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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It happens without fail on every long car trip: you venture outside the limits of a major city, it’s dark and quiet, and maybe you even see a hitchhiker on the side of the road. Of course, you knew to fill up at the last town, you avoid all possible tire-puncturing hazards, and you definitely cruise right past that hitchhiker. These are lessons instilled in you not by driver’s ed, but instead by folks like director Tobe Hooper. As the sixth film in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, Texas Chainsaw 3D, slices its way into theaters, we are reminded not only of what we learned from Hooper’s seminal horror movie, but also, unfortunately, how the genre has been woefully beholden to these same lessons.
Even before the last gasp of Leatherface’s iconic weapon had faded in the original film, other studios and movie companies began scrambling to piece together their own version of this landmark slasher. Affectations became so prevalent that something bizarre began to happen: the very standards of horror started to shift. Hooper gave us a nightmarish tale about a band of teens on a doomed road trip, the definitive tale in this vein, in fact. But that did not stop imitators from trying to caravan behind it. So many iterations of this same plot setup appeared in Texas Chainsaw’s wake that it became its own genre cliché.
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Probably the most notable rehash of Tobe Hooper’s classic is Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977). Here again, the focus is on a group of unfortunate souls on a road trip across the country. While the group is altered from a cadre of teens to an average nuclear family unit, another facet of Texas Chainsaw that turns up in The Hills Have Eyes is the idea of a bickering family of hillbilly antagonists; Craven’s desert mutants is quite reminiscent of Hooper’s Sawyer clan. Hills wasn’t the only wannabe that emerged prior to the end of TCM’s own decade. Tourist Trap, starring Tanya Roberts and Chuck Connors, also revolved around a group of teens on a road trip who stop at a mysterious house off the beaten track. The mask the killer wears in Tourist Trap smacks of Leatherface’s hideous namesake.
The ‘80s were a veritable font of low budget horror, and the influence of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was still quite present. Then, 1980’s Motel Hell centered on a psychotic backwoods farmer who enjoyed making traveling teens part of his macabre crop, noting that “it takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters.” The road-trip-gone-awry device appears also in 1985’s The Mutilator, which also revels in repurposing various tools and hooks for murderous designs. The best of the decade has to be 1986’s The Hitcher starring Rutger Hauer. A young man on cross-country drive picks up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a psychotic killer who then stalks him over miles of highway. The terrain, the viciousness of its antagonist, and the cautionary tale warning against picking up rambling pedestrians all add to the similarity of the horrifyingly harrowing road trip.
RELATED: 'Texas Chainsaw 3D': Will There Still Be a Massacre?
Ironically, one ‘80s film that feels very divergent from the formula laid down by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is…The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Hooper returned to direct this tale of a former Texas Ranger, played by Dennis Hopper, tracking the remnants of the Sawyer family that murdered his nephew Franklin and tortured his niece Sally Hardesty. Hooper crafted TCM 2 as a black comedy that could not feel more tonally converse to the first one. In fact, the only flash of familiar material in the sequel is an opening slaying of a pair of drunken Texas frat boys as they are, big surprise, on a road trip. The straying from the elements that defined TCM may account for the icy reception that the sequel received. It may also be the reason the franchise installments of the ‘90s, Texas Chainsaw Massacre III and Texas Chainsaw: The Next Generation, both went running back to the road-trip-gone-wrong conceit.
The new millennium didn’t offer much innovation in the realm of horror movie construction. Jeepers Creepers, Cabin Fever, and Joy Ride again focused on traveling protagonists whose journeys take rather unfortunate turns. In fact, 2003’s Wrong Turn, about a group of road-tripping teens whose vehicles are sabotaged by a horde of inbred hill people, seemed bent on re-establishing the trend; somehow seemingly unaware that it had never gone away. However, it was rocker-turned-filmmaker Rob Zombie’s House of a 1,000 Corpses that seemed most reverential toward Hopper’s classic. Not only does the plot involve an ill-fated road trip, but the group of central characters is furthermore traversing Texas… in the ‘70s. As if that weren’t enough, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’s Bill Moseley has a prominent part in the film.
RELATED: How Will Horror Movies Continue to Frighten Us?
Over the years, there have also been many cinematic derivations of Texas Chainsaw, or at least movies largely indebted to it, that focus on recreating other elements beyond the road trip. For one thing, every other power tool in the shed became ripe for its own movie: Nail Gun Massacre, Microwave Massacre, to name a few. There were even movies that simply tried to capitalize on the title. Claudio Fragasso’s 1990 film Night Killer was released in Italy as Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 despite having nothing to do with the franchise; not surprising given his 1989 film Troll 2 had nothing to do with 1986’s Troll. There is also a potential argument to be made for the connection between Texas Chainsaw’s fictive true-story factor and the later utilization of this gimmick for the burgeoning found footage subgenre. Is The Blair Witch Project merely the extrapolation of John Larroquette’s opening TCM narration?
Of course, the road trip does serve a function beyond capitalizing on the success of one watershed film. It’s a product of the need to sever your victim set from the safety and protection of being surrounded by the masses. Still, it seems batch after batch of horror films since Texas Chainsaw have leaned so heavily on this conceit as to transform it into a lackluster foregone conclusion. The two Texas Chainsaw remakes, and the new sequel, naturally reinstated this setup, but you can hardly chuck a tire iron without hitting a new horror film, be it theatrical or direct-to-video, that reheats this cold story device. It may be time for us to leave doomed road trip fright flicks by the side of the highway like a discarded flat tire.
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After decades of moviemaking years spent honing his craft and sifting through the industry's best collaborators to form a cinematic dream team Steven Spielberg is one of the few directors whose films routinely hit a bar of high quality. Even his more haphazard efforts are competently constructed and executed with unbridled passion reeling in audiences with drama adventure and big screen fun. There really isn't a "bad" Spielberg movie. His latest War Horse isn't in the top tier of the grandmaster's filmography but as a work of pure sentimentality and spectacle the film delivers rousing entertainment. Makes sense: a horse's heart is about eight times the size of a human's and War Horse's is approximately that much bigger than every other movie in 2011.
The titular equine is Joey a horse born in the English countryside in 1914 who triumphantly navigates the ravished European landscape during the first World War. A good hour of the 146 minute film is spent establishing the savvy creature's friendship with his first owner Albert (Jeremy Irvine). A farmer boy with a penchant for animal training Albert copes with his alcoholic father Ted (Peter Mullan) and their homestead's dwindling funds but finds much needed hope in the sprite Joey. After blessing Albert and company with a few miracles Ted makes the wise decision of selling Joey off to the war and the real adventure begins.
Like Forrest Gump of the animal kingdom the lucky stallion finds himself intertwined with an eclectic handful of persons. He encoutners the owner of a British Captain preparing a surprise attack. He becomes the ride for two German army runaways the prized possession of young French girl and her grandfather and the unifier of two warring soldiers in the battlefield's No Man's Land. From the beginning to the end of the war Joey miraculously sees it all all in hopes of one day crossing Albert's path again.
Spielberg avoids any over-the-top Mr. Ed techniques in War Horse but amazingly the horses employed to play Joey deliver a riveting muted "performance" that's alive on screen. The animal is the lead of the movie his human co-stars (including Thor's Tom Hiddleston The Reader's David Kross and Toby Kebbell of Prince of Persia) sprinkled around Joey to complicate his (and our) experience of war.
But even with a stellar cast working at full capacity War Horse falters thanks to its episodic nature. It is a movie of moments—awe-inspiring breathtaking and heartfelt—stuffed with long stretches of underdeveloped characters guiding us through meandering action. Spielberg's longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski makes the varying environments visually enthralling—from the dark blue hues of war to rolling green hills backdropped with stunning sunsets—and John Williams' score matches the film's epic scope but without Albert in the picture's second half War Horse simply gallops around in circles.
Spielberg is a master craftsman and War Horse a masterful craft but the movie lacks a necessary intimacy to hook us into the story's bigger picture. The ensemble's devotion and affection for Joey sporadically resonates—how could it not? Look at that adorable horse!—but even those emotional beats border on goofy (at one point Hiddleston's character decides to sketch Joey a moment I found eerily reminiscent of Jack sketching Rose in Titanic). War Horse really hits its stride when Spielberg pulls back the camera and lets his keen eye for picturesque composition do the talking. Or from Joey's perspective neighing.
In the romantic comedy What’s Your Number? Anna Faris plays Ally Darling a fun-loving 30-something who learns via a magazine article that a woman’s chances of marrying become infinitesimal if she’s slept with more than 20 men – a number which just so happens to be Ally’s exact tally. Apparently the highly suggestible sort she accepts the magazine’s somewhat dubious findings at face value. Loath to embrace a spinster future she gives up sex and concocts a scheme to revisit each of her past lovers to see if any of them might actually be The One enlisting the aid of Colin (Chris Evans) a crass but amiable ladies’ man from across the hall who dabbles in detective work to track them down.
The immutable laws of rom-com dynamics dictate what happens next. One by one Ally pursues each of her exes to see if any of her old flames might be worth reigniting even as it becomes increasingly obvious that she and Colin are meant for each other. Ally’s quixotic endeavor lands her in one awkward and humiliating situation after another. True love eludes her; laughter eludes us. Faris is one of the most skilled comedic actresses in Hollywood today but even her formidable talents can’t do much with the hackneyed scenarios proffered by Gabrielle Allan and Jennifer Crittenden’s middling script.
Faris and Evans make a pleasing pair and their chemistry is one of the few aspects of What’s Your Number? that doesn’t feel forced. It’s what keeps it afloat in between each unfunny gag. Sure Ally and Colin’s eventual union is telegraphed from the opening frames but that isn’t necessarily a problem. What is a problem is the story’s slavish adherence to formula which renders not just the outcome but also the preceding plot points achingly predictable.
What’s Your Number?’s R rating and saucy subject matter portend raunch but in truth the film’s humor is actually quite tame save for a handful of filthy lines. For all its flaws the script is not without wit. There just isn’t nearly enough of it.
As with seemingly every other tentpole release to hit the multiplex this summer the action thriller Cowboys & Aliens is based on a comic book – albeit a lesser-known one. It’s directed by Jon Favreau whose previous comic-book adaptations Iron Man and Iron Man 2 proved how much better those films can be when they’re grounded in character. Unfortunately his latest effort is grounded not in character but a hook an alt-history scenario best expressed in the language of the average twelve-year-old: “Like wouldn’t it be awesome if like a bunch of 1870s cowboys had to fight a bunch of crazy aliens with exoskeletons and spaceships and super-advanced weapons?”
Like perhaps. The hook was compelling enough to get someone to pony up a reported $160 million to find out and the result is a film in which the western and science-fiction genres don’t so much blend as violently collide. After the wreckage is cleared both emerge worse for wear.
Daniel Craig stars as Jake Lonergan a stranger who awakens in the New Mexico Territory with a case of amnesia a wound in his side and a strange contraption strapped to his wrist. After dispatching a trio of bandits with Bourne-like efficiency he rides to the nearby town of Absolution where he stumbles on what appears to be an elaborate Western Iconography exhibit presented by the local historical preservation society. There’s the well-meaning town Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) struggling to enforce order amidst lawlessness; the greedy rancher Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who really runs things; his debaucherous cowardly son Percy (Paul Dano); the timid saloonkeeper Doc (Sam Rockwell) who’s going to stand up for himself one of these days; the humble preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown) dispensing homespun spiritual advice; et al.
Jake of course has his own part to play – the fugitive train-robber – as we discover when his face shows up on a wanted poster and a sneering Dolarhyde fingers him for the theft of his gold. The only character who doesn’t quite conform to type is Ella (Olivia Wilde) who as neither a prostitute nor some man’s wife – the traditional female occupations in westerns – immediately arouses suspicion.
Jake is arrested and ordered to stand trial in Federal court but before he can be shipped off a squadron of alien planes appears in the sky besieging Absolution and making off with several of its terrified citizenry. In the course of the melee Jake’s wrist contraption wherever it came from reveals itself to be quite useful in defense against the alien invaders. Thrown by circumstances into an uneasy alliance with Dolarhyde he helps organize a posse to counter the otherworldly threat – and bring back the abductees if possible.
Cowboys & Aliens has many of the ingredients of a solid summer blockbuster but none in sufficient amounts to rate in a summer season crowded with bigger-budget (and better-crafted) spectacle. For a film with five credited screenwriters Cowboys & Aliens’ script is sorely lacking for verve or imagination. And what happened to the Favreau of Iron Man? The playful cheekiness that made those films so much fun is all but absent in this film which takes itself much more seriously than any film called Cowboys & Aliens has a right to. Dude you’ve got men on horses with six-shooters battling laser-powered alien crab people. Lighten up.
Craig certainly looks the part of the western anti-hero – his only rival in the area of rugged handsomeness is Viggo Mortensen – but his character is reduced to little more than an angry glare. And Wilde the poor girl is burdened with loads of clunky exposition. The two show promising glimpses of a romantic spark but their relationship remains woefully underdeveloped. Faring far better is Ford who gets not only the bulk of the film’s choicest lines but also its only touching subplot in which his character’s adopted Indian son played by Adam Beach quietly coaxes the humanity out of the grizzled old man.