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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Kids' movies may be the most difficult cinematic mountains to climb. The filmmakers must cater to two perspectives at constant odds with one another: young ones who find amusement in simplistic stories and broadly painted humor and their parents who need enough of a grounded hook emotional core and clever jokes to keep them from nodding off. Not an easy task.
To see this winning combination pulled off by a 3-D animation/live-action hybrid adaptation of a rather irritatingly sweet cartoon from the '80s…well it's both a shocking and welcome surprise. The Smurfs transcends recent property-grabs like Garfield Alvin and the Chipmunks and Marmaduke by embracing the cartooniness relishing in the fact that it can get away with anything with the help of adorable little blue people.
Smurfs takes the model employed by 2007's Enchanted kicking things off in the colorful fantasy world of Smurf Village and quickly bringing its cheery clueless characters to the terrifying metropolis of New York. After Clumsy Smurf accidentally leads the Smurf-obsessive Gargamel (Hank Azaria) to the hidden mushroom haven of his brethren the bumbling black sheep of the Smurf family finds himself and a few clan members Papa Brainy Grumpy Gutsy Smurfette at the wrong end of a Blue Moon-induced worm hole. The group (along with Gargamel and his cat) find themselves face-planted in NYC's Central Park where they meet Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris) yes man to the cosmetic titan Odile. This sets the race in motion—the Smurfs enlisting the help of Patrick to find a way back home Patrick seeking the perfect ad campaign for Odile's new make-up line and Gargamel questing hungrily for a few drops of Smurf essence.
If Smurfs was simply a barrage of fart jokes and pop culture references the movie wouldn't click but by giving each of his characters something to do (seems obvious no?) director Raja Gosnell injects the film with a helpful dose of heart. Along with Clumsy's quest to be more than his name insists Harris' Patrick also has his own problems to overcome. Namely preparing to be a Papa Smurf to the kid he's about to have with his wife Grace (Glee's Jayma Mays). Harris and Mays take their roles here seriously going all out when they need to chase the adventurous Smurfs around town in one slapsticky sequence after another but they put just as much into their smaller scenes. One moment where Papa Smurf sits Patrick down for a "Dad talk" even has weight—a near impossible task for a "kids" movie.
But let's not get too sappy: the movie is funny plain and simple. Azaria makes a living bringing cartoon characters to life—he's a reason why The Simpsons has been on for more than 20 years—and his goofy Gargamel antics are inspired. A recurring gag where the evil wizard continually steps through ventilation steam grates probably read fine on paper but Azaria knows how to play big and doesn't allow any moment of physical comedy to lazily fall through the cracks. On the flip side Harris nails the straight man role and acknowledges that hanging out with Smurfs is just as bizarre as you'd imagine. Think The Brady Bunch Movie for the world of animation.
With solid kids' flicks becoming a rare occurrence Smurfs is a breath of fresh air a film that believes in its own simple message while simultaneously being self-aware of its cartoonish heritage. The movie's a smurfy good time but it takes a particularly smurfy Smurf to let go of cynical baggage and smurf it.
The story of Lust Caution begins in the midst of WWII in Asia as the Japanese have a stranglehold on key areas of China including Shanghai and Hong Kong. The iron-fisted Chinese who are collaborating with the invaders are led by Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) a cruel and ruthless man who delights in the torture and murder of his fellow countrymen who are fighting against the Japanese occupation. When a patriotic band of college students (made up of four men and two women all part of the drama school) decide to strike a blow for Chinese freedom by assassinating Mr. Yee it falls to Wang (the mesmerizingly beautiful Wei Tang) to infiltrate his home and heart to pave the way for the killing. But as her compatriots--including handsome Kuang played by American-born Chinese rock star Lee-Hom Wang who loves her from afar--bid their time waiting for the moment to strike Mr. Yee and Wang enter into a torrid affair that begins to consume them both. Think of the Hitchcock classic Suspicion shift from Europe to Asia add in intensely explicit sex scenes and a completely unexpected ending and you have Lust Caution--a film that is soon to be considered a classic as well. Veteran actors Tony Leung and Joan Chen lead a fine cast of actors who together create this completely believable glimpse into Chinese culture during the dark days of Japanese occupation. Both give intense performances--he as the powerful emotionless Mr. Yee and she as his vapid shopping and Mah Jong-obsessed wife. But the most amazing performance is that of newcomer Wei Tang the Miss Universe finalist who makes her film debut in Lust Caution. Her fantastic face slim body and almost ethereal presence seem to blot out everyone else when she is on the screen; you can’t help but look at only her. Her transformation in the four-year span of the story is masterful. As she goes from a naïve young student to a mature woman whose physical obsession with a man she despises begins to overwhelm her. The ingénue proves that she is much more than just a pretty face. In fact she deserves an Academy Award nomination for her often subtle always fearless performance that is at the heart of the film. Ang Lee has a unique cinematic ability to begin a story very specific to a time a place and a culture and end with a universal tale that resonates across all societies and peoples. He did it beautifully with Sense and Sensibility Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as well as Brokeback Mountain and he’s done it again masterfully with Lust Caution. This newest film is an intense look at how war often causes an individual to make the ultimate sacrifice for the common good yet it also explores another underlying theme: the idea that there is a never-ending battle between the sexes for emotional dominance within a sexual relationship. Ang Lee’s deft hand is evident in every frame including the incredibly explicit (and often violent) sex scenes that have given the film its NC-17 rating. But this is not pornography; every scene is necessary to the story showing us that using sex as a means to an end (no matter how noble that end) is a very dangerous game to play especially during wartime. Look for Ang Lee’s name to come up on the Academy’s list again this year as awards season kicks into high gear. He deserves every honor for this emotionally disturbing masterpiece.
The Painted Veil is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel about British colonialism in China. The film's cohesion is largely helped by a user-friendly script from Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) who tackles amorphous movie-unfriendly themes like emotional longing. We meet Walter Fane (Edward Norton) a lovesick middle-class bacteriologist who spots Kitty (Naomi Watts) an upper-class socialite approaching the upper limits of marrying age at a party. Walter not smooth with women woos Kitty with his intensity and persuades her to join him in cholera-stricken China. With a wandering eye Kitty is soon caught in a lusty affair with a local British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) but Walter eventually forgives her but imprisons her in the desolate green south China countryside. The film's crucial problem is its setting of a Western-centric love story on top of a palette of Chinese human death and disease albeit framed beautifully and exotically. Norton and Watts take producers' credits as well. The actor pushed for years to get The Painted Veil made painstakingly and authentically co-produced with the China Film Board. These facts hint at the commitment and intelligence Oscar nominees Norton and Watts bring. Norton always impresses and surprises. Each role in his resume is tasty in its own way a wholly new creation and never derivative. In Norton's previous film The Illusionist he was a similarly powerful opaque character from a far away time and place. Although sometimes seeming she’s on autopilot Watts is also brilliantly underrated as the conflicted Kitty who doesn't love the man she married even though he loves her as much as she loves herself. Her tricky darting eyes mixed with uneasy body language tells us we don't know what to expect other than that she'll probably sabotage herself. Toby Jones--who played Truman Capote to critics' acclaim in Infamous--does a provocative turn as the mysterious opium-smoking neighbor. The Painted Veil falls short of greatness when the second half crumbles into laziness right when the emotional impact should be the strongest. Director John Curran is relatively untested ( We Don't Live Here Anymore) especially with difficult material and he stumbles a bit in this ambitious drama. Veil's storytelling meanders with a few unnecessary scenes. Lame mini-montages lapse into TV movie territory. Attention to detail however (minus Norton's highlighted hair) is superb. Four exquisite wisely picked Chinese locations were used in concert with local actors and crew to produce an internationally representative work of Chinese/American art. Interior sets are post-WWI prudish and upper-class underlying the movie's "painted " hidden ideas. Old-world rickshaws and water systems are true to the time. The haunting soundtrack feels postmodern and contemporary. But overall like last year's disappointing Memoirs of a Geisha the mish-mash of American and Asian story themes doesn't quite work.
Two of the most prestigious independent film communities have recently each given their stamp of approval on independent cinema both past and future. Nominees for the 2006 Independent Spirit Awards were announced as was the lineup for the independent feature film and world cinema competitions for next year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Although each organization acknowledge and reward independent filmmaking, the two fetes are quite different. The Spirit Awards are more of a conventional awards show, which will be handed out March 4 in Santa Monica, California [for full coverage on the Spirit Award nominations, click here].
The Sundance Awards are the culmination of the 10-day festival (Jan. 19-29 in Park City, Utah) that showcases the films in contention for awards. Next year’s Sundance Film Festival lineup marks a return of sorts to the fest’s roots, by giving way to more fresh faces. The total number of submissions increased, resulting in a different and exciting format--the expansion of the world competition to include more international films.
Below are the films to be shown in the four competition sections:
American Dramatic Competition A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (Director, screenwriter: Dito Montiel) Come Early Morning (Director, screenwriter: Joey Lauren Adams) Flannel Pajamas (Director, screenwriter: Jeff Lipsky) Forgiven (Director, screenwriter: Paul Fitzgerald) Half Nelson (Director: Ryan Fleck; screenwriters: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck) Hawk Is Dying (Director: Julian Goldberger; screenwriters: Harry Crews (novel), Julian Goldberger) In Between Days (Director: So Yong Kim; screenwriters: So Yong Kim, Bradley Rust Gray) Puccini for Beginners (Director, screenwriter: Maria Maggenti) Quinceanera (Director/screenwriters: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland) Right at Your Door (Director, screenwriter: Chris Gorak) Sherrybaby (Director, screenwriter: Laurie Collyer) Somebodies (Director, screenwriter: Hadjii) Stay (Director, screenwriter: Bob Goldthwait) Steel City (Director, screenwriter: Brian Jun) Stephanie Daley (Director, screenwriter: Hilary Brougher) Wristcutters: A Love Story (Director: Goran Dukic; screenwriters: Goran Dukic, Etgar Kerett)
American Documentary Competition:
A Lion in the House (Directors: Steven Bogner, Julia Reichert) American Blackout (Director: Ian Inaba) An Unreasonable Man (Directors: Henriette Mantel, Stephen Skrovan) Crossing Arizona (Director: Joseph Mathew) God Grew Tired of Us (Director: Christopher Quinn) Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends (Director: Patricia Foulkrod) Iraq in Fragments (Director: James Longley) Small Town Gay Bar (Director: Malcom Ingram) So Much So Fast (Directors: Steven Ascher, Jeanne Jordan) Thin (Director: Lauren Greenfield) 'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris (Director: Raymond De Felitta) The Trials of Darryl Hunt (Directors: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg) TV Junkie (Director: Michael Cain) Wide Awake (Director: Alan Berliner) Wordplay (Director: Patrick Creadon) The World According to Sesame Street (Directors: Linda Goldstein Knowlton, Linda Hawkins Costigan)
World Cinema Dramatic Competition 13 Tzameti (Director, screenwriter: Gela Babluani), France Allegro (Director: Christoffer Boe; screenwriters: Christoffer Boe, Mikael Wulff), Denmark The Aura (Director, screenwriter: Fabian Bielinsky), Argentina The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (Director: Auraeus Solito; screenwriter: Michiko Yamamoto), Philippines Eve & The Fire Horse (Director, screenwriter: Julia Kwan), Canada Grbavica (Director, screenwriter: Jasmila Zbanic), Bosnia-Herzegovina The House of Sand (Director: Andrucha Waddington; screenwriter: Elena Soarez), Brazil Kiss Me Not on the Eyes (Director, screenwriter: Jocelyne Saab), Lebanon Little Red Flowers (Director: Zhang Yuan; Screenwriters: Ning Dai, Zhang Yuan), China Madeinusa (Director, screenwriter: Claudia Llosa), Peru No. 2 (Director, screenwriter: Toa Fraser), New Zealand One Last Dance (Director, screenwriter: Max Makowski), Singapore The Peter Pan Formula (Director, screenwriter: Cho Chan-Ho), South Korea Princesas (Director, screenwriter: Fernando Leon de Aranoa), Spain Solo Dios Sabe (Director: Carlos Bolado; screenwriters: Carlos Bolado, Diane Weipert), Brazil/Mexico Son of Man (Director: Mark Dornford-May; screenwriters: Mark Dornford-May, Andiswa Kedama, Pauline Malefane), South Africa
World Cinema Documentary Competition 5 Days (Director: Yoav Shamir), Israel Angry Monk--Reflections on Tibet (Director: Luc Schaedler), Switzerland Black Gold (Director: Marc Francis, Nick Francis), U.K. By the Ways, a Journey with William Eggleston (Directors: Cedric Laty, Vincent Gerard), France Dear Pyongyang (Director: Yang Yonghi), Japan The Giant Buddhas (Director: Christian Frei), Switzerland Glastonbury (Director: Julien Temple), U.K. I is for India (Director: Sandhya Suri), England/Germany/Italy In the Pit (Director: Juan Carlos Rulfo), Mexico Into Great Silence (Director: Philip Groening), Germany Kz (Director: Rex Bloomstein), U.K. No One (Director: Tin Dirdamal), Mexico The Short Life of Jose Antonio Gutierrez (Director: Heidi Specogna), Germany Songbirds (Director: Brian Hill), U.K. Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst (Director: Gillian Armstrong), Australia Viva Zapatero (Director: Sabina Guzzanti), Italy
The oft-trod theme of the disintegration of tradition is the subject of this curious glance at Chinese bathhouse culture. Cell phone-talking city-dwelling Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin) returns to his childhood home having mistaken a postcard from his mentally handicapped brother to mean that their father has passed away. Instead he finds dad and brother alive and well and catering to their clientele of old men who soak in tubs receive scrubs and rubs and generally wile away an afternoon wrestling crickets and bickering. When his father's health fails and the wrecking ball threatens to replace the bathhouse with a shopping mall Da Ming's return to big city life hangs in the balance.
This keenly observant film reveals an array of authentic singular characters the quirky denizens of the bathhouse. Jing Wu is endearing as the simple-minded merry Er Ming who is devoted to the staid if steamy life of the bathhouse. Zhu Xu plays his father as devoted to his loving handicapped son as he is disappointed by Da Ming the rejecting son.
Zhang Yang follows up on his international success "Spicy Love Soup" with this well executed but unexceptional rendering of a familiar theme. Nonetheless cinematic attention to detail and subtle characterizations bring interest.