Thursday, March 12, 2015

Chappie and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

           A Double Dose of Dev Patel (and a lot of others along the way)
                                                           Reviews by Ken Burke
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
I suppose I could have linked the actual reviews because of the Patel connection, but beyond this post title there's really not much that connects them so I'll proceed in a separate analytical manner.
                                            Chappie (Neill Blomkamp)
In 2016 Johannesburg rampant crime leads to the creation of a robot police force to supplement human cops but the chief engineer of the creation company implants full-blown artificial intelligence into a robot, which leads to its desirability for some or the determination to control or destroy it for others, even as another massive robot enters into this fierce conflict.
What Happens: In Chappie (or CHAPPiE if you prefer the version on the posters) we’re slightly into future (2016) Johannesburg where crime is as rampant as in Gotham City prior to Batman, so the police force turns to the Tetravaal weapons manufacturer to produce a line of droid-like SCOUT police robots to enhance the impact of their human colleagues, which does significantly reduce crime in this metropolis, even though Tetravaal engineer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) tries unsuccessfully to promote his invention, MOOSE, a huge robot operated by a human from a command center similar to the human-alien-body-linkage in Avatar (James Cameron, 2009); however CEO Michelle Bradley’s (Sigourney Weaver) not interested because the SCOUT program is already proving so successful.  One powerful gangster, Hippo (Brandon Auret), and his thugs remain at large, though, demanding that one of their “subcontractor” gangs—Ninja (Ninja; easy casting—seriously, he’s a rapper, real name Watkin Tudor Jones), Yolandi (Yolandi Visser [real name Anri du Toit], another South African rapper), and Yankie (Jose Pablo Cantillo)—repay a staggering 20 million rand (1 = about $11) debt, so they decide to kidnap Tetravaal scientist Dr. Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), the chief robotics engineer, to force him to disengage all of the police robots (he tells them that such an override is impossible, so instead they demand he reprogram a SCOUT to help them commit some high-stakes crimes to raise this enormous sum in fast fashion).  What they don’t realize is that the robot Deon has in his van is one damaged during a shootout with criminals that he’s has stolen in order to implant a higher level of consciousness, in hopes of creating a truly sentient machine.  Through Yolandi’s offhand remark the robot’s name becomes Chappie (voiced, with motion capture, by Charlto Copley), as the crooks take over the training of this new entity (who begins like a baby, with his reactive-rabbit-like-ears, but can progress exponentially faster, although I’d say that within the few days that this plot encompasses he barely reaches adolescence in human terms), although Deon uses his authority as “maker” to insist that Chappie not use a gun on anyone.  Ninja tries to toughen up Chappie (as he has no inclination toward violence, preferring instead to read and paint) by dropping him off in gang-banger-land with the intention he’d have to learn to fight to get back to his warehouse “home,” but all this does is traumatize the robot who’s then captured by Vincent who removes the guard key that overrides corporation control, then angrily saws off one of the arms before Chappie escapes to make his frightened return to Ninja, who begins to somewhat soften his anger-fueled-homicidal-persona (also, he has Yankie, shown just below, replace the arm).

 Next, our somewhat-sympathetic-goons (Yolandi becomes Mommy for Chappie, encourages him to see Ninja as Daddy; she also wears an American flag dress in one scene that my wife, Nina, says would be great for a Fourth of July party) get around the no-gun-command by teaching the now-tricked-out-“gangsta”-machine how to use knives and other bladed-instruments to get their opponents to “sleepy weepy” state as Ninja's group steals cars to raise cash, but when Hippo sees them attack a money-carrying-van on TV news he decides to use Chappie himself.  To further complicate matters, Vincent uses the override key to deactivate all of the SCOUT cops so that he can demonstrate the better use of MOOSE against the now-rampaging-criminals all over the city as well as destroy Chappie, whose sentient intelligence terrifies CEO Bradley.  As chaos increases, Chappie’s “life” is ebbing because his battery is running out yet it’s welded to his framework from his damaged-police-robot/pre-Deon-days, preventing a replacement so he devises a way to transfer his consciousness to another robot using a MOOSE-control-helmet. However, Deon’s become seriously wounded so Chappie sends his essence to the spare robot body instead, culminating the rapid events where Ninja kills Hippo, MOOSE kills Yolandi, Chappie blows up MOOSE and eventually takes down Vincent so neither the SCOUTs nor MOOSE will be further used for crime fighting, although the human police continue looking for Deon and Chappie (whose sentience has been transferred into a deactivated SCOUT by Dr. Deon; they also find a flash drive onto which Chappie had experimentally copied Yolandi’s consciousness so they make another robot to house her as well, all 3 of them joining underground forces with Ninja) who’ve been in hiding for about 18 months as we now understand from newscasts that originally began this film.

So What? From the previews you might be a bit confused as to what this film’s all about given the various robots running around, the constant mayhem, and the task of trying to determine among the humans who you’re supposed to root for (except for Patel, of course; to paraphrase a line from Jerry Seinfeld’s TV mom [Liz Sheridan as Helen Seinfeld], “Who couldn’t like him?”).  When you’re watching Chappie you still might have some of those confusions given that initially there are few humans who seem to be anything but self-concerned or on the wrong side of the law (except for Patel, although he’s stealing company property to use for purposes that have been expressly forbidden to him, plus he has little influence over Chappie until he decides to throw in his lot with Ninja and Yolandi, despite his fear of whatever dangerous thing they may decide to do next), but soon enough it becomes clear that Chappie truly deserves our sympathy because his created-consciousness is an inherently-decent-existence (just as we humans assume our offspring and pets are benign by nature unless they’re somehow corrupted by deviousness of “nurture”) so whoever acts in a caring way toward him must be the ones we’re supposed to care about as well, no matter that they’re committing crimes—practically everyone in this film is anyway, at some level—are covered in tattoos, have hairstyles that you don’t normally find in the Supercuts catalogue, nor resemble most anyone that we’re supposed to recognize as reputable protagonists in service to the betterment of human (and robot) kind.  It’s clearly a mean, miserable world that all of these folks inhabit (with resemblances to the Mad Max [George Miller; 1979, 1981, (and George Ogilvie) 1985, 2015] landscape even though the Chappie setting is literally just around the corner instead of being in a normally-more-distant-future), so we find once again that the best spirit of humanity resides in some of our machines (just as it did with the sacrificial final act of Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s guardian cyborg in Terminator 2: Judgment Day [Cameron, 1991]), even as an actual human—Dr. Wilson—joins the ranks of hyper-intelligent machines [I don’t know if this story will ever find itself being sequelized—see some thoughts on that cinematic concept in the next review below—but, if so, I’d be curious to see if once Deon becomes essentially a sophisticated computer program in a mechanical body he has the ability to evolve his intelligence to what’s being projected for the superior A.I. levels beyond humanity or if he’s limited to how he began as an organic entity]).  Some analysts of this content (see the 3rd link related to this film far below) don’t care for this storyline and its implications at all, but I find it fascinating to ponder what my own future will look like in the years remaining to me (trying to get myself into a proper frame of mind for the geriatrically-based-movie I’ll review next) when this computer I’m now clumsily typing upon starts giving me directives, just as my new (used) Ford Focus can interact with me via voice exchanges even if “she’s” (Nina would prefer a male voice, preferably a young Southern Italian) not yet aligned with my vocal cadence.

Bottom Line Final Comments: Critics-at-large haven’t been kind to Chappie, with a blistering 29% of positive reviews recorded by Rotten Tomatoes (for a change, the Metacritic score is higher, although not by much, at 40% positive; more details in the links far below), which puzzles me because I found Blomkamp’s film—as with his very serious, unexpected take on sci-fi in District 9 (2009) where an alien ship stranded in Johannesburg with its ailing occupants put into miserable quarantine makes commentary on the South African heritage of xenophobia and apartheid—to be quite thoughtful, unique, and fascinating to watch as it unfolded in an unexpected manner.  While it speaks to the growing concerns about machines with enhanced artificial intelligence and the potential that at some point in our near future such machines will become truly sentient—possibly dangerous to our existence as noted by such notables as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk (who was born in South Africa, coincidentally)Chappie also addresses the related situation that such sentient devices will have a consciousness that must be carefully nurtured, as with a developing child, in order to prevent them from going roguely-amuck simply out of confusion and fear, as with a feral animal (what to do about such machines when they become more sophisticated than us and want to eliminate our crude biological lifeforms in pursuit of more-advanced-silicon-based-evolution is another matter entirely, something that’s been pursued in films from 2001: A Space Odyssey [Stanley Kubrick, 1968] to the Terminator [Cameron, 1984, 1991; Jonathan Mostow, 2003; McG, 2009; Alan Taylor, 2015] and Matrix [Andy and Lana Wachowski; 1999, 2003, 2003] series, as well as addressed in hyper-paranoiac-fashion in Chappie by CEO Bradley).  There’s plenty of action here for those who prefer their sci-fi to be more of the physical RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987; José Padilha, 2014) variety than the contemplative Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972; Steven Soderbergh, 2002)-type stories but also some deep philosophical questions are raised about whether we should welcome or fear the development of true A.I. as well as whether the human species might someday become a version of A.I. itself if our consciousness could be implanted into robot-housed-computer-programs (unless we exist in a purely electronic manner within a global [and beyond?] Internet, such as with Johnny Depp’s character in Transcendence [Wally Pfister, 2014; review in our April 23, 2014 posting]).

 This last concept is more implied than explored as Chappie implants Dr. Wilson’s identity into a robot, but it does raise a lot of interesting questions worth exploring.  In the meantime, to get your consciousness into a tranquil, meditative mode ready to confront such lofty ideas I’ll offer a Musical Metaphor to Chappie of The Beatles’ “Within You Without You” (from their 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, with George Harrison primarily responsible for this cut) at watch?v=QFP10hDKH7k, where some appropriate psychedelic, prismatic imagery has been attached to help you contemplate what existence truly is, in whatever physical form it may appear, so that “When you’ve seen beyond yourself Then you may find Peace of mind is waiting there And the time will come When you see we’re all one And life flows on within you and without you,” although Chappie and Deon will probably be on the run from the forces of the Tetravaal Corp. for quite awhile before they enjoy such superb peace of enhanced mind.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (John Madden)

Once again we follow the exploits of elderly Brits at a retirement hotel in Jaipur, India, run by a young local man who’s about to get married but is more focused on getting funding to buy a second hotel property, irritating his fiancée and his mother; we’re also expected to keep up with several subplots involving aging and romance among the many other characters.
What Happens: If you’re not familiar with the quite-financially-successful The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Madden, 2012; review in our June 4, 2012 posting)for the Elderly and Beautiful, to use the full name of the establishment, which doesn’t factor in too often in reference to the place—the basic premise is that a cluster of Brits travel to India to live out their remaining years in a warm, affordable, non-Anglo climate (although still with familiar vestiges of the Empire) rather than the cooler, rainy summers of England (although that earlier episode at least acknowledged the vast class and economic differences in this South Asian locale, while the new version largely ignores those realities).  In an effort to acquaint/reacquaint you with this super-size cast, there’s a cutesy plot angle where young hotel owner/co-manager Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) has daily roll call for his guests (most of whom are in permanent residence) each morning, which helps us remember who’s who (and reassures him that they’re all still alive for the new day—one of many funny-yet-poignant-comments in a script which occasionally causes you to perk up and take notice with its eloquence, with maybe the best line being when someone asks Muriel about her recent trip to America: “It makes death more tempting.”).  Thusly, we meet co-manager Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith), still the ultimate curmudgeon but now much more accepting of the realities of her new environment; Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench), capable of some zingers of her own as she continues to adjust to widowhood, a new job as a fabric buyer for an emerging company, and her hesitant attraction to Douglas Ainslie (Bill Nighy), still married to caustic Jean Ainslie (Penelope Wilton) but virtually separated as she’s back in England allowing him to pursue a travesty-career as a tourist guide (getting his info from a kid using a radio beamed to Douglas’ earpiece, as his memory is hampered in most everything except his mutual-but-restrained-attraction to Evelyn); and then the lesser of the subplots: Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) as a bit of a gigolo on the lookout for fresh involvements even though he’s got a regular girlfriend, Carol Parr (Diana Hardcastle, new to the cast this time around), because he wrongly assumes that she’s actively fooling around on him (and mistakenly thinks he’s accidently set her up to be killed), along with Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) still on a lookout for available manhood (including 2 wealthy Indian men vying for her affection).
 In addition to bouncing around among this ex-pat-group, we also have the major plot point of Sonny wanting to get a loan from the U.S.A.'s Evergreen Corp. (run by Ty Burley [David Strathairn]) in order to buy property for a second Exotic Marigold Hotel but his preoccupation with whom he assumes to be an undercover inspector for Evergreen, Guy Chambers (Richard Gere), causes him to be rude to another new guest, Lavinia Beach (Tamsin Greig), distracted from his marriage plans to Sunaina (Tina Desai), in conflict over various things with his mother (Lillete Dubey), and jealous of Sunaina’s handsome, wealthy friend, Kushal (Shazad Latif), who’s there to help train them for the wedding dance as well as offer an unwanted partnership in buying the abandoned hotel that Sonny wants.  Soon, Sunaina’s fed up with him, as are we as Sonny devolves into petty, distracted, major jerkdom (top-grade-asshole is more like it).  If you can keep all of these threads from unraveling before the magnificent wedding ceremony finally takes place you’ll learn that the young lovebirds get past their difficulties, Guy starts romancing Mrs. Kapoor, Jean’s come back to India to get a divorce from Douglas (just in case she ever meets anyone who’ll have her, despite her loathsome-personality) which frees him and Evelyn to finally pursue each other, Norman and Carol reconcile, Madge rejects both of her suitors in favor of her driver, Lavinia turns out to be an undercover inspector from an Evergreen rival, Ty shows up at the end to make charming small talk with Muriel, Sonny somehow gets the money to buy the local Viceroy Club for his Second Best Exotic Marigold venture (Guy indicates he’d recommend that—as he is the secret inspector that he claimed not to be, setting off some overblown resentment from the Kapoor family—although he’s resigning his job in order to stay in India so I don’t get that he ever actually made such a report), and Muriel writes Sonny a letter encouraging him to let go of his worries in order to more fully embrace life, although we’re left with ambiguous messages as to whether she’s about to die or is just taking stock of her life so far.

So What? The Second Best … is what I consider a true movie sequel (the kind of thing that traces its roots back in existent [rather than ambiguous “lost”] features to at least The Son of the Sheik [George Fitzmaurice, 1926], when “Latin Lover” Rudolph Valentino went Arabic again to play the offspring of his previous character in The Sheik [George Melford, 1921]—he also plays the father in the sequel) where the first film isn’t part of an intended series (Star Wars [George Lucas, 1977], Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s [or Philosopher’s] Stone [Chris Columbus, 2001], The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring [Peter Jackson, 2001], Twilight [Catherine Hardwicke, 2008], The Hunger Games [Gary Ross, 2012], etc.) but exists purely to milk more money from an audience that responded well to the first offering (such things as the continuations of The Exorcist [William Friedkin, 1973], Back to the Future [Robert Zemeckis, 1985] and Shrek [Andrew Adamson, Vicky Jenson, 2001] come easily to mind, whereas with something like Frankenstein [James Whale, 1931] and The Godfather [Francis Ford Coppola, 1972] the essence of the first follow-up is contained in the original literary work, but the others that came later are true sequels intended purely for the pleasure of audiences who wanted the original storylines to somehow continue).  All of this previous prelude is an extended explanation as to why The Second Best … has to prove a reason for its existence as a filmic entity rather than just a family reunion, which for me it doesn’t do all that well, forcing us to meander through a couple of subplots that don’t need to exist at all and a forced “tension” around Guy being the investment-firm-inspector that feels phony almost from its introduction (in addition to Sonny turning into such a dithering idiot that we have a hard time forgetting about all of his interpersonal transgression in order to fully celebrate that lavish wedding).  Fully-invested-fans of the first … Exotic Marigold Hotel may be able to overlook the flimsy whimsy here in order to be with Smith, Dench, and Nighy again, especially, as well as the welcome additions of Gere and Strathairn, but for the rest of us the meandering plotlines get old quickly (even more so than the creaking characters—I speak from experience here as my shoulders and hip remind me that 67 isn’t just the year that Sgt. Pepper’s … was released but it's also where I am now even as the clock keeps ticking), with only the sanitized scenery of India (based on testimony from a friend who lived there that you’d never see this many cleanly, beggar-less settings in the big cities of Jaipur and Mumbai) and the lavish wedding scene to provide some visual satisfaction along with the sincere touches of Evelyn and Douglas finally connecting, with the possibility that Muriel and Ty might someday couple up too (assuming that either Smith or her character is still alive by the time that a third … Hotel might be in the offering).

Bottom Line Final Comments: The main plots lines of Sonny and Muriel trying to get funding for a second hotel, the frustration that Sunaina feels about Sonny devoting so much of his energy to business rather than marital matters, and the distancing that finally gets bridged between Evelyn and Douglas would have been more than enough to stuff this narrative with, even in its standard 2-hour running time, but I guess the filmmakers considered it more humane to retain the other British characters from the original rather than kill them off despite the distractions that their stories provide (especially Madge, who just turns up in constant lecherous mode whenever the plot rhythm needs a brief punch-up but whose presence adds nothing of use to the rest of the story).  Honestly, though, the proceedings as a whole have little to offer beyond fond reminiscences of better encounters in the first movie, especially as the overall plotlines keep shifting between the romantic confusions of the older characters and the romantic collisions of the younger ones (which just begins to feel more and more like a marketing ploy for a dual-appeal to the largely-forgotten Baby Boomer audience who rarely see themselves as the focus of a mainstream movie [although Boomers younger than me are getting to indulge in some mature-James Bond-type-action with the recent Liam Neeson catalogue and the upcoming return of Harrison Ford—assuming he’s not banged up enough to finish his Star Wars and Indiana Jones reprises] and the increasingly-important-younger-Millennial-demographic, whose attendance is likely needed to pay for the salaries of this large cast).  This is all brought together nicely at the end of The Second Best … (a clever title from narrative and marketing perspectives but an open invitation for general critical scorn, which did skew negative but not nearly so badly as with Chappie) where all of the older characters settle into romance (or at least the promise of it for Muriel, assuming that wasn’t a final pre-death-scene we witnessed just before the movie’s end) and the younger ones are riding high on the promise of future passion and profits, leading to a final Bollywoodish dance number that’s so reminiscent of the finale of Patel’s first filmic triumph, Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008) that I might as well use those closing credits set to “Jai Ho! (You Are My Destiny)” at for my …Second Best … Musical Metaphor because with Patel and his current female costar (rather than Freida Pinto in Slumdog …) I can’t help but wonder which of those movies this current story is really intended to be the sequel to (although that might explain where the money came from to buy the Viceroy Club if Patel’s earlier answer-man-Jamal Malik has mysteriously transformed into the current hotel-“magnate”-Sonny, in a surreal crossover).

Slumdog Millionaire 
 While you don’t get the pleasure of Smith, Dench, Nighy, and the other … Marigold … Brits in Slumdog … I think it offers you a much fuller, slightly-less-romanticized-look at contemporary India as well as being a much bigger success, both at the box-office (over $377 worldwide) and with award-givers, winning 8 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Original Score, and Best Original Song for “Jai Ho!” [music by A.R. Rahman, original lyrics by Guizar—although there’ve been other-translation-versions than the one I’ve used here—with the phrase in Hindi and Nepali roughly equating to “Let there be victory!”]).  Some of my critical and academic colleagues are now dumping on Slumdog Millionaire as not being Best-Picture-worthy when seen in historical perspective, but I still think you’ll find more overall value to it than what we get with either … Marigold Hotel, although for oldies like me it’s still a pleasure to see plots (even overstuffed, convoluted ones) featuring elderly characters in primary roles because that's so rare in an industry pandering to younger viewers except during awards season when more esoteric/dramatically-penetrating fare is promoted to Boomers like me. 
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Here’s some more information about Chappie: (11:37 “report” from Mark Dice for those of you who haven’t had your daily dose of paranoid delusionism about how Chappie is filled with secret information from the “dangerous” Illuminati, especially about the threat of “transhumanism” to replace human beings with intelligent machines—I’m very proud of my objective detachment from the theories of those I present to you, although I do acknowledge that some more credible voices against artificial intelligence such as Stephen Hawking [among several Dice cites here] are also concerned about the possible disaster we might face from sentient machines although they’re not railing against the fears that Dice raises about humans attempting to invest their unique consciousnesses into computer programs and robots, so take his concerns as you will)

Here’s some more information about The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: (5:27 fluffy interview with our focus of the week, Dev Patel—the interviewer isn’t mic’ed very well, though, so you can’t always hear her questions too clearly although his answers give a useful enough context, even as too much of this video's short running time is taken up by incorporating the above trailer into its structure)

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

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