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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Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino

Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino

Set in the antebellum era of the Deep South and Old West, a freed slave Django (played by Jamie Foxx) who treks across the United States with a bounty hunter Doctor King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz) on a mission to rescue his wife Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington) from a cruel and charismatic plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).

I’m just going to right into it…

The best performance by a mile is Christoph Waltz – he is the heart of the movie. Waltz’s Doctor King Schultz single-handedly balances the entire film, evening out the tone between moments of intense horror and humor and mediating the film’s internal battle between historical fact and its post-modern aesthetic. He is the Yang to the film’s Yin, filling out the missing part of the scenes and even providing a human perspective into what’s happening when the audience does not what to feel in certain situations. Whenever Christoph Waltz is not in the movie, it is heavily felt.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin J. Candie is a great villain and brings a scary presence. Scary is something we haven’t ever seen Dicaprio accomplish so it was quite fresh to see. He sings Tarantino’s dialogue, projecting a charming demeanor on the surface while carrying a constant petty evil underneath. It’s not Oscar worthy (if anything, he should have won for The Aviator) but a powerful performance nonetheless.

Jamie Foxx’s lead performance as Django seemed off to me. Particularly his voice threw me off because his inflections sound too modern. Everybody else seems to have an accent from the era, but he does not use a southern accent, or any accent. He just sounds like a black man from 2012. Django’s progression of intelligence was unconvincing to me as well. There were times where he seemed dim-witted and other times where he seemed sharp, and it felt unnatural. It is not a screenwriting issue, but in how the performance was delivered. It was as if Foxx focused on playing the “Man with No Name” western genre hero and did not know how to balance it with the historical context of black slaves in America. He just did not carry enough pain in his eyes.

I don’t have words for Samuel L. Jackson’s performance, it’s quite the spectacle to behold. Watching it transported me into a weird nether place. Maybe I need to go leaf through a history book on slavery or something. I don’t know what to make of it. And on that awkward note…

However one may feel about Tarantino’s frequent use of the N word, he definitely has a strange obsession with it. As horrible as this sounds, I was surprised how other racial slurs from that era were not spoken in the film. (I am not going to name them here. I will defer you to watch that scene in Clerks 2.) There is a quality in Tarantino’s crass, in-your-face direction that suggests that he gets off rebelling against social taboos. That telling him that something is politically incorrect will push him to do it in order to disprove you. That’s my speculation anyways.

The film is way too long. Simply put, it’s ill-disciplined in the sense that Tarantino wants his cake and eat it too. He wants to tell his story and communicate a statement but also wants to amuse himself by inserting things that he enjoys and cannot reign himself in. There is a gag where a major comedy star shows up in a cameo which I found problematic. In fact, it was problematic in the exact same way I found Mike Meyer’s cameo was in Inglourious Basterds. In a film where it’s trying to balance historical fact and a post-modern aesthetic by mediating film genres, seeing a modern comedic actor show up for a cheap laugh is just one extra layer too many and it took me out. Did the gag make me laugh? No. Did it progress the story? No. Then why is the gag there? Tarantino wants it to be, that’s why.

A reason that I prefer Django Unchained over Inglourious Basterds is that Tarantino doesn’t try to make every scene into a dialogue set piece. The opening set piece in Inglourious Basterds is the best thing Tarantino has written (he says so too), but every proceeding scene seemed like he was trying to recreate that for the rest of the movie and it got tiring. There is a point in the Django Unchained‘s final act where the story could have concluded but it proceeds for another half hour. I could have cut 20 minutes out of the film and it is that exact 20 minutes that holds the film from being something masterful. Yes, that includes Tarantino’s cameo. Tarantino shouldn’t act in his own films. Maybe he shouldn’t act at all in anything but he was the worst part of his own film.

All that said, I enjoyed it much more than Inglourious Basterds ( I am so relieved it didn’t end with a character uttering “Hm, maybe THIS is my masterpiece.”) Tarantino fans may love the extra fat, but I would have preferred a leaner steak with more discipline. It’s just that little difference, if only Tarantino reigned himself in.

The Avengers by Joss Whedon

The Avengers by Joss Whedon

Nick Fury, director of the peacekeeping organization S.H.I.E.L.D., recruits Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America to form a team that must stop Thor’s brother Loki from enslaving the human race.

It’s here, finally. The movie that Marvel really wanted to make and arguably the film every fan really wanted to see, anyways. It really started to test my patience while I was watching Captain America: The First Avenger. It wasn’t that it was a bad movie, but it’s more or less of the same thing and I wanted to see these Marvel movies go somewhere else. The good news? The Avengers go somewhere else with it and it works!

The major sell of The Avengers are the characters themselves and that’s what the story is mainly about. In Joss Whedon’s own words, there is no reason for all these heroes to share a movie. After all, if I had superpowers and had the ability to solve my own problems, why would I work with another dude? Or take orders from somebody that’s supposedly weaker than you?

Whedon accomplishes this with a lot of discipline and balance. For example, the alien army that Loki employs to take over the Earth with are underdeveloped and their motivations are quite simplistic, but it works because it acts only as an extension of the heroes’ conflict. They’re fighting these aliens not because the monsters necessarily have a direct beef with our heroes, rather they just exist as an idea to push them to working together as a team. It is functioning quite like a musical in that aspect. Conflicts are physicalized in the form of fights (everybody fights with everybody at some point like a fighting game), comedic verbal banter and things are kept light and bounce along smoothly. Personally I found myself enjoying the banter more. Yes, The Avengers was a lot more funnier than I expected.

It was fun anticipating and seeing how each character interacted with each other, very much like how you might anticipate different friends will interact with each other at your birthday party. Like in 2009’s Star Trek, I appreciated that each member had a individual specific contribution to the team.

People tend to argue about how filmmakers interpret the Hulk in the past. I do like the Ang Lee version because Lee attempted to bring a genuine pathos to The Hulk that seemed unpopular with the masses. The issue I actually have with the Hulk is that his character never seemed heroic to me because he is not in control of his own actions once Bruce Banner is in the Hulk state. It’s just random carnage and it happens that he’s a hero because he does good, albeit accidentally. Suffice to say, they solve that in this movie.

As for the switch with Mark Ruffalo, fans will perpetually argue over which actor played the best interpretation of the Hulk. I personally do not see an actor-specific interpretation. It seemed like Ruffalo is playing the continuation of Bruce Banner/The Hulk after the events of The Incredible Hulk (what Edward Norton would have played had he stayed in the role). This is a less conflicted Bruce Banner who’s made peace with who he is and is in better control. I do not know why in the past the actors who have played Bruce Banner did not get to play The Hulk on motion capture, I am glad that is over because the consistency really makes a huge difference. Ruffalo manages to be scary at times but it is ultimately drowned out by the film’s light tone. The ever-present humor does work against the story at times because I would have liked a few darker moments in the film. Suffice to say, Ruffalo makes the role his own.

I can see from a writer’s standpoint how Captain America is a challenging character to tackle. There is no real darkness within him and he always does the right thing. So how do you make that engaging? The story of The Avengers was originally going to be based from Captain America’s point of view and there was a whole subplot about him trying to reconnect with the modern world. I’m glad that was cut out (this is fully packed as it is). All those scenes can totally be in Captain America 2. Even stripping his storyline away, they do manage retain Steve Roger’s charm in The Avengers. The charm of Captain America are not his powers; the character represents the human limit and how human will and heart can push someone to do great things. He is a competent superhero in his own world and story, but his powers do not mean much standing next to Thor, The Hulk, Iron Man or even the alien army. They do highlight this fact in the battle scenes. There were many instances where I was thinking, “Wow, Captain America can totally die right now.” The humanity and obvious vulnerability of the character engaged me and it stood out as he starts leading the Avengers. It made me think about how poorly Cyclops was handled in the X-men movies. Captain America was the stand-out character for me.

The Hawkeye and Black Widow story is serviceable and it only gives them enough motivation for the duration of this installment, which really is just giving them an excuse to exist and kick ass in the story. It doesn’t really develop them that much in my opinion, I’m not complaining but it didn’t really do much for me either. They are not interesting enough to have their own movies.

Robert Downey Jr. has really settled into his Tony Stark role and gets all the zingers, as expected. I liked that his character is consistent with the end of Iron Man 2. They give him a small arc in The Avengers and I rather liked that. He is comparatively less of an ass and more likable than in Iron Man 2. Shane Black is doing Iron Man 3, sign me up baby!

I like Chris Hemsworth as Thor, he plays the role with the right combination of masculinity and vulnerability. Thor carries the guilt of bringing a new threat to Earth while trying to stop his brother’s madness without killing him. The film presents all this but it seems like there’s a lot more untapped drama that is not explored. We only get a very serious side of Thor compared to the last installment because the characters like Jane or Darcy that bring out other sides of Thor are not present. I do look forward to seeing if there are more Thor scenes in the 30-minutes of cut footage.

Tom Hiddleston oozes charisma as Loki. Honestly at times I found myself rooting for Loki to win. It’s important that people see Thor to understand his motivations. I wonder if fresh viewers will miss Loki’s complex characterization and magnetism. He’s magnetic as hell and steals the show.

The set pieces are great and should satisfy any comic book fan. We get every superhero match up possible without hindering the story. The end set piece is reminiscent of the finale in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. I do wonder if Michael Bay is at home screaming, ripping his hair out right now. The Avengers puts his Transformers films to shame and shows how a similar finale can be truly exciting by developing characters and a story.

So the problems? My biggest criticism of The Avengers is probably that it was overhyped. Even with actively avoiding all the promotional clips and featurettes online, I dangerously felt the presence of the movie before actually seeing it. There’s enough clips of the movie currently available online right now for anybody to piece together the entire story. It was a real fight to go in with a fresh clean mind. There’s a moment at the very end of the finale that was ruined by a shot that was shown in the trailer and I would have preferred if they just left that one shot out because the pre-knowledge ruined the tension of the scene. If it was left out, it would have been more tense wondering if the movie would have just ended on a dark cliffhanger with a character possibly being dead.

It’s imperative that I warn anybody who has yet to see the movie: do not see this movie in 3D. The light loss was problematic (duh!) and I found it very difficult to follow the action scenes (to it’s own credit, they were not edited in a choppy fashion) or anything indoors or at night. Please do your part and pay to see it in 2D and let 3D die. And also, there are 2 end credits scenes, stay till the very end.

What can I say? Marvel has made an awesome achievement with The Avengers and it only seems natural to ponder how Marvel will escalate things for the future. For my money, it seems superfluous to have to go through another set of sequels with each individual hero before an Avengers 2: Still Avenging. Let’s just get to it!