September 26th, 2011

Milwaukee Film Festival, "Robot" ("Endirhan")

Sunday the 25th, we caught the 4:30 showing of the Indian spectacular "Robot" at the Downer Theatre. This 2010 film has so many "firsts" and superlatives associated with it, it would be remarkable just for that: not only was it India's first big-budget science-fiction film, it boast the largest-ever budget of any film made in India to date. It also garnered the biggest box office receipts of any Indian film. It features two of India's biggest stars, Rajnikanth in the dual role of Dr. Vaseegaran/Chitti, and former Miss World Aishwarya Rai as Sana, the love interest. Rajnikanth is so big a star that he gets his own production company title credit "Superstar Rajni" right after the main production company, Sun Pictures.

I don't think, as another reviewer wrote, that "Robot" borrows from EVERY robot movie made, but it certainly runs the gamut from "Short Circuit" through "Terminator", with a healthy dose of "Frankenstein" added to the mix.

Dr. Vaseegaran is India's leading roboticist, and his most advanced creation is intended, ironically enough, to save lives by replacing human soldiers in the Indian Army. Of course, a robot intended to be a soldier may have to kill humans, so "Robo", as he is initially called, is not programmed with anything like "Asimov's Laws" (referred to as such in the script). Vaseegaran gives his creation his own face and form and then, rather creepily, takes him to his mother to be named. She calls the robot "Chitty", the name she would have used had Dr. V had a brother, and the robot is known as Chitty for the rest of the movie.

Sana (Rai, previous reviewed here in "Bride and Prejudice") is Dr. V's long-suffering fiance, who has decided to break off the wedding due to his neglect of her. As part of the make-up, V. loans her Chitty for a weekend, ostensibly to help her study for upcoming medical school tests. In this sequence, we begin to see how the conscienceless robot can be abused, as Sana exploits the robot's immense power in thoughtless ways, causing considerable trouble.

After getting Chitty back, Dr. V. takes him for evaluation by his peers. The review board, lead by the corrupt Dr. Bohra (Danny Denzongpa), refuses to approve the robot for production since it has no moral sense and can be ordered to kill anyone. Dr. V then eventually succeeds in giving Chitti feelings, while trying to establish that Chitty is useful, with very mixed results. Ultimately his attempt to get Chitty accepted by the Indian Army is frustrated by Chitty himself who declares that he would rather be a lover than a fighter.

In a rage, Vaseegran wrecks Chitty and sends the pieces to the dump, only to have Chitty salvaged,repaired,and reprogrammed by Dr. Bohra, who needs him for his own nefarious purposes.

The lengthy denouement allows the Indian special effects crews to let it all out, including a very violent and over-the-top car chase, and some extreme;y clever but rather ridiculous expositions of what a robot with super-magnetic powers can get up to when accompanied by a couple of hundred of his closest friends. (This is where the movie takes off "Transformers" as well as the "giant robo" genre, by way of "Bill Ding Balancing Robots":

The lengthy and contrived climactic sequence is the film's weakest point: at three hours long, it is too long, and needs tightening up. The writers decided to override a clever but low-keyed homage to "Nosferatu" ending in order to cram in the whiz-bang special effects used in the big action finale. There's also a certain amount of "kitchen sink syndrome," since there is a certain amount of low comedy done by Dr. V's assistants, who are jealous of Chitty, and an outright digression into fantasy, which I won't describe, but--"mosquito mode"??

Admittedly, at least forty minutes of that is musical numbers which also get progressively more elaborate and effects heavy as the story goes on, but they do add somewhat to the feel of not the plot. The early numbers are simple, with just Rajni and Rai rebuilding their affections. Later on, however, we get a robot's idea of a seductive dance number (think dancing old-school Cylons) and later one celebrating robot domination. (On the other hand, where the number set in the Andes mountains of South America came from is anyone's guess.)

Acting-wise, I was quite pleased with the principals. Rai's "Sana" was a very fallible and human young woman, who makes some very poor decisions during the movie, but proves to have pretty good fortitude in the end. Rajni, who made his name in films as first an anti-hero and then an action hero, does a very nice job of playing both the handsome but nerdy scientist who is chagrined to find he has created a robot that is cooler than he is, and his robot double, who progresses from being a literal-minded "Hymie the Robot" through the struggling-to-be-human stage, to a demonic destructive force after being infected with Dr. Bohra's "red chip".

Special effects were pretty much state of the art and effective. The music was pleasant, but quickly forgettable at least to my taste. The musical numbers were handsomely mounted and costumed, which made the "Bollywood" style dancing fun to watch.

No sex or on-screen nudity, very little bad language. People smoke (which a screen at the front of the movie tells you is bad for you). Extreme violence, including a burning-building sequence that may in particular be upsetting for younger children.

Language: Tamil (mostly, with occasional English words and phrases) with English subtitles.

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Stormy Weather

As another example of climate change (or general wierd weather) I give you Milwaukee last weekend, where we had a heretofore undescribed phenomenon (as far as I know)--lake effect thunderstorms.

Everyone who lives near a great lake knows about lake-effect snow. The Great Lakes seldom freeze entirely over, and create more-or-less permananent reservoirs of relatively warm, moist air over the lakes. When prevailing winds move this moist air over the colder land, the moisture precipitates out as snow, which is why areas such as western New York state, western lower Michigan, and the southwestern shores of Lake Superior are notorious for heavy snow accumulations. In Milwaukee, we get lake effect snowstorms when the winds are out of the east to northeast, which conditions can sometimes last for days.

Saturday and Sunday, we had moist upper air masses moving off the lake and dumping rain on the city, but in a very odd fashion. There was almost no wind at ground level, but the intensity of the rainfall varied from light drizzle to utter deluge, sometimes within a couple of blocks. Some areas got no rain while others were being poured on. Three waterspouts were observed off the coast on Saturday. Georgie and I agreed that we hadn't seen the like since we had been living in Milwaukee--in my case, almost thirty years.

EDIT: Per the newspaper weather column, what we have been having is called a "cut-off" low pressure center. So it is a defined phenomenon, although still rare.

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