Monday, August 11, 2014

R.I.P., Robin

Robin Williams is the first hilarious guy I can remember.

This makes sense. "Mork and Mindy" graced TV screens in the late '70s, when I had just started elementary school. Like every kid and a good number of adults, I thought the show was comedy gold. "Nanu nanu," "shazbot," sitting on his head ... all that. Frankly, it's a miracle I never owned rainbow suspenders. (Although I did have a Mork action figure, complete with egg ship!)

I was so on board the Williams train that I thought "Popeye" was an amazing film. I also was 7 at the time. No matter. I would have watched Williams in anything. True, I wasn't told enough for "The World According to Garp" and would have to later appreciate his somewhat subdued turn. Same goes with his standup routines. The not-old-enough thing, I mean. Definitely NOT subdued, as I would later witness. Like him or not, nobody could deny the marvel of this barrel-chested, furry-armed guy somehow harnessing lightning and turning it loose on stage.

I suspect I'm not alone in considering "Good Morning, Vietnam" Williams' breakout role. Hey, I love "The Best of Times" more than most people should; "Jack ... Aquarius. Gotta gotta gotta satisfy." But even if "Vietnam" wasn't so different than Williams machine-gun standup, it was a great vehicle for him. He got the chew up the big screen with his thing, and play a hero of sorts to boot. Even today, that first riff parade on the radio remains explosive.

Two years later, "Dead Poets Society" was a bid for more depth, and we did get more than jokes. It would be another eight years before Williams would drop the impressions altogether in a similar role and win an Oscar for "Good Will Hunting." While "Dead Poets" doesn't hold up as well, 16-year-old me thought it was amazing, and you can't deny the permanence of "carpe diem" and "Oh, captain, my captain."

I was in college when the one-two punch of "Aladdin" and "Mrs. Doubtfire" reminded everyone of how we're just trying to keep up with Williams.I thought then and maintain now that casting him as the Genie was a stroke of genius, and I've still never laughed as much in a Disney film. As for "Mrs. Doubtfire," was that the perfect role for Robin? Unlike some of his earlier work in which the holes become more apparent each year, "Doubtfire" has never been less than a riot, and I've seen parts of it at least three dozen times.

I could go on and cover other periods, such as his dip into darkness with "Insomnia" and "One Hour Photo." But the truth is I haven't seen a "Robin Williams movie" in several years. The last thing I did see him in was "Lee Daniels' The Butler," where I couldn't decide if Williams as Dwight Eisenhower was off or just odd.

Even so, there's absolutely no taking away the impact Robin Williams had on me in my teens and 20s. And now a truly funny man has succumbed to his demons. We'll lose count in the days ahead of how many times Williams is called "manic," and nobody can argue that. We wondered how this guy could have so much energy. It's a shame that such highs brought with them terrible lows. Rest in peace, Robin.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Deja whew!: "Edge of Tomorrow"

The pitch: "It's 'Groundhog Day,' but with Tom Cruise saving the world from aliens!"


Yep, that's it. For all the trailers and reviews, you can distill this Cruise sci-fi romp down to that one short sentence. And you know what? It works!

I admit my early reaction to the trailers for "Edge of Tomorrow" was along the lines of "Nice bang-bang, but how is this not 'Oblivion 2: Mediocre Boogaloo?'" But then I simultaneously saw the above-average reviews and learned the director was Doug Liman. That was enough to send me once again to ye olde cineplex.

(Sidebar: I actually said to my dad the other night, "I'm a Doug Liman fan" -- possibly the first recorded instance of such an uttering. Even if he's not lauded by a longshot, this is the guy who not only helmed "Swingers" and "Go" -- the latter much underrated, I maintain -- but also "The Bourne Identity." Other efforts may not have as many stars, but I say "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," "Jumper" and "Fair Game" all are entertaining in their own ways. So yeah, Dougie has earned the automatic "I'm listening ... " status from me.)

Our story has the world trying to figure out how the beat back an invading alien force that landed in Europe and is spreading outward. Tom Cruise is a military officer/PR guy charging to rallying public opinion -- something totally lost in the trailers, but kind of key to the happenings. When he's ordered to join an assault on France, he refuses -- Tommy don't do combat, this time -- and gets busted down to private and lumped in with the grunts. In over his head, he enters the fray but doesn't last long and dies.

The first time.

Yes, it turns out our hero is caught in some kind of loop where he repeats the same day over and over. And good thing, since that day ends quite badly for the assault. This is his chance to make it right, if only this dipsh*t PR guy can figure things out. That includes getting the heroine du jour of the fight, played by Emily Blunt, to go along with him.

I won't lie ... the "Groundhog Day" vibe was all the way up to 11 here. We see Cruise go through the same scenes over and over and over infinity. But unlike our favorite Feb. 2 themed comedy, he's got a purpose, and I was quite curious to see how this would all shake out. Plus there's some comedy here, too. I mean, as much as there can be with the planet facing annihilation.

This is worth noting. Unlike "Oblivion" or "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol," we don't have a noble hero searching for the truth. It's more a guy with no clue forced to figure out what the hell is going on. Sure, "Jack Reacher" might have allowed Cruise to have a few quips, but "Edge of Tomorrow" gives him more to work with -- humor and sadness along with action -- and he does well.

It helps to have Blunt as a foil, between her tough demeanor, lithe figure, wide eyes and some dry humor of her own. True, you can't fully ignore the fact that she's two decades Cruise's junior. But she's someone whom I think has been underused in multiple movies, and it's good to see her get a little more meat here.

In all, "Edge" was more thoughtful and intriguing than I expected, and a good balance of action, plot movement and emotion to keep me interested. The ending could have been better and more true to what preceded it, but that didn't come close to ruining the movie. It was much better than "Cats." I'm going to see it again and again ...

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mutate me once, shame on you ... : "X-Men: Days of Future Past"

Whither the X-Men in today's crazy comic-book movie world? Not as morose as Batman. Not as lackluster as Superman. (Super powers, so-so movies.) Not as spunky as Spider-Man. Even the most direct comparison, the Avengers, is more a popcorn collection of All-Stars than a team of similarly troubled souls. Besides Wolverine, are any of these folks carrying their own films? Or perhaps you missed "Iceman: Cubes of Fury" and "Storm: Raising Hail."

(Aside: I'm much more intrigued by the upcoming "Guardians of the Galaxy" than I expected. I attribute half of that to the funny-misfit angle -- "What a bunch of a-holes" -- and half to my ever-growing broner for Chris Pratt.)

When we last saw our favorite band of mutants, they were youngsters in the early '60s who had split into good guys and bad guys at the end of "X-Men: First Class." When we last saw Mr. Shiny Nails, he was fresh off a trip to Japan in "The Wolverine."  Two very different movies, and "Days of Future Past" is a third kind altogether.

We open in a future when the world seems largely decimated, thanks to machines/creatures called the Sentinels that have hunted down most mutants and human sympathizers. And they're coming for the last ones, too, including some we know (Kitty Pryde and Colossus, plus Professor X, Magneto and the aforementioned Storm, Wolfie and Ice Ice Baby) and some we're seeing for the first time (Blink, Bishop, Warpath). Everyone's trying to stay alive and figure out a way to defeat the Sentinels, who we learn have the powers of just about every mutant. I hate it when that happens.

The last, best idea: Send someone back in time to occupy his/her same body and figure out a way to stop the genesis of the Sentinels in the early '70s. Kitty has sent people back a few days, but 50 years? Given the stress such a trip would have on the mind, we need someone who can handle it and heal fast. Sound like anyone we know?

So now we get to the "past" part, with Wolverine waking up in 1973 and off to find not only Professor X but Magneto, with the two far from speaking terms. Alas, they need to team up to stop the lovely blue chameleon, Mystique, from killing the creator of the Sentinels, Bolivar Trask (Tyrion!!!). His death and Mystique's capture ultimately led to the Sentinels being the ultimate badasses, so yeah ... let's do something else and pretend that future never happened.

From there we have all manner of fun, from the Professor deciding if he'll ever get his sh*t together to the enlistment of a new mutant who can move at superhuman speeds (and delivers easily the best sequence of the film, complete with the soft sounds of "Time in a Bottle."). Suffice it to say things don't go smoothly -- with Mystique and others -- and soon the Sentinels aren't the only things to worry about. Without giving too much away, let's just say uneasy alliances are uneasy for a reason, and don't always stay allied. Meanwhile, the crew back in the present/future is racing against time as those Sentinels approach.

If this time travel business sounds a little fishy, join the club. Feel free to Google "X-Men" and "continuity problems" when you have a chance. Just set aside an hour or several. The film's final scenes certainly don't help matters, either. Hopefully you didn't get too invested in the happenings in some of those earlier movies.

While all that is a bit irksome, I enjoyed the collection of mutants and much of the action. The round and round with the Professor and Mystique and Magneto also humanized -- see what I did there? -- them somewhat. Wolverine may have been the key in linking the past and future, but for once it was nice to not have Hugh Jackman chewing all the scenery.

In all, "Days of Future Past" does a nice job of bringing together the two eras of X-Men, using the dire future to advance the evolution of the earlier crew. Given this franchise is now 14 years old, it could feel a lot more stale. Instead, at this rate we may get to see Magneto rock some parachute pants in the next movie.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

To swerve and deflect: "Robocop"

I wouldn’t say I was excited for the “Robocop” remake as much as curious. As a big fan of the original – which I bought for more than a dollar – I reflexively was wary. But I also recognize today’s special effects could come in handy. Plus, I’m partial to Joel Kinnaman from his solid work on “The Killing.” Would be nice to see what he can do without following a mopey redhead around in the rain. So it was that I came to see Version 2.0 on the Presidents Day holiday, a blessed day that I had all to myself after a family vacation.
The basic story is the same, but with a few tweaks. Our hero, Alex Murphy (Kinnaman), is still a Detroit cop trying to take down a crime lord. Unfortunately, the bad guys get to him before he does to them – in this case blowing up his car and leaving him almost dead. At the same time, megacompany OmniCorp has been trying to figure out how to get its robotic soliders into U.S. police departments after successfully winning over beaucoup military work. This dynamic is laid out nicely by a conservative talk show host (Samuel L. Jackson), who believes the head of OmniCorp (Michael Keaton) can do no wrong.
To get around congressional resistance to robots, Keaton comes up with the idea to “put a man inside the machine,” using the work of their in-house scientist (Gary Oldman)  That’s where our nearly-dead hero comes in, as his wife signs him up. This comes as somewhat a surprise to Murphy, and hijinks ensure. Even when Robocop comes fully online, there’s the matter of his own attempted murder haunting him, as well as where OmniCorp wants to go from its maiden voyage into cyborgspace.
While the updated bang-bang is just fine, the biggest plus compared with the first go-around might be the attempts to give Murphy and his plight more emotional heft. Unlike the first version, Murphy knows the deal from the get-go and just needs time to figure it out and roll with it …. if he can. Sam Jackson also is fun (of course), and I liked Jackie Earle Haley as a weaselly little security guy who minds the real robots – and has no use for one with ingredient XY.
On the flipside, Keaton and Oldman don’t break new ground and really not much of a sweat in their prominent roles, and Omar from “The Wire” doesn’t get much to do as Murphy’s old partner. The movie also sorely misses the menace of Ronny Cox and the mirth of Kurtwood Smith, the main villains from the first film. (To say nothing of smarmy Miguel Ferrer.) And as much as I like Kinnaman – also not bad in the lame “The Darkest Hour” – and his effort here, the extra backstory and pathos still doesn’t hold up to the stoicism and unforgettable voice of Peter Weller, El Premier Robocop.
In the end, the new “Robocop” was entertaining enough, but Verhoeven did it better. True, he got the first crack at it more than 25 years ago, and he also had a knack of biting satire that fit this absurd premise well. I was thisclose to buying a 6000 SUX, swear to god …

Monday, February 17, 2014

A trip around the blocks: "The LEGO Movie"

I had never heard of this movie before I saw the trailer last fall. And that trailer was ... wait for it ... awesome! So I didn't resist when the missus said we should take the kids to see "The LEGO Movie" on opening weekend. True, I'm not a big fan of opening weekends ... or sitting in a theater in general. (I'm rather old and cranky when it comes to the cinema these days.) But ... Legos! The seminal toy of my childhood. And maybe the preteen years. No matter. Let's move on.

Our story has an Everyman Lego named Emmet (Chris Pratt) just going about his life, building things according to the instructions and accepting everything President Business (Will Ferrell) says as fact. Why would you do anything else, especially when everything is awesome? Then one day, as a mysterious woman is knocking around his job site, Emmet stumbles down a hole and all of the sudden is bonded with a special block that pegs him as the key to breaking the rules about the "instructions" so Lego people can create anything they want.

Emmet falls in with a ragtag band that includes the mysterious woman, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), Batman (Will Arnett) and a wizard of sorts (Morgan Freeman), plus many others they encounter along the way. That's a big part of the great fun here, the different Lego pieces -- from superheroes to sports figures to a Unikitty (Alison Brie) to -- definitely my favorite, if only for sentimental reasons -- a classic astronaut Lego guy (Charlie Day), complete with faded planet logo on his chest and cracked helmet. When I saw that rubbed-off logo, it took me back.

Along with President Business, our heroes are challenged by a Bad Cop/Good Cop Lego (Liam Neeson). A word about these actors and their voices. Neeson's I flagged right away. Same with Arnett. Banks didn't take long, but I have to say ... Pratt and Ferrell, if you don't see them and they're not going too overboard ... they didn't come to me for a while. (No need to mention Freeman here, since he's both obvious and omnipresent in movies these days.)

The movie follows Emmet and Co. as they try to figure out how to overcome the "Kragle" and keep Business from freezing everything as he thinks it should be. This gives us the chance to see all sorts of phenomena in Lego form, e.g. flames, water and smoke. As for narrative, Emmet soon is revealed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time vs. a true savior, but the group perseveres, moving across various Lego lands. No question it's fun to see all the pieces interact, and there are plenty of jokes for the grown-ups, too. I might have felt slightly let down after the grandeur of the trailer, but still plenty entertained.

Eventually we get not only the showdown with Business but also a full understanding of this Lego world in the greater universe. I admit I didn't see that coming and thought the last 20 minutes were not only a little surprising but also pretty sweet. Throw in a another funny twist at the very end, and I came away from "The LEGO Movie" not dazzled but definitely satisfied ... and jonesing for a 500-piece spaceship set.

Monday, February 03, 2014


I've actually seen a few movies recently and hope to knock out posts on those in the coming days. Tonight, however, I'd like to talk about "Along Came Polly."

One of the lesser entries in Philip Seymour Hoffman's filmography, this 2004 comedy actually has come up in a couple of appreciations of the great actor who died Sunday. One of those was by my former newsroom colleague and midday b-baller Rick Press in Fort Worth. Like him, I hold "Along Came Polly" as an example of Hoffman's genius equal to "Capote" and "The Master," a couple of films where he was a dominating lead vs. a supporting player.

Let's think about this. By the time "Along Came Polly" came around, Hoffman had risen from the kooky/creepy roles in "Boogie Nights" and "Happiness" to leading roles in "Flawless" and "Owning Mahowny," and cracked the non-comedy barrier with parts in "Red Dragon," "25th Hour" and "Cold Mountain." He would soon go on to "Capote" and "Doubt." I guess what I'm saying is what did Hoffman have to gain from goofing with Ben Stiller at that point?

Maybe I'm over-thinking it, and in the end I don't care. Because I LOVED Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Along Came Polly." That movie is better than it should be solely because of him. (And maybe a little because of Hank Azaria.) And that was Hoffman: bringing it every time and giving us another unique performance. Maybe someone else could make me shout "Raindrops!" every. single. time. I play basketball, but I doubt it.

I could go on. I've more than once ... or 10 times ... quoted Scotty J. berating himself in his car after the failed pass at Dirk Diggler. Brandt's phone calls in "The Big Lebowski" always make me laugh. The counsel of Lester Bangs -- played by an flu-stricken Hoffman who shot his scenes in only four days -- had me nodding during "Almost Famous." And then there are the great parts that I forget for a while, such as his boorish playboy in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and the phone-sex line supervisor in "Punch-Drunk Love." Hell, I've seen not only "The Master" and "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" in the past few months, but also the lesser-known "A Late Quartet" and "The Savages" in the past year or so.

Bottom line: If Philip Seymour Hoffman was in a movie -- as a lead, a cameo or something in between -- I took notice, and expected to keep doing so for years to come. Now that's done, and it sucks.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Love bytes: “Her”

I was more interested in seeing “Her” than I originally thought. Sure, Spike Jonze did the excellent “Being John Malkovich,” and I liked “Adaptation” plenty, too. But really … what kind of sick, twisted person casts Scarlett Johansson in a movie for only her voice?

Actually, “Her” has a few things going for it. In addition to Spike and Scarlett, you have Public Kook No. 1, Joaquin Phoenix, playing another semi-outcast with issues – in this case a lonely fella named Theo whose job is writing heartfelt letters for other people. He’s good at that but not so much with real-life ladies, hanging mostly with a platonic pal played by a dowdy Amy Adams. (A side-by-side of her look here with the one in “American Hustle” would be fascinating.)

Did I mention this takes place in the near future, when a mustachioed Phoenix has the option of buying a new super-intuitive talking operating system? That’s where Lady Scarlett comes in as the sultry-voiced Samantha. Oh, she’s no vixen to start, simply a female who really “gets” our hero. It’s uncanny and unsettling to start, but before long Joaquin is into it. And who wouldn’t be? Between going through a divorce and failing to connect with blind dates and anonymous phone sex partners alike, a guy can be excused for thinking the face and body – or even having a face and body – just might not matter when a woman truly invades your brain.

Of course, if only things stopped there. Alas, the mental connection becomes emotional, fed not only by Theo’s melancholy but Samantha’s curiosity about what it’s like to be human. Her evolution in conjunction with that of their relationship soon begs a few questions of where this will go, and “Her” does a nice job of adapting the usual peaks and valleys of a relationship to this new XY-OS dynamic.

Any who has been paying attention knows Phoenix is the real deal as an actor. I won’t pretend he killed it in “SpaceCamp” – and really, who could compete with jumpsuited Lea Thompson – but he was starting to bring it as early as “8MM” and “Gladiator” more than a dozen years ago. Then came “Walk the Line” and “The Master,” two different roles but ones I thought he inhabited fully. Theo in “Her” is more subdued but no less agonized, and Phoenix handles it just about perfectly.

And he didn’t have to use only his voice! Johansson’s curves are sorely missed, but I found myself hanging on every word that came through Theo’s earpiece. Sure, Samantha sounds just like a normal woman, but Jonze’ script does a good job of regularly and subtly reminding you she’s not. It’s harmless at first, but eventually Samantha shows her fair share of confusion and pain as well.

The rest of the cast is solid. Along with Adams, there’s Chris Pratt as the goofy secretary at Theo’s office and Rooney Mara as Theo’s soon-to-be ex-wife; after glimpsing her in flashbacks, watching her lunch with Theo becomes rather painful in short order. Olivia Wilde is always a treat – this time as the blind date – and see if you can catch a bit part by Kristen Wiig.

In the end, though, this is a love story about two “people,” and Jonze impressively follows the arc of their relationship to a conclusion that is not unexpected but still layered and inventive. Not only was I pleased, but I appreciated the way this relationship made me think. If only my Commodore 64 had understood the preteen me as well. Life could have been so different.