NON-STOP

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By R. David

Viewed February 28, 2014

Just one week after Kevin Costner went all badass-CIA-assassin on a bunch of French terrorists in “3 Days to Kill”, Liam Neeson grabs the grizzled, middle-aged action hero torch – a late-career persona remake he has now, for better or worse, comfortably settled in to – and takes it to 40,000 feet in “Non-Stop”.  The trailers already have audiences calling it “Taken On a Plane”, what with Neeson being taunted by a mysterious madman on the phone and he being the only man who can save the abductees:  this time the hundred or so passengers on a Transatlantic flight to London.

Neeson is Bill Marks, an Air Marshall who we meet sitting in his car staring at a photo of his toddler daughter in between belts of booze pre-flight.  He makes his way through the terminal, the alcohol not diluting his watchful, suspicious eye for detail.  And just like that “Non-Stop” has firmly established itself as yet another film about a rugged, alcoholic cop, brooding over personal tragedy, but still the best at what he does.  Some of the details may have been tweaked, but the basics remain the same.  Neeson’s Marks could be John McClane in “Die Hard” or Denzel Washington’s pilot in “Flight”, or any of the several hundred variations on that nearly identical character in between.  It’s a tired but reliably effective action-film trope.  How many times, for instance, has Bruce Willis played the same sort of steely-eyed, hung-over, and tormented, yet courageous and righteous hero?  (I can think of at least a half a dozen just off the top of my head.)

Once aboard the flight, Marks begins receiving cryptic text messages on his supposedly secure cell phone stating that a passenger will be killed every 20 minutes unless $150 million is wired into an electronic bank account.  Naturally, Marks sets out to find the assailant, who claims to be aboard the flight.  The film goes about establishing its cast of characters essentially by introducing all the possible suspects.  Could it be Marks’ shifty partner (Anson Mount, superb on TV’s “Hell On Wheels”, but in a thankless role here and unrecognizable without his salt and peppered beard)?  His awkward seat-mate (Julliane Moore)? A hothead NYPD officer (Cory Stoll)?  The quiet Muslim doctor (Omar Metwally)?  Or any number of the other dozen or so character ‘types’ who may as well all have a flashing neon sign above them that reads “Possible Suspect”. 

There is a twist of sorts that is spoiled by the film’s trailer, but on the off chance you haven’t seen it or have already forgotten what I’m talking about, I’ll simply say that that plot thickens when Marks’ credibility and professionalism are called into question and the pilots and NSA agents on the ground order him to stand down, which naturally only makes Marks that much more hell-bent on finding the terrorists. 

This is one of those movies where the audience ostensibly assumes they should be paying attention to all the little clues the film drops in order to identify a potential suspect, but like so many movies of this type, in its efforts to be twisty and surprising, logic often goes out the window. I guess we can live with unrealistic liberties like cell phone reception 40,000 feet above the Atlantic, but clichés and casualties of logic start to pile up as quickly as the dead bodies, rendering the reveal of who is behind this elaborate charade and their motivations fairly unsatisfying. 

Still, like I said, “Non-Stop” indulges a tried and true premise that needs only a few clever ideas and good performances to work at least somewhat effectively.  Confining the action to a single, mobile location builds claustrophobic tension and makes for some innovative action sequences.  Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s (who directed Neeson in the similarly convoluted, genre-worn mystery “Unknown” a few years ago) most memorable directorial flourish here has the text messages Marks sends and receives popping up on the screen like dialog balloons in a comic book.  Technically, “House of Cards” has been doing this for its past two seasons, and no doubt some other cellphone-centric thriller has thought to do this before, but it still feels like a novel approach to the typical procedural action in this sort of film.  And Neeson is about as reliably sturdy a taciturn and intimidating everyman hero as we have in movies today.  He may be playing a variation on the same character with each of these similarly convoluted, lowbrow thrillers he churns out, but he is undeniably their main asset.

Less discriminating audiences will no doubt find enough value here in all of the above to rate this film more highly than I am.  But we’ve all simply seen too much of this before, and the film loses major points for its disappointing climax that – like most of the other labored sentimentality sprinkled throughout the film – seems to be going for something profound but instead earns only an arched eyebrow and a shrug.  “Non-Stop” is polished and fluid, and Neeson and the film’s sure-fire central mystery carry it as far as it goes.  But “Non-Stop” can’t sidestep its illogical plotting and, ultimately, it succumbs to its own rampant foolishness.

2½ Stars (Out of 4)

3 DAYS TO KILL

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By R. David

Viewed February 22, 2014

“3 Days to Kill” is a pretty clumsy thriller, which is a shame because its action and espionage sequences – no matter how ridiculous – are actually rather surefooted.  But the film has a severe identity crisis – unsure if it wants to be a slick, high-concept spy thriller; or a melodramatic father-daughter relationship drama.  Instead of mixing the two in some fluid, organic fashion where the two might overlap less jarringly, the film operates in manic fits and starts; deviating from one aspect of the story for long stretches to focus on the other, and then back again, making it impossible for the audience to take either narrative seriously.

The film begins intriguingly enough with Kevin Costner in good form as Ethan Renner, a CIA assassin slickly taking out international thugs and expertly negotiating covert operations.  Fun stuff.  Then he collapses, wakes up in the hospital and discovers he has terminal throat cancer.  He decides to spend his remaining months with his estranged wife (Connie Nielsen) and teenaged daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), trying to mend fences and get to know the daughter he rarely ever sees.  But just as Ethan promises his wife he is finished with CIA work, a seductively tenacious agent named Vivi (Amber Heard) informs him she has an experimental drug that will prolong his life, IF he does – wait for it – one last job.  Thus begins alternating sequences of Ethan trying to fulfill his bargain with Vivi while trying to spend time with his daughter and keep his wife from discovering he is back to CIA work.

The plot is of course ludicrous, but for a while “3 Days to Kill” manages to work as an outlandish spy thriller.  The film is never particularly convincing, but has a certain charm and stylish verve that seduces the audience into simply going with it.  Director McG offers some nicely staged fist-to-cuffs, shoot-outs and chase sequences; and there is a good amount of disarming absurdist humor in some of the nice little script touches; like the African family Ethan finds squatting in is France flat, the informant that Ethan would normally kill but ends up making his begrudging partner of sorts, and Costner’s overall curmudgeonly attitude to, well, everything – all good stuff.

But it’s in the father-daughter relationship drama where things ring false and hollow.  The best the film can muster is cliché conflicts for the two of them to wade through, like Ethan being unable to understand why her bad hairstyle would be a big deal to her, or Ethan intimidating her boyfriend.  This stuff is all lazy, unconvincing and predictable; which is a problem when it’s called upon to provide the emotional center of the film.  Frankly, Costner and Steinfeld are engaging enough performers to pull us through it and still somehow make us care about their characters and the outcome of their relationship, but the bigger issue is that these scenes – which often go on for 15 or 20 minutes at a time – rob the film of all momentum every time they pop up; and they bloat the film’s length, rendering what could have been a lean, mean, efficient little thriller into a contrived, corny mess.

The gripes I have with “3 Days to Kill” aren’t enough to sink the film entirely.  Costner’s performance and some of the action sequences and engaging script elements make it a worthwhile view on balance.  But the poorly executed family drama stuff – which, when all is said and done, really takes up about half the film – downgrades it from something worth catching in the theaters, to a worthy rental or catch on Cinemax in six months instead. 

Too bad.

2½ Stars (Out of 4)

 

POMPEII

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By R. David

Viewed February 21, 2014

To many this will be stating the obvious, so let’s just get it out of the way up front:  “Pompeii” is a silly, ridiculous, cheesy mess.  It fails as the big-budget, rousing historical drama it obviously fancies itself; and it is about as historically accurate as a “Flintstones” episode.  The movie is insanely melodramatic – trying to create some sort of “Gladiator”-meets-“Titanic” historical action-romance hybrid – but is laughably unconvincing as a romance and too cartoonish in its watered down PG-13 violence to make any impact as either.  Essentially, “Pompeii” works best as an unintentional comedy, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t find myself enjoying the hell out of laughing at it – reveling in the over the top performances, supremely cornball dialog and ridiculous plot logistics.  “Pompeii” is the very definition of a guilty pleasure.

Naturally, the film is ostensibly about the destruction of the titular ancient-Roman city which was buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Certainly, there is a potentially engrossing and harrowing drama to be made about this immense natural disaster, but screenwriter Janet Scott Batchler unfortunately decided the best framing device for such a tale was a star-crossed love affair between Milo (Kit Harington),  a slave gladiator, and Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of wealthy merchant (Jared Harris).  I use the term “love affair” loosely though because these two have hardly any interaction before each of them just up and decides they are each other’s one true love.  And even after making that assertion, they never have more three minutes alone together to test their theory.  To put it in modern day terms, this would be the equivalent of a wrongly imprisoned Ultimate Fighter and Bill Gate’s daughter randomly finding themselves in the same room together a few times, exchanging  glances, and right then and there deciding they are soul mates.

But that alone apparently wasn’t crazy or melodramatic enough for this movie, so Batchler also includes Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), an evil Roman Senator who makes it his mission to make Cassia his bride, despite her protests.  Oh, and wait!  Corvus and his henchmen are responsible for slaughtering Milo’s entire family 17 years ago, imprisoning him as a child, and forcing him into a life slave-gladiatorism.  The joke’s on Corvus though because in that time, Milo – despite looking like a barfly in a PBR ad with his grungy mop of hair and patchy hipster beard – has become the greatest gladiator of all time, or something.  He’s already sworn revenge on Corvus for murdering his family and throwing him into a life of slavery and forced brutality, and now the dude is hitting on some high society chick he just met but like totally knows is his one true love.  Not cool, Corvus.  That shit’s the final straw.

Oh, yeah.  Also, in case you forgot, there’s a volcano or something that rumbles every 20 minutes just to remind us, “It’s ok, you didn’t walk into the wrong movie.  This shit’s gonna happen.  Promise.  But first more CW drama.”

Obviously, this is all pretty terrible.  Sure, you need to come up with some sort of narrative for your erupting volcano movie, otherwise you just have a half hour Discovery Channel special.  The gladiator/evil Roman senator thing makes some sense (at least there’s potential excitement there), but surely even the most shameless Hollywood hack has to know a forbidden love story is just about the silliest trope to pad out a historical epic; even one this lazy in the history department.

Actually, it’s pretty lazy across the board.  There’s hardly anything in “Pompeii” that rings true or feels as epic as the filmmakers would obviously like it to.  Every plot point feels like an afterthought or the filmmakers just making their way down a checklist of basic structural beats they have to cover.  The romance is unconvincing and, not just underdeveloped, but presented as if everyone was in agreement the audience has seen enough of these sorts of stories and would just assume these two belong together because you know, that’s what happens in these movies.  The gladiator/revenge stuff is handled in a similar tossed-off manner with no doubt as to who will survive or what will happen next.  And when Vesuvius does finally blow, the ensuing chaos is used as a means to advance and bring closure to this hopelessly hokey plot, rather than focusing on the actual event and its aftermath – which is frankly a pretty thrilling and haunting event; more so than anything Batchler could muster in the fictional story he submits instead.

All that aside though, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy myself quite a bit slumming through this polished turd of a film.  The gladiator sequences are fairly rousing.  Again, they feel like a lite version of stuff we’ve all seen in more ambitious and original films, but director and all-around schlockmeister  Paul W.S. Anderson – the man who gave the world “Alien VS Predator” and the “Resident Evil” franchise – gooses these scenes with certain you-are-there aesthetic that makes them undeniably compelling.  The volcanic finale is giddily over the top.  Again, it’s unfortunate the film sacrifices any attempt to explore the true nature of Pompeii’s destruction to service this silly story, but by that point we are not only well aware of exactly what kind of movie we are in, but frankly we’re also plenty happy to see all of these dolts laid to waste by molten rock.

But the very best thing about “Pompeii” – and the major element that keeps it watchable more so than any of the action sequences or flashy CGI – is Kiefer Sutherland’s performance as the deliciously fiendish Corvus.  I was grinning from ear to ear whenever he was on screen.  Sutherland seems to be the only performer here who realizes what a piece of shit he’s actually in, and he hams it up accordingly.  He doesn’t overact or chew scenery, per se.  He simply finds a perfect tone on par with the sort of film he’s in.  Everyone else around him plays things boringly straight.  Some of the other actors seem to be taking their roles far too seriously, assuming they are indeed in some heady historical epic, or they are simply trying to lend this silly movie some sort of gravitas (a noble but foolish effort); while others are just dour and bland (like our two lovebirds).  Not Kiefer though.  He finds exactly the right balance of self-aware playfulness; snarling his lines, cracking evil grins, and employing an English accent almost as if he was doing an impression of a guy with an English accent.  Simply put, he’s in on the joke.  If he had a mustache he’d twirl it.  It’s a deliriously enjoyable performance, one that the film doesn’t really deserve, but is certainly ten times better because of it.

“Pompeii” might be frustratingly typical and insultingly uninspired, but for those who want it, there is an almost aggressively silly, madcap romp nature to the proceedings.  It doesn’t exactly fall into so-bad-it’s-good disaster territory – I don’t think the filmmakers were trying to make a great film and ended up failing miserably, but I don’t think they were aiming for a some sort of winking genre send-up either.  There is just a good amount of unintentional comedy here that makes “Pompeii” far more entertaining than it’s lazy, by-the-numbers ass has any right to be.  Throw in some passable gladiator action, decent CGI volcano carnage and a livewire performance by Keifer Sutherland, and it becomes a pretty great guilty pleasure.  The film’s final shot is one of the most stupidly hilarious things I’ve seen in a long time.  Ditto the movie.

2½ Stars (Out of 4)

The Mad Magazine Board Game: Contender for Best or Worst Game Ever

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I bought the Mad magazine board game, originally released in 1979, several years ago at a thrift store.  It was a little beat up, and missing the original “Mad Money” notes, replaced by Monopoly notes.  Overall the game was well intact, though, and the game board features well-rendered Mad artwork, including the always wonderful Spy Vs. Spy characters.  The game is basically a parody of Monopoly, although in classic Mad anarchic style, everything is reversed, skewed or turned upside down, inside out.  The goal is to lose all of one’s cash, and it’s damn hard to do.  So difficult, in fact, that players may find themselves going a little insane in the attempt.  As a picture of Mad icon Alfred E. Neuman says in the game’s instructions: “CAUTION: Play at your own risk – especially if you don’t yet know the object of the game.”   

Not long after my purchase of the game, some friends and I played it and found it to be quirky but fun.  I can’t recall the fate of that match.  That was years ago and recently I thought it may be time to break it out again.  I played the game with my girlfriend, my dad and one of my brothers.  We started Mad earnestly, early in the evening with a few beers, and had a go at it.  First of all, there are crazy idiosyncrasies to the game, like rolling with one’s left hand.  If you roll incorrectly you are forced to accept $500 from each opponent player.  Counterclockwise players go, on a Monopoly-like track around the edges of the playing board, while two inner tracks off the main drag provide further exploration.  Most of the spaces upon which a player lands involve accumulating more and more cash, to the inevitable dismay of the player.  The worst spot to hit may be “Tough Luck,” which is similar to “Free Parking” in Monopoly and serves as a place to hoard cash.  Thankfully each time around the board when players hit the “Start” space, they lose money, but when you launch from “Start” at the beginning, the game warns: “You lose only your sanity and/or your pride.”

From the get-go the silliness is on.  And the distractions and diversions will entertain for a good long time.  But eventually the game turns from fun, bizarre nuisance into an alarming conundrum.  Like with Monopoly, players are sometimes instructed to draw a card.  The cards are found stacked in the center of the board, and as the instructions helpfully point out, “the center is in the middle.”  These range from the absurd: “This card can only be played on Friday” to the downright asinine: “Change money with anyone.”  The “only on Friday” card cannot be played on Friday or any other day, because all it says on the card is that statement about what day the card may be played.  That’s it…that’s the joke.  I kind of like that one.  As for changing money with other players, that’s where the existential crisis of Mad begins to creep in. 

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Players pile up such large amounts of cash that no end to the game is visible.  The frequency with which players must either literally change seats with other players or exchange monies makes for a hectic, brainless shuffle.  That’s part of the fun, of course: how chaotic and madcap, if you will, the game is.  This game is not for the fainthearted.  This game may make children cry.  A lot of laughter will result from Mad, but after awhile we were seriously questioning how to end the game, because the game offered no exits.

We kept plugging away at it, and every time, once a player got close to shedding all of their cash, they’d get nailed and pick up a small fortune.  Or they’d be forced to change money or seats with another player, thereby seeing hope for victory dashed in an instant.  Then a few minutes later they’d be right back in the driver’s seat, only to lose it all again.  Folks named Alfred E. Neuman beware: if you draw a particular card and that is your name, you will be privy to the special green bill, which is worth $1,329,063.00 in Mad Money.  At the rate the game does suck up your cash in various contrivances, in increments of $500, $1,000, and up to $5,000 at a time, whatever unlucky player ends up with the $1-million-plus Neuman bill in their stash would be a guaranteed loser.  That hand would be cursed, never to be free of the game’s blasted currency, doomed. 

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After more than an hour at the very least, our party was starting to get desperate for a way out.  We’d laughed, cried a little and done a fair amount of shouting.  We’d pantomimed, playacted and used a healthy number of expletives along the way.  Many beers were depleted.  We began to get worried that the game would never end and that we’d be consumed by it all night.  So we worked together on a plan, one the game allows via its well articulated and merciful “majority rule.”    

The “object” of the game, as Alfred E. Neuman warned, is actually not to lose all of one’s money, because that’s an improbable feat.  The object is to end the game successfully in some fashion without just quitting.  After learning that the game’s twists and turns wouldn’t allow one of us to lose all our cash and win the game, we resolved to only penalize three of the four players with cash accumulation, thereby preserving one player’s hand as the one which would never again accrue additional cash.  We, not as the majority, but unanimously, as a whole, devised a ruse to trick Mad into allowing us to anoint a winner.  Even with our clever plan, it took a bit to finish the game.  I’m not sure if we would have been able to finish Mad otherwise, even if we’d spent hours in the attempt.  It’s that kind of game.  There’s little middle ground; it’s either one of the best or most awful games ever.  It messes with you.  Time flies and stops still.  It’s sly, sickly and smart.  Beware of the Mad magazine board game.  It wants to make you a loser, not a winner.  It just might blow your mind.

ROBOCOP

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By R. David

Viewed February 12, 2014

On my list of 1980s action movies that Hollywood needs to keep their greedy little remake-happy hands straight the fuck off, “Die Hard”, “Lethal Weapon” and “RoboCop” are at the very top.  All three films are simply too iconic and, frankly, perfect just the way they are to justify any sort of “upgrade”.  Moreover, they all hold up incredibly well even 25 years later.  If you take things like fashion and hairstyle out of the mix (and even to that degree, these films hardly scream 1980s – They aren’t “Pretty in Pink” or some shit – no one is dressed like Michael Jackson or Madonna – we all still generally wear the same clothes as John McClane or Riggs and Murtaugh), there is nothing in the acting, writing, directing and overall filmmaking in any of these classics that dates them beyond the most superficial of surface level distractions (“Ha, ha!  Look at the size of that cell phone.”  “LOL!  That limo has a VCR!”).  These films don’t make any commentary on the fads, music or general pop culture of the era.  They are just lean, mean – and as it turns out – timeless classics of action cinema.

The difference between “RoboCop” and the other two aforementioned titles is that much of “RoboCop’s” action and appeal hinges on its futuristic setting and special effects setpieces.  And if there has been one legitimate improvement in filmmaking over the last 25 years, it has been in the SFX arena.  We can argue all day long about the charms of old school technology (and I will in a minute) or the fact that action movies today are too reliant on CGI, to the point of overkill and that little things like storytelling, logic and character development are being treated as an afterthought as long as there is enough eye-popping spectacle on the screen (*flips “Transformers” the bird).  Still, the fact remains that they can indeed do some amazing – and amazingly convincing – things with SFX in movie these days (cough, cough “Gravity” cough). 

So it makes some sense, I suppose, to theorize that a movie as great as “RoboCop” could only be that much cooler with a bigger budget and today’s awesome arsenal of CGI.  Of course, ten seconds after someone floats that theory, they should immediately laugh out loud at the prospect of messing with a film of such sheer perfection simply to update effects that, frankly, were a major part of the very reason the original is so memorable and beloved 25 years later. 

For example, when one thinks “RoboCop”, who doesn’t immediately recall the ED-209 with its hulking frame, blazing guns and delicious stop-motion animation?  The 209 is not as memorable and entertaining as it is because it looks cheap or dated (though young punks brought up on a steady diet of “Avatar”-like SFX might beg to differ), but rather because it is a surreal and unique character.  ED-209 feels organic, original and very much like an actual character in the film.  It even has personality (that awkward footing issue!).  The animation may lack the technical sheen of newfangled CGI, but that only matters if you see the ED-209 as an effect, rather than something organic. 

As for the other action FX in “RoboCop” – as in “Lethal Weapon”, “Die Hard”, and a good number of other ‘80s action flicks – they are actually preferable to the needlessly homogenized action we get in this day and age of CGI everything.  Back when they used stuntmen, real cars and actual locations.  CG blood?  Hell no!  Squibs.  And tons of ‘em.  Extra bloody, please.  Everyone remembers that scene where that one bad guy gets drenched in toxic waste, then gets hit by a car and explodes into a human stew.  They didn’t have CGI for that, and it wouldn’t have looked any more perfect if they did.

It is probably a moot point however because, sadly, they probably wouldn’t do anything like that today.  Sure there are still plenty of movies being made for gore-hounds, and a few directors still revel in their ability to come up with some inspired splattery action; but by and large big-budget, major-studio films that are designed to become franchise crowd-pleasers avoid these sort of outrageously violent gags.  In fact, most of these remakes of formerly hard-R action classics are bloodless PG-13 knock-offs of their inspirations (like last year’s “Total Recall” remake, for instance). 

Which finally brings us to this “RoboCop” 2.0.  It is rated PG-13, because of course it is.  And there is a ton of CGI.  Everything looks really polished, but none of it has any impact.  There is nothing surprising or moving about it.  Nothing that anyone will walk out of the theater feeling they have experienced for the first time or seen in a new, enlightening way.  Nothing that will make audiences ooh and ah or shout out in glee.  It just sits there, looking pretty and professional, indistinguishable from dozens of other films just like it.  There is nothing particularly wrong with it or terribly bad about it.  It is hardly the laughable disaster or insult to the original it could have been.  The performances are fine, but nothing special.  The plot is serviceable.  There is some admirable attempt at social and political commentary.  A few entertaining set pieces.  “Robocop” 2014 is a perfectly fine, but bland and forgettable bit of sci-fi action. 

The problem with all this – besides the fact that mediocrity is hardly something a film should strive for or the best audiences should hope for – is it is the exact opposite of everything the original was.  Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 “RoboCop” was gleefully un-PC, deliriously unhinged, and deliciously fearless.  It made points, pushed buttons, and aimed to be shockingly entertaining.  It was like “Wall Street” with bazookas.  It had imagination to spare and dared to follow the filmmakers’ imaginations wherever they went.  The result was – well, we all know it is a revered classic today.  To remake a movie like that is stupid.  But if someone must, remaking it as the total antithesis of everything that made it so special is giant, colossal fuck up.  That’s why, despite the fact that I admittedly didn’t hate it as much as I might have, I can’t muster anything but utter disdain for its very existence either.

But there are some admirable qualities here for those tempted by the prospect of a new “RoboCop” flick, no matter how sanitized and impersonal.  First, the performances are all pretty good.   Joel Kinnaman from TV’s “The Killing” is a much more hardened and brooding Alex Murphy than Peter Weller’s idealistic cowboy in the original.  In this version, Murphy and his partner Lewis (played by Michael Kenneth Williams, who fans just might notice is a black male and not a white female here) are on the trail of a ruthless crime syndicate who might-it can’t be!-but probably do have a mole in the Detroit police department.  Murphy is getting too close, so the bad guys decide to do away with him via car bomb.  This of course is a much less gruesome option for murdering the hero of your PG-13 movie than having him gun down into a bloody heap by a bunch of cackling, sadistic coke heads (However, this movie doesn’t mind showing suicide bombers explode themselves and kids get blown away by the ED-209 2.0 – because violence is fine for the whole family as long as there’s no blood, boobs or f-bombs, says the MPAA, apparently.)   Anyway, Murphy loses everything but his head, lungs and one hand (I forget which one – right, I think) in the explosion.  It’s good timing though to be reduced to three body parts, because it just so happens OmiCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) is looking for a more human version of his robot street soldiers to sell the American people on.  So, what the hell, make the head-lung-hand guy RoboCop!

This RoboCop is allowed to remember his past and maintain a relationship with his family, which is the most interesting new wrinkle the new writers here have come up with.  But he still comes with a neurological implantation or something that renders him incapable of taking down his crooked superiors and creators.  He also has an off-switch that is kind of a nuisance – always getting turned off at the most inconvenient, just-about-to-bust-the-bad-guys times.  

There’s a framing device of sorts here with Samuel L. Jackson as the blowhard host of a propaganda news program on which he basically tries to manipulate his audience’s political views by inciting a bunch of fear and faux outrage.  This is the remake’s version of the original film’s many breakaways to those satirical commercials.  It is also, obviously, the remake’s attempt at some sort of commentary and social import.  It’s a fine enough effort, and Jackson is fun to watch chew scenery as always, but it feels forced and shoehorned into this otherwise soulless Hollywood product.  Verhoeven’s political satire in the original was anything but subtle, but it all felt like part of the world his film created.  The remake, with its generic dirty cop saga at one end and scenes of drones and street soldiers wreaking havoc in Afghanistan at another, feels like two separate movies awkwardly spliced into one.  And even more awkward is how all of this is muddled down into something acceptable for tween audiences.  Needless to say, none of it makes any impact.

The real tragedy here is Michael Keaton.  Always the most energetic and engaging of performers, and in far too few films as of late, Keaton is cast here as a fairly buttoned-down corporate type.  He’s great in the role, mind you, but it gives him little opportunity to be the kind of volatilely energetic villain he’s capable of being.  Why cast such a manic, livewire actor as a straight-laced CEO when his casting is practically begging for the role of the villain that Kurtwood Smith portrayed so devilishly in the original?  Oh that’s right; because that part doesn’t exist here.  In fact, there are like four or five bad guys in this thing, but it still manages to lack a strong villain. 

Adding insult to injury, this film also features creepster extraordinaire Jackie Earl Haley as a shady military honcho-but-also-head-of-security-at-OmniCorp-I-think-and-RoboCop-trainer/hater-or something and fails to give him a role that is the least bit mysterious or intimidating.  Why would you hire two actors with such flair and unique charisma as Keaton and Haley only to cast them in roles that don’t allow either to play to their strengths?  They are fine here, and so are Kinnaman and Jackson – they all do their best with the material they’ve been given and inject some of their distinctive personalities where they can – but these are really nothing roles across the board.

Holy shit!  I almost forgot.  Gary Oldman is also in this!  I don’t know why, but he is; and like all the other talent here, he’s better than the role or movie deserves.

This is the second bastardization of a 20-plus year-old Paul Verhoeven action classic Hollywood has churned out for mass consumption in as many years (last year’s infuriatingly inept “Total Recall” was the first).  It’s one thing if Hollywood has become so bankrupt of original ideas they have to resort to remaking older films, but is it too much to ask they show some damn respect?  If the very thing that made a film such a phenomenon was its fearless originality, why shart out a pale imitation that replaces everything that made the original so special with the same tired junk we can see in every other movie?  I’d probably still bitch if Hollywood remade, say, “Mr. Mom” or “Adventures In Babysitting”, but have at ‘em if they must.  As good as those movies are, stuff like that is simple, derivative, middle of the road entertainment.   If all Hollywood needs is a recognizable title to put butts in seats, use stuff like that.  But for the love of God, please stop tainting the legacy of these groundbreaking iconic classics with lazy renderings that don’t offer an ounce of the original film’s heart and soul, never mind a justification for why the remake even exists beyond the all mighty dollar.

2 Stars (Out of 4)

THE LEGO MOVIE

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By R. David

Published February 8, 2014

The phrase “an animated film that parents will enjoy too” gets thrown around pretty liberally these days.  Any cartoon feature that traffics in a fair amount of pop culture references and grown-up satire seems to automatically be deemed entertaining for adults, never mind how obvious, simplistic or downright out of place these references are.  Shrek and his donkey breaking into a dance number to some ’80s one-hit wonder or a Smurf dropping a Britney Spears jab does not automatically equal adult entertainment.

Animated features that are truly enjoyable for children and adults alike are not cloying, pandering, lazy flicks simply relying on the occasional, random wink and nod at grown-ups, but rather those that speak to the child in all of us.  Films that appeal to multiple generations are not simply ironic or sarcastic, but they speak to the heart; drudging up childhood memories, feelings and experiences.  Think “Toy Story” and the best of the Pixar films.  These movies have heart and imagination, not just a truck load of puns.  If the barometer of quality adult entertainment in non-animated films is guaged by things like a captivating story, smart dialog, and originality; that too should be the foundation of any animated film hoping to appeal beyond the kiddie demographic.

Imagine my surprsie to discover that the filmmakers behind the “The Lego Movie” understand this better than anyone this side of the Pixar universe.

At first glance, “The Lego Movie” could not feel like more of a crude, exploitive corrporate tie-in:  A movie conceived by beancounters and studio honchos who will throw any piece of junk into theaters as long as it is conected to a recognizable brand name to help put butts in seats (the “Battleship” movie, anyone?); and all the better if its aimed at kids (“Hey, they’ll see anything and because parents have to take them, double the money!” – Every Studio Exec Ever). But it is my sincere pleasure to report that this movie is not only the complete opposite of a film made with no other inspiration than pure corporate greed, but also the rare excepttion to the rule that animated movies promising to be for the whole family generally only pay lazy lip service to adults.

“The Lego Movie” is truly a smart, clever, original, joyous, vibrant and exciting adventure for kids, as well as the kid in us all.  It is a dizzying success, both technically – it is an animation marvel – and in terms of how throughly realized its story and characters are for a film based on tiny interlocking blocks.  It helps, of course, that “The Lego Movie” has 60-plus years of product history to build upon, and the fact that nearly every pop culture phenomenon has been Legoized through the years; hence why this film features not only Batman as a prominent character, but also Superman, Milhouse(!), and Star Wars characters and vehicles, as well as “1980-Something Space Guy”.  If that last bit of info tickled your funny bone, that is the sort of irreverent humor “The Lego Movie” has in spades; an example of how cleverly the film winks at both audience and its subject matter.

The film is a sureal funhouse of clever gags, surprising cameos and smart satire.  If you were to pour the “South Park” movie through a gentler, Pixar-esque filter, you’d get “The Lego Movie”.

The story involves construction worker Lego, Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), who wakes up every morning to the same routine in a world filled with Lego characters all limited to the specifications their character titles demand (“Cop”, “Fireman”, “Doctor”, etc.), most of which don’t question their drone-like existence, happy to be cogs in the wheel that makes the greater Lego universe turn.  They all stroll through their day singing their brightly conformist, earworm anthem “Everything Is Awesome” (good luck not spending the rest of your night singing its refrain).  Naturally, there are a few rebellious personalities who refuse to be confined by the personality roles they have been assigned and question their greater purpose.  Like Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), a rabblerousing, punk-chick who delights in questioning authority and dates Batman (Will Arnett).  She mistakes Emmet for “The Special”, a master builder who might just be the key to saving the (Lego) world from evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell).  Lord Business’ motives aren’t immediately apparent, but Emmet, who has feels like a fish out of water amongst his peers and has had always had to struggle to fit in, is convinced by Vitruvius, a God-like spiritual guide of sorts (voiced by Morgan Freeman, naturally), that he is the savior Lucy and her superhero pals (including Shaq – because, yes, there is a Shaq Lego) have been looking for.

“The Lego Movie’s” theme of being yourself and not being afraid to take risks is fairly well-traveled ground in animated features.  But there is a reveal in the last 10 minutes or so that takes this lesson even deeper.  And story elements and ambitions aside, “The Lego Movie” a rollicking good time, punctuated by a wonderfully irreverent and absurdist sense of humor (credit co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, whose “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was similarly tongue-in-cheek).  Will Arnett’s over-dramatic, self-absorbed Batman in particular is a comedic highlight, and a perfect example of where this film succeeds in tickling the funny bone of adult viewers and their children alike.  Similarly, the film’s design and action sequences employee a winking charm; lushly animated in most instances (impressively, the movie is able to keep all the film’s elements looking like they are made of Legos, despite their movements flowing naturally, ie Lego water, Lego fire, etc.), but every once in a while breaking away to a live action shot of Legos on a string and a human mimicking explosive sounding effects, just to remind us how all this action typically takes place.  It’s an insanely effective comedic maneuver; randomly breaking the “fourth wall” and momentarily pulling the audience out of the illusion the extraordinarily detailed animation otherwise wraps us in.  The film is also willing to poke fun at itself and the insane breadth of the Lego universe, not just by shoehorning in some of the more random examples of pop culture characters who have been Legoized over the years, but by including many of the different worlds the company has explored over the decades; from pirates, to space, to high tech city landscapes.

“The Lego Movie” has some of the familiar beats of the average animated film and gets a bit bogged down late in the game with a few climaxes to many.  But these are minor gripes.  On a whole, the film is surprisingly engaging – yes, even for adults – and a fast-paced, funny and sweetly mocking ride that encourages imagination and creativity.

Just like the toys it is based on.

3½ Stars (Out of 4)

ALL IS LOST

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By R. David

Viewed January 17, 2014

“All is Lost” is perhaps the most simplistic film of the year.   Robert Redford is stranded on a sinking sailing yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean. 

That’s it. 

Similar to “Gravity” in its degree of peril, “All Is Lost” might as well be the anti-“Gravity” in terms of moviemaking.  Both films strand their star alone in a vacuum of Mother Nature nightmares.  But that is where the similarities end.  “Gravity” is high-tech, special effects extravaganza that gains most of its visceral impact from its grandiose set pieces and filmmaking techniques.  It breaks new ground and sets new standards by which space-set dramas, and 3D technology will be measured.  “All Is Lost” plays like a throwback to minimalist survival adventures as old as film itself.  That’s not to say it lacks awesome action sequences in which storms and colossal waves make mincemeat out of our hero’s vessel, as well as his chances of survival; and director J. C. Chandor ably captures plenty of nifty and beautiful shots; but the film is sparse, raw, and  frighteningly of this world.

We don’t know who Redford is, what he does for a living or why he is alone in the middle of the ocean.  All we know is he wakes up to A hole in the side of his boat and he now has to do everything he can to keep it afloat.  One challenge after another presents itself, slowly robbing the character of his resources – and his hope of survival. 

Besides “Gravity”, “All Is Lost’s” closest recent cinematic counterpart is “Life of Pie”.  But unlike “Life of Pie”, there are no metaphors here of religious reflection or moral exploration.  Other than Redford penning an obligatory farewell letter to his family, there are no ruminations on life or his past.  And there’s certainly no tiger, real or imagined. He’s simply alone and has one goal:  to survive.  It’s the most basic of cinematic tropes and when handled properly it can be the most effective.  And “All Is Lost” is expertly shot and performed:  Supremely exciting and captivating on a filmmaking level, but also anchored by a powerhouse performance from Redford who shares the screen with no one and has almost no dialog or backstory.  Through his actions facial expressions and body language though, he manages to not only create a fully fleshed-out character but with his earnest, taciturn and realistic portrayal of an everyman at the mercy of his surrounding elements, the audience immediately throws themselves in his corner; hanging on his every ordeal, breathlessly rooting for him to survive.

“All Is Lost” is uncluttered and claustrophobic cinema at its purest.  Whatever the film might lack in complexity or originality, it more than makes for in suspense and visceral thrills.  And Redford, in a career full of amazing work, might just give his finest performance.

3½ Stars (Out of 4)

 

HER

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By R. David

Viewed January 10, 2014

Director Spike Jonze (“Being John Malcovich”, “Adaptation”) is no stranger to quirky, surreal dramedies with misfit protagonists who lose themselves in their own minds and neurosis.

“Her” is no exception.

The film is a tender and quiet rumination on our ever-growing reliance on social media, explored through Joaquin Phoenix’s nebbishy Theodore, a sensitive greeting card writer who after several years still can’t seem to pick up the emotional pieces of his marriage falling apart.  His desperate loneliness leads him into a relationship with Samantha, a computer operating system capable of assimilating all of his personal data to become his ideal companion and speaking to him through his phone in the husky voice of Scarlett Johansen.  Johansson’s lovely voice work here makes a convincing argument that any man might consider a relationship with an OS as seductive as Samantha.

“Her” takes place somewhere around the year 2025 (in a nice touch, Jonze imagines that fashions and hairstyles in the next decade or so will reset to those of circa 1982), where artificial intelligence programs have evolved to the point that Theodore attempting a relationship with one hardly raises any eyebrows.

The film is a leisurely paced and reflective look at how people who have trouble dealing with the sloppier issues that come prepackaged with real relationships might default to the next best thing.  In a smart touch, despite being a system designed to be compatible with Theodore, Jonze does not submit Samantha as some clichéd robot programmed to do Theodore’s bidding.  She can learn, grow, and experience love, anger, and sadness, and ultimately form her own ideas.  And Jonze frames the tale of their relationship like any other film about a burgeoning romance; walking us through its uncomfortable beginnings, the honeymoon phase, and the unfortunate, inevitable discourse that is bound to rear its head in any relationship; real or in some variation of reality.  Samantha may technically be artificial, but her and Theodore’s emotions and conflicts are no less real.  Theodore eventually realizes that even an ideally designed program of a relationship is still capable of letting down a man who craves the real thing.

“Her” looks great and has some astute things to say about love, friendship and our reliance on social technology.  The film is also well-acted across the board, with Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, and Olivia Wilde (among others) all submitting nice supporting work.  But this is Phoenix and Johansson’s show and they couldn’t be more charming. 

Unfortunately, the story works itself into a sort of double-bind where it becomes increasingly improbable that it will be able to come to a satisfying conclusion.  Once “Her” establishes itself as a film intent on exploring Theodore and Samantha’s romance from point A to point B, it becomes very much a basic romantic drama with little in the way of surprises or originality, despite being about how a man navigates a romantic relationship with a computer system.  Ultimately, I was a bit let down that there wasn’t more to Jonze’s story and execution.

Still, the film has more than enough to recommend it; from Jonze’s crisp direction to the principal casts’ superb performances (I can’t say enough about how effective and evocative Johansson’s performance is despite only appearing in voice form), to the largely original and compelling concept.  I just wish Jonze would have taken it in some more inspired directions.

3 Stars (Out of 4)

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

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By R. David

Viewed December 26, 2013

Marin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a dizzying, infections time warp, not unlike Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boggie Nights” in terms of its manic energy.  The true-story saga of Wall Street wunderkind Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) who, disgusted by his middle-class upbringing and vowing to never want for anything, goes from swindling clients into ponying up for penny stocks to creating a corrupt corporate empire from his start-up brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, “The Wolf Of Wall Street” is Scorsese’s most ambitious and infectious film in decades (and yes, that includes the overrated-yet-Oscar-winning “The Departed”).

That said, “The Wolf Of Wall Street” is far from perfect.  It’s longer than it probably needed to be, it fails to deliver a well-rounded, all-encompassing view of Belfot’s actions and their wide-reaching effects on – no doubt – millions of people, and while the scenes of Belfort and his cronies’ descent into Sodom and Gomorrah-like debauchery are admittedly insanely entertaining, Scorsese seems to revel in portraying their excess rather than exploring it or using it to provide any sort of larger commentary beyond, “see, they’re assholes.”  It’s often hard to tell if Scorsese is laughing at these soulless greed-mongers or with them.

Now, make no mistake, I am not in the WOWS hater-camp who feels Scorsese is glorifying his subject’s narcissistic, misogynistic, illegal and immoral actions.  No, I’m certain he’s trying to offer a unvarnished indictment of not only Belfort and Co., but also American attitudes, lifestyles and business practices in the late 1980s/early ’90s.  But Scorsese’s technique here suggests more of a patent observer rather than an impassioned voice looking to provoke the audience in any way.  It would help considerably if it felt like he was taking a stand or offering some sort of point of view (something that could have been easily done with a bit of refelction on the consequences of Belforts deeds).  More observant and thoughtful viewers will no doubt be able to draw conclusions to his true intentions, but the film has already polarized audiences, its critics arguing Scorsese envies his subject and fetishizes his exploits.

Of course, it’s not a director’s job to lead us by the hand to the point he is trying to make. We should be able to read between the lines rather than have everything spelled out explicitly for us or have everything wrapped up in a nice little package. But the problem isn’t that Scorsese’s commentary lies under the surface, but the fact that even for an unembellished character study whose themes and criticisms speak for themselves, Scorsese forgets (or declines) to pack the film with any sense of urgency or suspense. WOWS is fitfully entertaining on a visceral level – plenty of wild scenes involving sex, drugs and emotional collapse; and the performances here are universally juicy, impassioned and inspired – but there is never a sense that the stakes are very high for Belfort.  Either he gets caught, or he doesn’t. That’s about the gist of it.  Kyle Chandler shows up as an FBI agent with a hard-on for bringing Belfort down, but even these scenes – despite bristling with crackling dialog and a terrific dynamic between the actors – are bereft of any tension or ambiguity.  Like every other moment in the film, it’s just another snapshot, another chapter in the Belfort tale.  The movie just jumps from one episode of his life to the next without making a compelling argument about why we should care about any of this other than the “Wow, that was crazy!” scenes of sex and drug abuse that pop up every 15 or 20 minutes.

What is compelling here, however, are the all-in performances by an ace cast.  DiCaprio is thoroughly committed to the role of the weasely Belfort, and he shows great range and flashes of brilliance throughout the film.  He has a tendency to go over the top from time to time and the script straddles him with some moments – true or not – that are simply too silly and take audiences out the film (the Quaaludes sequence you’re either going to think is a laugh riot or that it belongs in an “American Pie” sequel, not a Scorsese film), but overall he inhabits the character with a sense of delusional ferocity, suggesting a man completely lacking the slightest bit of remorse for his crimes and the lives he’s destroyed.

No one else has as showy a role as DiCaprio, but nearly every other performer is just as compelling.  Matthew McConaughey has a cameo as a mentor of sorts for Belfort and nearly steals the film despite appearing in it for only about five minutes early on and never being seen again.  The most polarizing performance in the film will probably be Jonah Hill’s portrayal of Belfort’s right-hand man Donnie Azoff, a similar middle-class greedster who is largely responsible for recruiting the group of street hucksters who will eventually for the backbone of Stratton Oakmont.  Sporting protruding dentures, thick-rimmed glasses and working the pudgy, hot-tempered persona, he is Scorsese’s Joe Pesci here.  It’s a flashy role that will no doubt win him some fans based simply on its bravura nature.  But the performance feels more like a Scorsese caricature than an actual character, and there is no denying Hill is erratic here:  He’s either wildly over the top, or he fails to make the most of potentially resonant dramatic moments.

But then again, that is the kind of film “The Wolf of Wall Street” is overall.  A big, showy, dramatic spectacle with a lot of great sequences, performances and directorial flourishes, but also a film lacking in resonance and cohesion.  It’s a wild ride all right, but it’s also erratic and apathetic filmmaking.  Entertaining, but never moving; compelling, but never profound; “The Wolf of Wall Street” never manages to become the sum of its considerable parts.  Still, it’s an audacious, exciting, and extremely well performed ride, even if it fails as the Oscar contender it clearly fancies itself.

3 Stars (Out of 4)