Robocop by José Padilha

Robocop by  José Padilha

Set in 2028 Detroit, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) – a loving husband, father and good cop – is critically injured in the line of duty, the multinational conglomerate OmniCorp seizes this opportunity to make him into a half-man, half-machine police officer.

With its combination of B-movie kitsch, sci-fi action and satirical social commentary, Paul Verhoeven’s original Robocop was a product of its time. Having thoroughly enjoyed it as a child on VHS, I owned a Robocop action figure, played the Robocop video game on Gameboy and even faithfully watched the sequels without any sense that the stories started to deteriorate in quality. Initially the first film worked as a highly violent action film and it was only later as an adult that I caught on with the satirical bits.

Hearing about this upcoming Robocop remake, I wondered if those satirical elements would work again. Yes, technology today has now caught up with what was shown in the original film, but that doesn’t necessary mean there is anything substantial to be attacked satirically. I assumed it was going to be more focused on the action sci-fi elements.

But my prediction was wrong. The new Robocop gets right what I thought it would have fumbled, the social satire, and drops the ball exactly where I never would have expected, namely the Robocop story itself. The satire elements with Samuel L. Jackson doing a parody of Fox News, makes up for the most entertaining segments but it is the only condensed source of satire. The satire works and is surprisingly relevant, but it is not as naturally incorporated into its fictional world as the original. Every segment with Jackson’s TV host feels like a break from the main narrative.

Joel Kinnaman does a decent job with the material he is given, but the story is essentially not focused on Alex Murphy. The remake version of Murphy and he is not portrayed as a warm friendly guy like Peter Weller, or at least the story is not showing it. It is a long wait before Robocop officially becomes Robocop and does the Robocop thing, as we are shown the entire production process of his creation. It is here in the second act where the story starts to sag. It is also where the action scenes begin, which are decently designed and choreographed, but ultimately are dull because there is no gravitas behind them.

Abbie Cornish plays Murphy’s wife seriously, replacing Nancy Allen’s Officer Anne Lewis as Murphy’s anchor to his own humanity, is unfortunately wasted from having no character progression or payoff.

The R-rated violence was an essential element to the original Robocop, establishing great nasty villains and touched upon themes of dehumanization and human conscience versus the judgment of a machine. Whether the ultra violence is included in this telling is irrelevant. There are many things movies can get away with a PG-13 rating now than in the eighties. I do not need this remake to be ultra violent. What I want is the scenes to be emotionally gripping, and this did not achieve that.

The main debate between Gary Oldman’s kindhearted robotics scientist and Michael Keaton’s slimy Omnicorp CEO, representing the individual versus the corporation, is the heart of the film. And it is quite ironic actually. Even down to making Robocop black and riding a black motorcycle, visually reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (frankly, the original suit still looks cooler), Robocop plays like a film that has been workshopped by a committee of producers. Robocop, or as he referred to in the film, “the Tinman”, just needed more heart.

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Saving Mr. Banks by John Lee Hancock

Saving Mr. Banks by John Lee Hancock

 

As a writer, it is my opinion that how authors view the film adaptation of their own work is irrelevant and inconsequential to the quality of the adaptation itself. For example, whether Stephen King appreciates Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining fundamentally does not make it a lesser film. This is the central question presented in John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks.

The story recounts Author P.L. Travers (Mary Poppins), writer of Mary Poppins, reluctantly meeting with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who seeks to adapt her book for the big screen. As they are collaborating on the film adaptation, Travers reflects on her childhood growing up in Australia with her father (Colin Farrell), revealing her own personal attachments to the Mary Poppins story.

Emma Thompson breathes a great inner life into P.L. Travers, humanizing a role that is greatly restrained and otherwise very unlikable. Tom Hanks, combining his star persona and natural ease, gives us a living and breathing Walt Disney. Hanks makes everything look so easy. Colin Farrell turns an affecting performance as Travers’ chronic alcoholic father Travers Goff, and also props to Annie Rose Buckley as the young P.L. Travers. The heart of the story lies in the flashback segments, as we see P.L. Travers’ past with his father in Australia and it shows that P.L. Travers essentially wrote Mary Poppins as wish fulfillment.

Director John Lee Hancock balances the material perfectly. Even though I fundamentally disagree with Travers’ persnickety demand of complete faithfulness, I empathize deeply with why she was so overprotective of her own material. It makes for much of the laughs as we watch the gloom Travers single-handedly killing all the child-like enthusiasm of the staff at Disney.

It is probably best to see Mary Poppins first to get a more wholesome experience, as seeing the numerous classic scenes and songs that Travers could have prevented from ever being created gives a whole other level of tension. Also, stay for the credits for a surprise easter egg.

Despite probably being overshadowed in terms of awards recognition, Saving Mr. Banks is a very enjoyable experience. Audience will find laughs and tears, as it is a well-made feel good movie.

12 Years A Slave by Steve McQueen

12 Years A Slave by Steve McQueen

 

Based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, it recounts the story of Northup, a free black carpenter and musician living in upstate New York, who gets kidnapped and illegally sold as a slave to the south for twelve years.

Solomon Northup is the role of a lifetime and Chiwitel Ejiofor delivers it in full, leaving the viewer in moments of shock, fear and awe. Solomon’s inner conflict between resisting his new slave identity to the sad eventual acceptance is all communicated through Ejiofor’s face and body, as he is forbidden to speak. And it is in witness of terrible things, we see Solomon grasping tight onto his own values and dignity that makes his situation all the more endearing. It is impressive how we can see what Ejiofor is thinking in every moment. There is noteworthy long take where Solomon quietly contemplates his own fate, his eyes slowly look towards the camera and it struck me dead still. Even though Matthew McConaughey is still my pick for the Oscar this year, it’s going to be ultimately between McConaughey and Chiwitel Ejiofor.

Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps is one of the most despicable evil onscreen characters in recent memory and probably for the ages. Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson and Benedict Cumberbatch all give fine supporting performances. What dark nether place the Caucasian actors are going mentally to breathe life into playing slavers is unfathomable. It is quite a sight to behold that level of evil being performed.

As producer, Brad Pitt didactically shows up in a small part to say the entire point of the story. While good in the part, Pitt’s appearance seems for more political reasons than purely for story reasons. It is not big enough of a problem to say he is miscast, but some may find it hokey or jarring.

Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is spectacular as Epp’s most prized slave Patsy, capable of picking five hundred pounds of cotton per day, but the achievement brings her more harm than relief. What happens to Patsy is even more heartbreaking than Solomon’s situation. Because of this, Nyong’o becomes the heart of the story in the latter half, as she represents the majority of slaves who were never free to begin with and never will be. Nyong’o is my pick for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.

The physical violence is hard to watch. However, the non-violent scenes offer an insight not prevalent in other slave films, answering Quentin Tarantino’s proposed question “Why don’t slaves just kill their masters and escape in the middle of the night?” from Django Unchained. Steve McQueen gets beneath of how slavery works psychologically and shows its emotional violence. The way the slaves are sold posed completely naked, shower in groups outdoors like animals, and dance and sing in the middle of the night to amuse their masters, the power of slavery is not the threat of the whip but the overwhelming sense of human degradation that weighs them to the eventual surrender of one’s humanity.

Needless to say, 12 Years A Slave is an intense and upsetting experience. The story is masterfully visualized by McQueen, showing the horror of slavery through how society deemed it normal and acceptable. The awards recognition it has gained is well deserved and has nothing to do with the fact that it is a film about slavery or playing to the white guilt in Oscar voters. The majority of audiences will probably only be able to stomach the experience once, as the gut-wrenching nature of it may not be friendly to watching it again. My suggestion: go see it once, but see it in full with your eyes wide open and soak it all in for what it is. It is a work of social and historical significance.

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All Is Lost by J. C. Chandor

All Is Lost by J. C. Chandor

 

All Is Lost involves a man (Robert Redford), whose name is never mentioned, is lost at sea. His ship is damaged and he goes through a series of obstacles trying to survive.

Following up on his debut Margin Call, director J.C. Chandor achieves a poetry and spirituality with barebones simplicity. The serene oceans are beautifully photographed and there is an impressive use of tranquility in its storytelling. Whether it’s an impending storm or a school of fish swimming by the ocean, Chandor crafts genuine moments of awe in the truest sense of man versus nature.

Robert Redford carries the entire movie on his shoulders, and it’s a testament to his onscreen charm and persona. With almost next to no dialogue, character backstory or another actor to play off of, the film’s visceral experience completely hinges on Robert Redford’s every facial expression, delivering joyful relief with a sigh or with a frown evoking disappointment. It is a natural and honest performance, as Redford never once preens for the camera but rather simply plays the truth of the situation.

Comparative to his competitors for the best leading actor award, Redford’s performance, while artful and impressive, is not Oscar worthy. It hits a deeper reflective note that is more difficult to quantify as the experience rewards as much as the viewer wants to invest in it.

Even in terms of Oscar politics, weighed against slavery, AIDS and degenerate stockbrokers, a man trying to survive in nature perversely seems opaque right now. Perhaps it’s just not where the social unconscious wants to be focused on. That might be too bad, but I wager the film will have longer shelf life than some of the films that are nominated right now. All things considered, All Is Lost fares like the underdog film of this year, even though there is nothing underdog about it.

 

HK Auteur Top Ten Films of 2013

Top Ten of 2013:
1. Blue Jasmine
2. About Time
3. The Act of Killing
4. Pacific Rim
5. Man of Steel
6. The Heat
7. The Call
8. Before Midnight
9. Gravity
10. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Honorable Mentions:
Berberian Sound Studio
The Conjuring
To the Wonder
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Behind the Candelabra
Prisoners
Firestorm
Captain Phillips
Snowpiercer
Don Jon

Genuine Surprises:
The World’s End
The Guilt Trip
Man of Tai Chi

Downright Hated:
Unbeatable
Special ID
Cloud Atlas
Iron Man
3


Still Yet to See (Will be Updated):
The Wind Rises
47 Ronin

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
Philomena
Christmas Rose
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Way Way Back
Nebraska
Mud
Dallas Buyers Club
Nebraska
Like Father, Like Son
Blue is the Warmest Color

Verdict:

It seems this year I have gravitated to films that have impacted me on a deep emotional level on a lower volume than something to the likes of a loud and big special effects film or quirky idiosyncratic emotions from an indie picture. Even a film like Man of Steel moved me in its quieter dramatic moments. Anything that reflected upon life or anything about relationships between people were more personal to me this year.

Second to being touched were films that made me laugh, notably Pacific RimAbout Time and The Heat were films that I laughed from start to finish. It is an achievement that is often easily dismissed, but that earns huge props in my book.

One thing that I admittedly avoided were films with heavy subjects. The only movie that really peaked my interest was The Act of Killing. I was glad to have seen Terence Malick’s To the Wonder and Werner Herzog’s Youtube PSA about texting while driving, but I just didn’t want to think deep existential thoughts about life this year. I don’t know if there are more films like these out there this year.

I would have liked more Asian or European films to be on the list, but thus far nothing has earned any spots on my Top Ten, only my Honorable Mentions.

Most of the films yet to be reviewed are because they haven’t been released yet in my area, and I will probably get caught up in February when Oscar season comes around. I ask you to be patient with me.

Lastly, I figure I need to see more bad movies, which I  gladly would if I was able to review films professionally. There are films much more horrid than the ones I’ve listed here.

Again, as I’ve said before, I’ll try to keep it interesting. Bring on 2014!

Carrie by Kimberly Peirce

Carrie by Kimberly Peirce

A re-imagining of the classic horror tale about Carrie White, a shy girl outcast by her peers and sheltered by her deeply religious mother, who unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom.

First off, it’s going to be very hard not to compare this remake to the original. Not because of the original’s success or how revered it was, but because of how similar both films are. This new remake of Carrie from director Kimberly Peirce, unfortunately, doesn’t do enough to justify its retelling.

The original Carrie explored the theme of power and control between adults and teenagers. Carrie’s mother Margaret hits her when Carrie doesn’t listen to her. And in another scene, a teacher cusses at a group of students and smacks one of them in the face in front of the entire class.

What works against the remake is today’s current standards of parenting.  In today’s age, hitting a child is much more frowned upon than it was in the seventies. If a kid is cussed or smacked by a teacher in school nowadays, they can legitimately fight back by bringing it to the school board or by calling the police. These politics ends up watering down the film’s themes, removing a lot of the edges off of the story. The threat of violence, whether it’s coming from adult onto the teenager or vice versa, is dampened. The state of today’s politics is not something I hold against the film, but the film doesn’t seem to want to challenge current social taboos and play in the politically incorrect. The entire effect of the horror is watered down as a result.

Director Kimberly Peirce makes up for this by adding modern horror movie aesthetics onto the story. There are loud jump scares, sharp objects are held closely into people’s faces making frantic expressions and people creepily walk by in the background undetected. The major difference between the original and the remake lies in the way that it scares its audience. In the original, the horror was a looming creepiness that stayed with me after the film ended. I reflected upon the inevitable tragedy of Carrie being an unfortunate outcast being pushed to the point of no return. In the remake, the horror is emphasized in the immediate present of the physical violence that’s about to be unleashed.

Everybody looks attractive and for a story about a social outcast in an image-conscious high school environment, that is a problem. In the novel, Carrie is described as a plump girl. Chloe Grace-Moretz is pretty regardless of how much the filmmakers try to dress her down. This works against her, but other than that, Chloe Grace-Moretz does a good job with what’s she’s given.

Julianne Moore is scary as Margaret White. It’s much more over-the-top than Piper Laurie’s version. I would argue Moore’s performance is scarier, if only because it was more psychotic and violent by comparison. The most engaging scenes are between Margaret and Carrie. The supporting characters end up becoming more black-and-white and it comes off bland. If you ask me, what makes the story so tragic are the grey areas, the edges and how it was hard to imagine how things could have ended otherwise.

Carrie is an okay adaptation that doesn’t completely honor the mechanics of its tragic story and deters from challenging the political correctness of today. It comes off more like a fairy tale than a tragedy. What the remake ends up proving is how tight the original movie was and how things are much scarier when the horror stays with you long after the story has ended. I can only say this because I seen the original film. So overall, people who haven’t seen Brian DePalma’s Carrie will probably like this version more by default.

The World’s End by Edgar Wright

The World’s End by Edgar Wright

Five friends who reunite in an attempt to top their epic pub crawl from 20 years earlier unwittingly become humankind’s only hope for survival.

The Cornetto trilogy is a trilogy in name only. As far as I can see, the chief link between Shaun of the DeadHot Fuzz and The World’s End is Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Edgar Wright and the fact that they are all stories about friendships between men. There’s nothing in The World’s End‘s story or theme that forces any finality or closure.

The core story between the five friends dealing with being forty was compelling and heartfelt. It’s nice seeing Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan play bigger roles in a commercial film and a fresh turn seeing Nick Frost playing the most competent character. The story with Simon Pegg’s Gary King is genuinely the darkest and saddest territory these films have ever ventured.

When the genre stuff kicks in, it was quite the surprise. The first time around I couldn’t tell how exactly the core story about the five friends fit with the sci-fi genre elements that cut in the middle. The film simply operates too much on a thematic level. For example, the fact that the twelve bars they visit are all thematically named after points in the story seemed more on the nose than ironical. The humor itself is less blatant than in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz; it’s more akin to laughing at the thematic irony of the situation rather than laughing at funny zingers. It is all very clever stuff, but it may take multiple viewings to really digest its heavy ideas along with its spectacle. I had to watch it again before writing this review.

Now admittedly, out of all the three films, I knew least about the films that The World’s End is referencing. Audiences familiar with Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter films will probably have a different experience than me. But at the end of day, science fiction or not, watching five men on a pub crawl just isn’t as cinematic as a zombie outbreak or a midday gun battle.

The fight choreography, although they are drunk bar fights, have a nice martial arts rhythm to them. It seemingly is an aesthetic Wright has brought from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. They were visually theatrical and matched the film’s ironic tone.

I take issue with the epilogue as the story ended on a rather cold morbid note that seemed mean to its characters. If only The World’s End was the second installment in the Cornetto trilogy, it would have relieved itself from following up on the more comical light-hearted expectations from Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, I probably would have liked it more as the darker second installment of the trilogy. That said, it’s dense and the film probably will grow on me with subsequent viewings.

The Call by Brad Anderson

The Call by Brad Anderson

The Call by Brad Anderson

When a veteran 911 operator takes a life-altering call from a teenage girl who has just been abducted, she realizes that she must confront a killer from her past in order to save the girl’s life.

The Call is a tense thriller that fully explores and delivers on its premise. Everything feels like it’s happening before us. Solving one problem creates another and time always seems to be running out. I watched this with my family and it was so gripping that they became totally responsive to it. They were covering their eyes, flinching and screaming at the television at different points.

Thriller movie elements aside, director Brad Anderson brings the audience inside the world of police procedures and emergency call centers. It is well researched and minute with its real world details. The things that we don’t like to know or look at in real life crimes and murders are drawn as a source of tension. The stress and emotional detachment that is required in being an emergency operator is incorporated dramatically into the story. Together this washes away the genre conventions of a typical cop film and instead feels like we are looking into the lives of real-life police officers handling crime.

This is not Halle Berry’s most demanding performance but she does effectively transport the audience into her plight. Berry plays a lot of emotions despite being confined at a desk for a majority of the film. It’s a very pronounced performance. Morris Chestnut seems too aware of himself to really convince me of his character. It seems like he’s always detached from his own environment. There’s a bit of a sick pleasure in watching Abigail Breslin being kidnapped because she was so profoundly annoying in Definitely Maybe. That’s probably me being mean. But here, Breslin plays the situation very real. Michael Eklund is convincingly creepy as the scene-stealing villain. The scariest thing about serial killers or murderers in real life is that nobody ever looks like a serial killer. They all appear as normal people and are protected by the benefit of the doubt. Eklund’s character practically shifts the film into horror film territory.

As it moved toward to the finale, even on the very edge of my seat, I was still secretly wishing for something to really wow me at the end. I don’t know if it was because I liked The Machinist and developed an expectation from Brad Anderson. There were about two three ways the story could have finished that would have been fine, but nothing mind-bending. But it did deliver. My secret wish was fulfilled. The finale to The Call is a gutsy, left-turn ending that pulled the rug right under me. As it went to black, my mouth went agape pondering about what the fates of all the characters.

With the current trend of long running two-hour films, any film that has the discipline to wrap up around 90 minutes is praiseworthy. There is no fat to be trimmed here. The Call might be a film that goes unnoticed under the radar with its lower budget and hype. I saw it on DVD myself. It is the tensest movie I’ve seen this year. Hopefully there’s less lag time from now till Brad Anderson’s next project.

Gravity by Alfonso Cuaron

Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón

Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón

A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space.

In my opinion, the key to making special effects convincing onscreen is designing the effect to look somewhere between real and unreal. When the audience can’t figure out what’s real and what’s not, they will believe it. This is what happened to me during Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.

Since Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón takes his love of the long take and brings it to new levels. I couldn’t figure out how these long shots were accomplished.  The camera floats freely around the astronauts in space in long takes, occasionally shifting from third person perspective to first person. The camera loops, twirls, corkscrews around space, completely forgoing the human sense of up and down. It looked like the cameraman was really floating around with the actors. I knew that wasn’t possible. But eventually I tapped out and let the movie spectacle just wash over me.

As science fiction thematically explores the extreme potential of mankind, awe is an important component to every science fiction story. I was in sheer awe through the entirety of Gravity. Firstly, outer space and the beauty of Earth from a distance awed me. Then there was the solemn beauty of witnessing the space stations being decimated in space. I began to marvel at the destruction and momentarily thought deep thoughts. It was as if for a second I was watching waves wash ashore on a beach while reading J. Krishnamurti. Finally, I was awed by the fragility of human life. After all, all astronauts are just little fishes trying to survive out of their own habitat. The experience was otherworldly, self-reflective and dangerous all at the same time.

I walked into Gravity mistakenly thinking it was a George Clooney vehicle. To my surprise, it’s a Sandra Bullock movie. Sandra Bullock has always had a natural personable quality onscreen. Whether it was pining for her crush to awaken from a coma in While You Were Sleeping or driving a bus that’s primed to explode in Speed, she’s always able to draw the audience into her plight with vulnerability. Bullock’s characters never feel above the audience. Often this quality of hers get overlooked from having to play cheerful funny characters in romantic comedies.

In Gravity, that quality is used to its full extent. We watch as she struggles to survive a series of obstacles. Her performance is as immersive as the special effects. She draws you in completely into her plight. I wish more depth were given to her character. By the beginning of the third act, the film starts to run low on its spectacle and it came to the moment where more character was needed for a bigger statement. Gravity elected to stay with its spectacle and jetted for the finish line. It had a good ending, but it was missing that final thematic punch that answers, “What is this story ultimately about?” and “Why am I watching this?”

And for that, Gravity is a great gem and one exhilarating thrill ride. I am even happy that it was a great role for Sandra Bullock. I just do not know if the thrills will be as compelling on subsequent viewings. So in the end, it is not a masterpiece, but very awesome nonetheless.