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Column Fri Mar 06 2015

Chappie, Unfinished Business, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Maps to the Stars, Kidnapping Mr. Heineken & Kung Fu Elliot



With District 9, writer-director Neil Blomkamp presented us with a compelling look at the near future in the wake of a visitation by non-threatening aliens that was so far afield from science fiction works at the time that it felt revolutionary. By setting it in Blomkamp's native South African city of Johannesburg and making the clear parallels between the segregation policies of not so long ago, the film also became genuinely compelling. His 2013 Elysium pushed even deeper into the way humans separate ourselves from each other, this time based on class. The poor stay on the dying planet Earth and the rest get to float above its surface in a clean, safe, man-made space station. A gripping idea for our times, but Blomkamp tends to write his screenplays with a hammer, so any hopes of subtlety were thrown right out the window in favor of a more anarchic message.

This approach seems replicated in his latest film, Chappie, in which Blomkamp returns with his District 9 co-screenwriter Terri Tachell to the city of Johannesburg. And like District 9, he even opens the film with news footage explaining a problem that is taking over the city and how it's being dealt with, so everything is explained to us like a parent reading a child a bedtime story. Crime is becoming a massive issue in the city and the government is turning to a mechanized police force to deal with it. The police droids seem to be getting the job done, but people are still resisting them. In the case of one police droid, it is damaged so severely by human attack that it becomes unsalvageable and is set for the scrap heap.

We are given quite a tour of the robotics facility, run by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver), who does little more than say "Yes" and "No" to anyone who comes into her office. We discover, as we have in countless other films of late, that Weaver is in the film for the sci-fi vibe, letting her enormous talent go to waste. She has two project heads working for her: Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) who designed the intelligence portion of the droids; and Vincent Moore, who heads up the team working on the blunt instrument version of security droids known as Moose, an enormous creation with weapons poking out of every robot orifice that seems more suited for war than civil disobedience. Moore and the Moose are on the way out at the company, so he spends most of the film looking for ways to mess with Deon and his robots to make the Moose appear relevant and required.

Out on the street, a small group of local thugs (Ninja, Yolanda, and Yankie) who have gotten into a bit of trouble with their psychotic boss, owing him millions and coming up with a plot to rob an armored car after they find a way to turn off all the police robots. Simple as that. What they don't anticipate is that Deon has grand ideas about creating a fully functional artificial intelligence, and on one particular day, he steals the to-be-scrapped robot and other parts to take home to work on installing his program into it. The bad guys find out he's the creator of the very robots they want to shut down, so they kidnap him and find the robot (whom they name Chappie) in the back of his van. What luck!

Once Chappie is brought to life and begins talking (thanks to motion-capture work by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley), the film loses what was impressive about it. Chappie learns fast but he must be taught everything, much like a child. These teaching sequences are amusing in the beginning, but they get silly and ridiculous fairly fast. Plus, the street punks teaching him are idiots and soon turn Chappie into a hip-hop gagnsta, strutting and talking like them, using guns (and holding them sideways) and generally trying to teach him the skills necessary to help with their heist. Thanks to Deon, Chappie does have a type of morality about committing crimes, but even that is dealt with when his friends are threatened or hurt.

One of the strangest decisions made by the gang is letting Deon go once he's turned Chappie on. Granted, no one really knows that he's gone missing or given this unprecedented technology to a damaged robot, but he seems intrigued about the idea of leaving Chappie with these morons, even if we aren't. The result, sadly, is the Chappie becomes more of a gimmick film and less of a serious contemplation about the potential threat or benefit of AI. And this goes back to Blomkamp's issue with putting flash and entertainment ahead of even the smallest amount of intellectual storytelling.

Another issue is the performances. It genuinely seems like every line of dialogue was typed in capital letters with an army of exclamation points at the end of every sentence. No one seems to know how to dial anything down. Even the character of Chappie is a bit too hyped up, which may explain why his irreplaceable battery is running down at an alarming rate. And he doesn't seem nearly as intelligent as we keep being told he is. It actually feels like he's recording every thing he hears and repeating it back with a question mark on the end, and it gets real old, real fast, like bad improv.

I suppose I should give the film points for its great effects. Much like District 9, the interactivity between the CG Chappie (and other robots) and the real world is seamless. Thanks to the motion-capture process, there's a weight to Chappie, but he also moves with an odd, believable combination of grace and clunkiness. It's actually an endless source of fascination. What is ultimately the most confusing element of Chappie is its message. Is it that humans are a bigger threat than rogue robots? Except the nice ones, who aren't always nice all the time? By the end, pretty much every character makes everything from huge errors in judgement to outright villainous attacks on other humans.

From its screeching dance music soundtrack to its tendency to blow everything up and save its one clearly inspired moment for the very end of the film, Chappie is a film loaded with big — even great — ideas, few of which are executed with any style or substance. It's as if Blomkamp is afraid that if he turns the volume down and slows the action, we'll notice something flawed in his storytelling. If anything, the opposite is true. The louder and faster things get, the more flaws we notice being covered up. Even after the failure of Elysium to connect, Chappie is still a major disappointment.

Unfinished Business

Well, it's funnier that last collaboration between star Vince Vaughn and director Ken Scott — a little ditty called The Delivery Man. From an original screenplay from Steve Conrad, Unfinished Business doesn't waste any time getting things rolling as it opens with a verbal battle in the office between Vaughn's Dan Trunkman (who is some kind of salesman) and boss Chuck Portnoy (Sienna Miller) over his having to take a pay cut in one of his best years in recent memory. It's a familiar argument for many, I'm sure, and there's nothing meant to be especially funny about the exchange, until Dan opts to quit and turns his leaving into a Jerry Maguire moment by asking who else in the office will join him to start his own company. He gets no legit takers.

Instead what he gets is an elderly colleague Timothy McWinters (Tom Wilkinson), who has just been let go due to mandatory retirement, and Mike Pancake (Dave Franco), a young man who just happened to be in the office for a job interview and liked Dan's spirit. They sit down to plan out their future, and a year later, they are on the verge of closing their biggest deal to date, the one that's going to pull each of them out of serious financial difficulties. The three head out on an overnight business trip to handshake on the deal, and before long, they realize the deal is far from closed and that their chief competitor is the one run by Dan's old boss. Then the David vs. Goliath story kicks in with decidedly mixed results.

Unfinished Business has moments in it that are genuinely of the time we're living in. Times are still tough for many, and businessmen like Dan are still having trouble find comparable jobs to the ones they had before the economy took a nose dive. So most of the scenes involving that aspect of the story specifically aren't really meant to be humorous, which feels strange in a Vince Vaughn movie. But coming from writer Steven Conrad (The Promotion), it's makes some degree of sense. But somewhere along the line, the filmmakers panicked, fearing that no one would come see a film about the hard times of three, upper-middle-class white dudes. So bring on the dick jokes, the gay jokes, the jokes involving the fact that Franco's character is vaguely autistic or mentally challenged or brain damaged (no lie). At first you just think he's a Midwest rube, but when he starts talking about a group home he lives in, the laughter cuts off with an almost audible snap.

The film also decides to dive headfirst into the world of school bullying. You see, Dan's son is overweight and being picked on at school and online, so Dan and his wife are planning on sending him to a private school (which is one of the many reasons Dan needs this deal to work). If this were just a one-off moment in the film, that would be one thing, but Unfinished Business keeps coming back to this uninteresting and distracting subplot, perhaps attempting to make us all recognize the bully in ourselves. I certainly did want to punch this movie in the nuts at times, so I guess it worked.

The film's weird jokes are just tossed in randomly, but rarely get a sustained laugh. When the boys have to fly to Berlin to secure their shaky deal, Dan is forced to stay in a hotel room that is actually an exposed art exhibition where people can come and watch him be an American businessman. Timothy becomes obsessed with having sex with someone other than his horrible wife, whom he wishes to divorce as soon as he has the money to do so. And Mike simply wants to have business trip exploits — the kind he's heard so much about — which he certainly gets. One memorable series of events happens in a men's room at a gay bar during a major fetish convention in the city. I won't say what happens exactly, but I firmly believe that getting dick slapped is probably not the worst thing that's ever happened to Dave Franco. Does that count as bullying? I'm sorry.

Even the usually reliable James Marsden and Nick Frost — coming in later in the film as reps from the company with whom Dan is trying to close the deal — can't really save this awkward, sloppy, seemingly endless mess of a movie. And I don't mean to imply I didn't laugh on occasion. Hearing Wilkinson swear makes me laugh every time; Franco has a few good scenes; and yes, even the men's room scene made me laugh heartily at times. But the spaces between either laughs or some sort of profound message about enduring tough times are endless, and this is only a 90-minute movie. But somehow it still feels padded and extraordinarily long.

Unfinished Business isn't the worst Vince Vaughn movie I've ever seen; hell, it's not even the worse of his I've seen in the last two years. But that doesn't make it any less of a frustrating mess of a movie. I'm genuinely curious what he's going to bring to the table with the next installment of HBO's "True Detective," and maybe that will spark some kind of creative revival in him. Or we'll get more of the same. At this point, I'm on the verge of not caring.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The most I can say about this follow up to the surprise 2011 hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is that it takes place a few months after the first and it's essentially more of the same. Relationships that were in a good place at the end of the first film are a little better off in this one. Everyone is slowly finding their place in India as far as latter-year careers go. And watching great actors do very little is still infinitely more interesting than most things in the world.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel's biggest misstep is thinking that any of us really care about the exploits of hotel owner Sonny (Dev Patel, also seen in Chappie this week) and his upcoming wedding to the lovely Sunaina (Tina Desai), whom he immediately believes is preparing to cheat on him, making him even more obnoxious. I truly hate his character with every fiber of my being in this film. And every minute director John Madden (Shakespeare In Love and the first Marigold Hotel film) devotes to him is torture; sadly that's a great deal of the proceedings.

But my heart and soul healed in small doses thanks to the likes of Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Ronald Pickup, Diana Hardcastle and Celia Imrie, all of whom return not simply to play spirited, feisty elders, but to actually bring a little substance to this light-as-air affair. These films are not meant to be deeply examined, but they do offer us an idealized version of retirement and starting life anew at an advanced age, and there's something sweet and promising about that. And yes, I'm sure there's a case to be made that there's something horribly misleading about that as well, but I'll leave that up to someone else to make that argument.

Added to the mix this time around are new arrivals played by Richard Gere and Tamsin Greig, both of whom arrive on the same day (not together) and immediately get involved in the business of the hotel, whether they want to or not. It turns out Sonny is looking to partner with a chain hotel (represented by the calming force of David Strathairn) that is looking to expand into India, invest money in the Marigold Hotel and help Sonny open up a second location (thus the title). Nothing too challenging or worthy of much contemplation, but it keeps things moving along. Some of the drama seems to go along with the greying territory, while other times it seems manufactured, and pretty much another involving Sonny is guaranteed tedium. Take that for what it's, but my guess is that if you enjoyed the first film, this one offers no major deviations from the formula, and you'll probably have your jolly socks knocked right off. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Maps to the Stars

Much of the pre-release attention to David Cronenberg's latest, Maps to the Stars, has been on Julianne Moore's spot-on performance as frazzled, middle-aged actress Havana Segrand, who is in the running for one of those rare roles that only come around a couple of times a year to women of a certain age. And there's no getting around the fact that her work here is at least equal to what she won an Oscar for in Still Alice, a far inferior film overall, comparatively speaking. Most of her life revolves around doing things she believes younger women do — working out constantly, sleeping with younger men, etc. She also lives in the long shadow of her late mother, a screen queen (Sarah Gadon) whom Havana has the chance to play in the film.

But a great deal of her world is confused when she hires a new personal assistant named Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), a withdrawn but motivated young woman with burn scars on her arms (she wears long gloves always) and part of her face. Much of the film is an exercise is watching these two very different women maneuver around each other in a strange power dance that reveals a great deal of ugliness about them both.

It turns out Agatha is the daughter of famous self-help guru Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) and mother Cristina (Olivia Williams), who has been managing their young son Benjie's (Evan Bird) booming acting career and personal life (he's already been in and out of rehab at age 13). Agatha has just been released from a mental hospital, and her family is unaware of her return to town, each having very different reactions to discovering this. Agatha's only real friend is limo driver Jerome (Robert Pattinson), but his Hollywood aspirations make him susceptible to manipulation and betrayal. Everyone in Maps to the Stars is as likely to be played as they are to play someone else; it's all they can do to keep from dying of boredom.

Working from a screenplay by Bruce Wagner, Cronenberg has absolutely mastered the absurd drama of desperation to permeates so much of the movie industry. This is not a black comedy, as you might have been led to believe; it's a gross emotional drama with a great deal worthy of laughter. There's also an underlying story about Agatha trying to redeem herself in the eyes of her disturbingly judgmental parents and her only slightly more forgiving brother, which will seem strange when you see what a monster Benjie can be. But Agatha's story drives what little plot there is forward, and gives the film its one thread of warmth that it so desperately needs.

Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries who arose from the field of horror films, Cronenberg has displayed the markings of a true film artist. He doesn't simply rely on his actors to reveal the soul of his work; he uses every tool available to him as a visual creator to capture a tone and atmosphere that reveals the inner depths of his characters. You often walk out of his films not just having watched these people, but having bathed in their world. It's an eerie, often uncomfortable feeling, and Cronenberg would have it no other way. Maps to the Stars is one of his most satisfying and captivating works, but it's also unnerving and will make your sense of morality feel violated... in a good way. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Kidnapping Mr. Heineken

In this fairly by-the-numbers kidnapping drama, the true value of the film is in the details of the characters and not the kidnapping itself. Kidnapping Mr. Heineken covers the events surround the November 1983 taking of the beer tycoon Alfred "Freddy" Heineken (Anthony Hopkins), which resulted in the largest-ever ransom paid for an individual (about $17.5 million at the time). But the small group of Dutch friends going through tough financial times is what makes this crime so interesting. They weren't in any way professionals, but it was important to them to appear to be to throw the police off, which succeeded for a time.

Among the five kidnappers were Willem Holleeder (Sam Worthington), Cor Van Hout (Jim Sturgess) and Jan Boellard (Ryan Kwanten), who are each given varying degrees of backstory and family life, making them seem more like stable citizens than thugs, which drives home the film's more modern wish fulfillment fantasies of the poor taking a bit from the rich. The class differences between Heineken and his kidnappers are practically underscored in bright yellow markers by director Daniel Alfredson (who directed the original The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest and The Girl Who Played with Fire Swedish films), almost distractingly so.

As much as I thought it would be something exciting and different to see Hopkins playing a disdisheveled rich guy begging for his life in a decidedly pathetic manner, it ended up just feeling icky and unconvincing, since at no time did I actually believe Heineken's life was in danger. Toss in a few car chases that I didn't believe for a second played out like they do in the film, and you've got yourself a whole lot of talented folks stuck in a sub-par crime drama without a lot of thrills, insight or drama worthy of this team.

This is not the first time this story has been told on the big screen (a Dutch production starring Rutger Hauer was also produced a few years ago), but it will most certainly be the last. Since truth is often stranger and more interesting than fiction, perhaps a sweeping documentary about these men and this caper is due to really do this tale justice. As for Kidnapping Mr. Heineken, you can leave this one chained up in the basement if you'd like. The film opens today in the Chicago area exclusively at the AMC South Barrington 30; it is also available on all VOD platforms beginning today.

Kung Fu Elliot

I won't lie: I've long yearned for a spiritual companion to the wondrous 1999 documentary American Movie, in which a young man from Wisconsin with big dreams of making a horror film is captured in full production mode while his life is in chaos thanks to a host of friends and family attempting to support his crazy scheme. Some films have come close, but not until I recently laid eyes upon Kung Fu Elliot have my dreams felt fulfilled.

Granted, Elliot "White Lightning" Scott is a very different animal than Mark Borchardt. For one, Scott is a guy whose dream is to be an action star, leaving the directing, camera work, producing and pretty much everything else to his frustrated girlfriend Linda. When we meet the pair, they are deep into production on their latest work, Blood Fight (a follow up to their previous uber-amateur work They Killed My Cat), a martial arts epic. A Nova Scotia resident with a fetish for all things Asian, Scott's big dream is to become Canada's first action hero, and when you get a look at his action and fight choreography, you'll see he's well on his way to that never happening. But his enthusiasm and aw-shucks Canadian persona make it easy to be charmed by Scott, which is actually part of the problem.

As co-directors Jaret Belliveau and Matthew Bauckman follow Elliot and Linda, we quickly begin to see the cracks in both their relationship and in Scott's entire life story, past and present. He claims to be a multi-year champion Canadian kick boxer, that his first wife died (he even has a "Love Lost" tattoo on his arm, and a host of other tall tales that he somehow thinks add to the deeper recesses of his legend in the making. After being laid off from two jobs because of the economy, he decides to focus entirely on his movie, forcing Linda to pretty much pay for everything. She has aspirations of getting married, which he says he wants to do but makes no real effort to make it happen. It's clear there's a stringing along going on here, and it actually become uncomfortable to watch as the film goes on, especially when Elliot begins dabbling in amateur porn.

He takes what is meant to be a culturally enlightening trip to China at one point, but he seems far more interested in hitting on local women and fighting against monks who train for hours a day in martial arts. One interaction with a real kung-fu master reveals that Scott's fighting skills are subpar, to say the least. And as the film goes on, our impression of Scott goes from lovable loser to scumbag and con artist. There's a nasty confrontation between Elliot and Linda that is so real and brutal that we almost want the cameras turned off, but you can't take your eyes off Scott as a the cornered animals, lashing out at his attackers (which eventually includes the directors) who have caught him in lie after lie. It's a fascinating bit of filmmaking that I won't soon forget.

I've seen a few films about eccentric low-budget filmmakers and their crazy dreams, but I'm not sure if Kung Fu Elliot quite falls into that category, nor does it need to. It's its own monster that doesn't feel the need to mock its subjects, even the ones who are worthy of mocking. It's as endlessly amusing and outright hilarious as often as it's emotionally compelling and raw. We see the early stages of production on Scott's follow-up to Blood Fight, called International Hero — a film we'll never see, and that makes me a bit sad. But there are some characters in this film that I'll genuinely miss and wonder how they're doing years from now. Whether you love or hate them, the fact is you'll care about the folks in Kung Fu Elliot, and that's the key to its success as a great documentary. The film opens today in Chicago at Facets Cinémathèque.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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