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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 14 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 07
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Reimagined RoboCop back laying down the law
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

There's no doubt that a big budget remake of director Paul Verhoeven's 1987 satirical, hyper-violent 1987 sci-fi classic RoboCop always felt like a bad idea. There was no way a Hollywood studio, in this case Sony Pictures and MGM, would allow any of the deep, dark, unsentimentally brutal cultural anarchy found in the original, and it goes without saying the violence would be toned down in order to achieve a PG-13 rating. More, the cultural insights in Edward Neumeier's and Michael Miner's script are as prescient and profound today as they ever were 27 years ago, and considering how much corporate largess has expanded the past two-plus decades it was doubtful the inherent satire driving the narrative would ever cut with a similarly eviscerating blasé frankness.

Credit then must be given to director José Padilha (Elite Squad, Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within) and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer, and while the pair can't equal the brilliance of Verhoeven's effort (not a shock) they do manage to craft a fresh take on the material that's oftentimes surprising and moderately worthwhile. While many of their satirical targets are obvious, the points they make hit home far more often than they miss their respective targets, the overarching themes about the mechanization of law enforcement and the military without question timely.

Set in 2028, the movie posits a world with the U.S. military as something of a universal police force, using robots in a number of Third World locales to maintain peace and tranquility. But not at home, that fact affecting the bottom line of Detroit-based OmniCorp and it's up to CEO and robotics visionary Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) to get the populace behind a fully mechanized police force. His idea? Put a man inside the robot, keeping the conscience of sensibilities of a human being but giving him the tools and visage of a metal-encased superhero.

Turning to visionary scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), the pair finds the perfect candidate for their cybernetic theories in decorated and driven Detroit Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman). His body brutally mangled and mauled in a mysterious explosion outside his home and led to believe it is the only way he'll survive, grieving wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) gives her permission to OmniCorp to use her husband in their experiments.

Months later, after much trial and error, he's back on the mean Michigan streets of his beloved hometown once again battling those who would subvert the law for their own nefarious ends. But where does the man begin and the robot end? Is Murphy in control of his actions? Or is he just nothing more than a corporate computer devoid of conscience forced to follow an agenda-driven program helping to maximize not so much the public trust but OmniCorp's bottom line?

A lot of this, somewhat shockingly, works astonishingly well. The opening bits with Murphy awakening to his new cybernetic existence is heartrending and complex, Kinnaman and Oldman developing a nicely textured Dr. Frankenstein and his monster give-and-take that's moderately profound. There's also some great stuff with Jackie Earle Haley as an ex-military man working for OmniCorp who trusts robots more than he does people, his constant belittling of his new trainee both funny and perceptive at the exact same time.

Also of merit are a series of inserts revolving around a futuristic Bill O'Reilly-like public affairs program (a substitute for the original's "Media Break" segments) hosted by a dogmatically vociferous Samuel L. Jackson. While the satire here is hardly subtle, while most of it is so on-the-nose it borders on insulting, these sequences are directed with flair and acted to near perfection by Jackson so they end up working far more spectacularly than they arguably have any right to. What they say about the media's ability to influence popular opinion is absolutely chilling, and while Padilha's evisceration of Right Wing talking points is hardly innovative they're effective all the same.

Unfortunately, the movie has trouble maintaining momentum all the way to the finish line, the last third extremely rushed and not nearly as interesting as any of the material proceeding it. On top of that, unlike Verhoeven's film, this one is missing villainous elements who effectively stand in our hero's way, and as good as Keaton is, and he's very, very good indeed, he's sort of wet noodle when stood up alongside against either Ronny Cox or Kurtwood Smith. There's no tension, no suspense, as far as the climax is concerned, an odd clumsiness to the denouement that's frustrating and disappointing.

There are other issues, not least of which is the film's most intriguing aspect. The relationship between Murphy, Clara and their son David (John Paul Ruttan), doesn't carry the emotional heft or weight hinted at early on, but to Padilha's credit, he manages to mask the majority of the defects for a great deal of the 118 minute running time. More, he stages some strong action sequences, the kinetic virtuosity he showcased in both his Elite Squad efforts exuberantly on display here as well. I'm still not sold that a new RoboCop was worthwhile or necessary, and as solid a job as Padilha and his crew do, and as nice as some of the observational points he and Zetumer are making might be, the teeth this remake is fronting aren't nearly as razor-sharp as they should have been. But that doesn't make me any less surprised by how much I did enjoy myself, and while far from perfect I'm curious to get another look at this remake and analyze certain aspects in greater detail. In other words, I'd buy that for a dollar, maybe even two or three of them.


Head-scratching Winter's Tale an unforgivable disaster
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

Wow. Double-wow. Wow with cream and sugar and as many other syrupy, saccharine and calorie-filled toppings that I can think of slathered shamelessly on top. Honestly? I don't know what to say. Winter's Tale, as handsomely mounted as it is, as wonderfully acted as it might be (save an exception here or there), as beautifully shot by the legendary Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, Fly Away Home) as it might be, is flabbergasting in just how awful it proves to, the movie a mess of fantasy, romance, whimsy and magic the less said about the better.

Based on the best-selling novel by Mark Helprin, veteran screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind, Batman Forever), making his directorial debut, has crafted a ham-fisted narrative spanning over a century that manages to waste an intriguing premise, drowning it in schmaltz and treacle at every turn. It plays up every emotional transformation and turn to the nth degree, beating the viewer over the head right from the jump, never allowing its more intriguing nuances to organically take shape or fly in ways that doesn't feel calculated or false.

To his credit, Goldsman does not hide the film's mystical leanings, the filmmaker allowing his picture to wear its heart on its sleeve immediately showing a snow white horse seemingly take flight in order for hero Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) to escape a throng of evildoers led by the demonic Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) set to do him harm. He lets the viewer in on the fact we're about to enter a fantastical realm of angels and demons warring over human souls immediately, hoping that by doing so subsequent twists and turns won't come across as forced or flat.

Doesn't work. Emotions are so amplified, everything is so in-you-face and matter-of-fact, the love story at the core is never given the opportunity to take hold and stir connective emotional responses from the viewer. The didactic pomposity is off-putting and moronic, every beat and every note so laden with sentimental hogwash it all becomes frustratingly tiresome pretty much right away.

And yet, I can imagine a scenario in which this movie doesn't annoy, doesn't disappoint. Farrell is excellent as the romantic hero, a thief and all-around cad who finds himself falling instantly and madly in love with beautiful consumption sufferer Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay) after breaking into her house intent on larceny. The pair have exquisite chemistry, the heat generating between the pair of them instantly palpable. One honestly does want to see them together, hoping against hope they'll find a way to put differences aside and overcome gigantic obstacles in order to achieve life-long happiness.

As for Crowe, he's a hoot as the subhuman villain, chewing on the scenery with a gleefully malevolent relish befitting his demonic chaos-yearning hellion. There's not a lot in the way of shading or gradation to his portrayal but, quite honestly, there doesn't need to be - Pearly Soames all about the mayhem, canceling out love and destroying aspirational dreams, all in a day's work for he and his loathsome crew.

Pity those three who find themselves stuck in this, because for all their hard work, for as much of themselves as they give, Winter's Tale is a lost cause building to a conclusion so horribly wrong-headed it's hard to envision a context or a scenario where it could have been anything but. As relatively annoying and mawkish as the first half is, it is when the movie jumps a hundred years into the here and now where things truly fall apart. Jennifer Connelly is stranded in a thankless role well beneath her talents, while cinematic legend Eva Marie Saint joins the proceedings portraying a character who by all accounts shouldn't still exist let alone be playing such a vital part in the drama.

But it is in the presentation of the story itself where Goldsman's epic drama goes spectacularly wrong. He plays things up to such a fevered-pitch, the movie itself so on the nose, relating to any single moment of Lake's story is practically impossible. As for the conclusion, a silly and absurd cameo from a certain MIB agent aside, it's so ineptly envisioned I almost don't know where to begin, this saga of life, death, rebirth, reunion and sacrifice all boiling down to a pair of imbeciles playing Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed in the middle of a frozen nowhere.

Winter's Tale, for all its technical proficiency, as hard as the actors themselves might try, is a bad movie, and I have a hard time believing I'll be able to make it through the remainder of 2014 without thinking on it as anything other than a head-scratching disaster. Unforgivable. Simply unforgivable.


Insightful Father showcases heartbreaking universal truths
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) and his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) are celebrating the fact their six-year-old son Keita (Keita Ninomiya) has secured a spot in an exclusive primary school. At the same time, they have also learned from the hospital he was born at that a shocking mistake was made, the boy they love not biologically their own.

Working class parents Yudai (Lily Franky) and Yukari Saiki (Maki Yôko) are in the same boat. Soon, the four parents feel as if they are forced to spend time with one another, getting to know each other's children, grappling as to what should be done next. Ryota, always the one with the plan, always the one who knows what to do, is suddenly faced with impossible choices, realizing he may not have been the loving, self-sacrificing father he always imagined himself to be.

The shocking scenario at the heart of Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru) isn't what gives the film its miraculous power to mesmerize and entertain. The real strength of Hirokazu Kore-eda's (After Life, Still Walking) latest drama is that it takes this sensationalistic idea and concept and twists it on its head, looking intimately at parenting and fatherhood in a quietly direct way that's oftentimes breathlessly simplistic. He paints a portrait of family that's incredible, showing how love, compassion and togetherness can blossom between parent and child even if biological connections do not exist.

I think the greatest facet of all of this is how universal Kore-eda makes things. While cultural differences are inescapable, Ryota is the kind of person we can all relate to. He's been conditioned to put work first, that sentiment or compassion is a sign of weakness, and that competition, that winning, is all that matters. But when he sees the link between Midori and Keita, when he witnesses how deep their connection is, even though biology has sabotaged them all on a very personal level, he begins to reassess how he looks at the world. The extremely successful architect and businessman discovers things about himself and his beliefs he hadn't dared consider beforehand, all of it made even more concrete when he begins to examine the seemingly happy, close-knit lives Yudai, Yukari and their family are experiencing, even though their financial means are nowhere equal his own.

It's beautiful stuff, Kore-eda examining Ryota's realizations in exacting detail, never flinching or wavering no matter how dark or disturbing some of these understandings become. He allows insight to come at its own pace, in its own way, never force-feeding answers to the audience in ways that feel inelegant or heavy-handed. The director never allows the inherent melodrama to overwhelm the proceedings, and much like he did with his previous efforts, most notably Still Walking, emotions come when needed and are not milked just to earn a few tears.

The way things resolve aren't entirely satisfying, but I'm not sure there was a way to bring this situation to a close that would be. Much like the situation itself, finding a solution to something as messy as this is close to impossible, and while those at the center seem content, it pretty much goes without saying they, along with the audience, are not wholly placated (no matter how it might appear). Things have changed for both families in irreparable ways, and while they find a roadmap to move on with their collective lives, it isn't like seeds have been sown that they all will be trying to keep weeds from overwhelming long into the foreseeable future.

But that's the point, right? Family doesn't come with a rulebook, doesn't come with easy answers everyone can follow to eternal happiness. Decisions must constantly be made, first by parents, then collectively as a familial unit as everyone gets older and children begin to come into their own as idiosyncratic unique personalities. Kore-eda deftly examines the differing paths everyone walks upon with exacting, multifaceted detail, the emotions bursting forth doing so with a striking authenticity that's consistently magnificent. Like Father, Like Son isn't just a great film, it's also an insightful one, families of every shape, color, size, ethnicity and type certain to discover elements of themselves in each and every frame.


Bloodless Vampire Academy doesn't make the grade
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

VAMPIRE ACADEMY
Now playing


Vampire Academy isn't so much bad as it is pointless. A weird amalgam of Mean Girls, a Harry Potter adventure and a random episode of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' director Mark Waters and writer Daniel Waters have taken author Richelle Mead's popular source material and not done a lot especially interesting with it. Not that this is a surprise, of course, but it would have at least been nice had an attempt been made; for as pretty, as competent and as glossily designed as all of this might be, it's about as weighty as a feather quietly floating on a summer's breeze.

Like most of these 'Young Adult' properties born from a best-selling literary parent, Vampire Academy is somewhat pointlessly convoluted, at least from the standpoint of its interior mythology. In this world, we are introduced to three differing sects of supernatural creatures, two of which are considered 'peaceful' or 'good' while the third is apparently irredeemably 'evil' or 'bad.' On the former side you have the Moroi, peaceable vampires who are mortal and can walk in the daylight, and the Dhampirs, their half-human, half-vampire protectors, while on the latter there exists the Strigoi, immortal, soulless vampires who can only come out at night who want to see civilization fall. The first two go to school at the secluded St. Vladamir's Academy learning to hone their powers and exist in the outside world. The third are shunned, kept in the shadows and killed whenever they make their presence known.

It is here we are introduced to Rose Hathaway (Zoey Deutch), a Dhampir, and Lissa Dragomir (Lucy Fry), her Moroi best friend, the two 17-year-olds returned to St. Vladamir after spending the last year living outside its walls on their own. They are immediately thrust back into the middle of a traditional teenage caste system, the popular cliques going out of their way to shun the pair and make their assimilation back into school close to impossible.

If only that were the worst of their problems! See, Lissa is in line to rise to the Moroi throne, she one of the last pure-blood royals left that descends from one of the 12 founding families. There are those who want to see her fall, see her transform into Strigoi and be put down like a rabid dog, and it's up to protector and bosom buddy Rose to figure out what is going on and stop them before it's too late.

There's a lot more, but going into it all isn't exactly worth my time. Recognizable veterans like Gabriel Byrne, Olga Kurylenko, Joely Richardson and Claire Foy pop up in key supporting roles, while relative newcomers Sarah Hyland, Danila Kozlovsky, Dominic Sherwood, Cameron Monaghan and Sami Gayle are a handful of the fellow youngsters who either help or hinder Rose and Lissa on their quest for answers. All of them interact and revolve around one another with textbook clarity, and as convoluted as all of this ends up being, it's still completely clear who is who, what is what and why events themselves are spiraling in and out of control as they are.

If only any of it were interesting. Daniel Waters' script is some sort of Diablo Cody meets Tina Fey meets Joss Whedon mash-up that confuses snark with depth, whimsy with wit and platitude with ingenuity. As snappy as the dialogue can sometimes be, it's hardly ever as intelligent or as perceptive as I think it is, while the central plot dynamics are presented with about as much flair as a convention of blue-haired geriatrics playing pinochle. As for the mystery, it's difficult to be interested in the resolution or outcome when the movie seems to be equally disinterested with it as well, little things like suspense and tension nonexistent for all 104 minutes.

On the plus side, older brother Mark Waters' seems to have a sublime grasp on teenage girl caste systems, making the Mean Girls moments have a certain zest and zing to them that the remainder of the film noticeably lacks. He's also found a nice central protagonist in Ellen Page clone Deutch (but seriously, styling her almost exactly like the Juno heroine was a definite mistake), the young actress having a grand time letting her one-liners roll offer her red-painted lips with delectable relish. She almost makes this silliness worthwhile all on her lonesome, and if not for the crazy hyperbolic idiocy of the final act I'd maybe been willing to give the film a gentle shrug of the shoulders and move on to more interesting topics instead of driving a silver stake through its cold, lifeless heart.

Almost. Overall Vampire Academy can't help but fail as both an introduction to Mead's supernatural literary world as well as pop culture-flavored teen-friendly entertainment as well. It goes through the motions adding nothing to the discussion or the debate, showing so little interest in telling its story it's hard to imagine anyone, anywhere is going to be inspired by a single solitary facet of the production. There's no bite, only a lot of suck, making this particular foray into the world of vampires and their brethren a moderately pedestrian one and nothing more.


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Northwest News
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Letters
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Reimagined RoboCop back laying down the law
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Head-scratching Winter's Tale an unforgivable disaster
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Insightful Father showcases heartbreaking universal truths
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