Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
Treading water at the very surface of RoboCop, there is an idea. A dense concept, ready and willing to provide no dearth of dissection for any eager student of philosophy, psychology, political science, physics — hell, any of the Ps. To simplify the idea on hand: What separates man from machine? It's a question that is not just teased by the basic premise of José Padilha's remake of the 1987 sci-fi staple, but asked outright by many of its main characters. And then never really worried about again.
We have principal parties on both sides of the ethical quandary that would place the security of our crime-ridden cities in the hands of automatons. Samuel L. Jackson plays a spitfire Bill O'Reilly who wonders why America hasn't lined its streets with high-efficiency officer droids. Zach Grenier, as a moralistic senator, gobbles his way through an opposition to the Pro-boCop movement. We hear lecture after lecture from pundits, politicians, business moguls (a money-hungry Michael Keaton heads the nefarious OmniCorp...) and scientists (...while his top doc Gary Oldman questions the nature of his assignments while poking at patients' brains and spouting diatribes about "free will"), all working their hardest to lay thematic groundwork. Each character insists that we're watching a movie about the distinction between human and artificial intelligence. That even with an active brain, no robot can understand what it means to have a heart. But when Prof. Oldman tempers his hysterical squawking and Samuel L. Hannity rolls his closing credits, we don't see these ideas taking life.
In earnest, the struggle of rehabilitated police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) — nearly killed in the line of duty and turned thereafter into OmniCorp's prototype RoboCop — doesn't seem to enlist any of the questions that his aggravated peers have been asking. Murphy is transformed not just physically, but mentally — robbed of his decision-making ability and depleted of emotional brain chemicals — effectively losing himself in the process. But the journey we see take hold of Murphy is not one to reclaim his soul, although the movie touts it as such. It's really just one to become a better robot.
Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
Meanwhile, RoboCop lays down its motives, and hard: Murphy's wife and son (Abbie Cornish and a puckish young John Paul Ruttan) lament the loss of Alex, condemning his dehumanization at the hands of Raymond Sellars' (Keaton) capitalistic experiments, and sobbing out some torrential pathos so you know just how deep this company is digging. Weaselly stooges (Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, and Jackie Earl Haley) line the OmniCorp roster with comical wickedness. Overseas, killer combat bots take down peaceful villages, unable to work empathetic judgment into their decision to destroy all deemed as "threats." And at the top, figures of power and money like Sellars and Pat Novak (Jackson) speak the loudest and harshest, literally justifying their agenda with a call for all naysayers to "stop whining." Clearly, RoboCop has something to say.
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And when it's devoted to its outrage, RoboCop is terrifically charming. The buzzing political world is just a tiny step closer to ridiculous than our own; the pitch meetings at OmniCorp are fun enough to provoke a ditching of all the material outside of the company walls. And one particular reference to The Wizard of Oz shows that the movie isn't above having fun with its admittedly silly premise. But it loses its magic when it steps away from goofy gimmicks and satirical monologues and heads back into the story. We don't see enough of Murphy grappling with the complicated balance between his conflicting organic and synthetic selves. In fact, we don't see enough "story" in Murphy at all. First, he's a dad and a cop. Then, he's a RoboCop. But can he also be a RoboDad? With all of its ranting and raving about the question, the film doesn't seem to concerned with actually figuring out the answer.
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Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Welcome back to The Voice! Last night’s episode marked another installment of the battle rounds, and another two hours of performances in a boxing ring — spoiler alert — without a single version of “Eye of the Tiger.” Sometimes I don’t know why I bother.
Team Blake’s Julio Cesar Castillo and Terisa Griffin are up first. Mariachi Castillo and soul singer Griffin are evenly matched on Gloria Estefan’s “Conga,” a Latin dance classic that nevertheless relies on powerful female vocals.
As the pair rehearses, Julio struggles with learning the song’s rapid-fire lyrics. “No one in the history of the world really knows the words,” advisor Michael Bublé consoles him. I love “Conga,” but I’m not sure it’s the best choice for The Voice. Breath control may be important, but spitting out all those lyrics seems more like a party trick than a true showcase of vocal ability (I can recite the name of every U.S. president in order in under 15 seconds, but for some reason I still haven’t been offered a reality show).
In their live performance, Julio and Terisa finally nail the song’s breakneck pace. Julio wins, but Cee Lo is quick to steal Terisa for his own team. Eyes wide with terror, Blake immediately realizes his mistake: fiery Terisa isn’t going anywhere, and “she’s gonna want to shove that in [his] face.” What did you expect? She won’t be ignored, Blake.
Christina Aguilera matches up male Bratz doll Dez Duron and I’m-so-sorry-I-don’t-remember-you Paulina on “Just the Way You Are.” When Dez admits he’s nervous, mentor Billie Joe Armstrong encourages him with his characteristic brand of surreal, Stuart Smalley optimism: “Be nervous — it’s your friend!”
Rehearsals are rough, especially on Paulina’s end. As the performer improvises yet another incongruous, pitchy riff into the song, Christina finds a diplomatic solution. “I don’t think you, in particular, need to create ad lib situations,” Xtina tells Paulina, which is really just a kinder way of asking her to sing less.
The live performance isn’t a disaster, but both teammates lack charisma — even in comparison to Carson Daly, who emcees as commandingly as a confused audience member who wandered on stage while searching for a bathroom.
Christina chooses Dez, the lesser of two mediocres. Spotted backstage: Papa Duron and his clinically verifiable fivehead.
Adam Levine has racecar driver Benji take on bar manager Sam James (who appears to have lost about 10 pounds since his blind audition).
Benji and Sam cover Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” — this means that, as a resident of New Jersey, I’m legally required to stand and remove my hat for the entirety of this segment (if it were Springsteen, I’d have to write my recap in blood). Sam admits he’s “not really a ‘Bon Jovi guy,’” which is another way of saying he’s an evil terrorist who hates America.
Their duet is a lot of fun; they aggressively swagger across the stage and interact with great, playful energy. Meanwhile, one of The Voice’s more unfortunate chyrons identifies “SAM JAMES’ GIRLFRIEND AND MOM” in the audience, and I at first mistakenly interpret this caption as referring to one woman (and an unusual family arrangement).
In the end, Adam picks Sam, and — although all the other coaches had been singing (boom!) his praises — Benji heads home.
Nicholas David, memorable for his five o’clock shadow (that being five o’clock in a very, very distant time zone), and Todd Kessler team up for Cee Lo on “She’s Gone.”In rehearsals, Cee Lo and Rob Thomas worry that Nicholas is too nice. He wants to collaborate with Todd, not compete with him — if Billie Joe were their mentor, they’d be sporting matching friendship bracelets by now.
Ultimately, Todd’s reedy pop voice pales in comparison to Nicholas’s flair for deep and nuanced blue-eyed soul. Besides, Blake tells David, “You look like Jesus, and people love that.” Bye, Todd.
Next, Blake and Bubbles pit Louisiana native Lelia Broussard against music teacher Suzanna Choffel (girlfriend killed it on “Landslide” a few weeks ago). Blake believes these “kinda indie artists…with gypsy souls” were an inevitable match-up — though to be fair, Blake considers anyone who doesn’t perform in cowboy boots to be an “indie artist.”
Lelia’s pitch wavers in rehearsals for “Dog Days Are Over,” while Suzanna finds herself preoccupied with technical details. But by the live performance, the kinks have been worked out — the performers’ styles beautifully complement one another. While I’m a fan of Broussard’s, her teammate is arguably my overall favorite, so I’m relieved when Blake chooses Suzanna.
For the last battle of the night, Christina picks 17-year-old Joselyn Rivera and Egyptian-born Sylvia Yacoub. The ladies are tasked with Beyoncé’s “Best Thing I Never Had.” If The Voice’s producers would finally break down and hire me as a consultant (and/or executive producer), Sylvia and Joselyn would have performed the song in identical, ornate wedding dresses.
In rehearsals, Sylvia steamrolls Joselyn, but their final performance escalates gorgeously, with neither singer overpowering her partner. The duet is 90 seconds of pure girl power that makes one of my fallopian tubes reach over and high five the other (the female body is a beautiful and mysterious thing, Paul Ryan).
Christina, loving Sylvia’s “fire,” sticks with Yacoub. But the episode ends on a high note (boom!) when both Blake and Adam vie to steal Joselyn — turns out she can’t resist the man-dimples of Team Levine.
The Voice is back tomorrow night at 8 PM. with more battles. In the meantime, find me on Twitter @mollyfitz.
[Image Credits: NBC]
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The Voice Preview: It’s Time to Battle It Out!
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WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Julia is a down-on-her-luck fortysomething alcoholic. She’s at her wit's end when she meets a woman at an AA meeting and is soon immersed in a kidnap-for-ransom scheme involving the woman’s nine-year-old son Tom the victim of a nasty custody battle. Events quickly careen out of control and Julia finds herself on the lam in Mexico kid in tow trying to stay a step ahead of low-life local hoods who believing Tom to be her son nab the boy and demand the money in return for sparing his life.
WHO’S IN IT?
Although the entire cast in this low-budget thriller is excellent Julia is really noteworthy as an Oscar-worthy tour-de-force display of sheer acting brilliance by the dazzling Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton) who throws herself into this blowsy ballsy role with such abandon it will make your head spin. Swinton easily delivers the year’s best performance -- male or female -- so far and it’s a shame that this independently-made tough-minded melodrama will likely get only limited theatrical exposure. Acting honors are also owed to Saul Rubinek who plays a key role in the film’s climax as Julia’s ex-boyfriend and confidante. Kate del Castillo (Under the Same Moon) really only turns up in the film’s establishing scenes but is wonderfully effective as Elena the boy’s volatile and colorful mother. As nine-year-old Tom Aidan Gould is understated and neatly effective in a role that requires a range of emotions. Bruno Bichir is amusingly one-note in his best baddie mode as Diego the lead Mexican bandit.
Making his English-language debut director Erick Zonca (The Dreamlife Of Angels) keeps things moving at the pace of a speeding freight train never letting his star come up for air and allowing her to bring many different shades to this fascinating unsympathetic woman whose life is a complete mess. Zonca effortlessly turns what starts out as a character study into some outrageously juicy stuff. The shift is tone is seamless and will blow you away. This is one hell of a ride.
At 138 minutes the film is overlong and could have used some tightening in the latter portions when Julia and Tom get to Mexico. The portrayal of Mexico’s criminal element also borders on stereotype and is mostly played in one dimension by a group of fine local stars who aren’t given much opportunity for subtlety.
A scene in the bus station where Julia arranges the ransom money to be dropped off is nail-biting sweat-inducing suspense at its finest allowing Swinton an ace-acting showcase to boot.
DIDN’T JANE FONDA ALREADY MAKE THIS MOVIE?
Don’t be flummoxed by the film’s title. It has nothing to do with the Oscar-winning Jane Fonda/Vanessa Redgrave drama released in 1977. In fact although not a remake this Julia much closer in tone and spirit to the 1980 Gena Rowlands film Gloria which was later remade in 1999 with Sharon Stone. Have we sufficiently confused you now?
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Considering the indie style and minimal marketing budget your best chance will probably be on DVD where it is not to be missed.