Tribes and Tribulation: Colonization of South America in THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017) and THE MISSION (1986)

 

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The Lost City of Z (James Grey, 2017)

 

Indigenous communities in Hollywood films have always had marginalized roles and appearances, especially in those films dealing with Western and imperialist historical topics. James Grey’s The Lost City of Z (pronounced “Zed”) however, might be the first I’ve seen which makes a conscientious effort to reverse this Hollywood treatment. To, in fact, make it a point to say native peoples are actively marginalized throughout imperialist histories, and it’s main protagonist, Colonel Percy Fawcett, as a beholder to their intellect and power.

The main obstacle to Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam) was not to convince England he had discovered a lost tribe, but that it was, in fact, a civilization, one replete with the advancements of cookware, art, weaponry, and buildings that constituted a people of intellect and scientific and engineering knowhow. In a boisterous and argumentative session before the Royal Geographic Society, he makes his case to the horror of many of the “intellectuals” who’s fear of a non-white race achieving civility and discipline shattered their world view.

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Fawcett’s adamant stance on the intelligence and advancement of native cultures is an important counter to our biased views of Western civilization. Despite a more politically correct polish on what used to be incredibly racist stereotypes of the civilized white towards the native barbarian, we still don’t acknowledge in textbooks or discussion of colonization how much more advanced Natives actually were in regards to their understanding of natural and environmental science and food cultivation than any settlers were.

Previous treatments of native cultures contained them as entities having to be “saved” by a Western hero (Dances with Wolves). It was a veil of digestibility for our sake and a continuation of the lies that native cultures never really had an “order” before the Conquistadors or Pilgrims came to settle and command. That there were no rules or governance and thus, the land was essentially for the taking and the people free to be “educated”.

In contrast to such restrictive Hollywood tropes, James Grey’s The Lost City of Z might be considered unique in its “progressive histrionics”. There are conversations regarding women’s roles in society and home, white and non-white race relations, the erasure of cultures, and the validity of scientific findings. The film has quite a clear argument in favor of progressive views of the world, even if its setting is in the old world where such thoughts were considered preposterous or worse, treasonous.

 

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The Mission (Roland Joffé, 1986)

 

Take these views into consideration with Roland Joffé’s The Mission, a critically acclaimed historical epic which uses a very traditional Hollywood construct of native people as a group looking to be conquered or brought to salvation… or both. Joffé’s film also creates a good vs evil dichotomy, wherein its progressive politics are poised as a fight between the peaceful salvation of the Jesuit order and the ruthless slavery-driven economy of imperialist Portugal. There is even a character, Rodrigo Mendoza (a miscast but adequate Robert DeNiro), who spent time on both sides of this fence; a former mercenary and slave trader who corrects his ways and finds God with the help of Father Gabriel (the impeccable Jeremy Irons).

Much like Fawcett’s character, Father Gabriel and Mendoza fight for the dignity and independence of the indigenous Amazonian tribe they befriend, the Guarani. Unlike Fawcett however, their attempts at protection of the tribe, i.e., “conversions” via their mission, is on its head a form of cultural erasure… the elimination of the Guarani’s spiritual and traditional beliefs in favor of the Holy Spirit.

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The Mission is much more politically volatile than The Lost City of Z and thus, much more exciting and entertaining, but also much more unforgiving. But what makes one a tale While Grey maintains his central characters in such a steady and unbending light for “good”, for the true understanding of native peoples in the fact of evil imperialism, Joffé’s story is more about the inevitable genocide of the native, caught between enslavement via the Monarchy or coerced abandonment of their century-old cultural beliefs.

SONG TO SONG and VOYAGE OF TIME: There’s Something Wrong With Terrence Malick

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Song to Song (Terrence Malick, 2017)

When you feel as if an artist you always admired has lost something, what do you do? Do you hold out hope for future projects? Continue to selectively relive their past glory? Review their work chronologically to determine when and where it exactly all went to hell? It’s a troubling thing, realizing that a brilliant filmmaker, painter, sculptor, writer, or whoever cannot create the beautiful works which helped change your life, which helped inspire countless moments of your own burst of creativity.

Terrence Malick is one of my favorite filmmakers ever, and to me one of the greatest artists in American history. His repertoire, much like Kubrick’s, is sparse, spread out, untamed, and utterly brilliant. In the 30 years between 1970 to 2000, Malick made only 3 films: his debut feature Badlands, his most “critically acclaimed” work, a tragic romance called Days of Heaven and after a long hiatus, a film I consider to be possibly the single best movie I’ve ever witnessed, the war epic The Thin Red LineIn the 21st Century, however, his production increased in both volume and frequency, churning out The New World in the last decade, and a whopping 4 features and 1 documentary since 2011, a ratio of output to time-span that shocked pretty much everyone in the cinema world. Something about Malick had changed.

Initially, I thought he had simply had an explosion of great ideas he felt were necessary to put to film. When The Tree of Life released in theaters, I made it a point to revisit and experience Malick’s filmography in chronological order to prepare myself for what many hailed as a decades-long passion project. My roommate Joe and I spent the week watching 1 Malick film each day, starting with Badlands and working our way to The New World. I learned a lot from that experience, especially the historical and technical origins of Malick’s signature voice-over narration that haunts his characters and landscapes like whispers of ghosts reaching out into our world. I saw glimpses of dazzling visuals, lingering tracking shots, and an aching small-town nostalgia within Badlands that would culminate in a tidal wave of personal memory in The Tree of Life. The definition of auteur given by film critic Andrew Sarris boiled down to the idea that there existed a thematic string, a world-view, within a filmmaker, which was prevalent throughout their entire oeuvre, and that made the “auteur”. This string was clear in Malick’s career.

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Has it been cut? If his last three narrative features are any indication, at the very least it’s been weakened and frayed. A few weekends ago I saw his latest offering, a romantic music-centered film called Song to Song. A compilation of all the typical Malickian ingredients, from the dream-like visual work to the understated characters to the themes of love, loss, death and memory, the film felt like it was directed by Malick on autopilot. It was a movie filled with the filmmaker’s most natural instincts and so many of them packed together with no theme that it becomes a self-parody. The style that I used to love, that used to evoke such a deeper questioning to the themes he explored, that added immense depth to a painterly celluloid canvas, now evoked only an eye-roll, a sigh, and a glance at my cell phone to see how much time I had left before I could go home.

Is Malick bored? Or did he just run out of ideas? It seems counterintuitive for a bored and imagination-dry filmmaker to start making movies at a faster pace than he used to.

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Voyage of Time (Terrence Malick, 2017)

Even more perplexing is the other movie I saw from him, a short documentary in IMAX at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum called Voyage of Time was so moving and beautifully composed. It’s is a visual “companion” of sorts to his narrative masterpiece The Tree of Life, and is a representation of human existence told through the creation of the universe. The film has no dialogue and almost no humans aside from a girl standing in a field and two kids playing in the front yard of a colonial suburban home. This film was purely the essentials of Malick’s visual technique. Aside from a beautiful opening scroll that in itself eclipses any inane forced voice-over dialogue from his last 3 disappointing films, the film is just CGI and natural shots depicting the birth of the universe and the world and ultimately, its expansive relation to us and our place within it.  What is the string between this film and Song to Song? Is there any thematic connection? They were made by the same man, a director I have incredible admiration for, but one is comprised of all his greatest tendencies and the other all his worst. One felt personal and profound while the other felt like pseudo-intellectual blabber and faux-artistic posturing.

The clearest distinction I can make between the old and new Malick, is that before, his visuals and his words were dictated by an inner voice that was so clear, making his style a necessary vehicle to project that voice to us. Malickian style now seems like nothing more than a pandering technique for his fans. The weight of his voice-overs is absent, the meaning behind his mesmerizing images isn’t there. Song to Song‘s entire aesthetic could be recreated by anyone with a high definition camera and it wouldn’t lose any of its already flimsy effect. That is sad to say about a filmmaker who didn’t miss a step for almost 4 decades of sparse but masterful filmmaking.

Top 10: Best Movies of 2016

[Inset “2016 was the worst year ever” joke here]

2016 was terrible on many political fronts, but when it comes to cinema, it forces me to look at the best of things that have passed. As I moved to Washington D.C. I was surprised by the solid film culture that exists here. I guess (or at least I hope) that despite any changes in what goes on in the federal buildings of this district, the cultivation of theaters, movie screenings, and film community will continue to grow and offer more.

I look forward in 2017 to start watching more local cinema, created by D.C. filmmakers, reading scripts by D.C. talents and joining their ranks by continuing to film my own stuff. I also look forward to being more selective in the movies that I watch. As the year went on I succumbed to the glitz and glamor of major Hollywood releases, but I’m going to try to make a point to restrict myself to spending money on smaller filmmakers and production companies that really need the money and funding. I’m sure I’ll catch a big release here of there, but it will be less than last year. I’m also curious to see how this plays into the types of films I try to expose through recommendations. I’ve seen my Top 10 lists become more and more focused on smaller non-blockbuster movies as years go by. That trend I will continue, maybe next year I’ll have a list that is strictly geared towards giving exposure to movies you may have never heard of… trust me, that’s a good thing.

Anyway, here’s a list of 10 of the best movies I’ve seen this year of 2016. I also have additions at the end of the page for movies from past years which I watched for the first time this year (if that makes sense). Hopefully this will see some older movies you may not know you love yet.

#1   O.J. Made in America   (dir. Ezra Edelman  –  U.S.A.)

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OJ: MADE IN AMERICA positions itself as a media-on-media critique. It uses interviews, news broadcasts, movie scenes, commercials, sports clips and analysis, and political speeches and reactions to recreate the aura and mythology of its central character, O.J. Simpson.

But the greatness of this documentary is brought forth in its ability to connect the evolution of a nation with the trajectory of one man’s fame, power, and wealth and the American people’s investment in that story. Full review HERE

#2   American Honey    (dir. Andrea Arnold  –  U.S.A.)

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What sets American Honey apart is that it essentially treats seizing the moment as a survival tactic for its protagonists in conjunction with its traditional depiction as a rebellious act of pure free will…. Opportunistic capitalism meets the self-discovering millennial. The entire film rides an electric current that transfers itself directly from Arnold’s camera. The shaky-cam is a technique many have grown tired of, but its wandering, untamed eye captures the imagination of the film’s characters and their surroundings. Their dance circles bumping to trap songs have the aesthetic of a music video. Full Review HERE

#3    I, Daniel Blake   (dir. Ken Loach  –  U.K.)

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The theater was full of heavy sighs, groans, headshakes, and a clear frustration bouncing off the walls from every corner. Everyone left tsk-tsking. I’ve never seen such a vocally frustrated response from an audience for a character and a story. It made it that much harder to shake off Ken Loach’s remarkable and painfully relevant film.

Full Review HERE

#4   Cameraperson   (dir. Kirsten Johnson  –  U.S.A.)

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Constructed from tape Kirsten Johnson has collected over many years of travel and documentation, CAMERAPERSON is the living breathing embodiment of the phrase “a film is made in the editing room”. All of the sequences in the film jump around geographically and temporally making their juxtaposition more jarring and their lack of context daring in making the audience piece together stories of individuals themselves. It’s as educational and personal of a documentary as I’ve ever seen, and its presentation will make almost anyone search and read endlessly about the topics and historical events it showcases… many of them leading to dark and painful places and revealing terrifying truths about our world.

#5   Moonlight    (dir. Barry Jenkins  –  U.S.A.)

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There is nothing better than seeing a filmmaker have his debut film emphatically stamped with his own vision. The best part of Moonlight isn’t that it sheds light on a neglected class of American society, but that it dares to examine and say a good deal about them with a completely unique perspective. Dee Rees’s sadly forgotten parable Pariah did something very similar.

#6   The Hunt for the Wilderpeople   (dir. Taika Waititi  –  New Zealand)

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I have been watching Taika Waititi’s career since his debut Eagle vs. Shark back when I was a junior in high school, and it’s always rendered as very hit-or-miss, with the misses coming more frequently and missing by a lot. He may have won me over however with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a fun New Zealander’s take on the American mismatched-pair buddy comedy. Its moments of family dynamics, what it means to be a “man”, and an undercurrent of racial disparities between New Zealand’s white and native Maori populations all come under hilarious satirical examination with Waititi’s ability to balance both cultural relevance and popcorn entertainment seamlessly.

#7   Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping   (dir. Jorma Taccone & Ariel Schaffer  –  U.S.A.)

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Popstar isn’t quite the comedic success that Hunt for the Wilderpeople is, but it manages to play to its central characters’ (Lonely Island trio) built internetz fanbase with hilarious and some cringy moments that make for a light and airy satire on the pop industry’s slow demise into utter ridiculousness. I only wished in addition to the whimsy, the film added a bit of bite the way Eminem’s “Real Slim Shady” track did on this same subject of “pop stardom” 15 years ago.

#8   Les Innocents   (dir. Anne Fontaine  –  France)

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Look here. For all the film critics and viewers fawning over Mel Gibson’s slathering faith-based conundrum Hacksaw Ridge that presents itself with the subtlety of hammering a nail into one’s palm, if you want a truly gut-churning film which both tests and reaffirms belief in a higher power and its place in a world slowly losing hope… look here.

#9   Sunset Song   (dir. Terrence Davies  –  Scotland)

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It’s hard to call the film merely a romantic period-piece because it doesn’t dwell much on its setting or its time-period as a major factor for the relationships of its characters. Yes, there is a war, and its clear its the Scottish country-side, but people can experience what Chris Guthrie goes through in almost any time period. Enduring the abusive relationship with her domineering father, the death of her mother, falling in love, having her loved one changed from the inside-out by war. Davies turns Sunset Song into more a film of human emotion transcending time and place, but the pre-war Scottish countryside adds the nostalgia by channeling a near fairy-tale like setting, but bombarding it with a devastating story filled with every bit of the harshness of real life, but also the warmth.

Full Review HERE

#10   Rogue One   (dir. Garth Edwards  –  U.S.A.)

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There was a lot of noise made about a particular Vox article with an ill-conceived clickbaity title suggesting that this Star Wars film, apart from any of the regular “canon films”, was the first one to acknowledge the “war” part of the Star Wars franchise. Watching this movie proved the article’s meat correct, despite its headline being manipulative. The fact of the matter is, the reason Rogue One resonates with people (me) not really all that enthusiastic about Star Wars movies is that it plays more towards the series biggest strengths, which is the mythos surrounding it and the humanization of its characters to being citizens under distress. Even when Leia’s planet of Alderaan was destroyed, there was hardly an acknowledgment of the weight of such a genocide occurring. It was brushed off as a plot point. We moved on. Rogue One takes the time to, for the first time in the franchise, calculate a loss within each individuals character’s contribution to the fight for a new hope. Rogue One‘s heart is more that of a war movie than it is “space-opera”.  That’s why I liked it better than any of the other ones.

Top Movies From Years Past that I Watched for the First Time in 2016 (in alphabetical order):

  • Babette’s Feast  (Gabriel Axel, 1987)
  • Colossal Youth  (Pedro Costa, 2006)
  • El Sur  (Victor Erice, 1983)
  • From What is Before  (Lav Diaz, 2014)
  • Lady Snowblood  (Toshiya Fujita, 1973)
  • Mumbai Cha Raja  (Manjeet Singh, 2012)
  • My Home is Copacabana  (Arne Sucksdorff, 1965)
  • My Dinner with Andre  (Louis Malle, 1981)
  • Norte: The End of History  (Lav Diaz, 2013)  –  *masterpiece, 2010’s All-Decade List
  • Ratcatcher  (Lynn Ramsey, 1999)
  • Santa Sangre  (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1989)  –  *masterpiece, 1980’s All-Decade List
  • Shotgun Stories  (Jeff Nichols, 2007)
  • Take Aim at the Police Van  (Seijun Suzuki, 1960)
  • Warrendale  (Allan King, 1968)

On Architecture & Use of Space: Ben Wheatley’s HIGH-RISE vs. Nicholas Winding Refn’s THE NEON DEMON

Two films released this year showcase first and foremost a unique architecture in their set designs and an equally unique use of space between the characters and their surroundings. However, one film manages to make a note of its structural choices in the ultimate lesson it attempts to convey. The other film’s choices are as thoughtless as flipping the thin pages of a high-end fashion magazine.

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The structural alignment of beams, floors, decks, and their vicinity from the parking lot in Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise is a physical manifestation of social hierarchy and the seperation of economic class. Many British stories, from E.M. Forsters’ Howard’s End and beyond have focused on the disparity and malevolence between the bourgeoisie and those subjected to a lower pedestal and even the sewers of the social strata. In J.G. Ballard’s novel, which Wheatley has, with his signature explosive cinematic style, translated into film, these socio-economic tales of the yesteryears are thrust forward into a quasi-post-apocalyptic world (it seems normal, but something is ominous about the air) where a series of high-rises dominate the landscape and stare down (literally the top of the buildings are tilted slightly so as to seem the building is “looking” downward) to the Earth with a shivering coldness.

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The main protagonist Robert Laing, has an apartment somewhere in the middle of the building. He is perpetually dressed in shirt and tie, to the point where it almost seems that that is his skin (even during sex, he never takes his outfit off). Throughout the film, the architecture of the building gives an aesthetic dimension to its residence’s statuses in society. The top floors (which also host the Architect, the creator of the building) are huge, barren except for the luxurious minimalist furniture that sets itself more like a modern art piece than something to sit on. The clothing is similarly porcelain… clean whites, straight blacks. The lower floors are decorated the way we may decorate our own houses. Pots of plants, pictures kids drew magneted to the refrigerator, some simple paintings and family photos hanging from the walls. The residents clothes have more color and are knitted with designs. Every part of the look of the film is meant to portray the status of a member or group within the “society”. As the war between the lower and upper floors begins to bubble, we start to see foundations shake quite literally… the lobby of the hotel becomes a mess and the cement beams start to chip away. There’s fires in the hallways. One of the bourgeoisie individuals jumps off his balcony to crash and die in the parking lot. A kind of cheeky metaphor of the phrase “the higher you rise the harder you fall”, and quite deliberate in this case, for the parking lot is the only part of the complex where all residents of all floors are on the same level. There’s no turning up one’s nose there because there’s nowhere to go vertically.

High-Rise: 

Now on the complete opposite end of the platform, is Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest film, The Neon Demon, one which uses space and structure for nothing other than a “cool look”. While there is a clear metaphorical density to the design of Wheatley’s film, The Neon Demon’s use of architecture is more akin to million-dollar wrapping paper on an empty box. The resulting film is eerily similar to the smug, rotten, and morally defunct interiors of the top floors of the Wheatley’s High-Rise. The characters themselves function more like glass mannequins with no interior working parts. They are quite literally the subject of objectification and the male gaze, and even if the intent of this was to reveal the hollowness of Hollywood’s show-business, there was no attempt by Refn to examine it. Instead, the camera’s central job in this film is to move in lateral motions as the actresses, scantily clad, dolled up to the hilt, stare coldly at one another or into space. Sometimes there’s flickering neon lights. Much of the minimalist scene setting in Refn’s films has existed since Valhalla Rising, but this is the first time it seems like just time-filler. The actresses just take up space.

The Neon Demon:

 

2015 Capsule Reviews Part III

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The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)

The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)

For a movie with such a palpably tense premise, The Martian is almost devoid of any real peril. Let me say that I did not read the book, but from everything I’ve heard about it from various sources, it’s a very well-written piece of work. So you can imagine my confusion when, as I am sitting through Ridley Scott’s latest venture into sci-fi, a genre he is usually very successful with, I am slaped around with an endless constant stream of wise-cracks from a snarky Matt Damon who is stuck with limited oxygen, food, and survival equipment on another freaking planet, and acting like he’s trying to survive a week-long house-arrest inside of a mansion. There isn’t a single moment in which I truly believed Mark Watney was in any serious danger, and that’s a problem because he was stuck millions of miles away from human civilization. The groundwork of this premise lays the foundation for an incredible sense of dire hopelessness for the central character, yet Ridley Scott provides none of this in his movie. Even the camerawork amidst sandstorms and life-threatening plot-points on the planet are shot in such a vibrantly beautiful and meticulously efficient manner that it seems like we’re looking at a high-rendered computer simulation via NASA’s website instead of a cinematic work of art and emotion. As if Watney is inside of such a simulation the entire time, robotic and fake. It seems that Mr. Scott has trouble conjuring up much drama when there aren’t horrifying alien creatures lurking about looking to feed on the main character.

 

Everything Will Be Fine (Wim Wenders, 2015)

This is going to be a quick review, because this film was atrocious. I am still trying to search for what the hell Wim Wenders, Germany’s most overrated filmmaker export (Wings of Desire, Paris Texas, both dreck), was trying to say here, and what possessed him to believe any of the so-called “acting” that we see on screen was adequate for anything more than an ABC Family original movie.

 

Time Out of Mind (Oren Moverman, 2015)

More personal performance piece by Richard Gere than anything else. Time Out of Mind documents Richard Gere as a homeless man, estranged from his daughter and permanently separated from his wife. Gere opens the piece with him lying inside a bathtub and acting disoriented saying some woman is coming to get him and everything is okay. Throughout the film, Gere’s character behaves in a way which directly confronts our fears, irritation, and genuine negative attitude towards the homeless. He is pathetic in many cases, spending what little money he can panhandle to buy a six pack and sit on a park bench, making belching noises and feeling sorry for himself. It’s easy to hate this character, and that is the point. He finally seeks help at a homeless shelter and it is here that we see the “system”. For all of the rudeness and complete lack of consideration that Gere’s homeless individual displays the social workers still treat him with respect and do what they can to retrieve the information they need to get him help. It is important for Gere to express his character as one without any identifying marks; no ID, no license, no proof of birth. He embodies the our version of a homeless man. Faceless, nameless, a category of not-quite-human on the street to avoid eye-contact with. Eternally non-existent, at least, aside from that split second we pass them by. In this sense, Gere’s acting performance and experiment overall is important because it forces us to try to like his character, to notice him, to see ourselves by his side. We resist through majority of the film, but eventually, there is a growing sense of comfort. The film succumbs to sappy clichés once or twice, mainly with the annoying side character of Dixon, as well as a scene in a coffee shop where Gere tries playing the piano with a beautiful afternoon light glowing directly in his direction. These scenes are an unimaginative plea to turn Gere into a “character”, but that rings false. The greatest strength of the film is when Gere is at his worst because that confrontation challenges the best in our ability to empathize with his situation.

 

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson, 2015)

When I first heard about Roy Andersson, he piqued my interest mainly because of people’s complaints about his sparse and challenging comedy. I like movies that are hard to digest in terms of their artistic approach because it proves that the filmmaker is at least attempting something unique. In this sense, the movie can never outright fail because as Woody Allen says “98% of success is just showing up”. Well, Andersson technically showed up, but then died right at the doorstep and left me flabbergasted as to what to do. Pigeon is a weird movie for sure, but it is also one where its weirdness, sparseness, and supposed quirk is equivalent of the kid in the corner snorting with a cold, pulling out his snot, examining it, and then eating it. It’s not the kind you want to be associated with to examine from anything close than a safe 20 feet away. There is no charm here, just a deadly slow showcase of mannequin-like characters doing their worst impression of deadpan humor. The two salesmen, the “hook” of the narrative if you will, display their ineptitude from the get-go, reducing themselves to pointless downers. We know they’re not going to sell anything, so why are we watching them? In fact, why the hell are we watching this movie?

Chappie

Chappie (Neil Blomkamp, 2015)

Neil Blomkamp’s latest take on socio-economics in the less than reputable urban areas of South Africa is a boiling gumbo of social problems, technological perils, and corruption of the mind that is laced in some of the most infecting visual style you’ll see at the theaters this early in the year.

The future is bright for a director as talented as Blomkamp is, but the future within his films is one painted in a darker shade. A quasi-post-apocalyptic coating where government officials and police are in a constant war with individuals they deem to be dangerous to society. Whether they are the aliens of District 9, the poor classes of Elysium or here in Chappie, simply rough street gangs and a peculiar robot that gains consciousness through a programming code, the targets of law enforcement in Blomkamp films are given a multi-dimensional feel that they don’t get when covered by the news media.

There is a constant “us vs. them” feel to Blomkamp’s film which is all a little too relate-able for comfort.  We don’t see this in the U.S. just in terms of cops and criminals, but also in terms of humans and the exponentially skyrocketing technological advancement happening in companies in Silicon Valley. Ray Kurtzweil has expressed his fear and concern over artificial intelligence many times before. In the same breath, the rise of a militant police system and the increasing violence among disenfranchised communities such as those in Ferguson, Missouri have been near the center of media for the past several months. Blomkamp manages to combine these two elements into a striking individualistic message in which the central character is a robot.

Chappie is a computer program uploaded into one of engineering firm Tetravaal’s prototype robot police officers. The creator of the robots, the nerdy engineer Deon (Dev Patel), believes that he has stumbled upon a program which can give artificial life to one of his creations… that a robot will be capable of thinking, feeling, evolving, and learning the way a human being does. He takes a rejected model from the trash bin and decides to test his program on it. Like a newborn baby, Chappie comes into consciousness scared and uneasy about his surroundings. A group of rag-tag gangsters named Ninja, Yolandi, and America (yes, one of the character’s names is “America”) plan to use Chappie as an accomplice to commit crimes and come at odds with Deon, who wants Chappie to develop into a productive citizen in society. The fears over Chappie that would result in his alienation from human society come from two directions, both of which, as stated earlier, are prevalent fears in American society today.

One is of machine intelligence, where Chappie’s ability to develop cognitively like a human child, through reading books, understanding grammar, fine-tuning his motor skills and mimicking his role-models erases the line between life and artificiality. We start to become concerned of the idea of “playing God”, giving birth to a new “species” of life, one which in all respects, is not dictated by biology and the limitations of mother nature and thus, not subject to evolution. Machines are a species which could potentially live forever. To give them thought like an organism of our intelligence would render our race obsolete, and if they can develop thought past us, we suddenly become the inferior species. The moral complications of this are staggering and are rushed to the forefront of discussion when, during the film, Chappie begins to exhibit existential thought. The human reaction to something like this happening would be similar to the combination of fascination and terrifying fear exhibited when Alex the Grey Parrot, during a color classification experiment asked the question “What color am I?”, the first time any non-human creature was ever recorded as asking a question about itself. Chappie ponders the difference between his body and his consciousness when Yolandi, who he affectionately refers to as “mommy”, explains to him that his mechanical body and his wires are not what makes him him. He also considers uploading his consciousness as a simulation program and using it to create more “Chappies”. I think I just heard Ray Kurzweil have a heart attack. There haven’t yet been known cases of computer programs being able to create better versions of themselves, but it are not far from being a reality. What happens when biology is thrown out the window? Where to humans turn?

While artificial intelligence is something that is a distant dear, one which people are already taking measures to monitor, the second prevalent fear, which is a reality today, is one of corruption of the mind by upbringing and surrounding. The psychology of individuals and their decision-making and view of society is heavily influenced by where and how they grew up. Chappie’s alienation not only stems from him being a different species, but also by being molded as an enemy of the state. While Chappie’s creator Deon is stuck juggling his work and the mean-spirited taunts and threats from his archrival engineer Vincent (Hugh Jackman), Chappie is raised primarily by his father figure, Ninja, a fly-off-the-handle small-time thug who emotionally manipulates Chappie into committing crimes for him. Ninja abandons Chappie amidst a gang of violent thugs to teach Chappie “the cruelty of the world”. We feel the same sort of mixed emotions over Ninja as we do with any intensely hard-going father figure, one minute he cares, the next minute he couldn’t give less of a shit. Chappie’s upbringing as a thug, being taught to walk and shoot automatic weapons the way Ninja does, and going on car-stealing sprees with Ninja and America, shapes Chappie into a criminal himself. It comes at a price for Deon, who created Chappie as a Tetravaal prototype to help with South Africa’s police force… Chappie, once a cop, has now, through a consciousness program, developed into hard-lined thug. We ask the question in America all the time. The disenfranchised communities, particularly urban black communities, produce a lot of criminals, gang-bangers, and drug-addicts. To dismiss the environment in which they grew up in as an influence would be to do the individuals a disservice. The moment they start to learn and think, they start to pick up the activities of other individuals who influence them. Blomkamp reveals, through Chappie’s development from a toddler to an advanced adult program, that he is wildly susceptible to influence from his surroundings. The psychology of Chappie is coded on its own from what he observes through his father figure, Ninja. It’s a socio-economic problem which affects the human mind in many ways, and to reverse it is extremely difficult.

I can’t argue that Chappie, in terms of its overarching storyline is similar to many other films where fear becomes the key ingredient in misunderstanding between humans and another “species” (particularly The Planet of the Apes series). There is the perennial good guy, Deon, who creates Chappie and wants him to grow up into a productive member of society, the anti-heros Ninja, Yolandi, and America who don’t know better than to teach Chappie about their lives as criminals, and the perennial bad guy Vincent who is a failed engineer who seeks to get revenge and eventually murder both Deon and his creation. The familiarity of the story is no reason to dismiss Chappie as derivative. Interesting approaches to discussing common problems is what makes Blomkamp’s films intriguing, and his visual flair is what makes it exciting. Kinetic cameras and vivid color schemes paint Blomkamp’s darkly futuristic South Africa as a frenetic and lively danger-zone which fits perfectly with its socio-economic and technological discourse. Overall, we have the blessing of seeing and action movie that is less robotic and more human… one which isn’t only dictated by technical aspects and computer simulated schemes, but which also has a heart and a mind. Like Chappie himself, Blomkamp’s film is deeper than the mechanical action genre is known to be and for that reason, it’s worth listening to.