Sunday, 28 June 2015

Chappie

Lowdown: The world’s first conscious AI falls into the wrong hands and gets manipulated by criminals.
Review:
With just a couple of movies under his belt, Director Neill Blomkamp has made a name for himself already. Between District 9 and Elysium, his is a strong brand of movie making: dystopian, gritty looking science fiction that is closely tied to his South African origins. His third film, Chappie, smelt like a dud in comparison: a movie about a funny Short Circuit like robot? What’s going on, man?
Then I got to actually watch Chappie.
Chappie is born when his inventive creator (Dev Patel) wants to test out this artificial intelligence software he’s been developing at his spare time at home. The creator tries to gain the support of his boss (Sigourney Weaver) at the weapons company where his day job is, but she’s completely disinterested; he should focus on his successful development of robot policemen instead of such dangerous distractions, she says. Pressed for choices and extremely curious to see what his code can do, the creator raids a damaged police robot set to be scrapped due to a broken battery. His experiment works: Chappie, the result of running the creator's code on the broken hardware, is the world first self conscious AI (artificial intelligence). And at this stage, it behaves exactly like a human newborn, still unfamiliar with what this world has in store.
It’s a pity then to see Chappie fall into the hands of criminals (portrayed by Ninja and Yolandi Visser, real life South African couple and rappers whose characters share the names of their actors). These criminals are desperate: they have to repay their debt to the criminal lord of Johannesburg or he will kill them, and their only way of shortening the odds and getting that money as they face the policemen robot adversaries is to have Chappie on their side. Thus Chappie finds himself raised and educated by lesser scholars, if one could call them scholars.
To make things more complex, that weapons company we’re dealing with has another inventor on its hands, Vincent (Hugh Jackman). His brutal police robot, equipped with weapons as far reaching as surface to air missiles, is deemed unsuitable (the idiot should have pitched his stuff at Ferguson's authorities instead). Vincent has to live with a grudge, seeing himself on the losing side to Chappie’s creator, and a mallet. When Vincent notices the creator acting weird, his old army instincts kick in as he senses an opportunity to make a name for himself and his version of a police robot.
C happie borrows a lot from many science fiction classics, so much so it felt unoriginal. As already mentioned, our hero robot bears more than coincidental resemblance to Short Circuit’s Number 5. Then there's Chappie the robot being portrayed Andy Serkis/Golum style (by Blomkamp’s regular Sharlto Copley). The concept of the police human like robots as well as the much scarier not so suitable for the police robot comes directly off Robocop. While the notion of a humanoid like being created with a limited life expectancy has been explored before in a movie called Blade Runner. So, does all this borrowing, mixed together into a very Paul Verhoeven like movie, mean that Chappie is a losing affair?
No, not at all. Chappie is a big winner, because it takes all the elements of its predecessors and combines them into a brand new creation that dares to ask that good old question of what it is that makes us human and does so in a lovely, fascinating and original way.
Chappie’s story is one of biblical magnitude. The Cain and Abel affair running between Chappie’s creator and Vincent is very much like the one from the Bible, only that in this take the creator also acts as the God that created an imperfect being that is doomed to die prematurely and the Abraham that is sent by God to sacrifice his son.
Then there is the whole setup of the weapons company acting as an analogy to human society being so grid driven it will invest in weapons but not in things that actually make humans better. And our vile criminals, Ninja and Yolandi, in whose hands Chappie is corrupted? They turn out to have much more good in them then those weapons company people that are not only legal but are also there to allegedly maintain the rule of law. Seriously, is this a world worthy of having innocent Chappie in it?
Overall:
Not a disappointing, unoriginal movie at all; Chappie is a wonderful mashup in the best sense of the word that asks questions of vast importance and relevance to the citizens of today’s world.
Chappie fully deserves 4.5 out of 5 artificially intelligent, self aware, crabs.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Cinderella

Lowdown: A live (+CGI) version of the same old story.
Review:
For reasons explained further below, I shall adopt the bullet point style for this specific review.
The notable notes out of Cinderella are:
  • Big name actors: Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden (available here since dying in the role of Game of Thrones' Rob Stark), Stellan Skarsgård, Derek Jacobi and Helena Bonham Carter to start with. Great names, severe underutilisation.
  • Big name director: Kenneth Branagh. I took it for granted that this means a brand new interpretation of the old story, but no; there is nothing new here, just a very big budget live remake of the old story.
  • As in, a pretty much one to one remake of the old story.
  • Looks wise, this is a spectacular event. Colorful and rich with amazing costumes, as attested by a guy who never notices these things.
  • Lily James, in the lead as Cinderella, successfully carries on being annoying from Downton Abbey.
So that's Cinderella for you: beautiful to look at, but empty inside, devoid of any meaning. Unless, that is, you're picking up on the very old agenda items here - that women's only salvation come from the men who rescue them, that women need to dress up to impress those men, and that silly looking high heel shoes are well worth wearing because of the men these sort of things attract.
Best scene: I will hand it to Cinderella, the special effect scene where the pumpkin coach turns back into a pumpkin is very well crafted. But other than that and a few clever shots, there are no traces of Branagh brilliance to be found; Cinderella is commercial through and through.
Overall: 2.5 out of 5 lovely to look at but empty on the inside crabs.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The Drop

Lowdown: The robbery of a Brooklyn bar leads to interesting revelations about the people involved.
Review:
I will admit, between trailers and stuff I was completely misled with regards to what The Drop is about. I expected some mafia action movie; I was wrong. Instead, I got a slow, character driven drama involving crime.
Our hero for an hour and a half is Bob Saginowski (new Mad Max Tom Hardy), a bartender at a Brooklyn bar run by his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini in his very last appearance). Bob is a bit of a Forrest Gump, if you catch my drift, but he’s a decent guy and he does his best despite hardships. For example, when he finds a beaten up & abandoned puppy at a neighbour’s garbage bin (Noomi Rapace, the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) he rescues it as well as get into some relationship with said neighbour.
The real problems start when the bar gets robbed. You see, this bar is no ordinary bar; it is a part of a Chechen gang’s money laundering empire. The robbery, robbers and the police are not wanted here, and the onus of getting the money back falls on our two hard living bar operators. Add a known killer wanting his abandoned dog back and you get yourself the formula for The Drop.
Despite the impressive line up of actors, all of which doing an excellent job (Tom Hardy – wow!), I felt less than impressed with The Drop. For a start there was that matter of expectations; then there were things here and there that were not explained; and then there was this movie’s really slow pace.
It is only in retrospect that one can appreciate The Drop, with it being one of those movie where the viewer slowly learns the meaning of what it is that they have been watching all along. Yet even then I wonder if it was worth it.
Overall:
If you seek an attempt at quality cinema work featuring a magnificent performance by Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini’s last appearance, go for The Drop. If you are after entertainment, wrong way – go back.
I give The Drop 3 out of 5 character driven crabs.

Monday, 22 June 2015

The Judge

Lowdown: Estranged lawyer son and judge father come together when the first has to defend the latter in court.
Review:
With Hollywood being as cash driven as it is, movies that are simply good because they cover all the basics – good plot, good acting etc – have become quite rare. From time to time we get a rare glimpse of what potential for Hollywood greatness really is when the stars align and we get a movie that is not sequel number seventeen, not a film that’s only there to garnish star power, and neither is it an abomination reliant on special effects. It’s rare, but occasionally movies like The Judge happen to slip though the claws.
The basic premises are relatively simple. Hank (Robert Downey Jr) is a very successful big city lawyer, making his money by exploiting the justice system in order to keep the criminals out of jail. His life looks the part, though: he hardly knows his little daughter and his trophy wife (Sarah Lancaster, of Chuck glory) is cheating on him. Guess he deserves that.
On the other side of the ring we have Judge Joseph (Robert Duvall), aka Judge. Judge has been presiding over his small town’s court for decades, and as a result knows everyone and everything. He does his best to use that knowledge in order to do good and uphold the justice system. One direct result of that is that many people in his area hate him; another direct result is the contrast in values driving Henry away. The two haven’t talked with one another for decades.
Then the mother in the family dies, and the family is forced to unite. Obviously, tensions rise, and that’s where The Judge begins to shine. We are exposed to numerous characters and they all receive fine treatment and get properly developed as we delve down and learn more and more about the family and its buried secrets. It’s a lot like what has been attempted in This Is Where I Leave You, but with a more serious and ultimately more realistic approach.
Shit really hits the fan for the family when our Judge turns out to be the main suspect in a murder case and, through circumstances, Hank is the only one capable of representing him. The collision of views is at its peak then, with one believing the justice system will prevail no matter what and the other seeking to exploit its weaknesses best. All that’s left for us viewers to do is sit back and enjoy a wonderful character driven and extremely well acted drama unfold before our eyes. At the end I was sad The Judge was only two and a half hours long; its story might be something we’ve seen many times before, but it is so well executed that I just wanted it to go on and on.
I would just like to add special reference for Vincent D'Onofrio, the actor playing Hank’s older brother. We’ve recently seen D'Onofrio playing Mr Fisk in Netflix’ new rendition of Daredevil. Between that, The Judge and plenty of other stuff this guy has been in, it occurs to us that this actor, always in the background, is so versatile and so good at what he does he can pretty much do anything well. It’s a bit sad an actor blessed with such skills isn’t better utilised. Then again, that’s Hollywood for you.
Interesting shot:
Hank and Judge ride in the same car when they can’t take their arguing any longer. They stop the car and leave, on foot, in opposite directions to create a very interesting (if mildly artificial feeling due to its posed smell) shot.
The scene also brings to attention the cinematography and color pallets The Judge opts for. These tend to heighten contrast at the price of looking artificial. Personally, I would have an argument or two with the director over their choices there. This is no Call of Duty video game; in a serious drama, such things call too much attention to themselves and detract from the overall experience.
Overall: The Judge may not have that magical ingredient that turns a very good film into an astonishing classic, but at least it clearly is a very good film. 4 out of 5 judging crabs.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

We'll Never Have Paris

Lowdown: A trials and tribulations of an ordinary guy trying to propose to his veteran girlfriend.
Review:
I’ve never heard the name Simon Helberg prior to watching We’ll Never Have Paris, but I’ve known the guy for close to a decade now. I know him as Howard Wolowitz from The Big Bang Theory; because if ever could one claim to know an actor through familiarity with a fictional character he’s played, it would be after eight long seasons. In We’ll Never Have Paris, Wolowitz – sorry, Helberg – is the sole starring role; he’s the director, alongside his wife; and as it happens, and as I have only learnt after watching the movie, proceedings are based on the real story of the couple’s engagement.
Helberg plays Quinn, a young New Yorker whose life has been pretty securely tied to his first and only girlfriend of eight years, Devon (Melanie Lynskey). As we can tell by the opening scene with his father the doctor (an under-utilised Alfred Molina), he’s a bit of a paranoid with zero confidence. He agrees with dad, though: it’s about time he proposed.
Quinn tries to propose, he really does. It just doesn’t work out. You know, circumstances can be a bitch.
The next day offers another setback. His colleague at the flower shop he's working at, Kelsey (Maggie Grace) claims to be in love with him. And she has noticeable advantages: she used to be a model. Is Quinn about to miss out of life by committing to the one girlfriend he seems to have always has?
The rest of the movie is built around that doubt and the issues it creates. Although short, at one and a half hours, affairs do feel elongated. And yes, eventually our heroes – all of them – do find themselves in Paris, the city of love, for an atypically non Parisian experience. Getting us viewers there proves to be a rather treacherous affair: We'll Never Have Paris starts off looking like a witty comedy with much potential, but by the end of the first act falls flat to the point of not really knowing where it wants to sail to next. Much like the hero at its centre, I guess, only that - as sad as it may sound - not everyone's life story stands out to a level that could make an interesting movie.
No offence, Helberg.
Overall: We'll Never Have Paris turned out to be a weird, often confused, romantic comedy. At 2.5 out of 5 crabs, I cannot really recommend it for anything useful although I will acknowledge seeing worse.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Thor: The Dark World

Lowdown: Thor and earthly love interest collaborate to save the multiverse from an ether wielding elf.
Review:
Thor: The Dark World is one of those run of the mill Hollywood productions that shouldn’t be discussed too much. It is as hollow as, offering kindly to popcorn munchers (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but insulting anyone daring to try and analyse it. To make things worse, The Dark World is a sequel to the first Thor movie. I will therefore avoid adding insult to injury and remain brief.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his earthly love interest/scientist (Natalie Portman) return to regale us with the latest threat to the mythical Marvel multiverse, some CGI ether that destroys everything it engulfs and that a vengeful elf is all but happy to yield. If he could put his hands on it, that is, since it – for rather mysterious reasons – chooses to reside in Portman’s body. As a bonus, we get Thor in conflict with his king father (Anthony Hopkins) over inheritance of the crown, given Thor’s love interest in a short lived earthly woman. And, in the interest of creating sequel potential and connecting with the other movies in the ever thickening Marvel superhero universe, we also get a post first Avengers movie Loki (Tom Hiddleston).
The result of this mishmash is a tale of two halves. The first half of The Dark World is rather pathetic in its attempts to lay down the shaky plot foundation it wets its hands with. It’s also pretty boring. The second half is when the popcorn machine gets into full throttle, the audience is no longer required to use their brains under false pretences, and the special effects and high budget of a Disney Marvel production shine.
And that is pretty much all there is to say about this Thor sequel.
Overall: Is a first half of suffering worth enduring for the second half of mindless entertainment? Maybe sometimes. Thor: The Dark World thus lurks in the nether [ether] regions between 2 and 2.5 crabs out of 5.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Zen Pencils by Gavin Aung Than

Lowdown: Famous (and not so famous) inspirational quotes receive the comic treatment.
Review:
I’ve been focusing on my comic book reading lately. It's the direct result of my efforts to clear up space on my iPad so I can resume playing the storage consuming monster that is World of Tanks (close to 3 f-ing gigs!). It's just that, through their art, comics occupy much more space than the simple written word. Thus, eventually, I reached Zen Pencils, a book I’ve originally encountered while browsing around a book shop (a paper book shop – yes, they still exist!) and thought could fill up a special corner in my reading.
Zen Pencils starts with a few simply written words telling us the personal story of author Gavin Aung Than. According to these words, he was your run-of-the-mill office employee doing design stuff for the benefit of his employers yet feeling strangled at that. Until, that is, he came up with the idea of Zen Pencils – creating comic renditions of famous inspirational quotes. He did what most of us will not: he quit his day job, sold his house, and focused on his new website. Lo and behold, he was successful! Good on him, I say, even if he makes me feel like a failure through and through.
The point of this personal story is that it explains the comic that follows throughout the rest of this book. It is all about quotes urging us to follow our hearts, persevere despite initial setbacks, grind our teeth at naysayers, and then – and only then – witness our dreams come true. In other words, the author is telling us to do as he did. Or, in even other words, the author is on a campaign to justify/pat himself on the back for following his dreams, as if he requires a constant drip feed of positive encouragement.
The problem with these arguments is dead obvious. Not all of us can afford to follow our dreams, period. Think about the vast majority of people in manufacturing, all the cleaners, people working the supermarkets, and the vast majority of dead end jobs out there: the people working those are almost certainly doing them because they have to do it or they’d find themselves a new career as street bums. And no matter what the distinguished Mr Than tells us, most of those people do not have a choice on the matter. In the meat grinder that is contemporary life, we are reenacting the role of the World War 1 soldier being ordered to go over the top or risk a bullet from his officer's revolver in his back. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, those of us with an shred of responsibility have to go over the top; we have to grind out teeth and work our day jobs.
All that aside, it is also clear that from the pure economics point of view, only a tiny minority of us can be supported by the vast majority of us so as to sustain itself on the noble occupation of art. Someone has to get the food, someone has to pave the roads, etc.
My criticism does not mean I did not enjoy Than’s work. I did! His art is lovely to look at, and the quotes he picks on are worth picking on because no matter what I say there is a lot to learn from them. Personally, I was touched by the statement on office life saying we lock ourselves at the office for 40 hours a week for the sake of 10 productive hours (a point I have already identified to be the biggest problem in my life). I was also touched by a school graduate speech in which she looks back at her years doing the right thing to get the grades but missing out on life. Hey, that’s my academic life story in a nutshell. And yes, if I had the chance, and given the wisdom that comes with age and hindsight, I would have probably done things differently. Isn’t that insight worth Zen Pencils? Yeah, why not.
Overall: I find Zen Pencils the perfect tool with which to garner the inspiration I need to go forth and have another try at World of Tanks despite repeatedly getting thrashed by opposition yielding far superior weapons to my wagons. 3 to 3.5 inspired crabs out of 5.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Lowdown: When a plan to pre-emptively kill would be criminals goes awry, Captain America is the only one standing between freedom and suppression.
Review:
I admit, coming off the boring Captain America: The First Avenger, I had my doubts as to the value for time wasted I would get out of its sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Yet I have to say, in retrospect, that other than the poor choice of a name this one is one of the best superhero movies around; definitely the best as far as the classic Marvel superhero universe is concerned. And I’m pretty sure the likes of George Orwell and Edward Snowden would give it their thumbs up, too.
Following a James Bond like introductory action scene on board a ship, that felt to me like a carbon copy of a Call of Duty mission, we are introduced to the movie’s main premise. Our good guys at SHIELD have been secretly busying themselves building an armada of flying carriers capable of both mass surveillance as well as the elimination of any criminal activity from above, God style. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the SHIELD CEO (whatever his title really is, he’s played by Robert Redford) gave their blessing to this project, but our Captain America (Chris Evans)? He’s not so sure the idea of pre-emptively ridding this world of would be criminals before they actually do anything wrong, Minority Report style, is a good idea. Not even when it’s the good guys that are running the show.
Guess what happens next? Yes, things go wrong. First it’s Fury that’s taken out of the picture; then it seems as if the whole of SHIELD has turned upon itself in its obsession to erect this new justice system. And only Captain America is there to save the day, with the exception of fellow Marvellian Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, whose role is almost as big as Evans’); apparently, all the rest of the Marvel superheroes were on their day off.
Plenty of good action follows, but the core theme is unmistakably Edward Snowden-esque: the supposedly well meaning, very well funded government organisation that takes it upon itself to keep an eye over what everybody else in the world is doing all of the time in the name of creating a safe society but, in the act of doing so, deprives this safe society of any shred of freedom; freedom in the age of the NSA is but an illusion. And as the baddies of Captain America: The Winter Soldier put it themselves, they are seeking the public to hand them over their freedom voluntarily in exchange for security. Which is exactly what those justifying the NSA, from Obama to George Brandis, have been doing. Clearly, we need a real life Captain America in order to deal with those (but have to settle for the much leaner Snowden instead, which goes to show that in contrast to the stereotype, real life heroes don’t have to come with bulging muscles).
Winter Soldier does borrow from numerous conspiracy theory flicks, most notably Three Days of the Condor (perhaps this is no coincidence, given that one stars Robert Redford). Make no mistake about it, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is still a mass entertainment consumption unit. Its main forte is high budget explosive action scenes, not philosophy. However, as far as the potential to open viewers' eyes as to what is going on nowadays in our modern day "democracies", it probably reaches much larger audiences than anything published through Snowden.
Overall: A few more movies like this and audiences might actually start asking what’s going on in their societies. Captain America: The Winter Soldier deserves 4 out of 5 well read on their Orwell crabs.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

St. Vincent

Lowdown: A grumpy old man develops a relationship with the new next door neighbour child.
Review:
By now you should have been initiated on the genre of the grumpy old man that turns out to have a heart of gold, especially the niche that features an old actor we’ve seen plenty of times before deliver his pièce de résistance. I’m referring here to Clint Eastwood and his Gran Torino, but nowadays you can say pretty much the same about Bill Murray and St. Vincent.
Vincent (Murray) is your grumpy old man. St. Vincent clearly positions him to be an asshole spectrum of the grumpy old man. When new neighbours move in next door, single mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her child Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), Vincent has no problems exploiting Maggie’s need to prove her worth at work in order to make a buck while offering his version of looking after/babysitting Oliver. The kind that includes taking young Oliver to the horses for some betting.
However, and since we’ve seen this before, we do find out – as St. Vincent progresses – that there is more to Vincent than meets the eye. Hence the movie’s title, I guess. What follows is your typical – yet good – feel good movie where, at the end and despite the hardships, everyone that wants to shed a happy tear would feel happy to do so. Not that there’s anything wrong with it!
Sure, St Vincent is not the world’s most original movie, neither the world’s least manipulative movie. Where it shines is in the acting department, and there is plenty of shine there: it’s an open and shut case with Murray, who delivers a brilliant performance of a Murray calibre this world has been short on for way too long. Murray is very ably supported by the minor roles, most notably a Naomi Watts that does the regular Naomi Watts thing and just blows the movie away with her performance of a pregnant Russian prostitute. Last of the notably mentioned is Chris O'Dowd, whose performance is not stellar but who is – thanks to The IT Crowd – a blog Hall of Famer; he adds extra jokes through his role as Oliver Catholic school teacher that’s required to deal with a classroom full of multiple/no faiths.
Overall: An all-around good delivery of a familiar dish, St. Vincent deserves 3.5 out of 5 previously lost in translation crabs.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Ex Machina

Lowdown: A young developer gets to test an AI housed inside a female like robotic shell.
Review:
The question of AIs, or Artificial Intelligences, taking over humanity has been in the air for a few decades now. We all know of The Terminator and its Skynet; on the video games side of things, the series Mass Effect had everything to do with the theme; and recently we had celebrities such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk inform the world that AIs represent the biggest ever threat to humanity. With that in mind, what baggage does one bring with oneself when one sits to watch Ex Machina, a movie that clearly features a female AI at its core (I mean, just look at the movie poster)? Does one come expecting a love affair between a human and a female robot, whatever that is? Or should one expect to see the cataclysmic end of humanity served by a sexy robot?
Ex Machina follows Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a promising developer from a giant Internet company called Bluebook that, from search engine to Android phone lookalikes, is blatantly modelled after Google. Caleb wins a special lottery; not one that grants him millions, but rather one that has him spend a week together with Bluebook/Google’s founding owner Nathan (Oscar Isaac pretending to be Sergey Brin?) at his bigger than your average country secluded private estate.
After a long helicopter flight, coupled by a bit of a walk, Caleb arrives to find what Nathan has in mind for him: Nathan would like Caleb to run a Turing test on his latest attempt at AI. To the uninitiated, I will explain the concept of a Turing Test was invented by Alan Turing (the hero of the recently reviewed The Imitation Game): Turing hypothesised that we can identify a proper AI when we get to chat with it without figuring out that we are talking to an artificial entity rather than a human.
The catch, if you want one in addition to the fact Ex Machina deals with a pretty highly performing AI on the Turing Test scale, is that the AI at hand is housed in a very female human like robotic body that is pretty capable, physically (portrayed by the genetically blessed Alicia Vikander in a CGI rendered EDI from Mass Effect lookalike body). Thus, in addition to contending with philosophical questions on matters of AI ala Musk/Hawking, our Caleb gets to grapple with matters of male/female domination as he deals with what seems to be the a perfect sexbot seemingly desperate to prove itself in whatever way possible to Caleb.
The resulting movie is a proper science fiction affair in the sense that it makes its viewer think. It does so not because of its action scenes – there are a relatively few of those – but rather through dialog. Conversations between the key characters, humans and machines, trigger philosophical questions of a calibre that is rarely found in mainstream cinema. Which, obviously, makes Ex Machina into a pretty interesting film.
So, which film is it? Is Ex Machina a Terminator clone or a love affair? I suggest you find out for yourselves. I will add, though, that it is no Bicentennial Man cutie movie that kids can watch; there is some pretty confronting stuff at hand and some hard to watch scenes, even if there are none of your typical horror movie “make you jump” moments.
Overall: Ex Machina is a film that should attract you because of its smarts, and as such it deserves 3.5 out of 5 clever crabs.