon has been secretly working on a program that will allow robots to have a mind of its own, behave and feel like humans with the help of artificial intelligence (AI). When he pitches the idea, his boss doesn’t approve, forcing him to illegally test it on the broken droid.

Deon’s ambitious plan goes for a toss when he is kidnapped by a group of gangsters, who plan to use him program a robot to help them pull off a big heist. Deon reprograms the broken droid with AI, and Chappie is born.

“Chappie” has very little story and whatever it has doesn’t quite engage us. But what’s charming about the film is Neil’s idea to treat humans and robots equally. When a robot can behave like us and has feelings of its own, thanks to AI, why should it still do whatever it’s instructed to do. With a mind of its own, a robot can differentiate between right and wrong but it needs to be shown how and that’s where human intervention is needed.

When Chappie is first brought back to life, it reacts to its surrounding with fear. Deon calls it a child and says it needs to be oriented. When you forget Chappie is a robot and treat it like a child, you’ll appreciate what Blomkomp tries to address here. While the gangsters want Chappie to help them pull off a heist, Deon wants it to learn ala humans. In a touching scene, Deon encourages Chappie to paint and read a book about a black sheep. Typically, a black sheep is a disreputable member of a family or group, but here it stands for someone unique and different. Chappie is the black sheep, and its uniqueness is symbolically highlighted by the orange coloured ear, which is quite evident even in the film’s posters.

But these wonderful moments don’t make up for the lack of story. And there’s plenty of awe-inspiring action in this insipid tale which like Neil’s earlier films are set in South Africa, Johannesburg; his birth place. For reasons nobody would understand, the director had cast two lead singers of the rave-rap group Die Antwoord in the lead roles, while Dev Patel tries his best to do justice as a nerd. Jackman was merely cast for the purpose to fill in the shoes of a bad man in such stories.

“Chappie” has lots of issues but it definitely isn’t a bad film. Agreed the concept is archaic, but there’s something oddly charming about it.

Three stars

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Kingsman: The Secret Service: Kick-Ass meets James Bond on Drugs

Kingsman; Matthew Vaughn, Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Michael Caine

The Secret Service Kingsman

In Kingsman, a pug is named J.B, as in not James Bond or Jason Bourne, but the initials stand for Jack Bauer (the lead character from television series 24). The film is Matthew Vaughn’s royal homage to the secret agent genre in Kick-Ass meets James Bond on drugs style of action. It finds the right balance between absurdity and hilarity and succeeds in producing, in literal meta fashion, not just an ordinary spy tale.

In one of his interviews, Vaughn described the film as a modern-day love letter to all the spy films he grew up on. In fact, it visually quotes from the spy movies that came before it and plays with audience’s memories and nostalgia. Kingsman is all that a Bond or Bourne film can’t be. There’s certain amount of seriousness you associate with most secret agent films which you won’t find here. It isn’t too funny like the Austin Powers franchise either. But there are some genuinely funny moments till the end credits.

All the tropes of a classic spy film have been dealt with some mischief in Kingsman. Beyond the improbable gadgets, far-fetched plot, a crazy villain’s plan for world domination and bloody elaborate fight scenes, there’s something instantly likable about the film. Samuel Jackson for instance plays a villain with a pronunciation lisp, dresses up like a hip-hop star and can’t fathom violence in front of his eyes. He’s cerebral. He leaves all the physical intimidation and killing to his henchwoman, with deadly blades as legs. He actually wants to save the world from itself and also wants to take out a good deal of the population in the process. Another likable aspect is that the relationship between the hero and the lead female character is mostly platonic for a change. And there’s extremely funny reference to My Fair Lady.

What’s really cool about Kingsman is the action! It’s mostly tacky and gory to the finest detail but it somehow goes with the mood of the film. Had it been your regular spy film featuring Daniel Craig, you may have had problems digesting what you see on screen. But who gives a damn about Colin Firth playing Harry Hart, a secret agent of a covert international group that acts outside of any government control. But what works in favour of Kingsman is the casting of popular actors in roles against their type. An action scene in a church featuring Firth will leave you giggling and squirming at the same time in your seat. Caine is surprisingly given a shade of grey which he portrays fittingly.

The film acknowledges all of those stupid spy clichés and then it ditches them all. The best example of this I can give is in the opening sequence of the film -there is a glass of whiskey, a lot of people die and there isn’t a drop of the whiskey spilt. The film successfully reinvents just about every stereotype imaginable in a spy film.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is weirdly entertaining without being disrespectful to the genre. You may love it for all the weird reasons.

Four stars

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Whiplash: “Good Job”

Whiplash; Damien Chazelle, Miles Teller, J.K Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist

whiplash

A snare erupts, the cymbals whisper, the bass kicks in gently, the tom toms remain silent and the blood drips onto the drum kit. Throughout whiplash the tension is as palpable as a Michael Mann gangster flick, tangible and waiting to erupt. Director Damien Chazelle says that he made Whiplash based on his memory of being a band student in his high school. Hopefully his memories aren’t as sharp and sometimes as traumatizing as the lead character Andrew Niemans.  The movie being Damien Chazelle’s debut, one wonders how much of a push he would give himself, ‘Whiplash’ being one constant push towards excellence, a tough hard push that does not wait for wounds to heal.

Miles Teller, whose last enjoyably transformative performance was in ‘The Spectacular Now’, plays Andrew Nieman in what could be for his career a massive qualitative boost. Notwithstanding the fact that he plays Stretch in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot, ‘Whiplash’ would definitely provide him enough rooting in the drama genre to not be labelled a comic movie actor. Wikipedia tells us he has been drumming since he was 15 and practiced more intensely for his role as a first year student of the top music school in New York, Shaffer Conservatory. Also present in said school is Terence Fletcher, conductor of the best Jazz band in the school and naturally Andrew wants to be a part of the band. His perseverance is tested in 106 minutes of sharply cut ear-drum pleasing jazz goodness that gets a little nerve wracking from time to time. This brings us to Terence Fletcher, as played by J W Simmons – a no-nonsense Jazz expert who can spot tempo differences and match a 300 beats per minute tempo with around the same number of expletives when he finds a single instrument out of tune or a single beat missing in his score. While he has a quick ear for talent and attempts to use as much pressure as the earth’s crust on a spare bit of coal to bring out the diamond in his rare protégés, he does not care that he appears to everyone else a monster.

I confess I was physically intimidated while watching Simmons’ kind face (that I remember from Spiderman and Juno) transition into spittle-flying, rage contorted, suture-like-vein-lined profile while he yelled into a face and drilled their impotence into them. As of last night Simmons holds 40 nominations (according to Wikipedia) out of which 34 have won him best supporting actor awards and 3 including the honor from the Academy are pending. Sadly for the other nominees, this visceral performance that matches some of the best efforts from the previous Academy category winners even matching some of the best method acting by the likes of Christian Bale in ‘The Fighter’ might just have the edge over them.

Damien Chazelle has accomplished something that isn’t exactly new but is definitely novel in that there are sequences where he manages to bring in the same amount of tension as a life or death situation to the interaction between a band conductor and his musicians. Miles Teller under the ably driven direction of Damien makes us appreciate the literal blood and sweat that goes into the percussive goodness that’s always a little under-appreciated in most music. Jazz is something I am new to and to get a hit of what it sounds like while being put through the roller coaster that is ‘Whiplash’ is an experience that, if you are like us, will leave you clapping really loudly when the end credits roll (which we did, even though there were just the two of us watching the movie). The life of anyone who chooses to excel at something they love doing is not going to be simple. Add to that the best mentor that life can offer you being the person you want to be able to make proud but his methods aren’t exactly orthodox not to mention, well, human.

The two words that are capable of most harm in the English language are ‘Good Job’ says Fletcher while ruminating on his methodologies. In an age of over appreciation where every kid gets a gold medal for participation and every average job is given appreciation unquestioningly, Fletcher’s quote will resonate with almost all of us who strive for excellence. But how far can one push and be pushed until one loses ones humanity in the quest for perfection. ‘If you don’t have ability, you wind up playing in a rock band’ says a poster of Buddy Rich. Would you rather play in a rock band and enjoy what you are doing or would you skin your hands on your sticks playing that perfect ‘Whiplash’ so one of the best conductors of Jazz can smile at you with his eyes? The question is definitely not rhetorical and neither is it a simple yes or no. That in a nutshell is ‘Whiplash’, one of the best movies of 2014 and a movie that made me gain a little more respect for drummers.

 Four stars.

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