When South African science fiction filmmaker Neill Blomkamp burst onto the cinema scene with District 9 in 2009, he was hailed as one of the most promising directors in the industry. His mainstream follow-up was dystopian epic Elysium, which was met with a contrastingly frosty reception. Is he a one trick pony or was his second feature a mere hiccup in his path to further critical acclaim? His third film, titled ‘Chappie’ continues the sci-fi pattern and returns to Johannesburg, the setting of his debut. Set in a future where a robotic police force known as ‘scouts’ have been introduced to reduce high crime rates and regain order on the chaotic streets of Joburg, the narrative follows the inventor of these law enforcement machines, Deon Wilson, played by Dev Patel. Against the orders of his boss Michelle (Sigourney Weaver) and angering office rival Vincent (Hugh Jackman), he tests his home-made AI program on a disused robot, his experiment resulting in the birth of Chappie, voiced by regular Blomkamp collaborator Sharlto Copley. However, when he and Chappie are forced into forming an alliance with a local gang of criminals, the potential threat of his conception is unveiled. Can he raise his creation to fight crime rather than commit it?
Like his previous efforts, the premise of Chappie is one with real promise and as a director, Blomkamp expresses his striking visual style which is well suited to the genre he continues to place himself in. The opening sequence sets the scene in a documentarian manner, much like District 9 did with footage of news channels and talking heads thrown together. The similarities with what we’ve seen from him before drives home his lack of creativity, and it is almost as if he is trying to redo his past films to improve them rather than attack a new idea with a fresh approach. The problems lie mainly in the heavy-handed storytelling as the story becomes cluttered with one-dimensional, motiveless characters. The triumphs in scientific achievement are glossed over by lazy montages more than once, with just a combination of one energy drink and taking off your glasses for a quick think resulting in the most significant of breakthroughs. When he finally arrives, the eponymous android is a joy to watch as he finds his robotic feet in the world but not enough screen time is spent between him and his beloved ‘maker’, which belittles the attempted father/son connection between the two when the conclusion nears.
Dev Patel is probably the only actor who comes away unscathed from the project, making the best of the material he has to work with and maintaining his likeable image. Hugh Jackman’s character is given the back-story of a devoted, decorated military man but is quickly reduced to a snivelling snitch who carries around a rugby ball for the whole film as a symbol of his masculinity. The aforementioned thugs that try to take advantage of Deon’s intellect are weirdly played by South African rave-rap group Die Antwoord, going by the aliases Ninja and Yolandi both on-screen and off. Devoid of acting talent, their personality traits change drastically from scene to scene, and they appear far more interested in their distractingly fluorescent image and the promotion of their back catalogue, than adding any depth to their villainous alter-egos.
For a film about intelligence, artificial or not, ‘Chappie’ is really rather dumb and the narrative shortcuts lessen the value and the impact of the initial idea, which is interesting in the first instance. As a filmmaker, Blomkamp has obvious strengths in building intelligent plot foundations and also in the way he directs and constructs big-budget action set pieces. We see signs of this in Chappie but the lethargic script proves to be his downfall. Surely now it’s time to draw the line under the man/machine sub-genre that he’s tried so desperately to master and move onto another strand of science-fiction. Director Alex Garland already topped his attempts in that area with the thought-provoking Ex Machina earlier this year. Not to be swayed from the field completely, Blomkamp is set to undertake the unenviable but nevertheless exciting challenge of directing the next chapter of the cult sci-fi horror Alien franchise. No pressure.
Julianne Moore is arguably one of the best actresses of her generation and has worked with a plethora of the best actors and directors in her illustrious career. Despite her strengths and her numerous nominations in the past, she has lacked in awards success until now, winning a BAFTA and an Academy Award for her latest role in ‘Still Alice’. Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland and based on Lisa Genova’s novel of the same name, the drama centres around linguistics professor Dr. Alice Howland who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease at the age of fifty. With her family around her, including caring husband John (Alec Baldwin) and youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart), she faces up to her illness bravely as her grip on life and her memory disintegrates.
The process of Alice’s deterioration lends a slow, meandering pace to the film and it is largely uneventful in terms of the narrative. Instead, it is very much a character driven plot, and anchored by Julianne Moore’s performance as we see Alice come to terms with her condition. When she is on the ball, she is as sharp as they come and is very eloquent, articulated and professional is the way she presents herself. This means that the minute signs of weakness in her memory are easily spotted when they begin to creep in and each stage of her mental downfall is filled with emotion. In an attempt to combat the decline, Alice uses her smart-phone as a helpful tool. This can be heavily related to one of the directors Glatzer who relies on an app to communicate because of his battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
The relationships within her family dynamic aren’t straightforward, and take the strain as Alice becomes increasingly dependent on her loved ones. I felt as though casting Alec Baldwin as the husband was strange as his characters usually possess negative qualities. On the whole, here he is the doting partner despite a few selfish flaws. Kristen Stewart impresses as Alice’s wayward teenage daughter, shedding her twilight skin to give a mature, moving performance, coping with the loss of the one person who seems to understand her. At the forefront of the success of the film though is Moore’s frighteningly good acting, keeping the frustrations of her character bottled up initially for them to burst out with a flooring impact.
Performances whereby the lead is diagnosed with an illness or disease tend to be popular around awards season, so it makes perfect sense for Julianne Moore to take the gong this time around, given that she had never received this kind of recognition before. After all, the opposite award for best actor went to Eddie Redmayne across the board for his portrayal of MND sufferer Stephen Hawking. She noticeably lifts what without her would be more suited to the TV movie format but in all honesty, I’ve seen stronger turns from Moore. Even in the past year she put in what I thought was a more powerful performance in Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars though that film didn’t have the same Oscar bait clout that ‘Still Alice’ does…and as Oscar bait goes it’s catch of the year.
Of late, young heroines have been the subject of adventure franchises representing a new age of strong female leads in cinema but as shown mostly through US television programmes, not all women are as switched on and focussed in their lives. Struggling to find herself is twenty-something Iranian-American bisexual Brooklynite Shirin in Desiree Akhavan’s comedy drama ‘Appropriate Behavior’ where she writes, directs and stars in the central role. With the pressures of both modern life and her controlling family, Shirin feels she has no comfortable place to fit in, but on her snarky and sarcastic surface doesn’t appear to want to be categorised within contemporary society despite the aforementioned labels attached. Though not entirely a new idea to follow a city slicker en route to self-discovery (a very Woody Allen-esque concept), the added religious overtones combined with her open-minded attitude towards sexuality offers plenty of fresh ground to cover and explore.
With the use of a non-linear structure, we witness Shirin’s relationship with ex-girlfriend Maxine in its messy entirety, showing the range of emotion the character goes through and contrasting it with her current state of unfulfillment. Because of this flashback technique, the development of Shirin is rich and complex and we are with her every misguided step of the way. Scenes with her parents are amusing as her awkward jokes go over heads and she manages to successfully pass Maxine off as a flatmate, not a sexual partner, even though they inhabit a one bedroom apartment with only one bed. In the present, she attends trendy parties, tries to maintain her unsteady job in haphazardly teaching filmmaking to small children, and continues to lead a somewhat experiment love life. Each scenario is played out with comical social insecurity and Akhavan’s charm soaks into every frame.
‘Appropriate Behavior’ is funny, current and brutally honest, and as a debut feature from Desiree Akhavan is promising. The tight script openly contains culture references which allude to the clear influences involved in crafting the vision so even though it is largely derivative material, it is at least aware of this, and very much so. If it was anymore self-aware, it’d break the fourth wall. What the character-driven narrative does so well is dig behind the wacky hipster exterior, peeling back the pretence to reveal a genuine, well-meaning person who is yearning for a sign to put her on the right path in life. As Shirin herself wittily puts it, she is ‘one bad romantic encounter away from moving to France and changing identity’. Let’s hope it doesn’t go that far because this is a woman everyone should get to know.