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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Contagion a sharp thriller from writer/director/cinematographer/editor/do-all Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s 11 The Informant!) is like an adaptation of a Michael Crichton novel that never was. The movie quickly sets up its pawns in order to engage you in a game of pandemic chess where the terror comes from science and the humanity comes from your own empathy. Instead of relying on a sci-fi backstory outlandish deaths or large-scale set pieces Soderbergh lets the facts do the talking—and it's scary as hell.
Much like his Oscar-winning film Traffic Soderbergh unfolds the story by weaving in and out between a series of character perspectives: Matt Damon's Mitch who loses his wife to a mysterious virus and strives to protect the rest of his family; Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle members of the Center for Disease Control racing against the clock to find a cure; Kate Winslet's Erin a field agent tracking down the source of the American outbreak; Jude Law's Alan a high-profile blogger searching for the truth behind the disease; and Marion Cotillard's Dr. Orantes another agent hunting for Patient Zero in Hong Kong. While the drama spans globally each characters' quarrels are playing out in a claustrophobic scenario a world in which any person they meet any object they touch can infect them with the life-threatening disease.
Soderbergh doesn't have much time to dive into his characters' backstories but the film's screenwriter Scott Z. Burns carefully constructs each scene to deliver just the right balance of terrifying scientific babble and revealing personal drama. When the virus starts massacring the world population and vandalism riots and societal unrest emerge the thing that makes Contagion click is our interest in the personal stories. Damon as seems to be the case with everything he touches elevates the material being the perfect everyman and our surrogate for the too-plausible-for-comfort scenario. Fishburne too turns what's normally a plot-forwarding government agent role into a man dealing with the weight of his decisions watching citizens of the country drop like flies from his ivory tower. It's heavy stuff but Burns' playful dialogue helps the cast lighten the harrowing mood—only so the movie can pull the carpet from underneath you over and over again.
But in the end Contagion is Soderbergh's show. The director uses every ounce of cinematic artistry to leave us squirming in our seats with a fetishistic approach to shooting the most mundane of objects. The close-up is Soderbergh's weapon of choice honing in on common day objects that we realize are infested with germs (with the effect amplified by a thousand if you catch the movie in IMAX). A door handle a bathroom drier button the human face—Soderbergh lingers as a reminder of his invisible villain: the virus. That's a compliment: the design and photography is striking the purposefully pristine picture quality fills the characters' quest to stay healthy with tension. Composer Cliff Martinez's electronic score compliments the icky scenario germinating over the picture like audible infection. The world of the film is rich with detail. Just the icky kind.
Contagion isn't flawless. With so much going on things fall to the wayside—Cotillard's plotline specifically gets lost in the shuffle—but the reality keeps us engrossed. The movie plays like an oral history of a horrific event with each detail frighteningly exposed. Except in the case of Contagion it's not an event that has happened so much as one that could happen.
And at any moment.
October 23, 2003 4:57pm EST
The reemergence of horror movies in recent years has helped create the most inescapable monster of all: The spoof. This latest lampoon strings together scenes and characters primarily from three films Signs The Ring and 8 Mile with a little Matrix thrown in for good measure and unifies them into a single 90-minute feature. Is it funny? Sure--on occasion. The film follows Scary Movie series heroine Cindy Campbell (Anna Faris) now a college grad starting her first professional job as a local TV news reporter. Investigating the mysterious appearance of crop circles in ex-minister Tom Logan's (Charlie Sheen) farm Cindy develops feelings for Tom's brother George (Simon Rex) a wannabe rapper. Suddenly her friend Brenda (Regina Hall) becomes the latest to be killed seven days after watching a mysterious videotape circulating around. After seeking advice from Brenda's Oracle-like Aunt Shaneequa (Queen Latifah) and having a run-in with The Architect (George Carlin) Cindy learns she is "The One " and the crop circles and videotape deaths are somehow connected. It's up to her to help the president (Leslie Nielsen) prevent an alien invasion.
SM3 could have put Sheen no stranger to this genre (Hot Shots!) to its cast but the actor is pitifully wasted. His character Tom has to be the most boringly written in the film and should have been more of a wiseass. His real-life wife actress Denise Richards has a small role as his on-screen wife but her lines in their one scene together a reenactment from Signs in which she's been hit by a truck and reveals her dying wishes to her husband could have been much more creative than "NO MORE SEX!" As Tom's brother sweet but dimwitted George Rex has much funnier lines and sight gags and the chance to put his perfectly clueless expression to work. SM3 alum Faris like Sheen falls victim to some unfunny dialogue and her character Cindy is too over-the-top stupid; she irritatingly delivers practically every line as if she was asking a question. Hall who had some of the most brilliant laugh-out-loud moments in the original Scary Movie is completely wasted--her hilarious character Brenda is killed off early on and reappearances of her lifeless corpse are all you see the rest of the movie. On a brighter note there are some great cameos by Queen Latifah as Aunt Shaneequa Eddie Griffin as Orpheus and Anthony Anderson as George's friend Mahalik.
The Scary Movie franchise was originally created for Dimension Films in 1999 by the Wayans brothers who absconded from the series entirely after the second installment. The studio confidently gave the Scary Movie 3 reins to veteran comedy director David Zucker whose '80s spoofs--Airplane! Top Secret! and the Naked Gun series--rang true with brilliance. Sadly with Scary Movie 3 the director/producer demonstrates how out of touch he is with pop culture and spoof fans. While there are a number of good gags scattered throughout the movie including a jab at M. Night Shyamalan's cameo appearance in Signs Zucker fails to assemble them into a coherent comedy. Zucker also lacks the irreverence that Scary Movie director Keenen Ivory Wayans has and too often falls back on bathroom humor and excrement gags such as stepping (or in this case kneeling) in dog poo. The result is a spoof that lacks the scandalous effect of his hit comedy Airplane! and the cleverness of his 1984 World War II send-up Top Secret!. But the most baffling thing about SM3 however is the spoofing of the film 8 Mile which not only doesn't fit in a parody of scary movies but was also better parodied by Jamie Kennedy in last summer's Malibu's Most Wanted.