I gave up video games in college, because they were like crack to me (not that I've ever tried crack), and since I wanted to do other things with my life, I had to stop "using." However, I've seen enough glimpses of the evolving aesthetics of the games over the past 20+ years to appreciate how they've changed since my day (conclusion: amazing designs, too much carnage). I've also read plenty of graphic novels - many by Frank Miller, author of the "300" series - some of which I like (Miller's "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns," Alan Moore's "Watchmen"), and some of which I don't (Miller's "Sin City"). But I am hardly a genre fanboy, so I doubt that I'm the target audience for the new 300 movie, which is a combination prequel/parallel story/sequel to the original 2006 film, and looks like what you'd expect if a violent comic book were adapted into a violent video game.
It's all about the visceral experience of watching muscular bodies stab, slash and sever the limbs of other muscular bodies in an orgy of grotesque over-the-top mayhem. Since it's in 3D, you have the added pleasure of watching those limbs - with attendant blood spurts - burst from the screen one after the other. If violence isn't your thing, there are also (a few) boobs. And one sex scene (with boobs). It's really about the violence, however. Don't go for the sex. Wait for Lars von Trier's upcoming "Nymphomaniac."
Other than that, and a continuation of the annoying trend - in these kinds of films - to indulge in too much speed ramping, the only aspect of the experience that I found remotely interesting was the movie's approach to chronology. For the first 30 minutes of the story, I wasn't sure where I was in terms of the events of the first "300." The film opens with a shot of the slaughtered Spartans (the "300"), as the Persian God-King, Xerxes, rides his horse over the bodies. But then a female voice (Lena Headey, returning for another round of battles) begins what will become an interminable expositional voiceover, and the timeline shifts to events 10 years earlier, introducing a new character, Themistokles. It took me some effort to understand who was what and what was when, and while I worked out those details, I could ignore the dullness of the action sequences (how many slow-motion blood spurts can one man take?). Once the plot settled into a clear present, however, I found it increasingly difficult to engage with the movie, other than to note that, once again (like its predecessor), this is a film that pits evil dark-skinned hordes against more virtuous whites. It's not worth recounting what plot details I can remember. It's all a blur of guts and gore. With a few boobs.
Paul Verhoeven's 1987 "Robocop" was a masterful blend of violent action thriller and social satire. The film slyly flash-forwarded to a world where the proposed privatization of government functions proposed in the Reagan era had reached its apotheosis, where a major metropolitan area - Detroit - was effectively managed by a stateless corporation, beholden to no one. It showed us crony capitalism and greed at its most disturbing, all the while delivering one heck of a rush. Talk about having your cake and eating it, too: Verhoeven had - at that time - the great knack of embedding subversive subtext in works that, at first glance, appeared to be the most frivolous of confections. He did it again in "Total Recall" and tried to do it again in "Basic Instinct," though by then he had been corrupted by the very fascist aesthetic he had once lampooned (which actually helped his "Starship Troopers," but not the unwatchable "Showgirls"). In our current era of war-fought-by-mercenaries and financial crises where the top brass escapes accountability, we can look back at Verhoeven's film and recognize its prescience.
The new "Robocop," directed by José Padilha - a Brazilian filmmaker known primarily for his documentaries - tries for some of the same biting cultural commentary (albeit tailored for our current era), but never quite comes together as well as Verhoeven's original. And though it has a (very) few good action sequences, it also mostly fails as a thriller. Whenever I watch a remake, reboot and/or sequel, I ask myself whether the film truly has a valid raison d'être: does it add something to the story, such as a fresh take or important character development, to make the enterprise worth it? The interesting thing here is that first-time screenwriter Joshua Zetumer (co-credited with the writers of the first film) does make a lot of changes, and adds significant back story to the life of the protagonist - super cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnamon from "The Killing") - yet it somehow all adds up to less than the sum of its parts, not more.
Robocop opens and closes with Samuel L. Jackson as Pat Novak, a bombastic faux-patriot television host of the Fox News variety, and he functions throughout the film as a sort of twisted Greek chorus, commenting on the action with a sneer in his voice at every turn. It's a wildly unsubtle performance, and when Jackson finally utters his trademark curse towards the end, it's hard to wonder if Padilha didn't cast him just so he could get that one punchline out of him. Whatever the reason, Jackson epitomizes the problems of the film: there may be more story, but it's all exposition rather than action, and all dull, as a result. He also represents the director's inability to set a consistent tone. The very first sounds of the movie are played underneath the MGM Roaring Lion Logo: instead of a roar, we hear what turns out to be Jackson's Novak doing pre-broadcast vocal warm-ups. Yeah, it's funny (sort of), but what does it have to do with the rest of the story?
Beyond Jackson, the cast is fairly watchable. Kinnamon holds his own as Murphy, though he lacks the jawline that helped make Peter Weller's cyborg so visually memorable. Michael K. Williams (Omar from "The Wire") is on hand as his partner, Lewis (played by Nancy Allen in the original), and Abbie Cornish ("Bright Star," "Stop-Loss") - a fine actress who deserves more - plays Murphy's wife. Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel, and even Marianne Jean-Baptiste (the daughter in "Secrets and Lies") round out the cast. Most do a fine job, and Keaton - as the corporate baddie - is fun to see strut his stuff. But nothing helps this misguided reboot rise above the mediocre.
For those of you unfamiliar with "Robocop" 1.0, here's the skinny: Alex Murphy is a fine Detroit detective who gets too close to some very nasty gangsters, and is targeted for extermination. After a car bomb nearly kills him, his body is rushed to a high-tech lab. Murphy's brain and vital organs are saved, but not much else, and after his wife gives consent, he is turned into an experimental cyborg. When he finally emerges from his induced coma, he must learn to adapt to a world in which he is part man, part machine (or, really, part computer). While he deals with this existential crisis, he is brought back to Detroit to fight crime (and help Keaton's corporation sell similar military robots to the nation). Once he starts investigating his own murder, however, he uncovers a sinister plot that may - get this - lead all the way to the top . . .
I would forgive most of the story issues if the film were at least more successful as an action picture, but it (mostly) fails to deliver on those goods, as well. Perhaps it's the fact that Kinnamon and Cornish spend so much time crying, rather than fighting, or that most of the battles look as if they were ripped off from the latest combat video games, but there isn't a whole lot of tension in the air in the few moments when bullets actually fly. So go see the film if you must, and if you temper your expectations (and haven't seen the 1987 original), you may enjoy yourself more than I did. Good luck!
In the astonishing and powerful new film by Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, the luminous Paulina García - who won the Best Actress award at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival - plays the title character, a middle-aged divorcée on the lookout for romance and meaningful experiences. A devoted mother of adult children, Gloria lives alone, but has an active enough social life that involves married friends, her family, and the men she meets on her frequent trips to a local dance hall for older singles. She's charming, but lonely (her divorce was over 10 years ago), and when she meets Rodolfo, a 60ish divorced man, she falls hard for him, and he for her. Unfortunately, Rodolfo proves to be less than he appears, and for the rest of the film Gloria must struggle to determine what is more important: her dignity and sense of self, or her fear of being alone. The final scene of the film - *spoiler alert* - shows her in the middle of a crowd at a friend's wedding, dancing again, if alone, head raised high (as it is in the poster), her choice clear. She will be her own woman, come what may.
The movie may run 20 minutes longer than it should, but it's still well worth watching. Not since the Brazilian documentary "O Amor Natural" have I seen a film that so vibrantly celebrates the sexuality of people over 20. García bares more than her soul: she and her male co-star bare their bodies, too, and copulate with abandon. It's a shame that such scenes are a rarity in cinema - where toned bodies equal sex appeal, and everyone else can forget about desire - yet it's a fact that anyone over a certain age (OK - any woman over a certain age) will have a hard time finding someone who looks like them presented as an object of desire.
Yet the film is about much more than sex. It's about celebrating life, and making the decisions that suit you best. Last year's Oscar-nominated "No," about the anti-Pinochet referendum of the 1980s - showed us Chileans exercising their right to choose their leader. "Gloria" shows us one Chilean woman exercising her right to choose her own path.
The Monuments Men, the story of 7 middle-aged academics who enlist in the Allied-Forces military during World War II in order to save works of art pilfered by the Nazis, is George Clooney's fifth feature film as Director. If you want to see the best of what he can do behind the camera, watch either Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or Good Night, and Good Luck (deservedly nominated for 6 Oscars). Don't bother with this new effort. With its cast of well-known actors, caper-based plot and occasionally jaunty tone, it may bear a faint resemblance to the enjoyable Ocean's Eleven franchise in which Clooney starred, but unlike those films, it fails to entertain or even tell a particularly compelling story. It's more like a 7-Eleven convenience store: too many small, generic and ultimately unsatisfying items, but nothing of real substance. You leave feeling ... vacant. Sure, there are a few giggles along the way, but that's just not good enough. Which is too bad, because the premise is not without promise. The Nazis, as they retreat from the Allies, take the most valuable collections of the Continent with them, hiding the work (for future retrieval) as they go. Will the great museums and private collections of Western Europe ever recover? Will some culture be forever lost? Granted, these stakes pale, somewhat, in contrast to the very real genocidal atrocities being committed simultaneously in concentration camps, but those other stories have already been told, and well (Schindler's List and The Counterfeiters are among the many great films on the subject). If you're going to make yet another film about World War II, why not find another angle? Sounds good to me! The problem is that the film lacks any real structure (i.e., script). We never really get to know these guys and are asked to take at face value their investment (and expertise) in art. We are also asked to listen to George Clooney, as Frank Stokes (the group's leader), tell us, over and over - in voiceover narration and speeches to his men - of the importance of these paintings and sculptures, while never being granted the opportunity to experience their glory and power for ourselves. This is a film that forgets that basic rule of storytelling (especially vital to the cinema): show, don't tell.
The moment that best epitomizes this gaping central weakness of the film comes towards the end, as the Russians are approaching a town where our "Monuments Men" are desperately gathering valuable art from a recovered Nazi trove. The Allies have agreed to cede this territory to the Red Army, but our heroes won't leave until they've packed all that they can take. We cut back and forth between Clooney and company and the Soviet jeeps and then . . . a dissolve. That's right. And that's it. Nothing more. They get away, and the Russians arrive too late. Ha, ha! What editing! What sense! What a mess!
Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Jean Dujardin all co-star, and they're all quite good (better than Clooney), with the exception of Blanchett's terrible "French" accent. Given what happens (*spoiler alert*) to Dujardin's character, however, it's hard not to wonder if this entire exercise wasn't just an elaborate plot by Clooney to exact revenge on the Frenchman for stealing the Best Actor Oscar (for The Artist) away from him (for The Descendants), two years ago. We'll never know, bien sûr, but it would explain a lot. And speaking of Murray, I couldn't help but think of his turn as FDR in the mediocre Hyde Park on Hudson in 2012 as I sat listening to the poor actor hired by Clooney to do a miserable imitation of our 32nd President. Bad as Hyde Park was, it was a notch above this. Go spend your money in a museum and support real art this weekend. Don't bother with The Monuments Men.
What can I say, really? This film counts as one of my biggest disappointments of 2013. I am a big admirer of Wong's work, especially of "Chungking Express" and "In the Mood for Love," yet I hated almost every frame of this movie. Normally a master visual stylist, Wong seems to have forgotten his craft here, resorting to cheap slow-motion tricks and backlit raindrops as substitutes for actual filmmaking. As work of art, it's a bust. As a retelling of the story of Ip Man, it's narratively incoherent. And while Wong's elliptical style was so effective in a film like "In the Mood for Love," leaving the romantic longing of the main characters unspoken, here his choice of subject matter demands some kind of script; anything to distract from the pretentious cinematography (which, somehow, has earned Philippe Le Sourd an Oscar nomination). To be avoided at all costs.