Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Dinner and a Movie
Chappie Goes Publick

By Steve Herte

Sometimes it’s best to let sleeping memories lie, as it were.

I mentioned in my column last week that I was going to attend the Spring Gem Show in New York. When Helene and I first attended the show years ago, it was in the cavernous Armory on Lexington Avenue, holding a literal sea of clubs, companies and collectors offering any and every sort of stone known, loose or in various fittings. It took us hours to explore the entire space and we usually came home with something special, a replacement stone for a ring or a malachite lion. Since then, the show has shrunk substantially, and this year it was held in a small ballroom at the Holiday Inn on 57th Street.

One by one the various purveyors of precious and semi-precious gems have dropped out. Combined with the accompanying increase in price of space, so many vendors have dropped out that it's no longer a “show;” it’s a high-priced marketplace. I saw a less than half-carat emerald with a sickly green color going for $400. As I left, disappointed, I realized that another piece of the city that I have so loved and which has brought me much joy over the years has disappeared.

But, as the Bee Gees sang, “Nobody gets too much Heaven no more…” it bring us to Friday. Even sentient robots can experience Hell and sometimes anticipating something bad results in something good. Enjoy!

Chappie (Columbia, 2015) Director: Neill Blomkamp. Writers: Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell. Cast: Sharito Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sigourney Weaver, Brandon Auret, Johnny Selema, Maurice Carpede, Jason Cope, & Anderson Cooper. Color, 120 minutes.

This is a sad, disturbing movie, a tragedy, and not exactly a travelogue come-on for Johannesburg, South Africa. It brought back thoughts of District 9 and apartheid (not racially, but economically).

Brilliant computer scientist Deon Wilson (Patel) develops a robot police force, which is gratefully adopted by the police department of Johannesburg (the first city to do so). Crime is reduced radically. Vincent Moore (Jackman), a fellow co-worker develops a major assault robot called “The Moose” capable of fending off an army or an aerial attack but their boss, Michelle Bradley (Weaver) and the police department puts the kibosh on it, making Vincent dangerously jealous of Deon.

Violent gangs at war with each other populate an enormous area of poverty on the outskirts of the city. Ninja (Ninja), Amerika (Cantillo) and Yolandi (Visser) owe a large amount of money to the muscular and ruthless gang leader Hippo (Auret). They know of the robot designer and hatch a plot to get the “remote” (so they think) to turn off the robot police force and allow them to steal enough cars to pay back Hippo.

Deon wants to create Artificial Intelligence (AI) and is on the verge of a break-through, but when he presents his idea to Michelle, she turns it down. He decides to swipe a robot scheduled for recycling (its battery has been inextricably wedged into its body by the force of a grenade-launcher wielded by Hippo on its last raid), change out the all-important – and only “guard key,” which prevents any outside hacking into the computer program, and finish his experiments on it. After loading the robot and equipment into his van he’s no sooner on his way than Ninja and his gang hijack him.

Deon is forced to work at the deserted warehouse hideout for the three-person gang and successfully loads his program – strangely Star Trek named “Genesis” into the robot. When the robot powers up it responds and cowers like a newborn child. It has to be taught to speak, how to act, how to read and think. Yolandi calls him a “Happy Chappie,” and from that he gets his name, despite the protests of Deon.

Ninja won’t let Deon stay and teach Chappie. The three hoodlums teach the robot how bad life is, and that he must learn to fight and use weapons to survive. Ninja becomes Daddy and Yolandi, her motherly instinct surfacing by Chappie’s helplessness, becomes Mommy to Chappie while Deon is just the “Maker.” Chappie’s skills grow exponentially while in their questionable care.

Vincent figures out that Deon took the guard key and follows him to the lair, where he learns of Chappie and his new capabilities. He uses another program to remotely take all the police robots off-line (including Chappie) and when Deon brings Chappie into the home office Vince gets the guard key back by force.

As soon as the robot police force crumbles, so does the social order of Johannesburg, and crime goes rampant in the streets. Vincent tells the Michelle that Deon is to blame and they need to activate the Moose to get control back. He uses news videos of Chappie stealing with Ninja and his gang to bolster his case, and she finally agrees. Using his monstrous robot he goes on a remote killing spree (he only has to wear a helmet to control the monstrosity) at the deserted warehouse where Hippo and his cronies are already confronting Ninja and his group along with Chappie and Deon.

Chappie is a tragedy in the classic sense as the Deon’s situation is going very well at the beginning. His robots are a big success and he’s lionized for it. But the trend goes down as the movie progresses. His dream of creating a conscious robot succeeds, but only after both he and Chappie are kidnapped by the underworld. He sees his creation being gradually perverted and tries repeatedly to intervene, but it seems hopeless, especially when he sees news footage of Chappie participating in a heist.

Let me emphasize that this is not a movie for children. It’s extremely violent, gory and (when you can understand the Afrikaans accents) vulgar. There is a scene where slow motion photography make the gunning down of one of the characters seem like the last scene in Bonnie and Clyde complete with blood spatter. You actually see the bullets pass through the body. A great special effect, but not one I wanted to see. Speaking of great special effects, the character Chappie (voiced by Copley) though computer generated, looks completely real and moves convincingly and smoothly.

The hairdressing department went hog wild with this film. Yolandi’s hair looks as if it was glued on from a Barbie prototype, and Hippo’s do is a horrendous combination of Buckwheat and a mullet.

Dev Patel gives us a new dimension to his acting abilities. His usual ebullience is there, but he registers shock, sadness and amazement as well. And ... he performs the scene every actor wants to perform eventually and does it well. Frequent moviegoers know what I mean. Sigourney Weaver is great as the corporation head who thinks only of profits over practical applications, and Hugh Jackman does a believable performance as a bully.

One cannot help but feel empathy for the hapless Chappie, who realizes that everyone has lied to him (including his maker, who didn’t tell him his battery could not be replaced and that he would “die” when it did). But, stay until the end. There’s an unexpected twist and the threat of a sequel.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Church Publick
82 Reade Street (at Church Street)New York

I must admit to being somewhat reluctant to visit this restaurant knowing that a little over two years ago it was a Blimpie’s sandwich shop, not exactly haute cuisine. But, with rain coming on in the evening I decided that this would be the time to try it, as its location was convenient to both the movie theater and the subway.

The entrance on Reade Street opens into a noisy bar with a tiny Captain’s Station to the left of the door. People are chatting and drinking and occupying every seat at the bar and the tables surrounding it. I wondered if I would have a table. A gentleman who reminded me of the late Ray Walston as he looked on My Favorite Martian greeted me and, after a double-take at the computer screen, led me upstairs to a small balcony and gave me a choice of two tables. I chose the one at the end of the hall with a great view of the activity below. The Plexiglas walls surrounding the balcony helped shut out most of the noise.

When my server arrived I already had the menu, the wine and drink list and a glass of water. After determining that they did not have any gins I liked I asked about specialty cocktails. She indicated the page in the menu and right away I chose a drink called “Lose The Tie” Dorothy Parker gin, Lillet, and Grand Marnier with an Absinthe swirl. It looked like a Margarita and tasted like an Orange Blossom, very nice.

The menu features appetizers, salads, sandwiches, entrées and market/garden sides. There were several choices I found appealing and when I chose two appetizers, an entrée and two sides my server didn’t bat an eye.

As with my cocktail, the first wine on the list caught my attention as the perfect accompaniment to all the dishes I selected. It was a 2012 Christian Simon Chablis – a crisp, bright and slightly dry wine, refreshing.

The two appetizers arrived first, the baked soft pretzel – cheddar and parmesan, jalapeno with a ramekin of house-made mustard. It satisfied one of my recent cravings this week perfectly and substituted for bread as I enjoyed fried green tomatoes with diced roma tomatoes and red onions over baby spinach in a horseradish aioli. Between the two dishes I got the alternative tangs from the mustard and the horseradish while tasting the salty sweetness of the pretzel and the mild acidity of the tomatoes. Though not the best versions I've had of either dish, they were both comforting.

The main course and sides arrived a little early but I managed to fit what was left of the appetizers onto the entrée dish. The beer battered fish and chips with cole slaw and house-made tartar sauce were fluffy and crisply coated. Even though my server proffered vinegar for the fries and brought a ramekin of catsup, they didn’t need either. They were lightly salted, browned and crisp, perfect. The sautéed spinach with garlic was a beautiful green and had a respectable garlic flavor while retaining a slight crunch but they were out-done by the crispy Brussels sprouts. The halved sprouts were tender with a crispy crunch outside and the individual leaves were sheer delight.

I was having a great time and, despite all the food, was ready for dessert. The “La Bomba” – chocolate and vanilla ice cream with a chocolate shell, cut in half, drizzled with chocolate syrup and garnished with a Maraschino cherry – was a decadent but wonderful ending to an unexpectedly great meal. Add one double espresso and all was right with the world. As Captain Obvious would say, Church Publick is an enormous improvement over Blimpie’s. When Lent is over I look forward to trying the meat dishes.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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