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Review: RoboCop

John Kinneman and Gary Oldman in RoboCop (2014)

Joel Kinnaman and Gary Oldman in RoboCop (2014)

Options for decent movies are few and far between in late-February.  The next big crop comes up mid- to late-March, but we’re in the doldrums of movies that came out in December with the Christmas rush, and other Oscar hopefuls that get a late release in hopes of generating some buzz.  The “good” sci-fi movies also get saved for the summer blockbuster season, so it’s rare to find a “good” one released in early February.  In many ways, this year’s reboot of the RoboCop franchise may not even be that movie, as it’s had a mixed response, critically.

That all said, I should also point out that  despite the zeitgeist of the time, I didn’t grow up a fan of RoboCop.  It wasn’t exactly a “kid friendly” film, though I’m sure there were many in my elementary school that had seen it.  I didn’t get to see it until college, well after I’d been exposed to far, far better special effects.  Ketchup-style fake blood and stop-motion robots just didn’t do it for me, though I could at least appreciate that, for 1987, it was probably pretty cool.

The franchise consisted of 3 movies, a TV show, a cartoon, and countless toys.  I suspect many fans of the character would have preferred that only the first movie existed, as just about everything after it was generally bad.  That first movie, though, was prescient for its time, discussing such themes as militarization of law enforcement, drone warfare overseas, and corporations taking over the government and suppressing The People.

Perhaps 2014 is a really good time for a re-boot.

This new version of RoboCop includes similar characters, but is a pretty different movie, to my mind.  This version of Alex Murphy (played by Joel Kinnaman, who is largely unknown besides starring in cult-favorite The Killing) is a devoted family man in the near future, and incorruptible cop in Detroit that makes an enemy out of the leader of a local crime ring, who swiftly takes Murphy out with a car bomb.  Severely injured, his only hope is to have most of his body replaced by machine parts, “free of charge” by OmniCorp, which is run by Raymond Sellars (played by Michael Keaton).

Sellars is only doing this, though, because he wants his androids on the streets of the US.  To replace police officers.  His robots are already overseas fighting our wars for us, so “saving the lives of cops” (i.e. bit fat checks from local and state governments…) is his next venture.  What he needs, however, is a “human face” on his cold cyborg army, so “upgrading” Murphy is his way of making it happen.

This movie, as compared with the original, focuses far more on the human element.  The point at which we cease to be human and start to be machine.  Murphy struggles with having control over his own body, as OmniCorp can shut him down remotely at any time.  They can control how much personal decision-making can be applied in any given situation (i.e. whether to be more like a human cop, or more like an efficient, cold, robot).

On this front, I think the movie largely succeeds.  It is more of a “thinking man’s RoboCop,” which sets it apart from the previous outing.  It takes the original source material and updates it for our modern age, complete with a Glen Beck-style news anchor (played by Samuel L. Jackson) asking whether US Senators are “pro-crime” for not subscribing to Sellars’ world-view.

In the end, the acting was fine.  The writing was fine.  The effects were pretty good, but not spectacular.  There were a few pretty obvious moments when we switched from “dude in costume” to “that’s a CGI dude…really obviously…”  The original movie had quite a few bloody action scenes, and while this one certainly had its share, they were mostly shootouts, which can get a little boring without some hand-to-hand combat and explosions to back them up.

I thought it was good, but not great.  A solid rental, but I’m glad we saw it in the regular theater rather than spending extra for IMAX.  Some good ideas, but could have been more.

Review: The Hunger Games – Catching Fire

Everyone here could beat me up.  Even the old woman

Everyone here could beat me up. Even the old woman

Thanks to a set wonderful grandparents, Brooke and I took the opportunity to offload the kids for an afternoon so we could go see a movie.  We’ve both read the three books in the Hunger Games trilogy (Brooke’s read the first one more than once…), but we didn’t see the first movie in theaters.  Of the three books, the second one, Catching Fire, was my favorite because, while it still included “The Games” like the first did, and the associated action set pieces, it also brought the larger conflict of the world into the story with more political dealings.  All three books really put their focus on the character of Katniss Everdeen at the expense of showing the reader the rest of what’s going on everywhere else in the world (i.e. they’ll refer to events but won’t show them to you; it’s all second-hand).  The second book, and especially the third, start to open that up quite a bit more, yielding a bit more interesting storytelling, in my opinion.

We both thought the first movie did a good job of balancing the content from the source material with the special effects needed to make your money back in theaters nowadays.  Thankfully the sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, continues in that vein.  I haven’t read the book for a few years, but we both agreed that, while there were definitely a few things left out, most of the key story beats were present, and even the ending was nearly identical to the book.

The story this time out centers on Jennifer Lawrence‘s character, Katniss, and how she has dealt with being one of two Victors of the 74th Hunger Games, held each year between the 12 Districts of Panem (in a future-ish version of the United States where the government collapsed, leaving a reorganization of, well, everything…).  Because of the way the previous movie/story ended, the President of Panem, Snow (brilliantly played by Donald Sutherland), seeks revenge upon Everdeen for stirring up conflict between the Districts: conflict that could lead to revolution and his own downfall.  He and his cronies devise a special 75th Hunger Games that pits the previous winners from each District against each other yet again, thereby setting up a reason for us to return to the Games for a second movie/story.

The movie’s about 2.5 hrs long, so it does feel like it drags a little bit during the first half.  Having read the third book, however, I didn’t mind it because what some folks would see as “filler” is really “foundation” for the third story (and the next two movies…which, as is the trend nowadays, are both drawn from the final book, split in half…).  In that vein, there have been a few reviews out there that appear to criticize the movie for being a bit slower than the first one.  Again, I feel, this stems from those that haven’t read the books and haven’t seen events in their full context.  When we saw the movie, the woman in front of us saw the ending and was genuinely surprised that, apparently, “there’s going to be another one.”

To us, having read the books, we thought it was pretty good.  The action was fun, the effects were still as good or better than other major motion pictures pull off, the acting is as good as one would expect (especially from an Academy Award winner…), and it’s still cool to watch a pretty good read play out on the big screen without dramatic changes.  It’s pretty important that you see the first movie before this one (well duh…), but if you’ve got the time to read the books, I think you’d get more out of it.

Review: Pacific Rim

PACIFIC-RIM

You know how there are some movies you grew up with that, although you love them, you recognize that they had quite a few faults?  Movies where you saw it when you were 10, thought it was awesome, and even though you’re older now and realize it probably wasn’t even that good of a movie, you still tell yourself you love it (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I’m looking at you…)?

Pacific Rim is probably that movie.

Look, there are some pretty cheesy lines in this.  The plot is very predictable.  The CGI is sometimes ridiculously obvious.  Most of the acting is fine, but some is just passable.  There are multiple nonsensical plot holes.

And yet, for some reason, I had more fun watching this movie than many of the others I’ve seen this year.

The brief synopsis involves an inter-dimensional rift opening near the bottom of the Pacific Ocean where giant monsters code-named “Kaijus” (Japanese for “strange creature,” paying homage to the Godzilla franchise) emerge on an increasingly regular basis, wreaking destruction and havoc on coastal cities.  Jet fighters and soldiers prove not to be enough, so the Jaeger program is initiated in order to produce giant robot fighters that are controlled by two human pilots (a single human can’t control one without severe brain damage).  Though the Jaegers do well at stopping the onslaught for years, the Kaijus begin to evolve and improve and ultimately put them on the defensive, until there are only a few remaining.  The bulk of the story picks up at the end, with what is to be the “defeat them once and for all” moment of the war.

If you’ve seen any sci-fi movie, you can see where this is going.  Mentor brings hero back into the fold to save the world once last time and meets cute heroine, learning a thing or two from her in the process about himself and his station in life.  Other characters are lost tragically until the very end, when it’s time to save the world, requiring ultimate sacrifice.

But knowing all that, I still enjoyed it.  There are times when you want to go to a movie, turn off your mind for a few minutes, and watch giant robots beat the crap out of giant monsters.  This is why the Godzilla movies did (do?) so well at the box office: story matters to an extent, but in the end, the people come for the monsters.  And oh, the monsters.  The Kaijus are coming through the rift, but each one looks/acts a bit different.  Some fly, some have strong tails, some spit blue acid goo at you, some are just big bruisers.  Their variety is endless (and unexplained…this is one of those “nonsensical plot holes” where the writers fail to explain why these giant aliens come to Earth and now look like crabs, or hammerhead sharks…hmmmm…), and it presents interesting challenges for the Jaegers in how to deal with them.  Sometimes it involves beating them with an ocean liner.  And believe you me, that’s cool.

Guillermo del Toro is a popular director among many, though I can’t say I’m his biggest fan (the Hellboy movies just didn’t do that much for me…).  However, I do appreciate his ability to craft a world that’s intricately detailed.  Rather than just seeing “giant robots” walking around, through the eyes of the human pilots, you actually see the gears turning and the hydraulics pumping.  You can see the evolution of Jaegers, where the older ones look primitive, compared with the newer, sleeker, faster ones.  You get a sense that these things are big, rather than just two dudes in monster suits walking around buildings made of cardboard.  Even though the Kaijus are obviously CGI characters, you see them in a context with the Jaegers and the surrounding cities that makes you believe what you’re seeing, rather than being constantly “pulled out” of the experience.  Seeing it in IMAX 3D probably helped with the blending of real people and CG animation.

So yes, in the end, I enjoyed it quite a bit.  Is it going to win a “Best Picture” Oscar?  No.

Was it a ton of fun?

Heck yes.

Review: Man of Steel

3114457-man-of-steel

I have something of a tenuous relationship with the Superman franchise. That is to say, I like the Richard Donner original and I even liked 2006′s “Superman Returns,” but these aren’t movies I pull out on a regular basis like I do “The Dark Knight” or “Spider-man.”

One thing I always found attractive about the character was the good old-fashioned feel of classic Americana.  ”Truth, Justice, and The American Way,” and all that.  The character of Superman was an outsider, but one that identified with his adoptive planet and sought to defend its people with a strong sense of American-centric values and morals.

That’s not what this movie is about.

Man of Steel” is a unique interpretation of the franchise, arguably one that it needed.  ”Batman Begins” was a necessary reboot of the its franchise, grounding the character of Batman in a somewhat more realistic world while avoiding the campiness that had plagued the more recent films.  Superman hasn’t really had that problem, but at the same time, “good old-fashioned Americana” doesn’t sell quite the same way it used to.

And thus, we get a reboot of Superman.  This time, we get an extended look at what was happening on Krypton at the time of its destruction, when Kal-El was shipped off by his parents to find refuge on Earth.  Through a series of flashbacks, we see key moments of Kal-El’s upbringing as Clark Kent.  Unlike the previous movies (though this has been explored in other media, especially “Smallville“), it was nice to see the influence of Clark’s fathers on him throughout the film.  Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) both hoped for the future of their son, yet each represented different (yet converging) paths.

Henry Cavill’s Superman was also different than earlier films.  Brandon Routh essentially copied Christopher Reeve’s version, but Cavill differentiates himself with a bit more emotion and more of a longing for a place in this world.  Again, I see the influence of later Superman properties in Cavill’s interpretation, while Routh and Reeve both veered toward the “Americana” vision pre-1980s.  Personally, I think Cavill did a pretty great job for his first time in the suit.  And dude, that guy is ripped.

Really, the first half of the movie was pretty good.  And in some ways, the second half was “good,” too.  But the second half is a different movie from the first half.  See, in the first half, there was a back story for Superman, how he was born, raised, and eventually put on the suit.  The second half involves the utter obliteration of Metropolis as Superman battles General Zod (Michael Shannon), who wants to recreate Krypton on Earth.  Seriously, while I was watching that portion of the movie, I kept thinking it was reminiscent of a “Godzilla” flick, with building after building just being knocked over.  The effects were great and the action was fun, but there wasn’t much story once we got to that point.  Heck, they got Laurence Fishburne to play Perry White and the man was barely in the movie.

It didn’t help that I didn’t care for Shannon’s portrayal of Zod, either.  I don’t think I disliked the character, per se.  I simply wasn’t in to Shannon’s acting.  He just didn’t give me the feeling that he was a cold hardened military badass from another planet.  It took me a few minutes, but after the movie was over, I decided Stephen Lang should have played that role, as he was the military-bred bad guy from “Avatar.”  I believed that Lang had a mission to complete and that nothing would stop him from doing it.  I didn’t get the same feeling out of Shannon.  Maybe that was just me…I dunno…

There is also a controversial ending to this movie, centering on the final confrontation between Superman and Zod.  Personally, I didn’t mind it, but it definitely put the final nail in the coffin of the “Christopher Reeve-era” Superman portrayal.

Generally, I felt this movie was “middling.”  There were definitely some cool parts, some chuckle moments, some great back story that hadn’t been outlined previously (at least in the movies).  At the same time, I was still left wanting.  Some glimmer of the Superman character that made him popular in the first place.

Just a little more “Truth, Justice and The American Way” would have been great.

Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

"Tough little ship..."

“Tough little ship…”

I was a pretty big fan of the J.J. Abrams re-boot of the Star Trek franchise in 2009.  Aside from the excellent production values, great new cast, and a new take on an aging (some would say “stale”) franchise, the thing I appreciated most was the attention to previous movies/shows while also completely spinning established canon on its head.  It created an “alternate timeline,” allowing the writers to change things up without really pissing off longtime fans (for the most part…I mean…they destroyed Vulcan, after all…)

But, in the end, the first movie was still an origin story.  Most of the plot was taken up with getting Kirk into Starfleet, getting him onto the Enterprise, and bringing him in contact with all the folks that would ultimately make up his legendary crew.  While Eric Bana is a good actor, frankly, he wasn’t given much to do as the villain.  This isn’t a new problem among superhero-type movies, where the first movie in the franchise can only have so much time devoted to a proper villain or conflict.

Which leaves the second movie to fill in the gap.  The characters have been introduced and developed.  The audience knows generally what to expect.  Now, they just want a good movie.

And boy, does Star Trek Into Darkness deliver.

I’ll refrain from spoilers, as this is one movie where I see some value in keeping the secret(s).  In short, Kirk & Company seek revenge for an attack on a secret Section 31 installation (nice callback to somewhat deep “Star Trek” lore there, guys…) and Starfleet Command by John Harrison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.  And honestly, that’s all I want to say about the story.  Really, I’d like to write more on it, and perhaps I will in a few months, but for now, you’re best served by not reading anything more about it.  Heck, I already knew a few of the details before I saw it, but even I didn’t see some of this movie coming.

In the end, they did a wonderful job of incorporating elements of the “alternate timeline” established in the first one with the “core timeline” of the…well…the rest of “Star Trek.”  They even did a good job of transferring lines from the previous movies (one specific movie, in particular…) to the characters in this one.  Is some of it cheesy?  Perhaps.  Personally, I got a kick out of it.  Hearing an important line delivered by a different character than who originally delivered it is fascinating, and keeps you guessing.

Despite knowing the few details that I did, I was actually “on my toes,” to some degree, regarding the villain.  Cumberbatch was obviously a bad guy from the beginning, but there were times we saw him working with Kirk toward a common goal.  But damn, once he turns bad, he turns bad in a real way.  It’s like the writers chose to let the audience feel for the plight of the villain for awhile, then, once you start to feel like you understand him, he shifts radically in another direction.  It’s one of those moments where you have a villain in front of you, but then the real one steps out from the shadows.

The writers also did a good job of “spreading the love” between characters this time.  The last movie featured Kirk, Spock and Uhura, primarily, with bit parts for the others.  This time, the only character lacking was Checkov, though he still had his moments.  I got a bit tired of the “folksy metaphors” Bones kept spouting and felt he could have expanded his role a bit more, but by the end, I was fine with his portrayal.  Overall, the cast did really well, and notably, Zachary Quinto was able to inject a remarkable amount of “feeling” into a “non-feeling” Vulcan.  They’re doing a great job re-creating those characters and wish they could have a TV series to really do it right (never gonna happen…).

It goes without saying that the effects were spectacular and the action set pieces were wonderful.  I’m glad they showed more of the Enterprise this time around, as I really, really like that ship design.  I was also impressed by the 3D in this movie.  While you don’t need it to enjoy the movie, of course, I’d still recommend it if you have the option.

All in all, it was a fun ride and a movie I’d like to see again (and again).  I haven’t quite decided whether I like the 2009 “original” or the 2013 sequel more yet, however.  Perhaps I’ll need a second viewing before I really decide.  But right now, I’m leaning toward the new one.