The sci-fi-action-comedy-thriller Chappie is the tale of an insentient creature who gains a soul and learns to love, just like Pinocchio and WALL·E and Short Circuit's Number 5. But this is a film by Neill Blomkamp, the writer/director of the violence- and profanity-laden District 9 and Elysium, so don't expect Disney-style warmth or Guttenberg-ian sweetness from this similarly R-rated outing. Instead, prepare to be amazed - though "stupefied" is the more appropriate term - by just how mawkish a movie can be despite boasting a title character who proves expert at carjacking, and whose most frequent malapropism involves his spirited twist on a 12-letter cuss word.

Chappie, in short, is a robotic Pinocchio in which Geppetto is Dev Patel and the Fox and the Cat are three South African gangstas, and if you think that sounds excruciating, Blomkamp's latest is actually better than you'd expect. If that description makes Chappie sound like great fun, it's much, much worse. The film is set in the dystopian Johannesburg of 2016, a crime-infested city in which law is enforced by hundreds of well-armed and brutally efficient robocops. Patel's friendly computer wonk Dion, however, invents a program to equip the 'bots with artificial intelligence - a technological miracle that might've yielded wondrous results if Dion's prototype weren't immediately stolen, for larcenous purposes, by the aforementioned trio of thugs. (Jose Pablo Cantillo plays the one called Yankie, and the performers Yo-Landi Visser and Ninja play the ones called ... Yolandi and Ninja.) What follows is an incident-loaded heart-tugger in which Chappie, as innocent as a newborn, is torn between the kindly instincts he was programmed with and the robot's unwise desire to emulate his gangsta "family." What follows also concerns Hugh Jackman as an unstable Aussie megalomaniac in cargo shorts, but not wanting to humiliate Jackman further, I'm gonna roll right past it.

A lot of this I didn't hate. Blomkamp's cinematic muse Sharlto Copley voices Chappie and does an Andy Serkis in his motion-capture performance as the 'bot, and all told, he's pretty fantastic. There's legitimate emotion and fascination in Copley's childlike utterances, and his attempts to mimic Ninja's swagger - incessantly wiping his nose and grabbing his nonexistent privates - beautifully demonstrate the sad comedy of learned machismo. The visuals, too, are as excellent as Blomkamp's résumé has led us to expect, with the decaying Johannesburg superbly rendered and Chappie's movements so unobtrusively fluid that it's easy to forget Copley isn't actually on-screen in Iron Man-like garb. But given how aggressively annoying they are, especially the pop-eyed Ninja and the squawking Visser, I left the movie wishing that all of the actors had been replaced by motion-capture effects. (God, how I long for the days when co-star Sigourney Weaver portrayed anything other than blandly tight-faced authority figures.) I also really wished that Blomkamp, working from a script he co-wrote with wife Terri Tatchell, had landed on something that even vaguely resembled a consistent tone.

Unfortunately, though, it's nearly impossible to tell what kind of movie Chappie was supposed to be, because it doesn't really succeed at being any kind. Generically loud and busy chase scenes sit beside tender coming-of-age melodrama that sits beside heavy-handed platitudes about AI run amok that sit beside slapstick farce, and it's all so presentationally awkward and borderline embarrassing that I frequently found myself staring at the screen, open-mouthed, in disbelief. As a filmmaker, Blomkamp is certainly to be commended for following the beat of his own drummer (at least until - sigh - his participation in the announced Alien reboot/remake/whatever). But the drumbeat here, more often than not, is one that pretty relentlessly pounds "dumb dumb dumb," and while I won't spoil the finale's specifics, I'll admit to being relieved that the movie's lackluster opening weekend likely means no sequel. I may have survived Chappie, but I'm not sure I could make it through Chippie.


Judi Dench in The Second Best Exotic Marigold HotelTHE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL

If you've seen more than two romantic comedies over the years, you've seen one that climaxes with the girl getting the guy, the great job, the cool living quarters, and the Happily Ever After. It's hard to verbalize just how satisfying that story can be when the girl in question is 79. Picking up a mere eight months after events in its 2012 predecessor, director John Madden's The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel continues the exploits of its frisky senior citizens and their Indian hosts, and everything is just as blithe and sitcommy and irresistible as it was in the first Best. In truth, all of the film's dovetailing narratives are familiar from TV, where they've been handled with far more cleverness and surprise: the abashed Bill Nighy working up the courage to ask out Judi Dench; the lascivious Celia Imrie pining over competing beaus; the adorably inebriated Ronald Pickup fretting over an imagined hit man; the helplessly hammy Dev Patel suspecting his fianceé of cheating on him and freaking out about a visiting hotel inspector. (An early scene in Chappie finds Patel hopped up on Red Bull, and he's about 10 times more hyperactive, and irritating, here.) But Madden is a smooth, controlled director with considerable gifts for color, composition, and pacing; I may never have been truly invested in the proceedings, but I was certainly never bored. And only a complete churl could deny the joy of seeing this cadre of venerable British character actors in capitalized Movie Star mode, delivering far more nuanced portrayals than pop-entertainment sequels generally allow.

Hell, even the performers whose material doesn't warrant nuance are a lot of fun. Richard Gere, as a silver fox whose arrival may or may not signal the end of Patel's hotel business, is so dashing that it's both funny and understandable when Imrie licks her lips upon first seeing him, and in a much smaller role, David Strathairn even manages to out-suave Richard Gere. But The Second Best's chief pleasures remain with the hotel's residents. Imrie and Pickup still have their delightful comic snap, which is shaded with more traces of genuine humanity in this installment, and Lillette Dubey, as Patel's no-nonsense mom, is admirably yet delicately imperious. Nighy, that unclassifiable eccentric, continues to make indecisiveness and sheepishness seem like winning character traits, and Penelope Wilton makes a most welcome return as Nighy's now ex-wife, conveniently back just in time to make his life miserable again. (Ol Parker's script, while serviceable, never really bothers to re-introduce its Best Exotic characters, and doesn't need to; when Wilton first appeared here, more than one patron at my screening gasped, likely anticipating the withering bile she'd soon be spilling on the premises.) Maggie Smith, to the shock of no one, is hilarious in her sarcastic asides about the weaknesses of America ("It made death more tempting") in general and American tea ("tepid piss") in particular, yet is also granted the film's most moving, unforced subplot, one that ends the film on an unexpected note of melancholy. And, of course, there's Judi Dench, looking chic and acting resplendently and making you pray that someone in Hollywood is writing an octogenarian Miss Congeniality - or, you know, something much better - just for her. It's silly and predictable and cornball, and for the two hours of The Second Best Marigold Hotel, I had little desire to be anywhere else.


Dave Franco, Tom Wilkinson, and Vince Vaughn in Unfinished BusinessUNFINISHED BUSINESS

His first scene in Unfinished Business finds Vince Vaughn looking positively exhausted, with enormous dark circles under his eyes and the man's famously motor-mouthed deliveries weighed down by fatigue. Granted, in this role, Vaughn is meant to come off as drained. But I couldn't help thinking: Is it just the role? Fred Claus, Four Christmases, Couples Retreat, The Dilemma, The Internship, Delivery Man, now Unfinished Business ... . Given this cinematic succession, wouldn't you find it hard to get out of bed in the morning? Granted, there are a few perks to director Ken Scott's comedy about fledgling entrepreneurs negotiating a business deal in Hamburg: Dave Franco, adorably timid as a stuttering, relentlessly cheerful virgin; the art installation (American Businessman 42) that Vaughn's human guinea pig is forced to sleep in; Hamburg itself - by which I mean the Berlin that substitutes for Hamburg, and which makes a nice, continental change from typical Los Angeles locales. But the combined laughs I found can be counted on the fingers of no hands. The endless teeter-tottering between maudlin sentiment and abject gross-out is maddening. The wastes of Tom Wilkinson, Nick Frost, James Marsden, and Sienna Miller border on the criminal. (On a related note: What's with the crazy over-exposure of Sienna Miller lately? I'm not really complaining, but after American Sniper, Foxcatcher, and this, I'm half-expecting her to start delivering my mail.) And through it all stands, or rather slumps, the dejected- and defeated-looking Vince Vaughn, for whom, I'm guessing, True Detective can't come soon enough. This Business may be Unfinished, but even its star has to admit that his recent run of insanely poor film choices has got to end.

Support the River Cities' Reader

Get 12 Reader issues mailed monthly for $48/year.

Old School Subscription for Your Support

Get the printed Reader edition mailed to you (or anyone you want) first-class for 12 months for $48.
$24 goes to postage and handling, $24 goes to keeping the doors open!

Click this link to Old School Subscribe now.

Help Keep the Reader Alive and Free Since '93!


"We're the River Cities' Reader, and we've kept the Quad Cities' only independently owned newspaper alive and free since 1993.

So please help the Reader keep going with your one-time, monthly, or annual support. With your financial support the Reader can continue providing uncensored, non-scripted, and independent journalism alongside the Quad Cities' area's most comprehensive cultural coverage." - Todd McGreevy, Publisher