Tag Archives: Dev Patel

Trailers of the Week — The Importance of Documentaries

Pulitzer Winner breaking news 2012 by Massoud Hossaini

by Gabriel Valdez

The photo above is real. It was taken by Massoud Hossaini and documented the aftermath of a suicide bombing aimed at Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan. The name of the girl screaming is Tarana Akbari. It means “Melody” in English. 17 women and children in her family were walking to a shrine to celebrate a holy day, Ashura. Seven died. This information is taken from the Pulitzer Prize website. This photo was shared around the world, and helped keep focus on Afghanistan at a time when it was drifting from the public eye.

There’s a perception that being an artist is easy, a lazy way out. You tell me: What’s the most important thing you can do in that moment? Help the girl or take the photo? Each choice changes lives; each choice sacrifices the opportunity to change other lives.


American society likes to downplay the role of artists – that they’re narcissistic, self-serving, or feel that the expectations of society are less important than their own personal goals – but this is a dangerous rejection. Artists often have a vital role to play in being a culture’s conscience. That can be in the form of comedians, photographers, painters, filmmakers, any kind of artist.

In Afghanistan, where photography was banned under the Taliban, it falls upon photographers to remind the world of the daily struggles and intolerances their citizens face. They know what stability is there will fall apart when the U.S. leaves because, well, they’ve seen it before in their lifetimes. The fault isn’t in our leaving again, it’s in our leaving nothing of value behind again, focusing on winning wars rather than building schools and hospitals and roads, leaving nothing for their population to pick up but weapons and damning ourselves to another war there 20 years later.

Directors Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli depict how photographers can use our interconnected world to keep pressure on Western nations to build something more. It’s an uphill battle, it’s a battle unlikely to be won, but that doesn’t mean that artists shouldn’t have it because along the way they will save lives, they will improve their culture’s situation, and they will make things that much better and more stable to survive the next war and the next dictatorship. That’s the role of an artist – not narcissism, but self-sacrifice, even if those they’re sacrificing for couldn’t recognize that in a million years. How dangerous is it to devalue your own conscience?


How exceptional would it be to suddenly discover you have an adopted twin halfway around the world? That’s the unique experience Twinsters documents. I know very little about it, but Samantha Futerman documents her own strange experience of meeting her twin. It’s the sort of unlikely drama we attach to fiction and never expect to encounter in reality, but these are the things that become more likely as our web of social networks makes the world a smaller place.


Very few people realize that Caroll Spinney has been playing Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street for nearly 50 years now. What’s the story behind a puppeteer and voice actor who is, essentially, synonymous with the entire history of the most successful children’s program in TV history? And what does that history mean going forward, at a time when public television is under political attack for…well, I’m really still unsure why Republicans in Congress keep trying to pull funding from it.

I’m told I approached my mother with a storybook once, when I was very young. She assumed I wanted her to read it to me. I started reading it to her instead. My parents were terrifically involved in my growth, but like many things in my life, I had kept my ability to read private until I could do it at a certain level. They were shocked I could read so early. They asked me how. I had two words: “Sesame Street.” I don’t see how you pull what amounts to very little public funding for a show that can teach children – some who have parents who weren’t as involved as mine were – to read.


I know, it’s Taylor Lautner, and he was the pinnacle of horrible in a franchise pretty much dedicated to horrible. Although I think the first Twilight is perfectly acceptable for what it is, its four(!?!) sequels were increasingly dreadful. Every other actor in the movies, however – Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Anna Kendrick, Michael Sheen, Dakota Fanning, Mackenzie Foy – boasts a career composed of far better performances. The evidence suggests none of them are bad actors, but rather they all joined in on a franchise composed of terrible performances.

Why should Lautner be any different? I don’t see any reason not to give him the benefit of the doubt, especially in a movie that looks like the lovechild of Point Break and Premium Rush, and features parkour as its action focus.


I have no idea of the context of this, nor of its underlying messages or historical or mythical accuracy. I have zero background in this, but there aren’t a whole lot of epics from Sri Lanka that we get a chance to see, and my radar starts going wild any time I get a chance to see movies from a film industry that – to me, at least – is new.

Every culture inputs something new and different into the films they make, adds something new to the visual language that makes up storytelling in movies. That’s why I’m excited for this, even if I know little else about it.


Mike Flanagan put out Oculus last year and it was a moodily effective, if ultimately underwhelming, horror movie. I look forward to seeing what he does as he continues to develop and evolve as a filmmaker. The plot of Before I Wake feels a little predictable, but some of those visuals are more effective than I want to admit. If he can pull those off, he’ll join a small group of young directors who – I don’t want to be overdramatic here – are basically our only hope of saving a woeful American horror genre.


Mumblecore – a genre defined by naturalistic acting, often messily overlapped dialogue, and real shooting locations – has long been a genre associated with twenty-something melodrama. While that’s all well and fine (and a bit underrated in what it can contribute to film), I find it fascinating when it’s applied to other genres. Take You’re Next, a 2013 horror movie that adopts mumblecore as an effective way of marrying dark comedy to intense horror.

While mumblecore would seem tailor-made to the screwball comedy, the reality is that nobody really thinks to make screwball comedies of any sort anymore. That’s a shame, and one reason Wild Canaries is on my list of harder-to-track-down films.


Rose Byrne has a head for intriguing and challenging independent film. She’s followed a career of never quite going mainstream, yet she often pushes her movies into unexpected box office success anyway. Despite the disaster that was last year’s Neighbors (read the review), I’m more than willing to trust her in an indie comedy opposite Nick Kroll – despite or because of the fact they’re playing enabling narcissists, I’m not really sure.


It’s a Dev Patel world, we’re just living in it. Two weeks ago he had two debuts – Chappie (read the review) and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – that opened first and third on box office charts. Later this year, The Road Within will find its way to rental, if not the theater, and even if the trailer looks a little rote, it also looks fun. That and Dev Patel is quickly becoming a bit of a must-see actor for me.

Other trailers of note:

Pixar’s latest animated film, Inside Out, debuted its first real story trailer.

Hotel Transylvania 2 featured its first trailer, a cute scene about vampires learning to fly.

Maggie Kiley’s Dial a Prayer looks like it could be a very good comedy.

More Human Than Human — “Chappie”

Chappie and dog South Africa

by Gabriel Valdez

Chappie is absolutely everything I want to see in a science-fiction movie. It’s thick with ideas, its twists and turns fast and furious by the end of its two hours.

Let me preface this: I am not a fan of either of director Neil Blomkamp’s previous films. District 9 was interesting, but still had too many holes to sort out by the time its credits rolled. Elysium was promising but crashed and burned in its second half. Both films were chock full of great ideas ruined by uneven execution.

Blomkamp knew this, too, even going so far as to apologize to fans for Elysium. So he went back to the drawing board and stuck closer to home with Chappie.

To recount its plot too deeply would be to reveal any number of twists on its Dickensian orphan formula. Essentially, police in South Africa have begun to use man-sized robots to quell crime. They fight, they shoot, they act as mobile shields. One such robot takes a few extra risks protecting those around him, becomes too badly damaged, and ends up in the trash heap. Its developer, Deon (Dev Patel), begs his boss to study it, but the company doesn’t want to risk artificial consciousness.

Meanwhile, a group of down-on-their-luck gangsters plan to pull off a major heist. They just need to kidnap Deon to get him to turn the police robots off. Deon kidnaps the robot he wants to study, the gangsters kidnap Deon, and one of cinema’s most intriguing alternative families is born.

Chappie gangster

The robot, Chappie (Sharlto Copley), is like a child. The gangsters consist of a father, a mother, their compatriot Amerika, and have a difficult relationship with Deon – the Maker. Each pulls Chappie in different directions – his mother teaches him compassion and self-confidence, his father sabotages that confidence to toughen Chappie up and make him useful, his maker teaches him right from wrong. Chappie can’t make sense of it all, and eventually feels betrayed by and lost from each of these lights in his life.

If it’s starting to sound like something of a faith-based movie, you wouldn’t be wrong. If Chappie were a little boy questioning God instead of a robot questioning his designer, this would be drawing faith-based crowds in droves. The allegory at play is much the same, which brings us to the film’s Satan – a competing robot designer named Vincent (Hugh Jackman) who will stop at nothing to sabotage Deon’s success and destroy Chappie. Jackman is utterly brilliant in the role, using that burning intensity we cheer on in his other performances to create someone who’s inconsolably angry at not measuring up.

This is a film about being tugged into all sorts of moral confusions and compromises upon being gifted into the world. Chappie makes mistakes, some of them horrible. We root for him, but we’re also rooting for his understanding of the world and his uniquely personal sense of faith. We want Chappie to live, but more than that – we want him to get the chance to live on his own terms. That’s the crux of the film’s drama. We’re worried for Chappie, sure, but we’re much more worried for who he’ll turn out to be. Every lesson imparted, every moral compromised, every death inflicted – even a touching encounter with a dead pit bull – it all takes a toll on his soul.

Mommy Daddy Chappie

Chappie is a crazy movie – the gangsters are played by South African rap artists Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser (often wearing their band Die Antwoord’s t-shirts), its blistering action is a major step up from what Blomkamp’s delivered before, and its audacious last 10 minutes is the stuff of sci-fi legend. (If you think you have any idea where this film’s going, believe me – you don’t.)

It’s all anchored by how we feel about Chappie, how much we need to see Chappie succeed because, to be honest, he isn’t just a robot. He’s each of our failures, our confusions, our indecisions and insecurities up on that screen. By teaching a robot how to be human and what to value, we get a stark look at our own lives and values.

More than anything else, Chappie offers us the chance to look at where we are as humans – and it’s not always a pretty picture we see staring back at us. The movie takes place in a post-apocalyptic future wasteland – 2016 looking just like 2015 – and suggests that our worst sci-fi visions of societal failure already exist for many in the world.

Keep in mind, Chappie is rated R for violence, language, and brief nudity. It’s cute throughout because of the childlike nature of Chappie, but it marries this to stark and sudden moments of violence – it doesn’t play around with the effect of guns. Some call this uneven, but it’s very intentional. When we’re prepared for it, we view violence through a different lens as an audience. Because Chappie disarms us and opens up our empathy, the brutality here can feel like salt in a wound. Like Chappie, we’re not prepared for it. That’s no mistake; that’s the point.

(For more on what robots mean to us in movies today, read Our Better Angels, Our Gifted Children.)

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Chappie have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Yo-Landi Visser plays Yolandi and Sigourney Weaver plays Michelle Bradley, a robotics company CEO.

2. Do they talk to each other?

No, but I’ll grant some leeway on how you read Chappie. Is Chappie a he, a she, or an it? He’s played by a male actor (Sharlto Copley) in a rough variation on motion capture and other characters refer to him as a “he.” I read him as male while watching, but that may have as much to do with my own bias.

3. About something other than a woman?

Since I’m treating the last question as a no, this doesn’t apply, but the women in this film rarely talk about men.

As always, the Bechdel Test is a tool. The portrayals of women here are fairly positive. Weaver’s Bradley is a CEO who puts the company first, but who doesn’t seem unfair while doing so. She runs a business that makes weapons and makes no bones about it. That’s her job and she does it well. Her character poses an obstacle to Deon and the constructive things he wants to accomplish, but she also poses an obstacle to Vincent and the destructive goals he wants to meet.

Visser’s Yolandi is posed as the mother figure to Chappie, but it doesn’t feel like a diminutive role. She runs heists, is introduced in a three-sided gunfight, backs down her partner Ninja regularly, is definitely Amerika’s superior, and seems to have veto power over the gang’s biggest decisions. If she wants to sit down and read Chappie a bedtime story, I’m sure as hell not getting in her way.

(There’s been a lot of fuss over Die Antwoord’s involvement in the film, but they’re very good in their roles.)

It’s a small cast – outside Chappie, there are six core roles. Two of these are women, four men. It’s not perfect, but it portrays women who are powerful and don’t fit into stereotypes, and it does so in a positive way.

More to the point, Chappie has a strong throughline of criticizing patriarchy. Chappie himself is torn between his mother and his maker – who teach him to value himself – and his father, who tears down Chappie’s self-worth and replaces it with the need to be tough and act violent. There’s no simpler metaphor for how patriarchy feeds into misogyny and racism.

When you have self-worth, you don’t need to push others down in order to feel valued. When someone tears your self-worth down and tells you you’re not good enough, that you need to act tougher and dominate others – that’s when you raise your own self-worth by devaluing the worth of others. That’s what Ninja teaches Chappie – how to dress, how to act, how to intimidate like a man. None of it is for Chappie’s benefit; it’s all to make Chappie more useful to Ninja as a gangster. It sells Chappie on the idea that he needs to be a certain way to earn his father’s approval, to lead a worthwhile life, and to be valued by others. Yet the whole time we’re watching, we know it’s all a lie.

This carries special meaning in a country like South Africa, where a patriarchal system maintained apartheid until 1994, and where powerful vestiges of the attitude that created it still keep black Africans ghettoized and leading lives of lower quality than their white counterparts.

There’s a lot going on in Chappie. It is not perfect in all regards, but it has no sense for biting off more than it can chew, and it chews through it all – faith, patriarchy, the afterlife, wealth distribution, domestic violence, ghettoization, corporate shock doctrine, ethics of drone warfare. I’m getting off-topic – it could have more women in it, and it would be better if it did, but that doesn’t mean it’s on the wrong side of the conversation. It’s very much asking the right questions in ways that few films dare.