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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Tucked away between shiny modern skyscrapers quirky old-fashioned Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is a toy store literally like no other. Step inside and a sock monkey might give you a hug--or a fire engine might appear out of nowhere. That's because the store is imbued with the enthusiasm and magical childlike wonder of its owner: frizzy-haired 243-year-old dynamo Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman). When Magorium decides it's time to move on his designated heir self-doubting store manager Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman) isn't the only one who objects. The store itself throws a fit sulking and brooding and hurling toys at unwitting customers. It's up to Mahoney--with the help of stuffy accountant Henry "Mutant" Weston (Jason Bateman) and eager young store clerk Eric (Zach Mills)--to discover the best way to live up to Magorium's legacy. The movie's most pleasant surprise is Hoffman's charming performance. He could have followed in Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp's footsteps and made Magorium a fey Willy Wonka-like sprite. Instead Magorium is an original a mile-a-minute chatterbox who uses big words takes delight in the extraordinary and never stops smiling at life. And the calm gentle demeanor he brings to Magorium's farewell scenes with Mahoney will make a potentially tough plot twist a lot easier on kids. Speaking of Mahoney Portman is at her best in the moments that call for wry humor and Puck-ish mischief; the more earnest the script asks her to be the less interesting her character gets. Bateman is underused as the straight man (his lone lapse into silliness is a high point in the movie) but Mills is wholly endearing as wiser-than-his years Eric. With so much going for it why isn't Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium more magical? It's hard to say; perhaps it's something to do with the fact that the characters seem to talk about magic more than they actually interact with it. Or that despite all of said magic Mr. Magorium and his store never really do anything that you wouldn't expect of an eccentric bicentarian living in the ultimate funhouse. Writer/director Zach Helm gives viewers plenty to ooh and aah at (the set design is wonderful) but his story is never quite unusual or unexpected enough to transcend "cute" and "sweet" and reach "classic." All of that said with Hoffman in fine form and so many fabulous toys bouncing around the screen kids are likely to be delighted (and clamoring to add to their Christmas lists...)
Based on the best-selling book by Mark Foster Game tells the remarkable real-life story of Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf). He was a working-class immigrant kid who in the early 1900s turned the privileged world of golf on its ear. The story begins with Francis working as a caddie at a posh country club where he masters the game by quietly practicing on his own. His French-born father (Elias Koteas) thinks he's wasting his time and should be earning an honest wage but Francis is far too smitten with the game to give it up. Francis finally gets his big break when an amateur spot opens up at the 1913 U.S. Open. With a feisty 10-year-old caddie named Eddie (Josh Flitter) by his side egging him on Francis plays the best he ever has. He eventually finds himself facing off against the sport's undisputed champion Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane) a U.S. Open winner and six-time British Open champion (a record that still stands today). Their legendary battle changes the face of the sport forever--but I wouldn't necessarily call it the greatest game ever.
Game is one of those juicy little biopics actors can really sink their teeth into. Starting with our young lead LaBeouf (Holes) is sufficiently determined as the guy playing against impossible odds. His Francis with his liquid brown eyes and winning smile is full of optimism and raw talent that propels him into the majors. And he looks pretty authentic swinging a golf club too. Still it may be time for LaBeouf to move on from the Disney family fare and do something grittier sort of like what he showed in Constantine. Dillane--who was so achingly good in The Hours as Virginia Woolf's beleaguered husband--also does a fine job as the legendary Vardon a man haunted by his own demons. In a way Game is a story about both men who have more in common than they realize. Although a top professional in the sport Vardon has to fight against the elitist golfing community's prejudices. You see Vardon grew up dirt poor on the plains of Scotland and because of his background was never permitted into any "gentleman's" clubs. The cast of colorful supporting players add to the film especially Flitter as the caustic but encouraging Eddie. He may be small but he packs a wallop. The last shot of the movie features Francis and Eddie walking off the golf course at sunset evoking the classic Casablanca ending line "This is the start of a beautiful friendship"--which apparently really happened. The real-life Eddie and Francis remained friends for the rest of their lives.
The main slice against Game is that it's about golf. Besides comedies such as Caddyshack and Happy Gilmore a serious movie about the game really isn't going to stir your soul say like football or baseball. But actor-turned-director Bill Paxton--who made his directorial debut with the creepy Frailty--takes the story and keeps it convincingly affecting. Much like Seabiscuit it's the real-life historical context that makes Game even more compelling. Paxton painstakingly details how the game was played at the turn of the century--and who was allowed to play it. The whole discriminatory arrogance surrounding the game makes the stakes even higher for our heroes. Vardon had a score to settle while Ouimet simply became the game's new hero paving the way for legendary whiz kids like Tiger Woods to step up on the green. Paxton also views Game as a Western. The final golf round between Vardon and Ouimet is the ultimate shootout á la the OK Corral in which the camera angles are inventive--a bird's eye view of the ball sailing through the air or gliding on the green into the hole. Plus he keeps the tension as taut as he can considering the less than exhilarating subject matter. Oh come on who isn't a sucker for a good sports underdog story even if it is golf?
Dogtown centers on three teenagers in the 1970s--Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch) Stacy Peralta (John Robinson) and Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk)--who just want to ride. At first it's waves. Living in "Dogtown " a tough and gritty area in Venice Calif. these guys do everything they can to get in with the Zephyr surfers lead by the charismatic owner of the Zephyr surf shop Skip Engblom (Heath Ledger). But the boys are soon transferring their aggressive wave-riding moves to the concrete turning empty pools into arenas of wild beautiful athleticism and revolutionizing a new style of skateboarding. Skip recognizes great money-making potential when he sees it and takes these freestyle wizards on urethane wheels out on the road to show off their skills dubbing them the Z-Boys. The skating world goes nuts. Conventional competitors don't know what to make of their "extreme" ways. Girls are wild for them. And promoters see dollar signs wanting to grab a piece of the action. But what started out as fun way to blow off steam soon turns into big business. Can the friendship between this tightly knit trio survive inflating out of control egos and fast-paced famous lifestyles? Dude that's a tough one to call.
What better way to make a movie about three hot California skateboarders then by casting three hot young male leads to play them. As Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta--the two talented skateboarders on the opposite ends of the spectrum--newcomers Rasuk (Raising Victor Vargas) and Robinson (Elephant) aptly bring sincerity to their portrayals. As the fiery Alva the wild-haired Rasuk is full of bravado taking to the jet-setting life with ease and ultimately becoming the more well-known name. The soft-spoken Robinson plays the easy-going Peralta with quiet determination proving he doesn't have to showboat in order to show how good he is. But it's the more seasoned Hirsch (The Girl Next Door) playing the gifted but ultimately screwed-up Jay Adams who has the harder acting job. As the Z-Boy with probably the rawest talent but nevertheless gives up his chance for fame Hirsch handles Adams' conflicted emotions well. Ledger too does a nice job as Skip Engblom the boys' "mentor" who introduces them to a whole new world rides a great meal ticket for awhile--and then loses it all when the boys move on to bigger and better things. Sorry Skip.
Coming off the heels of his award-winning 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys writer Stacy Peralta decided he wasn't quite done telling his Z-Boy story trying his hand at dramatizing the whole experience. This time around he elicits the help of director Catherine Hardwicke whose disturbing indie Thirteen proved she can get underneath a teenager's skin. Smart move. Her documentary style of filmmaking with that grainy handheld feel fits the Lords of Dogtown milieu perfectly. The camera chases after the boys as they skate sneak onto private property to surf empty pools and rock like rock stars. Peralta also calls upon his old buddies to help out including the now world-renowned skating champion Tony Alva who choreographs many of the stunts and apparently teaches the actors not only to skate but skate in true Z-Boy fashion. Maybe hardcore skateboarders will notice the errors but for a novice like me it is a fun ride. The only real problem with Dogtown is Peralta's greenhorn attempts at fleshing out a drama. As a documentary the Z-Boys experience is exhilarating as it follows these real-life mavericks' efforts to take skateboarding to a whole new extreme. But as a full-blown feature film it's a little harder to perpetuate the momentum.
The animated Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas has all the great adventure of the story wrapped up in a sappy little package for the kiddies. Taken from the ancient tales of the Arabian Nights Sinbad is a rogue who cares only about what is in his and his crew's best interest--and little else. As the film begins he unsuccessfully tries to steal the Book of Peace--which keeps order in the world--from his childhood best friend Proteus the Prince of Syracuse who is sailing to the city to return the sacred book. Although the two are estranged it's clear they still have a kinship. When the Book of Peace is actually stolen by Eris the goddess of chaos she frames Sinbad for the theft. Proteus stands up for his friend and makes the council give Sinbad one chance to find and return the precious book or Proteus will die on his behalf. Disbelieving the threat the pirate decides to blow the whole thing off but Proteus' beautiful betrothed Marina who has stowed away on Sinbad's ship has other plans. Marina has Sinbad's crew on her side and it could turn mutinous if the guy doesn't fulfill the mission. OK so he'll go get the book. Eris doesn't make it easy for our reluctant hero--dispatching both monstrous creatures and the elements to do battle along the way. But ultimately the brave Sinbad learns a few life lessons falls in love and wins out by following his heart. Aww!
See what a little success in the animated world can get you? These days an animated film can demand the attention of any A-list actor to provide the voices not just your occasional Robin Williams. We have Finding Nemo with the voices of Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres and now Sinbad which attracted huge names such as Brad Pitt (Sinbad) Catherine Zeta-Jones (Marina) Michelle Pfeiffer (Eris) and Joseph Fiennes (Proteus). It could also be the fact DreamWorks' animation king Jeffrey Katzenberg has the clout to rope them all in. Pitt as Sinbad is roguishly clever infusing the pirate with the requisite amount mischievousness and rebellion while Zeta-Jones provides the adventurous Marina with the right amount of bravado and vulnerability. Fiennes as the stiff but honorable Proteus is fine but you can tell right away who has the most fun with her character; Pfeiffer's Eris is a pure delight in sound as well as sight. She is able to take her Catwoman persona from Batman Returns and elevate it to a well celestial level. In the supporting roles Dennis Haysbert does a nice job as Sinbad's right-hand man Kale as does Adriano Giannini the son of legendary actor Giancarlo Giannini as the ship's lookout Rat. Kudos all around for a job well done.
As a self-proclaimed fan of those cheesy 1970s Sinbad movies including The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger--where the stop-motion special effects of wizard Ray Harryhausen made it all worthwhile--the idea of an animated version of Sinbad seems perfectly fitted for the genre. Now the mythical creatures could be fully realized in vivid Technicolor where the DreamWorks' animators spare no expense in providing their own visions of things such as sirens sea monsters and giant birds of prey. The artwork for Eris is a particular stroke of genius with the flowing black hair and beautifully evil features; the film definitely comes alive when she is onscreen. As well the action sequences are as exciting as any car chase or gun battle you'll see in a live-action film. The drawback for the adults is the film's slightly schmaltzy story about friendship and of course true love. It's not entirely clear why computer-animated films such as Shrek and Finding Nemo are now becoming the only animated films that appeal to everyone adults and kids alike. It used to be traditional hand-drawn classics such as The Little Mermaid and The Lion King did the trick but now it seems animated films need only provide spectacular visuals--without a great story and snappy dialogue to back them up.