Film Reviews

Film Review: RoboCop (2014)

In 1987, director Paul Verhoeven made a subversive film detailing the destructive nature of human corruption, greed, capitalism and privatisation masquerading as a man in a suit of armor. The film of course, was RoboCop, about detective Alex Murphy who is brutally wounded in the line of duty only to be brought back to life as a half human/half robot dichotomy of machine-like efficiency and human emotion. The film was, on all accounts, a resounding and violent success; the accompanying gravitas added by the burgeoning excess of the 1980s.

Fast forward more than two decades and Brazilian filmmaker Jose Padilha’s first venture into English-language film is Hollywood’s revisit to Verhoeven’s classic. Looking at RoboCop (2014) from a distance, its easy to point out what fans of the original may have issues with. Among them is the film’s PG-13 rating, toning down the original’s purposeful violence and bloodshed. Yet as Padilha makes his way through modern Detroit’s Omnicorp-laden landscape, we’re given a brand new palette in which to immerse ourselves in- one that succeeds for the most part.

The Killing’s Joel Kinnaman is the new Alex Murphy- boasting the same kind of disheveled, gravely tone Peter Weller had in the original- he does a great job of being both human and robotic. And while the dystopian picture given in Verhoeven’s original isn’t quite as present, we’re given the backdrop of continued Middle East tension as to why America needs robots to defend the streets instead of humans. At the head of Omnicorp is Michael Keaton’s Raymond Sellers, an astute businessmen whose motives seem to be driven more by money and success than crazed megalomania. His towering corporate stance is given an opposing shadow by Gary Oldman’s Dr. Dennett Norton (a scientist whose primary role was to create robotic prosthetics to those who have lost their limbs). Through this we see that not even Keaton’s character is decisively evil, just focused on turning over political law to suit his corporate needs.

The crux of the film’s problems may stem from Samuel L. Jackson’s annoying media figure Pat Novak. He serves as the host of the political talk show The Novak Element, which serves as the political commentary of the film. The cross section of this plot progression is a little clunky and somewhat distracting, and while attempts to help bring home the corruptive and unproductive nature of politics, seems to act as a very unsubtle way to hammer home the idea that the film is making political statements. It doesn’t quite flow as well as the same tactic did in Verhoeven’s other cult subversive statement Starship Troopers.

From here we see Kinnaman battle the aforementioned elements once he becomes half man, half robot. The robot suit is actually quite refined and very well done. While the original RoboCop was literally a giant walking tin can, Padilha has managed to craft a sleek, agile and contemporary version of the suit that plays well into the character’s ability to undertake advanced police work. The best parts of the film are when Alex Murphy battles himself to overcome the robotic sedation of his human side. Credit to Padilha for giving RoboCop agility not only in combat, but in connection as well.

The biggest gripe of the film is perhaps Padilha’s reluctance to let the film become bigger than it is. Perhaps in fear of becoming a by-the-numbers action vehicle, the final third of the film is lacking one last big set piece. It would have been a great way to truly pay homage to the original but replicating its destructive violence- not for it to become just another action film- but to resonate a point the way the 1987 film did.

Fans of the original will undoubtedly complain about RoboCop (2014) shortcomings in comparison to Verhoeven’s. In truth, these two movies come at two very different times in our society and what was cultural shocking and subversive in 1987 needs to be finessed to an impatient and smart audience in different ways. The film is good, and is enjoyable as it is- a sleek, rather subdued but emotionally deft action film- just don’t take it for anything more.

[rating=3]

 

RoboCop is now playing in Australian cinemas and will open in US cinemas February 12th.

 

ROBOCOP
Directed by: Jose Padilha
Written by: Joshua Zetumer
Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Abbie Cornish, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman
Released by: MGM/Columbia
Running time: 118 minutes

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Last Vegas

It’s hard to believe that there will soon be a generation of moviegoers who will not see the likes of Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and to some extent, Kevin Kline, as anything but “the old guys in a movie”. While these four may be at the tail end’s of their much lauded careers, their ability to find roles that while be diminished in terms of their scope, still give them enough room to show audiences that they were indeed the best of their time.

Last Vegas, a Jon Turteltaub (known best for 90s fair Cool Runnings, While You Were Sleeping) flick, can easily be labeled or dismissed as a senior citizens version of The Hangover. To some extent, it’s true, the story surrounds Michael Douglas’ everyoung ladies man Billy Ghershon who is finally getting married in his 60s (to someone half his age). His best friends are corralled together for one last hurrah in Vegas. Seems straight forward, yet what Turteltaub and the writers have done is given the film an added texture of personality and humility. It means that while Last Vegas is less brazen than The Hangover, it certainly isn’t anywhere near as provoking or memorable, however, it doesn’t mean it’s not without merit. Quite the opposite in fact. While The Hangover left behind no aspect of shame, Last Vegas‘ message is actually more about rebuilding and solidifying friendships broken by mistrust and miscommunication. Through an opening set in the 50s of Brooklyn, the heart of the film is born; four best friends will spend a lifetime sorting through the ups and downs of life.

When we are reconnected with them 58 years later, there is a rift between Billy Gershon and De Niro’s character Paddy Conners. Much of the friction comes between these two and both play it off really well. They’re like a more sophisticated rendition of Grumpy Old Men, set to the backdrop of the glitz and glam of Las Vegas. Through it all, we get lot of old jokes, lost in a generational gap jokes, and some old fashion “get off my lawn” jokes. Romance, age and time play a big part in the plot’s progression after we’re introduced to the still radiant Mary Steenburgen. And while there are elements that can be described as The Hangover type debauchery, it is far more toned down. In fact, much of the humour comes from the juxtaposition of old (people) and the young (Vegas, in spirit).

Yes, it’s funny, and all four actors play a substantial part in the appeal of Last Vegas. As the conclusion nears, we see that the point of the film isn’t about flying to Vegas to have one last debaucherous weekend reliving one’s youth, but rather rediscovering and perhaps, finally realising what really is important in life. Something that gives the film a true warmth. Fans of Grumpy Old Men will certainly find a kind hearted soul underneath a rough, agitated and cantankerous exterior they enjoyed from Jack Lemmon and Walther Matthau. But perhaps, for a generation of viewers who have no idea who Lemmon and Matthau are, they’ve got De Niro and Douglas. Not bad really.

[rating=3]

 

Last Vegas opens in Australian cinemas February 6th.

 

LAST VEGAS
Directed by: John Turteltaub
Written by: Dan Fogelman
Cast: Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen
Released by: CBS Films
Running time: 105 minutes

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

In the decades after the Cold War, much of the landscape of clandestine warfare had transformed itself from the confines of blacklists and microfilm to the vast ether of information and data across the globe. Spies and their craft had changed, and with it, Hollywood’s portrayal. The practice had gone from jabbing someone with a poison-tipped umbrella to taking down entire nations with access from a computer; and so Hollywood had to evolve its sleuths from uber charming, yet seemingly unflappable womanizers to flawed, troubled and broken men. Jason Bourne became the modern day spy. James Bond became Jason Bourne and almost every spy since, has had a Bourneness to them that we, the movie-going audience seem to relate to. There’s now a vulnerability grounded in reality. Where once luxury sports cars turning into submarines was acceptable, it is now the norm for our agents to be armed with nothing more than a pistol, some training and their wit, facing their greatest of enemies in the reality we all find ourselves in.

Jack Ryan, perhaps author Tom Clancy’s finest creation, has been off grid since the Ben Affleck-starring The Sum of All Fears in 2002. It was an admirable entry into the Jack Ryan series but lacked the tension and imminent fear that presented itself in previous Jack Ryan outings- most notably in the still terrific The Hunt For Red October. In the ten or so years proceeding, much has changed in the world, and while nuclear threat seems to loom far in the background, the prescient danger continues to be that of technological warfare threatening to undermine our most treasured of security: finance. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is the official reboot of the Jack Ryan franchise and sees our protagonist continue his Benjamin Button act since Harrison Ford last donned the title in 1994’s Clear And Present Danger. The character’s genesis is beginning at a younger age we are given more of his development before delving into the primary plot of the film.

Imminent danger

Imminent danger

Chris Pine’s Jack Ryan falls somewhere between Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford’s; young enough to be brash and reckless, but at the same time, boasting a quality that convinces audiences he will grow into the Jack Ryan of old. Pine is surrounded by a pretty well-to-do cast that includes Kevin Costner (playing Ryan’s mentor and super-agent William Harper), Keira Knightley (Ryan’s eventual love interest and femme fatale Cathy Muller) and the irrepressible Kenneth Branagh (pulling double duty serving as the film’s primary antagonist Viktor Cherevin, as well as its director). The film is stronger for their parts, and while Costner’s role is quite restrained, there is an air of importance to him that works within the confines of the film. We’re also given a colourful palette of characters breathing out the warm air of nostalgia with its heavy Russian-villain lean. It’s the film’s most prominent connection to the spy films of old, and perhaps, beneficial in giving Shadow Recruit a sense of freshness. Surprisingly, Knightley’s character displays the cast’s biggest single nitpicky flaw. Knightley’s strikingly beautiful accent is stripped of its allure as she yams and yahs through a pretty terrible American accent. It’s the ‘Charlize Theron in Monster’ of accents (and not in the ‘winning an Oscar for the performance’ kind of way).

Unlike The Sum of All Fears, we’re given the less far-reaching plot of espionage cloaked in today’s turbulent and volatile financial landscape. Jack Ryan, CIA analyst, is tasked on uncovering a Russian plot to destroy America by crippling its financial structure. It’s all smartly done with the kind of explanatory tone that never breaches into condescension or overly smart. We’re given a look into the evolution of the Jack Ryan character- from tired economics student to battered and broken marine, and finally to the film’s primary voice; the analyst. While the film progresses over the course of a decade, it never grows tiresome and moves briskly through its narrative stages. The action is thick and heavy, and we’re once again grounded in the kind of hand to hand combat The Bourne Identity cemented as the preferred palette. The pace is comfortable and the dialogue smart, and much of the film exudes the kind of excitement and tension The Hunt For Red October is noted for.

Branagh’s direction resonates beautifully amongst the steel and structure of both New York City and Moscow; and in a particularly harrowing scene between himself and Knightley’s character, given a real sense of isolated terror and impending doom. Who knew lightbulbs could be so dangerous?

The spy genre may be one of the fields of film that has excelled the most in the post 9/11 world. They’re more grounded and realistic and to that extent, far more believable. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is an exciting new beginning for the franchise, and while it may not be as alluring as the original Jason Bourne outing, the Jack Ryan franchise hasn’t felt this right since the early 90s.

[rating=4]

 

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is in the cinemas now. 

 

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Adam Cozad, David Koepp
Cast: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh
Released by: Paramount Pictures
Running time: 105 minutes

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Single Reviews

Review: Distance – “No Funeral”

distanceNewcastle, Australia’s Distance are a relatively new entity under the post-hardcore umbrella. And while they may still be a burgeoning act, these two new songs presented as No Funeral, prove they are way beyond their collective age as a band. Their sound, perhaps, isn’t best labelled under the genre we tend to associate bands boasting crunchy post-punk guitars, strong percussion work and vocals fueled by what sounds like rage and anger. For Australian listeners, Distance will probably remind them of lauded acts like A Death in the Family, but for North American ears, you’ll find that their brand of songs could slip off the back of the Avail truck.

There are two songs here, “Temporary” and “Winter Solstice”, and both acquit themselves really well. “Temporary” has a tinge of Samiam to it as the opening percussion/guitar combo crescendos to near perfect melodies. What can be noted from these two songs is the band’s vocal work that at times come across as similar to Chris Fields’ work in Jon Cougar Concentration Camp; rough and tumble-dried in a vat of whiskey and a thousand cigarettes. The second song however, “Winter Solstice”, is really where the band shines. Its mid-tempo reflections and melancholia is draped in soaring choral harmonies, while the band’s adept blend of punk and hardcore comes through in spades. It’s really a terrific song and if it is any indication of where this band will go, then Distance will certainly be one to keep your ears and eyes on.

[rating=4]

 

Distance’s No Funeral is now available digitally and on cassette tape(!) via Hindsight Records. You can listen to “Winter Solstice” below:

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Album Reviews

Review: Five Iron Frenzy – Engine of a Million Plots

EngineofaMillionPlotsIn my review for Less than Jake’s See The Light, I made mention of several bands who always held the third wave ska flag high with their craft. For some reason, I forgot to mention Five Iron Frenzy, who after a ten-year hiatus are back with a kindling of new songs, tied together with a deft ribbon titled Engine of a Million Plots. In hindsight, this oversight is made ever more glaring upon repeated listens of the new album, a wonderfully nostalgic but incredibly refreshing repaving of an old road.

That old road, third wave, has seen a remarkable rekindling over the last few weeks, most notably from their “old guard” of established acts still breathing the fire they did when they first burst on to their respective musical landscapes. Five Iron Frenzy, perhaps slightly less on the forefront than say Less than Jake or the Mighty Mighty Bosstones were during their height of popularity, had been one of the more consistent acts. Their albums were always good, in many ways. My most compelling recollection was their album Our Newest Album Ever!, a sprightly, homely at times, wind in your hair ska/punk album that dug deep into the core of what it was growing up during these times.

Now a decade removed from their last output, Five Iron Frenzy continue their remarkable track record with songs still entrenched in their love of ska, rock and punk, while being in tune with the contemporary world around them. The album’s musical output is as strong as ever; with tracks like the up-tempo “We Own The Skies” and “Against a Sea of Troubles” showcasing their impeccable blending of ska and punk while “So Far” (candidate for best song they’ve ever written?) is your uplifting anthem driving home the band’s trademark tone and message.

There’s an energy and vibrancy to this album that you’d think would dissipate after all these years, but it seems the ten-year gap has not only re-energized the band, but has armed them with a bounty of material. There is a greater injection of alternative rock than we’ve seen in the past, but the amalgamation of the band’s past with its present and future comes together in an incredibly rewarding manner.

As songs like “I’ve Seen The Sun” and “Blizzards & Bygones” close out proceedings, you are left with a certain blessing of musical enlightenment and artistic satisfaction. There is depth in the album but there is also a great feeling of warmth through it all. With the Engine of a Million Plots, we’re taken on the ups and downs of life and music with poise and grace. An enriching and rewarding listen.

[rating=4]

 

Five Iron Frenzy’s new album Engine Of a Million Plots is available from the Five Iron Frenzy store. Check out their video for “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia” below:

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Culture, Headlines

Bill Cosby is Far From Finished

It’s hard to imagine a comedic world without Bill Cosby. For the longest time it seems that Cosby has been part of the comedic fabric of our existence. Decades and decades of material and generations upon generations, Cosby has been a constant. Comedy of course, has been changing and evolving, and the slate of current contemporary comedians are mostly cut from a different mould than the one Cosby was cut from. He’s been at for 50 years, and yet while his humour is somewhat outmoded to what we get from successful stand up of today- Aziz Ansari, Sarah Silverman, Jimmy Carr, Russell Peters et al.- there’s just something about Cosby that still resonates in the digital age.

Far From Finished is a brand new stand-up special Cosby filmed for Comedy Central; a left field home for someone whose humour is acquainted more with the PG crowd than the crass, overly sexualised brand of current humour. It’s evident from the beginning too, where Cosby, who spends much of the special sitting down rather than standing, opens the show with a disclaimer about doing a special for Comedy Central. Yet as the routine unfolds, you forget the need to hear humour that is more akin to some of the aforementioned comedians. In fact, it’s refreshing. Cosby spends much of the routine talking about the ins and outs of marriage, the fraternal bond between friends, and the hilarious differences between the two. One bit that stands in particular being his routing about forgetting his home security code and dealing with the consequences of a fed up wife and an equally fed up security operator.

There are of course, the hallmark qualities of a good Cosby show; his blips and bloops, his Cosby facial mannerisms and his deft timing. Through it all however, you do immediately get the sense of his longevity and his age; much of his physical comedy is left to his face and hands. Yet while he’s discernibly older and a little slower, there is still a vibrancy to him.

The DVD version of this special is much longer than the version that aired on Comedy Central this past week. Both versions are recommended for those who enjoy Cosby humour, but the DVD edition is broken down into parts so that the viewer can ease from and back into the routine. His legacy is more telling than a singular special, but this one is more about adding to one. It may not be as memorable as his 1983 masterpiece Himself (how could it be?), it is a simple reminder than Cosby is indeed, far from finished.

 

Bill Cosby: Far From Finished is available now on DVD/Blu-Ray and as a digital download. You can check out some clips and highlights here.

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Television

Is Almost Human the best new show on TV already?

Two episodes in and FOX’s science fiction series Almost Human could very well be this season’s best show already. Sure, two episodes is a small sampling of the entire season, but the opening stanza has been so strong that only a truly catastrophic nose dive in quality could railroad this already positive showing. Yes, that is a possibility, but with the team involved in its production, it’s hard to see something so dramatic happen.

We profiled the show on the eve of its premiere and Tariq brought up an interesting point regarding the show’s arcing storylines and insular episodes;

“it is possible to straddle the middle of the road somewhat, using the individual episodes to build up characters and the larger story in the background, and then dropping in a ‘bigger picture’ episode here and there (usually before mid-season breaks to act as a cliffhanger or dangle a carrot of future events). On the surface, anyway, it would appear that Almost Human has what it takes to flourish in such a setting.”

And true to that point, we have gotten an inkling that there is something bigger in the works as the show progresses (Karl Urban’s character’s ex-girlfriend and her involvement with a crime syndicate), but have been rewarded with interesting and compelling episodic arcs as well. The second episode featured sex bots, a futuristic take on human trafficking and our need for artificial sexual gratification. It was a rewarding plot that featured everything you’d want in a science fiction piece; great tech, beautiful settings and half naked robot women, and a sense of urgency to it that didn’t leave you feeling … unsatisfied … upon its conclusion. It’s not a rarity per say, but to have all the elements seemingly gel together in such fluid fashion certainly is.

There’s a scene in the episode where Urban’s character and Michael Ealy’s terrific Dorian are discussing Urban’s current deficient sex life and how his “testicles are full” and in need of “draining”. Yes, it all sounds very coarse on paper but the interaction between the two proved hilarious and uncharacteristic of the more common robotic/human interaction we’ve come to know in such settings.

Unlike the seriousness of recent science fiction fare like Battlestar Galactica and the follow-up Caprica, Almost Human has a less pained feel to the venture. Even in shows like Alphas, where there was a point of relation to our present world, it often felt a little too consumed by its own psyche, trapped in trying to be a revelation in both television and storytelling- whereas Almost Human can be serious but not serious enough it can’t make toilet humor work for it. There’s a weightlessness to all the gadgetry and imagination, and sometimes you need this for a show to succeed in gaining an audience outside of its niche target.

minkaComplimentary to the Urban-Ealy chemistry, we’re given some great supporting roles from Lili Taylor (playing Captain Sandra Maldonado), Mackenzie Crook (playing the show’s resident tech support) and of course, Minka Kelly (oh where have you been Lyla Garrity?). Kelly’s character is as of yet, underdeveloped but we’re given an inkling there may be something in store between her and Urban (after that disastrous turn as an Angel, it’s great to see Kelly back in a role that doesn’t stink), and her character has bee written and performed, thus far, with suggestions she’ll be playing a bigger part in it all very soon.

Can two episodes be enough to say you’re sold? Ratings suggest that Monday night’s isn’t the best time to watch (there’s football!), as Almost Human lost 29% of its Sunday viewership of its two-night premiere. It is perhaps, looking for traction now, but on the strength of the quality alone, there is much to look forward to as the season progresses.

If there was ever a show FOX needs to invest in for the long run, it’s Almost Human. There are characters and story lines here that have the potential to cover the spectrum of science fiction that movies take years to tell. But if there was ever a network that could screw this up, it’s FOX. So for now, it’s about being excited about the potential and the already high level, but weary not to get too invested until at least, the halfway mark of a full season.

Can we start the petitions already?

 

Almost Human airs Monday nights on FOX.

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