Monday, April 14, 2014

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” – It’s always nice to have a plot.

Despite what you may have heard in recent ads, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not “the best superhero movie ever” nor is it “better than The Avengers.” I understand the point of the marketing – to trick people into seeing a movie they were already going to see. Wait, what? Maybe I don’t understand. Why would they need to hyperbolize a movie that already has an enormous audience clamoring to see it? Were they not confident in the final product? Were they afraid people might have become burned out from too much Marvel Universe? Are they worried Captain America is viewed as the least awesome of all the Avengers and people won’t be that interested? I think the answer is because the first Captain America was kind of a stinker and they decided to overcompensate. The problem with those ads is they have the exact opposite effect that the studio was going for, causing concern instead of excitement. What they should have done was something simpler, maybe like renaming the movie Captain America: This Time it has a Plot.

Like the first Thor movie, Captain America suffered from being a movie whose sole purpose was to say “This guy is going to be one of the Avengers; give me your wallet.” It was a waste of everyone’s time and only had about four minutes of content that furthered The Avengers storyline, mostly which occurred during and after the end credits. This time around, they followed in Thor’s (The Dark World) footsteps again by delivering a movie that felt like they actually put some effort into it.

Like the previous two Avenger’s follow-up films, The Winter Soldier picks up with its title character coping with the aftermath of the attack on New York City. Captain America (Chris Evans), aka Steve, isn’t so sure about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s motives anymore, but unlike the other members of the team, he is still working directly for them. The film kicks off with Steve befriending another soldier (Anthony Mackie) while running in the park, then leaving with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) for a rescue mission. His distrust of S.H.I.E.L.D. grows when he discovers Widow is there for a separate reason and when he confronts Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Fury shows him a classified project in which three helicarriers bristling with weapons have been built that will be able to fly non-stop and target terrorists before they have a chance to attack anyone. Channeling our full-of-shit politicians, Fury defends the program as “necessary for our freedom and security,” Steve calls him on the bullshit, and the audience starts to wonder if the Winter Soldier is Edward Snowden.

Luckily, Fury is just as suspicious as Steve and Fury calls Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), a senior S.H.I.E.L.D. board member, to put the program on hold until he has a chance to review the data Widow brought back from her earlier mission with Steve. Soon thereafter, Fury is shot multiple times and Steve and Widow become fugitives from S.H.I.E.L.D with the blame placed on their shoulders. Like Ironman 3, the rest of the film follows the two of them trying not to get killed while also trying to uncover the evil plot and who is behind it. Along the way, we meet the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a deadly assassin with a mechanical arm and a cloud of mystery surrounding a past as long as Steve’s. He’s arguably the weakest part of the film, as the “cloudy past” is substituted for character development, even though he’s called out in the title of the film. It reminded me a lot of Darth Maul from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (which is never a good thing) in that they introduce a very promising and intriguing character, but waste him by giving him little screen time in which all he does is try to kill the heroes. Fortunately, that is the only weakness in an otherwise very good movie.

There isn’t much more to say that you probably haven’t already guessed. There are a couple of predictable twists and one large unpredictable twist, some reachback to the first Captain America, and the introduction of another Marvel superhero known as Falcon (Mackie). Aside from the weakness I mentioned earlier, the film is very entertaining and has a story that’s, you know, existent. It was a little surprising to see Redford in this film (I honestly had no idea he was in it) and just as surprising to see he appears to have paid a visit to Courtney Cox’s terrible Botox doctor (his mouth is…just…damn). Naturally, you’ll want to stay through the entire end credits, though it’s the first time that you’ll be truly disappointed as the scene is pointless, redundant, and not even funny, fully driving home the point that marketing folks are sometimes as full of shit as our politicians.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back except maybe from your cable provider for airing those ridiculous ads.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

"Divergent" - You keep using that word...

If it seems like there have been a lot of young adult (YA) books turned into movies lately, it's because there have. Last year alone saw seven such movies (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Ender's Game, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Tiger Eyes, The Host, and Beautiful Creatures) and this year will see five more, including Divergent. What you also may have noticed is that most of these films are not doing well at the box office, prematurely ending franchising dreams by the major studios; The Hunger Games and Percy Jackson being the only two that will continue on. Some folks have postulated the reason for the failures is that most of the series' don't appeal to adults and that teens are more likely to stay away from movies that don't have good word-of-mouth. In fact, you can draw a direct correlation between book sales and box office sales to measure real and expected success and confirm that the more books that were sold the higher the box office receipts. The one exception to this rule is Ender's Game, but Ender's Game was published thirty years ago when the term "young adult" hadn't been invented yet and was only lumped into that category recently as a marketing ploy.

(Side note: the term "young adult" was not invented to make kids feel older, but to make books written for children seem more acceptable for adults to read and, most importantly, not be embarrassed to admit they read. These are the same types of people that are too uncomfortable in their own skin to go to a movie or a restaurant by themselves.)

So, how does that bode for Divergent? Currently, book sales of the trilogy have passed 18 million copies, which is far better than most of the titles mentioned earlier, and has translated to over $100 million at the box office and counting. Interestingly, according to an interview with the books' author, Veronica Roth, the movie rights were purchased before even a single copy was sold and the sequels were greenlit well before Divergent actually opened in theaters. So, what is it about Divergent that made the studio so confident? In a word - dystopia.

The first two successful YA series were Harry Potter and Twilight - two series dealing in magic and the supernatural and nothing similar since has been even remotely as popular (see: Beautiful Creatures, Vampire Academy, and The Mortal Instruments). Then came The Hunger Games, introducing the dystopian future to young adults as if it hadn't been a common theme in science fiction for decades. Instead of being stuck with magic or vampires/werewolves, it simply created a setting in which everyone can relate and many successful films have used in the past. Drop in some younger characters to draw in the younger crowd, give them an underdog to root for against a repressive regime and - BINGO! - box office gold.

Divergent takes place in a near future, post apocalypse Chicago in which nearly everyone is part of one of five factions that now make up society. When each person reaches the age of 16 (why is it always 16?), they undergo a personality test to determine which faction they are best suited to join. The factions (whose names are words you have only ever seen on an SAT test or spelling bee) are Abnegation (selfless and also those govern the city), Amity (peaceful), Candor (truthful), Dauntless (brave and also the military), and Erudite (intelligent, though nobody in the film actually pronounces the word correctly; instead, pronouncing it Ir-ee-oo-dite and driving people like me crazy). Those that are not in a faction are referred to as the factionless, forcibly kept out of the factions and living on the streets (and begging the question, why are they not executed considering the society was designed to make sure everyone served a purpose?). But, as our heroine, Beatrice (Shailene Woodley), finds out, there is another group of people whose tests come out inconclusive and are referred to as Divergent, of which she is the latest.

According to her tester, Beatrice must never tell anyone that she is Divergent or she will be in "grave danger." The only explanation we get for the danger is that “Divergents can’t be controlled,” but we are never given any context or historical precedent for such a thinking. All we know is that the head of Erudite, Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), wants to the kill them all. Luckily, the test results are only suggestions as each person has the right to choose whatever faction they want to join. This seems like a contrivance to allow for people like Divergents to hide, but this society seems to be somewhat lenient on certain things. Beatrice chooses to go to Dauntless, thus alienating herself from her Abnegation parents and revealing another odd and illogical trait of this society – parents whose children choose a different faction are looked down upon and essentially disown those children. Just don’t ask.

For much of the movie, the focus is on Beatrice (who changes her name to Tris) going through Dauntless boot camp, trying to make the cut while enduring insults from other trainees and abuse from an instructor (Jai Courtney). Because the movie spends so much time on character development, hardly any time is devoted to any real narrative and we’re left wondering where any of this is going. We’re shown a wall around the city, but no explanation of what is being protected against. We’re shown a ruined Chicago, but nobody bothers to explain what happened to make it that way. We’re shown that the factions are competitive with each other, but are left wondering why when it’s in their best interests to work together. And, you already know about their homeless, er, factionless problem. Eventually, a romantic subplot involving Tris and another instructor, Four (Theo James), develops, as well as another subplot in which Jeanine is going to take over the government, but they seem like distractions compared to the unanswered questions throughout the film.

I’d like to tell you that the book is better, but it suffers from the same problem. Everything is about Tris and we’re supposed to care because she is Divergent, but we aren’t given any real reason to care, any real narrative to invest ourselves in, or even why being Divergent is something of importance. The one saving grace is that everyone loves an underdog and we all want to see Tris beat the odds and make the cut at Dauntless. I just hope that the sequel (Insurgent) sheds some light on those questions and that the actors stop mispronouncing words.

Rating: Ask for four dollars back and a dictionary.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

“Need for Speed” – Say it with me: Imogen Poots. Poots.

There must be something wrong with me. I just enjoyed watching a movie called Need for Speed. I just enjoyed a movie based on a car-racing video game with no story. I just enjoyed a movie where Michael Keaton was forced to host a podcast and refer to himself as The Monarch. In fact, I haven’t seen a bad movie yet this year. Some questionable movies, sure, but nothing that made me want to wash my eyes out with razor blades. By this time last year, I had already considered suicide by popcorn while enduring such crap as Gangster Squad, A Good Day to Die Hard, the massively disappointing Oz: The Great and Powerful, Olympus Has Fallen, and was a couple days from sitting through G.I. Joe: Retaliation. It could be that I’m so desperate to purge the awful 2013 movie season from my mind that I’m willing to enjoy anything at this point. It could also be that I’ve become overly pessimistic, especially when a movie like Need for Speed releases. I really don’t know. What I do know is that I just enjoyed a movie that was one Burt Reynolds short of being Smokey and the Bandit 4: I got a Mustang!

In Need for Speed, Aaron Paul plays Tobey Marshall, a mechanic in some random small town in New York who street races with his friends and is about to lose his garage to the bank. Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), an old racing rival, shows up offering him and his crew a job restoring a Mustang that Carroll Shelby was working on when he died. Dino estimates the car will sell for $2 million and offers Tobey 25% of whatever it actually sells for. Now, you might think this is going to be the overarching plot of the movie – something like once they finish the car, Tobey will have to drive it to the auction, but will only have 15 hours before the bank forecloses on his garage and Dino will turn out to be the owner of the bank. Ha! Wrong! The actual plot is far more…well…it’s actually very similar to that.

About 94 seconds after agreeing to the deal, the car is finished and up for auction in England where an Englishwoman named Julia (Imogen Poots) agrees to purchase the car if Tobey’s claim that it can go 230 miles per hour is proven true. Tobey proves it the next morning and Julia purchases the car for her employer for $2.7 million. I know what you’re thinking – that sure was a quick movie. Well, right after driving the car away, Dino challenges Tobey to a race staking his 75% of the sale against Tobey’s 25%. This is the one part of the movie that kind of pissed me off because Tobey has been portrayed as cool-headed and patient (they will even describe his racing this way), yet he agrees to the race without even thinking about it, even though he talked his entire crew into the restoration job in the first place and they are all counting on him. It’s contrived, stupid, lazy, and whatever other synonym you can think of. Apparently, whatever is wrong with me allowed that schlock to slide with very little protest.

Included in the race is Dino’s girlfriend’s brother who is a member of Tobey’s crew. I won’t ruin the results of the race for you or why the brother is important, but let’s just call it the transition from act one that tenuously provides the motivation for Tobey for the remainder of the film. And in case you were wondering, the garage turns out to be a giant MacGuffin.

Act two picks up a couple of years later with Tobey looking for revenge against Dino. He decides the only way to do this is to enter a secret race organized annually by The Monarch known as the De Leon. Following the standard quest formula, Tobey must gather his gang back together, find a car to race (is there any doubt in your mind, at all, what car he’ll be driving?), and drive across the country to race location. Naturally, there’s also a romantic interest in the form of Julia, who insists on riding shotgun to “look after the car.” Like I said, this movie was one Jackie Gleason short of Smokey and the Bandit 4: De Leon.

So, why did I enjoy this movie again? Well, for starters, I liked Smokey and the Bandit. On that note, I also liked Cannonball Run. Both are movies about cross-country racing and who doesn’t love a good bunch of car chase scenes? Need for Speed has enough car chases to satisfy a crack-riddled monkey with ADD. What’s more is those scenes are all pretty well done. And, like those past movies, Need for Speed has decent comedy relief to keep the film from taking itself too seriously and keeps the romance angle tempered to just the right amount of subtle. Perhaps the biggest reason for my enjoyment is because I have always loved fast, sleek, exotic sports cars like Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Bughattis and that’s primarily what is being raced in this film. On the flip side, besides the terrible contrivance I mentioned earlier, Paul plays Tobey like Batman crossed with a pommel horse and Keaton is given so little to do that he almost explodes while trying to deliver the few ridiculous lines he does have. But even those things ended up being more entertaining than annoying.

What I’m trying to say is that there is obviously something wrong with me when I can look past stiff acting, contrived writing, and bad dialogue simply because car chases are even more awesome with European super cars. Of course, it might also because it’s fun to say Imogen Poots’ name. Hehe.

Rating: Ask for one dollar back. This movie had no right to be as good as turned out, but…Poots.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

“Non-Stop” – Security Theater.

Allow me to rant for just a moment about the current state of security in this country. In short, it’s mostly an illusion. Just yesterday, in an attempt to “improve security,” the organizers of the Boston Marathon are banning backpacks, strollers, unregistered runners, containers with more than one liter of liquid, masks, bulky clothes, large flags, and signs larger than 11 inches x 17 inches from anywhere near the course. Here’s my favorite part of the new rules – “Any item larger than 5 inches x 15 inches x 5 inches. Please note: security at each location will have the authority to disallow other products or materials that it deems inappropriate.” Seriously – I made up none of that (click here for the official marathon site). My actual job in real life is in the security field and whenever I see something like this I die a little inside. These new rules don’t improve security whatsoever, especially when we’re talking about securing an area with a 26.2 mile race course. How delusional does one have to be to believe banning people from wearing masks reduces the chances of a bomb exploding? All this is is someone throwing up meaningless garbage in attempt to convince people that they have done something. Just read through that list again and tell me how any of that prevents the exact same thing from happening again? The only thing it accomplishes is making the race less fun and less comfortable for everybody involved and don’t be surprised if the Boston Marathon disappears in a couple of years because people can’t even push their babies in strollers within a certain distance of the race course, i.e. half of Boston. But, hey, now the organizers can say they tried. Don’t get me wrong, I want everybody to be safe, but unless the race organizers have invented personal force fields and will be handing them out at the race, nobody is any safer than they were before the bombing.

What does this have to do with Liam Neeson’s latest movie, Non-Stop? I’m glad you asked. Another illusion of security foisted on us is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), otherwise known as “those guys who keep groping people and stealing our shit.” While nobody seems to understand (or want to admit) that a gunman or bomb could make it all the way to the security lines without going through any security checks whatsoever, most people believe they are safer than they were prior to 9/11 because TSA is on the job (for the record, I have nothing against the agents at the airports; they’re just doing their job – well, except for those that aren’t) when the truth is the danger has just shifted to another location. Another part of the “enhanced security” following 9/11 was increasing the number of Federal Air Marshals from 33 to approximately 4,000 today. That’s not a typo. Maybe they’ve helped and maybe they haven’t (read about some good and bad incidents and it’s pretty much a wash), but how good do you feel about a situation in which a Marshal draws his weapon and fires in plane full of passengers during turbulence? It kind of begs the question “isn’t that why we invented stun guns?” But I digress.

In Non-Stop, Neeson is Air Marshal Bill Marks, assigned to duty on board a flight from New York City to London. For screenwriting reasons that are both pointless and amateur, Marks is an alcoholic who is divorced, lost his previous job as a police officer, and is living in guilt from not having spent enough time with his now dead-from-cancer eight year-old daughter. I guess they thought adding “home burned down with the family dog inside” was too much. What wasn’t too much was putting a second air marshal on the flight and making sure that the audience knows that every member of the flight crew is well aware of Marks’ drinking problem. They even throw in a quick scene where Marks is arguing with a superior about having to stay in London for several days. All of this was done to try to set up Marks as an unstable, desperate man; the loose cannon, if you will, for the main plot.

Shortly into the flight, Marks starts receiving text messages on a “secure network” warning him that someone on the plane is going to die every twenty minutes unless $150 million dollars is deposited into an offshore bank account. Marks accuses the other air marshal of playing a prank, then refuses to follow protocol when they realize it’s not a hoax. After the first person is killed, we’re the closest we will ever be to believing Marks is perpetrating the whole thing (the first wave of previews goes out of its way to convince you Marks might be responsible), which is to say not even a little bit. This is where the movie, and more specifically the writing, fails in just about every way possible. Part of the killer’s plot is to frame Marks for the murders and perceived hijacking, and the characters sure believe it at one point, but nothing that happens convinces the audience that it’s even a possibility. The only thing you will be convinced of is that Liam Neeson is going to kick somebody’s ass at some point.

The problem with the writing and story is that they never really commit to anything. Aside from the angle of framing Marks, there’s a ham-fisted and overt commentary on “big brother” and government abuse of power, which doesn’t play well because he’s trying to stop a killer. This isn’t like the NSA collecting data “just in case;” this is an immediate and established threat, though Marks never reveals this information until he’s forced to. The story also tries to mimic the classic “whodunit” motif by establishing several characters, but falls flat because none of the characters are developed and the motivation isn’t even hinted at until it’s revealed. It’s almost as if the writers intended on committing to Marks as the likely killer, but accidentally indicated several characters instead because they were too busy arguing about which is worse, Fox News or MSNBC, to write anything intelligent (by the way, the answer to the argument is all of the above).

The biggest problem with the movie is that the motivation is about as weak as you can possibly imagine. Also weak is the complete waste of Julianne Moore (another passenger) and Michelle Dockery (Mary from Downton Abbey) as flight attendant. Moore is there mostly to call Marks a dick (literally) and Dockery’s job is to be British and make different facial expressions when the situation calls for it. Much like Marks’ alcoholism, neither character is important to plot, wasting the considerable talent of the two actresses.

At this point, I can’t imagine why you would be interested in seeing this film, but I don’t want you to think it was terrible. From an action-thriller standpoint, it serves its purpose and does a fair job of building tension and hiding the identity of the killer. The acting and special effects are adequate and at least one bit of airplane physics is shown accurately. The movie won’t blow you away, but it probably won’t make you angry either. All it will do is make you question the need for the “enhanced security” by trying to make the point that nothing has really changed except that if you want to watch the Boston Marathon, your baby will have to walk.

Rating: Ask for seven dollars back and a rethinking of that “enhanced security.”

Thursday, February 20, 2014

“Pompeii” – Maximus Lite.

I’m going to go into much more detail about this movie in a moment, but for those of you who want a quick and dirty synopsis of Pompeii, imagine if Titanic and Gladiator had a baby and a volcano exploded. When I heard about Pompeii, my first thought was that it would have to be like Titanic in that the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. that buried the city of Pompeii and killed thousands of people would simply be the setting for whatever the real plot would be. The first trailer I saw confirmed this, but also revealed that they might be ripping off Titanic’s story wholesale, as they show the hero running through the streets with who can only be assumed to be a love interest, while dodging flaming rocks. Later trailers added the Gladiator feel to the movie, showing our hero fighting in an arena as a gladiator. After watching the movie, I can safely name that baby Maximus Jr. (emphasis on the junior) as its DNA is clearly more Roman than Jack and Rose.

(Stop reading if you don’t want to read some spoilers, but there really is no way to make my upcoming points without them. I mean, come on – are you really going to see this movie? Really?)

The story begins in Britannia, seventeen years prior to the eruption, where Roman soldiers led by Corvis (Kiefer Sutherland) and his second-in-command, Proculus (Sasha Roiz), are finishing a campaign putting down a rebellion of Celtic horsemen. Young Milo watches the Romans slaughter his family and entire village, eventually becoming the sole survivor of the massacre. He’s captured by, um…some dudes with feet and the movie cuts to 79 A.D. where he’s now an adult gladiator (Kit Harrington, aka John Snow) fighting in a small arena in a distant province of the Roman Empire. Sound familiar yet? No? Maybe? Well…

In his final fight in the po-dunk arena, Milo (known as “The Celt,” which is totally different than “The Spaniard” - *eye roll*) marches out of a gate to face the same set of gladiators Maximus faced (not kidding – they’re even wearing the same armor sets), dispatches them just as quickly and methodically as did Maximus, then marches back out, though without the great line “Are you not entertained?!” Milo’s owner decides to take his champion to the much larger city of Pompeii, hoping to make himself rich. In Pompeii, Milo meets another gladiator who becomes his friend, African warrior Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). You read that correctly, Milo’s best friend is a black gladiator.

The Gladiator, um…influences (read: outright thefts), continue, including an arena scene depicting Corvis’ great battle where Milo is one of the barbarians. Guess how that one ends (at this point, only Shia LeBouf wouldn’t consider this plagiarism)? Meanwhile, the Titanic storyline is developed featuring Cassia (Emily Browning) as the daughter of a rich family who slowly (well, not too slowly) falls for the poor, but handsome slave/gladiator that is Milo. The rich douche bag, and now senator, Corvis is hell-bent on marrying her. Sure, there are some slight differences from Titanic – Cassia’s family is actually rich (not fake rich) and her parents (Carrie-Anne Moss and Jared Harris) are still married. She also never gets even remotely close to taking her clothes off. Other than that, they’re essentially the same character, but without the depth and development of Rose.

By this point in the movie, I wouldn’t say it’s bad, just derivative to the point that we’re rooting for the volcano to shake things up. Having been to Pompeii and seen museum exhibits, I’m happy to say the film does a very good job recreating the sequence of events of the actual eruption and the ensuing destruction. Unfortunately, we’re distracted by goofy crap like Atticus rescuing a girl who falls on the floor, Milo riding horses around during the chaos (watch for the exact same close-up of Milo on the horse multiple times), and flaming rocks always ju-u-u-ust missing crushing people (it’s PG-13, so you only see the bodies lying around after the impact). For me, the biggest distraction was how often they talk about Cassia’s amazing transcendent beauty, when she can best be described as bony and plain, especially since her hand-maiden, Ariadne (Jessica Lucas), is far more beautiful and completely ignored. To top it off, the 3-D is just as useless as ever and did nothing to enhance the visual spectacle of the eruption (which was done quite well).

Unlike Titanic, in which you are hoping the couple survives the accident, Pompeii’s characters are far too under-developed for you to really care whether or not they survive the eruption. In fact, you’ll probably spend a good portion of the movie trying to guess if anyone survives at all because when it comes to Pompeii, nobody ever talks about the people who survived. And, I promise, when you hear the last line of the movie spoken, you’ll be rooting for that one final rock to crush young Maximus Jr.

Rating: Ask for all but two dollars back. One dollar for learning something about Mt. Vesuvius and Pompeii and the other to see what plagiarism looks like.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

“Robocop” – This is how you make a remake.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen 1987’s Robocop, so there isn’t much I remember about it. I remember Peter Weller as Robocop, I remember the giant robots Robocop battles with, I remember something about rampant crime in Detroit, and I remember something about an evil corporation. But, mostly, I remember lots of blood spraying everywhere and one of the bad guys getting hit by a car and splattering all over the windshield because he was melting (there’s no forgetting something like that). What I’m getting at is this year’s remake had very little to live up to.

Admittedly, I had very low expectations going into the new Robocop for the reasons mentioned above and because of its February release. When I heard about the remake, my initial reaction was “Who asked for that?” So, you can imagine my surprise when it turned out, not only to exceed my expectations, but also be a very solid movie.

The biggest reason the remake far exceeds the original is that it isn’t a straight retread of the original and goes much further in its social commentary. The film begins with a news show parodying a Fox News/MSNBC/CNN talking/screaming head show in which the host, Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), is ripping the United States for not allowing robots and drones to police its streets and cities. In between diatribes, live footage is shown of robot peacekeeping forces in Tehran while Novak’s on-the-scene reporter is telling us how “cooperative” the people are and how “they only want peace.” It’s a great riff on the absurdity of cable news shows as well as taking a swipe at the equally as absurd attitude of some politicians towards Iran. Plus, who better than Samuel “mother fuckin’” Jackson to portray the ridiculous blowhard hosts of those shows? It’s a great scene that sets the tone of the film as well as setting up the plot – and they were just getting started.

During that opening scene, we are introduced to the maker of the robots – Omnicorp – headed by Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton). Sellars and his cronies are trying to figure out a way to beat legislation barring robots from America so they can tap into “a $600 billion market” (making corporate greed the next motif/target). They find their loophole in the form of “putting a human into a robot,” as Sellars puts it, and the perfect candidate drops in their lap in the form of recently blown-up detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman). Omincorp’s chief scientist, Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman), is tasked with saving Murphy’s life and turning him into Robocop, kicking off the second act of the film and easily the most interesting part.

While some people will find the second act slow, it engrosses people like me by showing us the evolution of Murphy through various stages of man vs. machine. It’s exactly the kind of character development I’m constantly pleading for, but almost never get due to the pandering to the audience in the form of mind-numbing action. It’s a fantastic piece of storytelling that not only builds Murphy/Robocop, but also develops Dr. Norton, Sellars, Murphy’s wife (Abbie Cornish), and using all of that development to propel the plot forward. As I said earlier, it was quite a shock to realize a movie called Robocop could deliver such competence.

The other great thing about the film was how well it paid homage to the original without being overt about it. As nearly unwatchable as the original has become, everybody remembers “I’d buy that for a dollar” and “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.” You’ll also notice they’ve reinvented “the fourth directive,” kept Detroit as the location, Robocop’s movement, aesthetics (for a little while at least) and noises, and kept the part where Robocop/Murphy decides to investigate his own attempted murder. Conversely, they got rid of the excessive blood spraying (to the point where you might actually believe humans are incapable of bleeding), including the melting-man windshield wiper fluid and replacing Robocop’s extremely lethal weapons with non-lethal versions that seem as deadly, built Murphy’s family into something that actually mattered and was visible (and, wow, is Cornish worth seeing), and build Omincorp into something you truly don’t like by the end. Between these things, I don’t think the writers could have chosen what to keep and what to throw away any better.

As easy as it is to say the original’s special effects were kind of hokey, it pretty much goes without saying that the special effects in the remake would be far better. The attention the writers paid to the details like Robocop’s software and hardware in both concept and visuals while explaining those things so the audience could understand them was a major component in making the film far better than its predecessor. Of course, the best effects come in a scene in which Murphy insists Dr. Norton show him the remaining human parts and the camera slowly revolves around his “body.” While it’s not nearly as disgusting as the splattered man, it’s just as unforgettable.

The day before I saw the Robocop screening, I caught a few minutes of Ghostbusters and realized that there are several movies from the 80’s screaming for a remake, though not necessarily Ghostbusters. Movies like Robocop lend themselves well because special effects allow them to be far closer to their original vision and are easily adapted to whatever the current sociopolitical problem might be. Well, except maybe Robocop 2.

Rating: Well worth your time and money, especially for a February release. Let’s be honest – there’s no way you thought this movie was going to be anything but sucky.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” – Spies like us.

The last time we saw Jack Ryan, he was dying a slow, cruel death at the hands of Ben Affleck’s acting in The Sum of All Fears. Even though the movie was a money maker, Jack Ryan disappeared from film for more than ten years. Most people blame Affleck for this and that’s hard to argue as he was at the peak of a six year stretch of mediocre (Pearl Harbor) to bad (Daredevil) to cover-your-eyes embarrassing (Gigli) films. But, the real problem is that Jack Ryan just isn’t a household name in movie franchises and there are a few reasons for this. For one thing, if you didn’t know Tom Clancy’s work, you might not even realize that The Sum of All Fears was the fourth film featuring Jack Ryan (the others being The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger). One reason you don’t remember is because Ryan isn’t the center of attention in any of those films. Another reason is because in four movies he’s been played by three different actors (Affleck, Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford), making it very easy for people to think it was three, if not four, different characters. So, when Shadow Recruit began showing up in previews, we all wondered the same thing…isn’t that Captain Kirk?

What I’m really wondering is do we really need another spy franchise; especially one in which the spy in question is really a consultant who keeps ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time? We already have the quintessential spy in James Bond and people seem to really love Ethan Hunt (Mission Impossible). Add in all of the super heroes – let’s be honest; in Hollywood, spies are super heroes and vise versa – and an ordinary spy such as Ryan just seems unnecessary. Of course, that may be why this movie was pushed from a December opening into mid-January and buried underneath the plethora of award shows, all but guaranteeing this will be the last time we see Ryan on the silver screen. The film itself doesn’t do anything to help itself either as Ryan is much more action oriented and generic.

Unlike the previous Ryan films, Shadow Recruit isn’t based on a book of the same name (by Clancy). It’s the origin story of how Ryan came to be a CIA agent and his first mission for the agency. The film begins with Ryan (Chris Pine) at college when the 9/11 attacks happened. He decides to join the marines, goes to Afghanistan, suffers a major injury, and while recovering, meets the other two main characters. The first is his physical therapist and future fiancĂ©, Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley) and the other is his future handler and recruiter, Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner). All of this happens in the first twenty minutes of the film, then we are fast-forwarded ten years later (from 2001 that is) into Jack’s assignment as a deep-cover agent in a Wall Street firm. At this point, the film goes from straight forward to convoluted, forgetting that the average viewer doesn’t know anything about the inner workings of the banking industry.

At his firm, Ryan discovers some secret Russian accounts and is quickly dispatched to Russia to investigate. He quickly comes to realize that the Russians are going to destroy the world economy by driving up the value of U.S. treasuries, then selling them and instigating a terrorist attack at the same time. The plot is being perpetrated by Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) because…revenge, I guess? He says it’s because creating a second Great Depression will destroy America and put Russia back on top and is retribution for the Cold War. Uh…if you say so.

The problem with this plot – besides the seriously outdated Cold War that Hollywood just can’t let go of – is that the audience doesn’t feel a sense of urgency with it. Don’t get me wrong, the audience feels some urgency, but it’s due to the characters telling us over and over again instead of any storytelling through writing and film construction. In a nutshell, that’s why the movie feels so generic. They want us to believe it’s a thriller without doing any work to make it so. Adding to the convolution is Pine’s relationship with Knightley. She serves a purpose to the plot, but much of their interaction together feels contrived and distracting from the main plot of the film. I know the reason it’s there is to make Ryan seem more human, but comes off as just filler.

That’s not to say the movie is bad, just blah. The actors all put forward decent performances and it’s nice to see a movie that doesn’t try to twist every character and plot revelation into a Shyamalan-ian wet dream. It just does nothing to distinguish itself and make you yearn for more. Well, except maybe more Captain Kirk.

Rating: Ask for half your money back. A vanilla movie deserves a vanilla rating.