Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Two-Point-Six Billion Dollar Man

Hollywood is all about the remakes nowadays.  Never mind that the original is pretty good already and still stands the test of time.  If a reasonable period of time has passed since the original, then it could use an update as far as the rigid Ms. Wood (aka Holly) is concerned.
It is in this spirit that we get ‘RoboCop 2014,' Brazilian director José Padilha’s contemporary take on love-him-or-hate-him Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 sci-fi classic about a good cop struggling in a world of evil (okay, two good cops if we include Officer Lewis).  Verhoeven’s original, starring Peter Weller and Nancy Allen, was beloved by fans for its bold, subversive portrayal of corporate greed and corruption.  In the bleak setting of RoboCop's Detroit, law and human decency are under constant siege by not only scum-of-the-earth criminals but evil corporations, immoral politicians and corrupt law enforcement agencies.   Weller’s Alex Murphy never stood a chance before he became RoboCop.  What’s brilliant about Verhoeven’s ‘RoboCop’ is that it placed social commentary and political satire in a dark and edgy R-rated dystopian sci-fi action thriller, often with humorous results.
Since the remake is unlikely to hold a candle to the original, my expectations for it was correspondingly low.  So it was to my pleasant surprise that it managed to exceed them.  This glossier, PG-13 rated version is actually pretty good!  Joel Kinnaman’s Alex Murphy/RoboCop had more emotional depth than Peter Weller's.  His shock, revulsion and overreaction upon seeing his 'new and improved' body for the first time seemed genuine, and his attempts to connect with his wife and son came straight from the heart.  Likewise, Michael Keaton did a great job as the movie's villain, OmniCorp (http://www.omnicorp.com/)  CEO Raymond Sellars, a mad (as in insane) tech-guru/entrepreneur who honestly believed that he was doing mankind a favor in realizing his dreams of a robotic 'Police States of America.'  This is timely and topical in our era of paranoia and fear of Big Brother government legislating the use of drones for domestic purposes.  The action scenes of RoboCop fighting against squads of EM-208 combat droids (the love child between a T-800 Terminator and a Cylon?: http://www.omnicorp.com/products/em-208.php) and the redesigned ED-209 fire support walkers from the original movie (would you like to know more?: http://www.omnicorp.com/products/ed-209.php) are exciting to be sure, but they're nothing we haven’t seen before in similar PG-13 superhero and action movies with their tightly edited close-up shots and quick cuts from multiple angles.
Cosmetically, the new RoboCop looks more ‘tactical’ in black and speeds along the streets of Detroit on a sleek bike (also from OmniCorp, of course: http://www.omnicorp.com/products/c-1.php), but he stomps around heavily just like the old RoboCop, and his servos and actuators make the same whirring and whining sounds.  The remake also kept some of the original’s satirical elements, such as the opening scene live coverage of ‘Operation Freedom Tehran’ and a recurring talking head (played by Samuel L. Jackson) in the mold of conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly.  If ‘RoboCop 2014’ makes the current generation want to check out the Verhoeven original, so much the better.
Grade: A-
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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Pretty Little Bloodsuckers

Ah, another movie adaptation of a YA series.  While the successes of the 'Harry Potter,' 'Twilight' and 'Hunger Games' franchises cannot be denied, other attempts to mine box-office gold were far less lucrative.  In fact, would-be franchise starters 'The Host,' 'Beautiful Creatures,' 'Percy Jackson' and 'The Mortal Instruments' were all abject failures.  Not to be cowed, however, Hollywood continues to try with the upcoming 'Divergent' and this Twilight-meets-Buffy rip-off called 'Vampire Academy.' 
Based on a series of YA novels by Richelle Mead, which I have not read, 'Vampire Academy' is about a bunch of prep-school vampires called the Moroi and their half-human, half-vampire servant/protectors called the Dhampir.  The Moroi are peaceful 'good' vampires, unlike the archetypal Hollywood evil vampires, called the Strigoi in the movie and books.  Directed and written by the Waters brothers, Mark and Daniel, of 'Mean Girls' and 'Heathers' fame, respectively, 'Vampire Academy' promises to be another juicy and nasty portrayal of High School bitchiness.
So did the movie deliver?  Well, yes and no.  The rapid-fire, wise-cracking dialogue does possess echoes of Joss Whedon and Diablo Cody.  Rose Hathaway, the Buffy-esque Dhampir protector of her highness the princess Lissa Dragomir, is smart and sassy, full of sarcastic wit and well stocked with barbed quips and clever retorts.  Played by newcomer Zoey Deutch, the daughter of 80's brat-packer Lea Thompson, she is truly one to watch.  Unfortunately, the Moroi she watches over and has a psychic (or soul) connection with, Lissa Dragomir (played by Lucy Fry), is boring as hell, as were most of the other characters in the movie except for the chipper Natalie Dashkov, played by Modern Family's Sarah Hyland.
The movie is easy enough to follow without too much narrative exposition, and that is a good thing.  The long-haired and brooding 'designer vampires' popularized by 'Twilight' and The CW Network were predictable and a bit been there, done that, as were the googly-eyed romances between some of the characters.  All in all though, the movie isn't nearly as bad as the critics say.
Grade: B
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LEGO Story

The world's most popular toy blocks finally get the big screen treatment in 'The Lego Movie,' a fun-filled action adventure that has something for the whole family.  Eschewing the jerky stop-motion technique of 'Robot Chicken' for smoother CGI animation, 'The Lego Movie' nonetheless managed to retain a vintage shot-with-real-Legos look.  Remarkable, that.

The story of an ordinary, unassuming construction Lego named Emmet who ultimately became someone special (so special, cue 'The Pretenders' song please), 'The Lego Movie' is about rebelling against conformity and discovering your true potential.  Sure, we've heard this all-too-familiar story before.  But 'The Lego Movie' tells it with such humor and a large cast of pop-culture references, from Batman and the Millennium Falcon to a Gandalf-like wizard named 'Vitruvius' and a T-1000-ish 'bad cop,' that the movie somehow endeared itself to our inner 12-year olds. 

Still, if it was only a bunch of hyperkinetic CGI-rendered Legos moving around in various Legos-constructed locales it wouldn't have been enough for me to recommend it.  What did it was the movie's heartwarming final act, when the movie shifted from 'Lego world' to the real world, in which a father-and-son relationship blossoms over their shared affections for these colorful construction blocks in spite of their marked differences on how they should be used.  

Grade: B+
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