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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The genesis of Universal's 47 Ronin is almost as tragic as the actual history that the movie is culling from. As the story goes, Universal saw the sprigs of talent sprouting from fresh faced director Carl Rinsch, whose previous experience was limited to just a couple of commercials and a nifty short film. The studio decided to ease the new director into feature filmmaking by cutting him what amounts to virtually a blank check, and giving him charge over a multi-national samurai fantasy epic. Almost impossibly, the film isn't a complete disaster. It's just a minor one.
47 Ronin follows the classic story of the titular team of warriors, a group of disgraced samurai who band together to seek revenge against a merciless warlord that betrayed and killed their master. But this isn't your grandfather's version of the story. 47 Ronin is an international affair, and it's covered with a veneer of Japanese mysticism and a thick coating of Hollywood lacquer, but east meets west rather uncomfortably, and it's mostly due to Keanu Reeves. Reeves' character is clearly crowbarred into the story that has no room for him, and it's plainly obvious where the seams of the story were stretched in order to patch him into the narrative. Reeves plays Kai, a half Japanese, half English orphan who is adopted by the samurai clan. His character serves no real purpose beyond being white, slicing things until they die, and playing the male lead of the most superfluous love story of the year. Rinsch simply can't make the inclusion of the character feel organic in any way, and "Kai" ends up feeling like a calculated studio move. It's a shame that the film spends so much time on Reeves when the real star is clearly Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays off the stoic samurai most believably among the rest of the cast.
It's also shame that with all the mysticism pumped into the story, there's no magic in the actual center of the film, the ronin themselves. The only personality trait a samurai is allowed to possess seems to be unerring stoicism, and between all 47 ronin, there are probably only three distinct samurai with any discernible character traits beyond an intense need to brood, and you'll probably only remember those three by the time the credits roll, only to promptly forget about them only a few hours later. Thankfully, Rinko Kikuchi's slinky and treacherous witch adds some much needed camp and personality to the mostly forgettable human characters.
And that's the issue with 47 Ronin. It's largely forgettable. When your film takes on a historical legend like the tale of the 47 ronin, a story that has been told and told again ad nauseum over the years, you really need to justify your own version. There are reels and reels of film dedicated to this story, and 47 Ronin doesn't manage to add anything significant to the canon. It promises to weld myth and history together, but does so clumsily, and while some of the action scenes are exciting, especially a particularly inspired set piece that involves the ronin noiselessly breaking into a heavily guarded fortress, the film is a bore when it's not clanking swords together.
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47 Ronin is a film with many stories. As much as it is a tale about the revenge of four dozen masterless samurai, it's also the tale of an inexperienced filmmaker swallowed up by the enormity of blockbuster filmmaking. Most of all though, It's proof that you shouldn't cram Keanu Reeves into a movie that doesn't really need Keanu Reeves. What you're left with is a dull and bloated samurai epic that has its moments, but feels largely unnecessary.
The stars of Downton Abbey beat their show back to the states. PBS will begin airing season four of the phenomenon on Jan. 5, but a few residents of the big house were on hand at a PBS event in New York City on Tuesday to preview the new episodes for some superfans. Superfans with impeccable restraint, if they've steered clear of downloads. The Dowager would be proud.
After a screening of the first 40 minutes of episode one, the cast took the stage with executive producers Julian Fellowes and Gareth Neame. The discussion was plagued by lazy questions from moderator Bill Carter (just because you work for The New York Times doesn't mean you don't have to do your homework). Six months have passed since the gut-wrenching twist at the end of season three, and there's plenty more to talk about than how gosh darn uncomfortable those costumes must be.
Still, we managed to get some scoop. Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham) reminded us that his character means well, but remains "a beat behind the action" in terms of social change. Michelle Dockery hinted that the widowed Lady Mary will have several suitors pursuing her this year, and pointed out that many fans think Branson (Allen Leech) should be among them. Speaking of love connections, Phyllis Logan gave some hope to those who'd like to see Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson get together: "She has great affection for him." When asked if Lady Edith will finally catch a break this season, Laura Carmichael struggled to give a spoiler-free answer. But we're guessing the answer is no. Lesley Nicol is still lobbying for Mrs. Patmore to get a boyfriend. And clear audience favorite Rob-James Collier reassured us that Thomas won't stop scheming anytime soon. Thomas has been told by society that he's an abomination, and so he meets those expectations. "As Eminem once said," Collier quoted, "I am whatever you say I am." Barrow is a 1920s Eminem. It all makes sense now.
Our favorite upstairs-downstairs drama is back! Well, almost.
On Tuesday, several Downton Abbey castmembers and executive producers took the stage at the TCA press tour to talk about the emotional whirlwind that was the third season and to give a few hints of what's to come in the new episodes. Here are some small spoilers:
Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson's relationship will remain strictly professional.
When asked about a potential romance between the two Downton staff members, actress Phyllis Logan, who plays Mrs. Hughes, was quick to put an end to those rumors. "No. No. We still have a very nice working relationship. We still have occasional spats here and there. We still have a lot of respect for one another. We occasionally get to drink a glass of sherry together…not as often as I would like.”
Lady Mary won't be in mourning the whole time.
Mary actress Michelle Dockery noted that the widow will have "more than one" love interest in the new season, including Lord Gillingham, a new character played by Irish actor Tom Cullen. “He is an old family friend who she’s known since the girls were children, and they haven’t seen him since she was tiny," she explained. "She’s kind of slowly throughout the series coming back to real life and of course it’s important for her to eventually move on, so he is a potential love interest.”
Edith's bad luck may take a turn for the better.
Laura Carmichael, who plays Edith, said that “[Creator] Julian [Fellowes] has this take that some people in life are lucky. And some people aren’t. And Edith is definitely one of those unlucky people. I love the Gregson and Edith relationship because he’s so different from any of the other men in Downton. He’s kind of a working, modern man. A self-made man. And exists in a different universe in London. Their relationship is interesting and I think different.” Producer Gareth Neame added: “I think what we can say is it is a very different season for Edith this year. Really different stories. Very exciting.”
But, Edith's career and relationship with her editor will become more "complicated."
In response to questions about Edith's future, Carmichael remarked, “She is still involved with her editor and it is a lot more complicated than that, which I’ll just have to let you see without giving too much away." She also added, "She’s still sort of turning in some articles and we know that she’s been writing about the cause of the soldier, but it’s the kind of modern woman thing. I like to think of her as the Carrie Bradshaw of the 20s.”
There will be a 5th season, hopefully without any more major cast departures.
“What’s wonderful about the show is that it’s opened doors for all of us,” said Dockery. “As far as we know we’re all doing series five next year, and beyond that we really don’t know. That’s in the hands of Julian and our producers so we’ll see. So long as the core cast remain…I think if other actors start leaving that would be a worry.”
The departure of Dan Stevens will open up a lot of new material.
Michelle Dockery talked about her thoughts on the loss of Matthew Crawley. “My first reaction was, ‘Oh, crap. What is going to happen?’ Because I thought, ‘Where can this story go now?’ We spent all this time on this will-they-or-won’t they relationships and then suddenly it was coming to an end. So initially I was concerned.” She quickly added, "But as much as it was sad to see Dan go, same as it was sad to see Jessica go, it opens it up for Julian to write a new chapter.”
Widowed Mary won't be hooking up with her widowed brother-in-law.
“They are very much friends. And he is her brother-in-law still. I think they become close because of what they’ve both been through, having lost a partner. And also Mary becomes far more involved in the running of the estate with Tom, so we do have a lot of scenes together,” said Dockery. “But romantically, I don’t think it’s going anywhere. I hope not.”
Daisy has grown up, but only a bit.
When asked about Daisy's evolution, actress Sophie McShera responded, “Someone asked me how old she was when we began and how old she is now. And that couldn’t work out…she must have been about 10 when we started.” McShera added, “She’s had such a journey and even during her terrible teens, you know that bratty teenage stage which she’s still in a bit. She’s being a bit of a jealous girl with Ivy and everything. She’s had an amazing journey. I’ve really loved it. I like that we get such a long time because you can grow up on screen, which is always exciting.”
Thomas is due for some drama.
Actor Rob James-Collier wasn’t present to talk about Thomas Barrow, but Neame gave us a few hints about the insensitive valet's future. “He is a complete outsider. Of course it’s going to be a complex world for him going forward. I’ve heard rumors that O’Brien may be heading for the hills. There’s going to be a bit of a shakeup to what happens to his story.” He added: “He’s always going to have that core thing of wanting to be in control, wanting to find out what’s going on, wanting to make sure he can dictate things, that rivalry with Carson. He remains a very compelling character."
Downton won't go to World War II.
We've watched Downton span a decade, but how far will it progress through modern history? This season picks up in 1922, a full ten years after it started, in the wake of the Titanic disaster, but Gareth Neame doesn't anticipate the show moving into any additional major historical events. "I don't think we'll go on to the Second World War," he said.
Downton Abbey Season 4 is set to premiere on January 5 in the U.S. (but we know that all of you true fans will be illegally streaming it come fall when it airs in the U.K.). Until then, we'll be counting down the days until we can hear Laura Linney tell us "this is Masterpiece Classic."
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