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.
Over the next few months, we’ll see new series soar, old series sour, and so much Jersey Shore madness, we’ll want to shower. Let’s face it: The Fall TV season is intimidating. With dozens of new and returning shows hitting our small screens, we know we have some big choices to make. So, to help you determine what to watch, we’re digging deep into the most notable series premiering this season. Where did each show leave off? Where is it headed? And who should you watch it with? Today, we’ll look at the cult favorite Fringe, which, in its final season, will send our beloved heroes to a dystopian future run by mysterious bald guys known as Observers.
Returning Series: Fringe
Premiere Date: Friday, Sept. 28 at 9 p.m. on Fox
Number of Seasons On the Air: This will be Fringe's fifth and (sniff) final season
Cast: The Emmy-deserving John Noble, the fantastic, undeniably versatile Anna Torv (I mean, who can play two unbelievably nuanced versions of the same character, AND Leonard Nimoy?), the show's heart, Joshua Jackson, its unsung hero Jasika Nicole, the underrated bossman Lance Reddick, the mysterious Blair Brown, and newcomer Georgina Haig.
You’d Like It If…: You dig complex sci-fi thrillers with brilliant writing, a superb cast, and one of the most fun fan-bases around. Yeah, we're biased towards this one.
You’d Hate It If…: You left your imagination behind in grade school.
Ratings: Err, not great. By the end of November 2011, Fringe was the Fox's lowest rated program, and its finale only brought in 3.11 million viewers. Having a Friday time-slot is never fun, but Fringe's diehard fans have kept this one going. And Fox and Warner Bros. — thanks, Fox and Warner Bros!
Accolades: They've been nominated for a couple of Creative Emmys, but the show (and the sinfully talented John Noble) has never received too much love from the Academy. But Jon Cryer won for Two and a Half Men last night, so we don't really care what they think. However, Fringe has cleaned up at the Saturn Awards — it won Best Network Television Series in 2012, and Torv, Nimoy, and Noble have all taken home acting statues.
Where Fringe Left Off: Got a sec? Good, because last year's finale was a doozy. After three seasons with an alternative universe arc, our Fringe team was forced to close the gap to said alternate universe to save both worlds from collapsing. William Bell (Nimoy) planned to destroy them anyway, creating a new universe populated only by the creatures he had gathered in his Noah's Ark-esque boat. Olivia's Cortexiphan-enhanced powers saved the day, and Bell just sort of... disappeared. Then, Peter and Olivia learned that they were pregnant. Yay!
Only not really, because a few episodes before we flashed forward to a dystopian 2036, where Peter and Olivia's daughter, Etta (Haig), was fighting off the totalitarian Observers. She recovered Peter, Astrid, and Walter's bodies after they'd been encased in amber for decades, but Olivia was nowhere to be found. Back in modern times, we ended the season with September — our main Observer — telling Walter, "We have to warn the others. They are coming."
Cast In Question: Sorry, fans of Lincoln Lee: Seth Gabel's beloved character decided to cross over to the alternate universe, so we doubt we'll be seeing much of him. We're also not so sure about Nimoy's Bell, though given the fact that he left retirement to return to the show last year (and, that he supposedly did something horrible to Olivia in the time between last spring's finale and this year's 2036 setting), we're going to remain hopeful.
Advice the Show Has Taught Us: Hey, are you thinking of making a portal to another universe to steal a deceased loved one? Well, don't. Just don't. Yes, you'll get them back, but the fallout is just not worth it.
High Point: There have been so many, but season three's magnificent episode "Entrada" — the first episode to take place equally in both universes — is a must-watch for any Fringe newbie. Olivia's return to the prime universe after a gut-wrenching captivity was thrilling, and her Fauxlivia counterpart is delightfully wicked
Low Point: Erasing Peter Bishop from everyone's memory at the end of season three. It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but the relationships between Peter, Olivia, and Walter are the show's big, beating heart, so making him a stranger so far into the show's run by erasing three years of memories was a huge no-no. It took the entirety of season four to make up for it, and they get points for having Olivia (eventually) remember, but it still smarts that all of those great Peter-Walter bonding moments from seasons one through three no longer exist.
Who To Watch It With: Your fellow nerds, duh!
Who Not to Watch It With: Newbs, because who wants to be bombarded with eight zillion questions about the show's admittedly complex mythology during the final season premiere?
Cast Member to Root For: The entire Fringe team, of course! But we're especially partial to the zany, lovable, somewhat tragic Walter, who is currently one of the most unique characters on television, and — dare we say it — arguably the best television scientist of all time.
Cast Member to Root Against: Any Observer. Screw those guys.
What to Eat While Watching: Any number of Walter's favorite foods: Root beer, blue cotton candy, double-dipped beer-battered onion rings, Red Vines, Devil Dogs, Blueberry pancakes... the list goes on and on. Just be sure to book appointments with your dentist and cardiologist before you watch.
Binge Watching Potential: Start, and you won't stop — one Hollywood.com staffer (cough cough, me) reportedly went through two seasons in a week.
Ways to "Fit In" to the Fringe culture: Start obsessing over Peter Bishop's pea coats. Attend a geeky fan convention. Snag one of those cool Observer hats they gave out during last July's Comic Con.
What You’re Most Likely to Yell at the Screen: "Leave Walter alone!" (See below)
So, Will You Watch It?: The majority of you probably won't, if you're not already a fan. But one day you'll finally listen to that one friend of yours who'd recommended it for years and rent the DVDs, and you'll regret not joining in on the fun during its run. Rent it now! NOW!
Follow Shaunna on Twitter @HWShaunna
[PHOTO CREDIT: Fox]
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