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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Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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It is often be the case that great things can come in small packages. In the realm of cinema, this translates to under 10 minutes. There is a distinctive artistry in short filmmaking. One could make the illusory coloration that the job of a short film director or writer is somehow easier, given the brevity of their resulting creation. The reality, however, is that the stunted time-frame requires the filmmaker to become adept at the economy of storytelling, and therefore to actually work harder to develop a narrative in a more concise framework.
It’s not a frequent occurrence, nor is it exceedingly rare that a short film will be picked up for adaptation into a feature film. This week, the wonderful Spanish horror short Mama sees its full-length iteration hit theaters. The Guillermo del Toro-produced Mama centers on two young girls found living alone in squalor, in the middle of the woods. When their new adoptive parents bring them home, it becomes clear that something terrifying has come along with them. Andres Muschietti, who also wrote and directed the short, helms the feature version. This got us thinking about some other short films we’ve seen over the last couple of years that would also be ideal for full-length big screen treatment.
The Legend of Beaver Dam
John Landis would be proud of this horror comedy short from writer/director Jerome Sable. It’s the story of an awkward young outcast, out on a camping trip with his scout troupe. As the night’s activities turn to ghost stories, which in turn accidentally awakens an evil monster, unlikely hero Danny is called upon to save the day. What is so outstanding about The Legend of Beaver Dam, and what we’re aching to see more of, is the spectacular musical element, and how this feeds an imaginative narrative structure. It would be great to see Sable team with Darren Lynn Bousman and Terrance Zdunich (the twisted minds behind Repo! The Genetic Opera) to turn Beaver Dam into a large-scale theatrical horror musical.
A carjacker witnesses a shooting, and inadvertently becomes the only one who can help a dying man. His conscience will not be the only thing tested. Marko Slavnic’s gritty crime drama is fairly simple in its construction. But within these few moments, we are presented with a probing, brooding character study that takes a phenomenal turn in its final act. It would be fascinating to see this twist altered to serve a running, tension-fostering conflict. Slavnic clearly has the directing and screenwriting chops necessary to hook an audience, and it would be great to see him expand this tale into a dark crime thriller somewhere in the neighborhood of Headhunters.
This is a bit of a cheat, we are not afraid to admit that. Directed by Phil Joanou (State of Grace, The Gridiron Gang), Dirty Laundry centers on a familiar skull-tee-clad comic book vigilante who, in this adventure, stumbles upon a nasty assault while he’s just trying to do his laundry. Yes, we’ve already had two Punisher films, and yes one of them already starred Thomas Jane, but Dirty Laundry is a sterling example of how the right director, and the right tone, can make all the difference. Dirty Laundry is edgier than 2004’s Punisher, and yet more grounded (if only a hair less violent) than 2008’s Punisher: War Zone. Hopefully, the overwhelming response to this fan film will earn Jane another shot at the role of Frank Castle. Gotta love that Ron Perlman cameo, too.
No Way Out
Even abstract shorts films can provide a compelling appetizer for a potential feature; more than any other type of short, they leave us wanting more. If there is one short that left us ravenous, it was 2011’s No Way Out. Directed by Kristoffer Aaron Morgan, and co-written by Eric Vespe, No Way Out is a violent, cruel descent into madness wherein a man, House of the Devil’s A.J. Bowen, is pushed to his breaking point by hideous monsters in the dark. The production design, the cinematography, and the ghoulishly delightful practical effects make for a superb and haunting Lovecraftian nightmare that begs to be expanded.
Portal: No Escape
It would be impossible to construct this list without mentioning what is conceivably the best fan film ever made. Dan Trachtenberg’s ode to Valve’s sci-fi video game was artful and immaculately shot, tantalizingly hinting at the potential for a feature-length Portal movie. No Escape was so exceptional that it actually just netted Trachtenberg a gig directing New Line’s movie version of the graphic novel Y: The Last Man. Our guess is that if Trachtenberg were to also then direct the cinematic Portal adaptation, something for which we are all crossing our fingers and toes simultaneously, Guillermo del Toro would produce. That may seem like a stretch... unless you happened to notice the voice of GlaDoS in the Pacific Rim trailers.
[Photo Credit: George Kraychyk/Universal Pictures]
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Disney Agrees to Sell Miramax to Tutor, Colony & Co. for $660M
After a six-month bidding process, Disney has agreed to sell Miramax to a group that includes Ronald Tutor and Colony Capital for $660 million.
The transaction is subject to certain regulatory approvals and is expected to close sometime before the end of the year. In a statement, Disney chief Robert Iger said, “Although we are very proud of Miramax’s many accomplishments, our current strategy for Walt Disney Studios is to focus on the development of great motion pictures under the Disney, Pixar and Marvel brands.”
Tutor, the chief executive of the Tutor Perini Corporation, and Tom Barrack, the chief executive of Colony Capital, and other individuals bought Miramax through Filmyard Holdings. The press release did not mention any other minority investors, such as James Robinson of Morgan Creek, Gulf Capital of Dubai and actor Rob Lowe, who said last week that he was part of the group, notes The Hollywood Reporter. Nor was there any mention of Pangea Media Group CEO David Bergstein, who first brought the deal to Tutor and has been acting as a consultant on the sale.
According to The Los Angeles Times, Jerome Swartz, who co-founded mobile technology company Symbol Technologies, was expected to invest between $25 million and $50 million in the new venture.
The purchase includes the rights to 700 library titles, plus the Miramax name, books, development projects and other assets.
Disney will handle distribution of a handful of completed Miramax films that have yet to be released, an arrangement that may be in place for up to a year after the transaction is completed, Variety notes.
The ultimate price for the indie label was higher than what others, including Miramax founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein backed by Ron Burkle, were prepared to offer.
As much as $150 million of the Miramax unit’s value remains tied to film franchises like the Spy Kids and Scary Movie series in which the Weinsteins have rights, a source told The New York Times.
Unclear is how Tutor’s group will deal with the Weinstein presence, given the brothers’ chagrin in recent weeks at not having prevailed in the bidding, says the NYT.
Deadline notes that Colony Capital's Richard Nanula will be the key person picking a CEO and CFO from the usual roster of experienced movie executives. An insider told Deadline, "He'll make sure Miramax doesn't end up hiring someone who'll use distribution as an excuse to go into production. Because that would be disastrous."