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Sunday
Mar082015

Chappie (2015)

Shyamalan Resurrection

I'm not into conspiracy theories,* but I wouldn't be surprised if the reason writer/director Neill Blomkamp tweeted concept art from his proposed Aliens sequel was not to drum up interest in his dream job--but to secure a next job, suspecting that Chappie would short circuit on opening weekend. It's mysterious, but not unprecedented. Remember M. Night Shyamalan's penchant for inking deals on the eve of such legendary bombs as Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender? It worked here, too: a couple weeks ago, Blomkamp announced that he and Sigourney Weaver will return for another deep-space safari, fueled by metric tons of cash and soon-to-be liquefied Fox executives.

Speaking of Short Circuit, if you've seen the 1986 Steve Guttenberg/Ally Sheedy sci-fi pseudo-classic, Blomkamp's latest is strictly a rental--bordering on a skip. If you haven't seen it, I still can't recommend Chappie, 'cause the film's R-rated and you're probably six years old.

In fairness, Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell lift liberally from Robocop (both incarnations), Avatar, Dredd, and Prometheus--not to mention their own work on District 9 and Elysium. So I guess it's not fair to write them off as one-trick cribbers.

The movie stars Dev Patel as Deon, a rock-star robotics engineer working for a South African weapons contractor. Having developed an army of humanoid police drones (one might call them "robo-cops") that significantly reduced street crime, Deon takes a crack at artificial intelligence. A rival developer at the company (Hugh Jackman's awesomely mulleted Vincent) sees Deon's work as a threat to his own program, a less elegantly designed fleet of tanks on feet.

Elsewhere in the city, three spectacularly stupid gangbangers (Jose Pablo Cantillo, Yo-landi Visser, and Ninja--who plays Ninja) hit upon the idea of stealing and reprogramming a drone to help them pull off big-ticket heists. Lucky them, Deon's cutting-edge technology firm isn't so keen on surveillance cameras, secure parking lots, alerts on sensitive R&D materials, or de-activating the key cards of suspicious employees--meaning Ninja and his friends breezily kidnap Deon within minutes of his having stolen a decommissioned drone.

The gangbanbers coerce Deon into testing his AI program in their hideout. The droid boots up as a blank slate with an unprecedented capacity to absorb, process, and integrate information. They call this super-genius-metal-baby "Chappie", and set about teaching him the finer points of painting, reading, aiming pistols, and perfecting a common street thug's ape-like posture and casual coke-head-nose-swipe.

Thanks to the Internet, the Chappie character has already been dubbed this generation's Jar Jar Binks. It's true that, as voiced by Sharlto Copley, he's a shrill, simple goofball who adopts the worst mannerisms of his "parents"--but that's precisely the point Blomkamp and Tatchell want to make with their movie.

Jar Jar Binks annoyed me because he was ostensibly an adult character designed to pander to kids. Chappie is a kid. He literally transitions from birth-consciousness to late-teen-dom within the course of a week. Some degree of irritation and bad behavior are inherent in the concept, but so are tenderness, discovery, and maturity--which comprise the only effective fifteen minutes in the whole movie.

Chappie would have made a fascinating short about a scientist cracking AI in his apartment, and a nosy, colorful, yet understanding neighbor discovering his secret. As it stands, every scene not involving Patel and Visser (whose character becomes Chappie's de facto mum) works wonderfully. The actors evoke the wonder and horror of becoming God to a life-form that is at once dependent on them and capable of replacing mankind.

But the silliness keeps intruding. Because Chappie's original (or at least interesting) nuggets are buried so deeply in the homage salt mines, we are taxed with plowing through disparate elements that A) we've seen too many times to count and B) really don't belong together in a coherent narrative. For example, Weaver appears as the money-grubbing head of Deon's company. As drawn, Michelle Bradley is an executive so un-like anything that would rightfully exist in the real world--let alone the movies--that we quickly understand her as not only unintimidating but also inherently ridiculous. Let me get this straight: her top designer offers up free artificial intelligence on a silver platter, and she rewards him with an aggressive lack of interest in the project. Okay...

Then there's Jackman's character. Aside from Chappie and the fleeting dynamic with his parents, Vincent is the highlight of the film. A brilliant engineer in his own right and a former soldier, his jealousy and suspicion of Deon is palpable and understandable. Yet he plays the good-natured office politician so perfectly that I couldn't wait to see how he'd factor into Chappie's fate. I got my hopes up for nothing, it turns out, since Blomkamp and Tatchell turn him into a standard-issue, screaming-military-maniac in the third act.**

I've long been a Blomkamp admirer, but not a fan. District 9 opened up many doors for the gifted director, who has proven that one can create believable worlds on a relative shoestring budget, while bringing social commentary back to mainstream sci-fi. But I take issue with his annoying characters, heavy-handed messages, and uninspired plotting. Having the keys to the kingdom means nothing if your intention is to turn that kingdom into a Wal-Mart.

As Blomkamp's filmography progresses, the stars get bigger, the scripts get thinner, and I suspect the bloom will soon be off the rose. Moviegoers love underdog stories almost as much as they love shiny new things, but they'll only put up with so much nonsense from a promising auteur. Just ask M. Night Shyamalan, who learned the hard way that, when it comes to souring fan opinion on gimmick filmmaking, all it takes is a Village.

*Or am I?

**Notable only because he wears a bulky neural-uplink helmet that comic-book fans will recognize as being very similar to that of Weapon X--the graphic novel starring Jackman's claim-to-fame, Wolverine.

Wednesday
Mar042015

Step Up: All In (2014)

The Krumper Games

I understand why people give Hollywood flak for the Instantaneous Reboot craze. Marvel's recent announcement of a Drew Goddard-helmed Spider-Man movie constitutes that character's third big-screen re-imagining (spanning six films to date) in fifteen years.* By the time it comes out, we'll also have seen more of the "new" Transformers, a "new" Batman, a "new" Deadpool, and Lord knows what else. But why, wait? There's another franchise, happening right now, that features attractive, athletic kids leaping about in spandex while saving the world from tyranny and corruption.

Yes, I'm talking about the fifth Step Up movie. Maybe the filmmakers called it "All In" because the climactic dance-off takes place in Las Vegas. Or maybe because they simply dumped the series' entire ingredients list into a blender that had already been switched on. Either way, this isn't really a sequel, and it's not technically a reboot. Like the three films before it,** All In could exist at any point along its own timeline, with zero confusion on the part of the audience.

The movies always open with a down-on-his/her-luck dancer getting picked on by a snooty gang who doesn't believe in his/her dream. That dancer learns of a competition that will yield not just a cash prize but also respect in the underground dance community (or whatever the Fast and the Furious equivalent of dancing is). Our hero crews up, finds reluctant love from someone on the wrong/right side of the tracks, and struggles to stay focused as old rivalries flare and flame out in the Big 3-D Showdown.

My wife and I are big fans of these films. They're a hoot to watch at home in bed with wine, Lucky Charms, and Ambien. Our hair-pulling frustration of barely remembering characters from movie to movie; frequent refill and bathroom breaks during innumerable, interminable dance numbers; and uproarious laughter at mega-talented dancers face-planting in the acting arena are more than polite society can handle. Staying home for Step Up the Simmons household's version of civic duty.

At the very least, All In features a different design on its McNugget packaging. The Vegas competition is actually a VH1 reality show presided over by a Lady Gaga-type (Izabella Miko), who thinks she's running The Hunger Games. The omnipresent fire, weird costumes, and media conspiracies are a welcome distraction from The Big Questions--like, why our heroes worry about having to go back to their day-jobs if they lose the competition, when each of them walked off those jobs in order to join the competition?

Sidebar 1:

When our heroes (whose awesome, All Caps group name, LMNTRIX, does not stand for "Lemon Trix", sadly) find out that VH1 has rigged the contest voting to garner higher ratings (SPOILER!), they decide to "beat them at their own game." You or I might assume this involves forming a multi-billion-dollar global TV brand and starting a reality show that pits other reality shows against each other--and rigging said mega-show in their favor. But, no. As always, the solution is "dance, dance, dance."

Sidebar 2:

Becaue the contest prize is a three year performance contract at Caesars Palace, and because LMNTRIX wins in the end (DOUBLE SPOILER!)--does that mean we're off the hook with these films until 2017?

Step Up: All In has all the trappings of a comic book movie: elaborate, sci-fi sets (seriously); high-stakes melodrama; psychic twins (Facundo and Martin Lombard); a scrappy short fella (Misha Gabriel); and a pair of leaders with questionable sexual chemistry (Ryan Guzman and Briana Evigan). Most importantly, it has Chadd Smith as the silent robot impersonator, Vladd.

Vladd has appeared in a number of Step Up films, and his character's a little different each time out. Though mostly used as set dressing when not called upon the tear up the dance floor, his character--or at least his presence--is the most evolved here. I couldn't take my eyes off him, and I searched every scene to see if he was in it. This Where's Waldo-like obsession may have to do with my having seen Under the Skin last year. I kept imagining Vladd as Scarlett Johansson's alien-observer counterpart; perhaps he landed in America instead of Scotland, and was adopted by magazine-glossy street artists. Can the series' rotating cast be explained away by Vladd's having absorbed some of his fellow performers into a lethal sex pool of shimmering black goo?

I like to think so.

Director Trish Sie deserves a lot of credit for keeping things fresh in the fifth go-round. Even ironic, laugh-riot freshness is better than the stale, rinse/repeat scenario of some franchises. If nothing else, I hope these movies inspire their core audience to leave the house and seek out real life dance competitions--to be inspired by flesh-and-blood performers whose stories (hopefully) can't fit into a reboot-able template. As for me, I'm an old married dad now, so until Step Up: Equal Pay for Equal Twerk comes out, I'll keep the wine chilled and the cereal crunchy.

*Fourth, if you count the web-slinger's rumored appearance in Avengers 3.

**I don't count 2006's Channing Tatum vehicle, since it's the "original".

Friday
Feb272015

The Lazarus Effect (2015)

Plot Sematary

I'm not gonna do it. The Lazarus Effect is a bland, scare-free excuse for horror, but I won't spend several hundred words comparing it to a dozen similar movies--or even mention them by name. Hopefully, this review will take less time to read than it will to write.

Today, I choose to be positive, and would like to share highlights from the two minutes of original material that made David Gelb's film tolerable.

1. I've never seen a movie that co-stars the act of cutting to black. In the last ten minutes of this eighty-three minute exercise,* the screen goes dark nearly as many times. Sure, we're meant to quiver in our seats as the wrongfully resurrected scientist (Olivia Wilde) taunts and torments our tanktop-clad Final Girl (Sarah Bolger). But unless this is your first go-round with jump-scare thrillers, the effect will be less, "OMG! Where could she be hiding?!" than, "Should I find a manager?"

2. Gelb and screenwriters Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater have created one of the most interesting and chilling depictions of Hell that I've seen. Essentially, the damned are forced to relive the worst moment of their lives on an eternal loop. Wilde's character describes the experience as being a nightmare from which one never awakens. Hers involves a burning apartment building with people trapped behind locked doors, and the filmmakers repeatedly employ a slow tracking shot down a red, smoke-filled hallway. It's an eerie, effective motif that's completely undone once we learn why the cosmos employed this particular punishment.** 

3. I learned during the end credits (yes, I stayed) that "Dog Fabricator" is a job title.

The scariest part of The Lazarus Effect is that Gelb also shot 2011's engrossing and recognizably human documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I can't know for sure, of course, but I would bet the likes of Wilde, Donald Glover, and Mark Frickin' Duplass signed on thanks to that lovely calling card.

The joke's either on them or on us. Either way, I'm not laughing.

*That includes the opening and closing credits, by the way, and endless inserts of computer monitors and surveillance-camera footage.

**Spoiler: The rules of this movie's universe are out of whack, to the point of being arbitrary. It's not clear that little Zoe (Wilde) set the blaze intentionally, and she's spent the rest of her life trying to atone through helping mankind. Why couldn't she have, say, been given the ability to relive her best memory instead? I mean, outside of the fact that this is a horror movie.

Friday
Feb272015

Game of Thongs: A Game of Thrones Burlesque (2015)

Incest Dance Squad

It's no secret that the winter months are a box office graveyard. Why leave the house to watch mediocre studio embarrassments when, as Jack Black sang at the Oscars, we've all got "screens in our jeans"? Chicago's Gorilla Tango Burlesque has been fighting--and winning--that battle for years with hilarious, sexy stage shows based on pop culture staples. Lovingly satirizing everything from Star Wars to Batman to The Walking Dead, the brains behind the boobs have earned their theatre's moniker, "Provocative Parody for the Discerning Nerd". 

I've been a huge fan of every show I've seen. But something needled me after each performance. When writing my review, a teeeeny, high-pitched voice would invariably whine, "Yeah, but what if you weren't a fan of [INSERT NAME HERE]? Would you still find it funny, or is it really all about the pasties?" I ignored these questions and carried on with the praise. After all, I was birthed in media culture and couldn't imagine my radar not reaching even the furthest corners of the pop landscape.

Hand to God, I've never seen Game of Thrones. The "Don't Have HBO" excuse died when Season One hit Hulu. In my defense, I'm an old dad now, with two jobs, a podcast, and a wife who (understandably) doesn't care to watch beheadings and child murder at the end of a long day. I'm attuned enough to know that Sean Bean didn't stay the hero of the series for very long; I've seen "The Red Wedding's" climax on YouTube;* and I totally get why Jason Momoa deserves a lot of slack, even though his Aquaman looks ridiculous.

Which begs the (seriously long-winded) question, "How does Game of Thongs stack up for audience members unfamiliar with the source material?"

Simply put: wonderfully.

Like other Gorilla Tango productions, the show being parodied serves merely as a point of reference for a goofy original story. I'm sure it helps if you know how all the Lannisters are related, and can understand why sprinkling someone with gold glitter to represent a spell is especially uproarious. However, writer Polly Pom Poms tells a complete story in sixty minutes, involving incest, dragon eggs, and a nosy, wall-climbing kid. It all made perfect sense to me--except when the character dynamics became impossibly tangled, which became a running joke.

I've probably said this before but, personally, the thrill of Gorilla Tango Burlesque shows has never been the nudity. I certainly don't mind seeing fearless, mostly naked women leaping and gyrating across an intimate black-box stage. But, in keeping with my mainstream-movie comment above, I've got free access to way raunchier stuff on my iPhone. No, GTB is a live-action version of Airplane!, packed with sight gags, asides, and skewed-angle thinking that elicit the best kind of laughs. The comedy works on multiple levels, from MAD Magazine character names (the "Stark Naked" clan and the world of "Breasteros") to the radio-hits dance numbers (a brother and sister get busy to Tiffany's "I Think We're Alone Now"; dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen--played by Minnie Minx--comes into her own, accompanied by Alicia Keys' "Girl on Fire") to a brilliant, think-and-you'll-miss-it Love Actually reference.

Of course, a good script is only one part of any great production. Director Adelaide Lee, choreographer Jean Wildest, and their cast of comedically gifted screwballs put on a tight show. I've become a fan of Bailey Irish, who I last saw playing The Emperor in GTB's Return of the Jedi parody, Boobs on Endor. Here, she pulls double duty as wild-eyed sneak Bran Stark Naked and calculating mastermind Tyrion Lannister. Margueritte MeOw injects Cersei Lannister with just the right amount of crazy, and Minx excels at both seduction and silliness.

Game of Thongs passed the Newcomer Test, as well as the Crushing Fatigue Test. By the time I left the theatre, I'd been zipping from place to place, project to project for twenty hours. Typically, this is the recipe for a good crash (sleepwise and otherwise). The GTB folks cast their spell on me again, though, and my mind buzzed with desire--not to watch Game of Thrones, but to see Game of Thongs again.

Game of Thongs is now playing Friday nights at 10:30pm at GTT's Bucktown venue in Chicago, IL. For more information, and to purchase tickets, click here.

*#partoftheproblem

Wednesday
Feb252015

VANish (2015)

Pre-Owned, Drives Like New!

Something's in the air, folks. For two weeks, I've been deluged with designer-imitation movies. From the Twilight knock-off to the James Bond-parody knock-off to the Clerks/Saw knock-off,* original content seems to have plummeted right off the edge of our creatively flat planet.

And here comes VANish, an indie film whose ingredients don't inspire confidence:

  • First-time writer/director/star
  • Ninety-first filmmaker to riff on idols Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez
  • Thirteen-day shoestring shoot
  • Two genre staples (Danny Trejo and Tony Todd) featured more prominently in the key art than in the actual film
  • An unfortunately timed release that coincides with Joe Lynch's Everly, another single-location shoot-'em-up about a tough, smokin' hot Latina fighting off gangsters.

Wal-Mart dedicates large mesh bins to these movies, which beg to be run past.

Fortunately, low expectations exist to be raised—subverted, even. And that’s precisely what creator Bryan Bockbrader has done with his brainy, balls-to-the-wall crime thriller. At first glance, his characters feel lifted from Pulp Fiction: on their way to kidnap a Mexican drug kingpin's daughter (Emma, played by Maiara Walsh), Jack (Austin Abke) and Max (Bockbrader) discuss the pluses of cutting short bad relationships and the evils of social media. The witty, macho banter gives way to viciousness when the guys reach their destination, abruptly putting us on notice that these aren't lovable-doofus criminals.

After picking up Jack's dimwitted war-vet friend, Shane (Adam Guthrie), the group heads into the desert for a rendezvous with Emma's estranged father (Trejo) and--they hope--five million bucks. The plan goes about as smoothly as one would expect when three imbalanced amateurs take on a man with unlimited guns and henchmen, and I'll leave the crosses, double-crosses, and revelations for you to discover.

Right now, I want to talk about The Room (I promise, there's a movie review in here somewhere). Tommy Wiseau's disasterpiece is considered one of the worst motion pictures ever committed to film, and for good reason. Infinitely watchable as a meta-narrative of bizarre ingredients, it's inconceivable that someone could intentionally come up with Wiseau's outlandish accent and the spoon motif and the groomsmen playing alley-catch football and the flower shop scene. With VANish, Bockbrader cooks up a delightfully nutty bouillabaisse that's just as weird, but which legitimately succeeds on just about every level--instead of dissolving into ironic comedy.

I can't put my finger on just why Bockbrader's references feel like heartfelt tributes and not mere mimicry. Something about Abke's resemblance to Aliens-era Michael Biehn and Guthrie's Harland Williams aura makes me wonder if Bockbrader orchestrated an indie-budget reality of the dream movie he'd cast in his head. Of course, he saves the best lines and the banter-with-the-damsel-in-distress moments for his own character--in the same way that Tarantino cemented not only his place but also his voice in pop history with Reservoir Dogs' "Madonna Speech". Whether through skill or dumb luck (or maybe just my own perception of the material), Bockbrader makes us believe that his characters--not he--grew up on mid-90s crime flicks and watched The Dark Knight's opening heist scene one too many times.

The movie comes up a tad short, visually, thanks to the decision to shoot everything in or around the van. I give Bockbrader big props for his ambition here, and for pulling off ninety percent of it very well. In particular, two important nighttime attacks are difficult to see. Shot in close-ups and in not-as-close-ups, and with very little lighting, we're left to infer a lot of the action--not in the way that inspires us to give the filmmaker credit for artistry, but in the way that we desperately want to scrub backwards and squint (which I did, twice).

VANish's execution is as fascinating as it is fun (and occasionally challenging), but the real attraction here is Walsh. As a character, Emma is a bit too cool a cucumber under the circumstances. But Walsh is so damned good that I didn't mind. She effortlessly imbues the part of sassy-angry-captive with such intensity and self-assuredness that her transformation into a gun-toting superhero feels like a step down. In other films, the violence perpetrated against her would have been played as exploitive sensationalism. But she (Emma or Walsh) won't be exploited--by either the preening male psychos around her or those watching at home. Walsh's screen presence is undeniable, and reminds me of that great scene in Bowfinger where Steve Martin talks about the "It" factor.

Thanks to the movies I listed at the start of this review, I've been thinking a lot about baggage lately; not only what a filmmaker brings to his or her project, but what I bring to the experience of watching movies. Though we should judge each film on its own merits, audiences don't suffer amnesia just before the lights go down. It's not nitpicking to point out a story that relies too heavily on borrowed plot points, re-hashed motifs, and done-to-death character archetypes. In fact, it's our duty as patrons of the arts to pay attention, to experience, to recollect, to put things together in the filmic tapestry of our hearts--so that when something innovative comes along, we can recognize just how special (and rare) the occasion is.  

VANish is one such movie. Bryan Bockbrader wears his influences on his sleeve, but homage doesn't comprise the whole shirt. He has an interesting story to tell, a few things to get off his chest, and a somewhat unique vehicle (sorry) for getting us where we need to go. I doubt this film will change the way anyone looks at movies, but it's a refreshing reminder of the crucial difference between theft and homage.

VANish is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, iTunes.

*In fairness, that one was okay.

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