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.