Short Reviews: Chappie (2015)

chappieCredit where credit’s due, Neil Blomkamp is inventive enough with his ideas to be able to do something different with an established trope. Into the oeuvre of highly intelligent robots combating their human overseers who want to shut them down, we enter Chappie, a case of Johnny 5 not so much being alive, as he is born and put through an existential storm of crime warfare.

However, as plagued District 9 before it, Blomkamp is a creator of light ideas that don’t support themselves for the run of an entire film. The initial interest generated by the concept peters out and the film is left to devolve into fairly standard fare. In Chappie’s case specifically, the issue is perhaps that there are too many conflicting ideas that interfere with each other, where as delving into one and exploring it – both plotwise and thematically – would have been more beneficial overall.

The concept is that Johannesburg has introduced a robotic police force of “scouts” that have been overwhelmingly successful in assisting police to reduce the rates of crime and established criminal gangs in the city. The scouts’ developer Deon (Dev Patel) is kidnapped by a small gang (led by Die Antwoord, playing odd versions of their outlandish personalities) and forced to program a damaged scout to be at their service, however he programs it with his new AI which enables it to think, feel and learn like a human – the titular Chappie.

The idea is novel, and the execution of Chappie is fantastic, with Sharlto Copley lending a childlike naïveté and tenderness to the advanced AI that quickly endears him as a character, and makes scenes of his battles against the harsh realities of criminal life in Johannesburg very affecting. The juxtaposition of Chappie’s innocence against his gritty surroundings is the movie’s biggest – and perhaps only – strength.

The problem is that the movie tries to do too much – an existential study of what it means to be human with the difference between a soul and a consciousness, the interplay of small gang vs. large gang vs a very efficient police force, the battle between an artistic creator in Deon and the rivalry he faces from a moralistic military man (Hugh Jackman, sporting an awful mullet), and a character study of the dysfunctional “family” Chappie is raised by. The film never adequately explores the ideas presented in these scenarios as it trades off against giving each narrative thread as much time as possible, and it would’ve been a far smarter idea to pick one thread and roll with it deeply, rather than trying to keep too many narrative plates spinning.

Overall it’s disappointing that the film doesn’t better serve its title character, because the potential is there, and he’s a fascinating character in the first two acts, before the film inevitably runs out of narrative steam and devolves into an overplayed shootout. Chappie deserves better than that.

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Les Misérables (2012)

Poster cosetteVictor Hugo’s Les Misérables is one of the single longest novels ever written, but also one of the most enduring. Adaptations are inevitable, but one of the large challenges is condensing an epic and sprawling plot that spans the decades into something that’s not only accessible but also consistent with the dramatic scope of the novel.

The musical adaptation of Les Misérables is therefore one of the most successful of these, as it gets to employ a little shorthand. Conveying the story through song means the actual events of the plot are delivered with the same amount of dramatic intensity, but without needing to labour too long on the specifics. It also helps that the music is so good, and such a brilliant, stirring piece of theatre.

Even with the musical successfully accomplishing the monumental task of adapting the novel, it’s an equally audacious task to then translate that musical into film. I was pleasantly surprised when I first saw the trailer and heard what a different direction they took with ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, but then grew wary of the potential for the film to have become an exercise in actors showing off their interpretation of the music and lyrics.

I’m pleased to say that for the most part, they didn’t, and that also, for the most part, this is about as close to a perfect adaptation of the musical we could ever have hoped for from the movies. That said, it’s not perfect, so allow me to briefly discuss the drawbacks before gushing about the positives.

Firstly, and this is actually something of a drawback on the entire film and how well it can be received, the pacing of the film is break-neck. The prologue started and seemed to feel like it was rushing through what it could to launch into the main plot, but then that sense of rushing never subsides. Yes, the movie clocks in at two hours and forty minutes already, but it’s Les-fucking-Misérables and no one would have expected it to be over in 90 minutes. Clearly, the filmmakers were terrified of the running time, as there’s absolutely no breathing room between big moments. And I’m not asking much, just two or three seconds for the characters to sit with their thoughts and the audience to appreciate the enormity of these moments.

For instance, Valjean’s moment of shaming despair and rebirth after the Bishop provides him an alibi, the moment that prompts him to turn his life around and let go of the hatred and anger he’s been bearing for years. It’s a hugely significant moment for the character, but the film has no time to spend on him coming to this realisation, it just launches into ‘Who Am I?’ before any time’s been spent on letting the situation sink in on the character or the audience. And it’s not only in a few isolated moments – it’s a pervasive issue throughout the entire film. It could have been solved just by adding on two-and-a-half minutes worth of two-second breather shots throughout the movie, but oh wait, we had to include a new song.

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‘Suddenly’ is a perfectly adequate song, and it’s not horrible to listen to, it’s just not very necessary. The song has Valjean exploring/explaining his sudden fatherly love for Cosette and how she’s now changing his world. It’s all well and good, but it’s already explained well enough in the movie. I’m not being a purist here, I’m not railing at the inclusion of music I’m not familiar with, but it’s a redundant song that could have been excised and the time used to balance out the pacing of the movie.

Another problem of the film is Tom Hooper’s apparent phobia of wideshots. I’m not exaggerating when I say that around 98% of the film is made of close-up shots of characters’ faces, and if those aren’t placed firmly in the centre of the screen, than they’re artistically-off set in the lower thirds of camera left and right. I get why they did this – to hone in on the performances, and really highlight the emotions of each portrayal, but after it while it becomes claustrophobic, like when you talk face-to-face with a friend and they stand too close to you. However, this should not be misread as saying “bad camera work”, just that the film is too reliant on closeup.

The only other drawback on the film was the occasional change to the songs, seemingly with little purpose. Some of this was done clearly to convey a little bit more information, which wasn’t necessary but not particularly detracting from the film, but there were also changes that were just pointless. For instance, after the factory workers’ fight in ‘At The End of the Day’ Valjean’s statement-of-character has been swapped so that it reads:

“Come on ladies settle down/
I am the mayor of this town/
I run a business of repute”

This just throws off the obvious rhyming structure of the lines, and for seemingly little purpose than to allow a slightly easier transition into Valjean’s discovery of Javert in his factory. These little changes are not enough to derail the movie, but they’re enough to briefly take you out of the experience and go “wait, what?” and it seems that there’s little pragmatic purpose for it.

But enough of the negativity, as I wouldn’t want to convey that I thought it a bad movie.

Firstly, performances:

Hugh Jackman is great as Jean Valjean, but not surprisingly so. When you think of the A-list celebrities who could convincingly portray Valjean both dramatically and musically, he’s pretty much the only option. He’s every bit as good as you would expect him to be, which is nice, but like I say, not a particular surprise (although his rendition(s) of ‘Bring Him Home’ were surprisingly awful – it’s not a song I’ve ever been a big fan of, but it’s particularly grating here.)

The absolute standout of this film however, and I have no problem joining the hype-wagon on this, is Anne Hathaway as Fantine. There’s not a single misfiring moment, there’s not a single beat of her performance where you aren’t completely convinced and moved by her plight. Her rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is gut-wrenchingly painful, and it’s so nice to see her perform it from the character’s milieu, rather than using it as a pretty song to show off her voice, (although her voice is fantastic, too.) It becomes painful watching Fantine’s humiliation conga, and it was not hard to hear the many sobs of the cinema patrons.

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Russel Crowe as Javert has copped a lot of flack for his performance, which I think is a little bit unfair. He doesn’t sing as well as the others, and when he does, it sounds like his voice is stuck in the back of his throat. But it’s not a bad performance, just dissonant with the others. It would probably be fairer to say that his performance is more centred on the character than the music, but that the character being one who sings every other line is a bit of a detriment for his approach. That said, ‘Javert’s Suicide’ is a genuinely poignant moment, and while his voice isn’t as strong as the others’, it’s not a performance that deserves the derision he’s been receiving.

Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thénardiers were great, combining the usual comic-relief of the role with the sinister muck-raking of their characters which is often left out of focus. They seem to be contentious actors for the roles if other reviews are to be believed, but I liked their work.

Other performances: Samantha Barks as Eponine – stunning and a very cool cucumber. ‘A Little Fall of Rain’ was devastating. Amanda Seyfried as Cosette was radiant, and not as simpering as I usually find the character, Eddie Redmayne as Marius – charming, if a slight tendency towards love-struck goofiness. Daniel Huttlestone was pretty perfect as Gavroche. Aaron Tveit seemed uncomfortable in the role of Enjolras, but was still decent.

Also particularly loved the factory workers who conspire around Fantine – they were completely evil and reprehensible and I hated them – perfectly. The red light district was similarly intimidating and practically oozed of syphillis.

The opening scene with the convicts hauling in a ship is breathtaking, the barricade construction is rousing (although I must say, the barricade seemed far too small in scale – I know the revolution was a small one, but it really came off as a bit of an inconvenience, not a rebellion), the storming of the barricade was devastating, ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ was as triumphant as you could ever hope for. Oh, and COLM WILKINSON AS THE BISHOP! Best casting homage ever, and it never felt like stunt casting.

Performances aside, the technical side of the film is also incredible.

Make-up and costumes are impeccable (so nice to see them pay attention to the teeth and how disgusting they would be). Set design is also top-notch, and I believe the sets are the only thing that save Hooper’s penchant for close-ups from making the film take place entirely focussed on the actors’ faces – even in the close ups, the sets provide some background space.

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Camera work, close-ups aside, has some really breathtaking moments – one of the most beautiful shots occurs at the end of the prologue, as we swoop up into the sky and we get a beautiful panorama of the scenery around Valjean at that moment in time.

Musically, much of the soundtrack has been modified for the better. Everything in the stage show that’s not a solo is written in the key of epic, and it’s nice to see them pare down some of the songs that could use a little humbling. The transition from the prologue into ‘At the End of the Day’ is spectacularly stirring and a perfect swell of the orchestra.

I might wrap it up here. Despite rushed pacing and claustrophobic camera-framing, Les Misérables is a spectacular feat of filmmaking and completely worth your attention and money. It’s two and a half hours of the most beautiful misery you’ll ever see.