Darke Reviews – Robocop (2014)

Dead or alive, I was going to see this. I admit I had a serious amount of nostalgia for the original 1987 Paul Verhooven (Starship Troopers, TOtal Recall) vehicle. I was one of the ones who when I saw the black sleek look on Robocop was unhappy. When I heard it was PG 13 instead of a hard R I was unhappy. Then I saw the trailer and at least understood why he took the black. I was more ok with it. I went yesterday as part of a double feature where my friend and I saw “I, Frankenstein” and this back to back. I don’t think going into it either of us realized the beautiful symmetry of this combination of films.

In previous reviews I have explained the multiple writer problem with a film. In some cases, the reverse can also be true where only one writer can be just as damaging to a film as too many writers. Giving such a recognizable property to a first time writer though, seems an odd choice and further echoes the words “Studio Cash Grab”. Joshua Zetumer clearly put his passion into the script and tried to update the movie for almost thirty years later. He also made some mistakes as well where he wanted to do too much and didn’t know how to execute on the interesting ideas he had. It’s a common problem with writers, myself included, where we have ideas and we want to get them to the page but we don’t explore them nearly as much as they deserve because we want to get to other stuff. Tip: If you are not ready to commit to a philosophical topic in a movie, don’t even begin to address it.

The story focuses around good cop and family man Alex Murphy. The quintessential good apple in a bad city surrounded on all sides by corruption and a city that’s screaming up to the powers that be “save us.” When Alex is seriously wounded as a counterattack for going after one of the cities biggest weapons dealers Omnicorp steps in and offers a solution. You see Omnicorp has a problem, they can’t put their robots on the streets of the US due to a law and the power of public opinion. Instead they put a man in a machine and sell him to the people to get opinion to change and to overturn the law. If only it were that easy, see a man has a will his own and while OCP seeks to control him at any cost the newly roboticized Alex decides the cost is too high.

Much like the original the film tries to lampoon a bit of what the modern societal landscape is. The 80s version covered ridiculous, toxic waste, corporate corruption, russians, drugs, and the raw depredation of society. While a serious film, it didn’t take itself too seriously. The 2014 version attempts to poke at the pathetically one sided news agencies with hosts who don’t report news but shout buzzwords at an accepting audience, marketing and that self same corporate greed the earlier one did. This one also tries to get philosophical and asks the question of what makes a man? unfortunately I Frankenstein handled that better (more in that review) The problem with all of this is that it takes itself too seriously and rather than shining a light on the idiocy of it all; it instead becomes a simple weak beat in a plodding plot.

The script isn’t entirely to blame though. Jose Padilha, in his first time directing an american film, also deserves his share of the blame. The movie has some of the most horrific pacing issues I’ve seen of late. It runs an easy twenty minutes longer than is needed and has a deeply unsatisfying ending thats reminiscent of the Return of the King with the number of false stops it has. His direction of the camera doesn’t do the action any justice either with a constant swirl or shaky cam that tells me he just wanted to try the technique. I only say that because he shows in other sequences that he does understand the concept of a steady cam. A sequence in which Robocop attacks a lab is shot in either thermo vision or night vision depending in which side of the fight you are on. It felt like he saw how Tarantino got away with bloodshed in Kill Bill (Bride vs Crazy 88s) and wanted to try that so he could keep the movie at a studio mandated PG13.

The studio also gets its share of the blame, but sadly its understandable from a corporate point of view. Their job is to make money and R rated movies don’t make nearly as much as PG-13 as they keep out a significant portion of the potential young male audience. First time director, first time writer, no actors anyone really recognizes (mostly)? Its clear they didn’t care about the project and just wanted to make a little over its budget or needed to retain rights for later.

The acting is…a mixed bag for me. The Killing’s Joel Kinnaman does what he can with the script and the direction. He tries a lot to bring some emotion to a film otherwise devoid of it. Is he as imposing as Peter Weller? No, not even close. His delivery of a few nostalgic lines needed work. But he tries and that is important. Abbie Cornish (Suckerpunch) plays his wife and tries as hard as Kinnaman does to bring emotion to it and deal with the storyline of Alex trying to reconnect to his family after the accident. I’d like to see more of her in other films; though admittedly I thought she was Radha Mitchell at first. Those are the two noteworthy performances. Michael Keaton phones it in as director of Omnicorp Raymond Sellers. Everything about him comes across like a half arsed understanding of what a corporate leader is these days. I know he is trying to make a career comeback, but he will have to actually put a little effort next time. Sadly next time is Need for Speed; not a good way to come back Mike. Jackie Earle Haley (watchmen, Nightmare on Elm Street) and Samuel L Jackson are here to chew scenery and be just shy of ridiculous. Sadly only Haley actually delivers on that. Jacksons presence while picking on the modern news agent actually detracts from the movie. As my friend said “I can’t take the movie seriously now” when he finished his opening rant. It was true. He was too much as he often is. I loved sam for awhile, but much like Willis he needs to stop while he is ahead before he becomes his own punchline. Speaking of actors, Gary Oldman as Dr. Dennett Norton tries as well to do what he can with the material. His performance falls right in the middle. I love Oldman for all he does, but could have cared less this time around.

TL;DR?

That’s largely the problem with the film. I don’t care. It had no substance to it. It wanted to be more than it was capable of and reached for the stars. I don’t even think it made escape velocity. It wasn’t prepared to commit to any of the ideas it wanted to try and because of that for well over two hours you are left wanting a bit more than you will ever get from the movie.

It is not right, nor fair, to compare it to the original. They are different films; and as much as I love the original I know its not good. Its a beautiful painting of ridiculousness.

Sorry to say folks, Robocop deserves a pass. I had hope for it, but as the credits rolled I felt unsatisfied. Your move hollywood, make it a good one next time.

Darke Reviews – I Frankenstein (2014)

This one is coming a lot later than it’s release date, but judging from the Box Office none of you have seen it. I suppose that counts for something? Every bit of word of mouth review I have heard for this film said it was god awful. I even heard it hit 0% on Rotten Tomatoes for a bit; though I can’t verify that as I don’t check other reviews before writing my own. I will stand by that til the day I die (not that death is really something I consider a limitation). Honestly due to the word of mouth alone going into this I expected the worst. The trailers didn’t do it much justice, despite the fact this is from the producers of Underworld; a film series which I rather enjoy for all it does bring.

Lets talk about the writer, Kevin Grevioux (Underworld) and the concepts he wanted to bring to screen. I discussed earlier the fact that Robocop also wanted to address the element of What does it mean to be a man? Where Robocop plodded along and refused to get to the point on that concept like some petulant child, I Frankenstein goes the other way. The movie has more exposition than anything I’ve seen recently, what keeps it from being painful is the fact that between the exposition is light tension and some relatively beautiful fight sequences. The entire concept of the film seems to revolve around the concept of the soul and does a man like Frankensteins Monster have one? What is it that makes him what he is? Is he a man, he is certainly not human, nor infernal, nor divine. Each scene of exposition seems to tie back to this basic concept; as do most of the relevant plot points. In this the movie succeeds heads above Robocop. Its also somewhat clumsy at times with it and a nasty habit of too much dialogue when they bother with it and dialogue said without a soul behind it.

Sadly that falls on the director and additional screenplay credit Stuart Beattie. It saddens me how hollow this one is when you compare it to other works he has done, such as “Pirates of the Carribean: Curse of the Black Pearl” and a movie few of you have seen but all of you should, “Tomorrow, when the War Began”. TWWB is Red Dawn told better. It is shot beautifully, the characters are endearing and cover the gamut of what youd expect, but it does so much right and has actual heart to it. That is what saddens me about I,F. It has no heart, no soul of its own, which is ironic in a movie about a mans quest for a soul. It comes across too paint by numbers and a slight variation on Underworld; enough so that they could be in the same universe.

How you ask?

This is the story of a centuries old secret war between two diametrically opposed forces. Both sides become curious about a single individual with the intention on capturing and controlling him to give their side the advantage in the war. Be that advantage as a basis for a psuedo science experiment to create an ubermensch or just a weapon that can defeat the enemy. The “choosen one” wants to decide his own destiny and after resisting finally joins the war but on his own terms and his own side.

Which film did I describe? You can’t tell and thats a problem. A saving grace of the I,F story is the fact that they don’t deal with the Jesus metaphor in the central character that was ripe for the picking.

The acting is all over the place in the movie, which doesn’t help enhance the story. You have cases for overacting, underacting and people who are just phoning it in. Aaron Eckhardt as the Monster, decides to go for the underacting and apparently wants to show he could have played Batman as well. He is quiet, brooding and barely says a word focusing instead on long glares through his eyebrows. Jai Courtney (the abomination called the 5th Die Hard film) also went to the underacting school; though in his case I don’t know if its underacting or that he may infact be an animate mannequin. Bill Nighy showed up for the paycheck and decided to do what he does best and be the most awesome thing on screen. I really want to see a film with him and Gary Oldman, that would be fun to watch. Miranda Otto (Eowyn from Lord of the Rings) has not aged well the past few years, but tries her best and at least does well when she’s working with Eckhardt and showing the others how it’s done. Then there is Yvonne Starhovski (Chuck for some of you, Miranda from Mass Effect 2/3 for others) as Terra. I swear this girl cannot help taking roles where she’s reanimating the dead. She, like Otto, tries her best to play the role and pulls off a believable scientist. The movie thankfully only teases a bit of romantic or sexual tension between Terra and the Monster, and for that we owe them a debt of gratitude. It would have worked, but also would have been entirely unnessecary.

As far as the effects go, the transformation from Gargoyle/Angel to Human is one of the more beautiful effects I have seen and works in every situation. Conversely, the human to demon transition does not work nearly as well. The look of the Gargoyles themselves are mediocre at best. The Weapons and other technical effects are loaded with the traditional Underworld pretty but not practical factor. I also am left with questions on the housing market in Eastern Europe after watching it as nearly every building looks as if it should be condemned.

TL;DR time? I suppose.

I, Frankenstein is actually watchable if you enjoyed the Underworld series. Its light, its fluffy and makes for great background noise if you watch it on DVD or Netflix – which is its most likely venue for most people.

I cant say you need to see this film in good concience. but its certainly not the worst thing this year. It currently is floating on the top of the flotsam and jetsam of rubbish we have been delivered by Hollywood thus far. Wait for Redbox or Netflix folks.

I am hoping, though it is likely in vain, that 300 Rise of an Empire (I’d have preferred Battle of Artemisia its original title) coming in March will be the first film I can recommend with my soul ( stop laughing) intact.

Darke Reviews – Vampire Academy

I am the Vampire Princess, when a vampire movie comes out into the theatres I have no choice but to see it. It’s a moral (amoral?) obligation for me, that means I even had to see all the twilights on the silver screen and did so. I find myself continually amazed at how a studio is completely incapable of understanding source material or the gem they have with a vampire property. The trailers for this film put that lack of understanding on a silver platter. watching the clips that were designed to make you want to see this film – I mean thats what a trailer is for right – told you there was a producer selling it as Clueless with Fangs. There was another one selling it as Buffy. Another selling it as City of Bones at school and with fangs.  When there is that lack of understanding from a producer and film editor level  it tells you what to expect all the while telling you not to see a movie. Even the posters fail to sell the film – “They suck at school?” REALLY?

So here we are, Vampire Academy based on the acclaimed YA series by Richelle Mead. Per usual folks, I have not read the book series. Unlike usual, I will be doing so. I need to know what I Was supposed to be getting, rather than what I got. Daniel Waters, elder brother of the director Mark Waters. I actually like the writing filmography of Daniel. Heathers, Hudson Hawk, Batman Returns and Demolition Man. The thing here is, none of them are really that good. They all show a distinct lack of subtlety and upon thinking of it further a hate for teenagers. You can tell he loathes them in how he writes their dialogue and gives them their personalities. This may be a trait shared by his brother Mark, who gave us Mean Girls, Freaky Friday (2003), and Mr. Poppers Penguins. Both of these men have a habitual way of treating the teen girl. So why were they given the writing and directing?

That probably can lay on Bob and Harvey Weinstein. Best known for delivering some of the cheapest films that appear to have a high production value. If you think of the Scream movies, Prophecy (all six of them), Dracula 2000, and so many others like it their fingerprints are on it. They like to pander to the audience and assume the worst of the intelligence level of the modern movie goer. This isn’t to say they don’t have a gem or two out there, but the reality is they don’t respect the art of movie making and it shows with each successive film.

What we were supposed to get, apparently, was a story of two best friends. Teenage girls with responsibilities that really no teen should have laid upon them. One,  the heir Lissa Dragomir to a vampiric empire and the other, Rose Hathaway, sworn to protect her. They’ve been running from this destiny for some time and are finally caught and brought back into the fold of a prep school with fangs. Reacclimation to school life doesn’t go well as Lissa begins to discover the limits of her powers and drags Rose along with her. The entire time still dealing with all the lovely teenage angst that high school brings with it.

The script is a painful mess of cliches and badly written language. I can’t lay all the blame on the actors for how it turned out. I can lay some of it though. Lucy Fry (Lissa) just can’t act. Then they gave her fangs which she never learned to speak around. Gabriel Byrne, seems to want to drain the scenery as he chews it rather than blood. It’s like he didn’t care and it shows in the performance. Going through it none of the performances deliver more than hollow schlock of people too young and too inexperienced to really give the movie any real weight. The closest to a good performance is Zoey Deutch (Beautiful Creatures) as Rose. She is at least somewhat capable of trying to emote. Sadly the lines she’s given and the direction she is given hampers any weight she might have been able to bring.

The only thing going for it is the fact that the vampires have fangs and the sets are somewhat beautiful. Vampires with fangs is under rated these days, and the design of the fangs is somewhat traditional. Most people don’t spend time on fang details but they are as important as any other character when dealing with vampire fiction. They can look ridiculous, they can impair speech, they can be threatening or they can be beautiful. These fall somewhere between the ridiculous and the beautiful. An apparent one size fits all approach was used which made the fangs look bad in some mouths and moderately ok in others.

TL;DR?

Goddess I wanted to like this. I really did. I cannot in good conscience say this film is anything but a hot mess. It should have been better and probably could have. Even the pop cover of Bela Lugosi’s Dead, while interesting, came across  wrong.

I need, the world needs, a good vampire story again. I worry about Dracula Year Zero/Dracula Untold later this year.

Time to get to work on mine and order the books for this one. In the meanwhile, two more reviews coming later this week. 2014 has not been good so far with no signs on the horizon of change.

Darke Reviews – The Monuments Men (2014)

Been a few weeks since something came out I got to see, so thats the real reason for the delay here. This week is one of two movies for review, the other has more bite to it I hope. The Monuments Men tells a story I’ve not seen in film and certainly wasn’t told about in history class. It has quite a few things going for it in that regard. Telling a story from World War II that hasn’t before is actually quite hard these days. Let’s get into it shall we?

The story is adapted from a book by Robert Edsel titled “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History”. It tells the story of the MFAA, Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program, a sadly little known unit established in 1943 to protect the cultural property in war areas during World War II. The screen play was adapted by Clooney himself with character actor and sometimes collaborator Grant Heslov (True Lies, Good Night and Good Luck, Ides of March). The movie focuses on one small group of the department and their attempt to rescue some priceless and personal artifacts from the Nazi’s as the war comes to an end. They face resistance from Nazi’s, Russians, and even their own people as they try to protect something the military itself cared little about during the war. Is a piece of art worth a mans life?

Clooney also directs this film, which combined with the script leaves most of the blame on him where the film goes wrong. Which, sadly, is quite a few places. One of the key functions of story is a narrative arc, with a a rise and fall in events that drives the characters forward through some form of conflict. The movie fails in that basic element of story. Yes, events happen. Yes, there are beats of cliche with moments of sadness or levity, but there is really no dramatic tension.

I wish I could say that there was, but the film just delivers a series of moments losely connected to each other by the plot of trying to find pieces of lot art. Few of the moments have any real weight to them and the moments that do are glossed over in such a hollow way that it loses the intensity it should have. Some are told out a strong dramatic order so that when you should be going “Oh damn…” you are simply shaking your head sadly. Even the few deaths that occur among the members of the cast come across as cliche and something you’ve seen a dozen times before and because of that become little more than a beat that has no meaning.

It’s unfortunate that as the movie pulls together an amazing cast of comedic talent that could have delivered some of the most dramatic performances of their careers. John Goodman, Bill Murray are wasted. Clooney’s own sense of timing seems off as he was focused three ways on script, acting and directing. The only high point is the interactions between Blanchett and Damon. Blanchetts character actually has the most depth of any of them, with the only arc worth a damn.

All of that said, the movie has some very pretty moments and some beautiful art. Art that would have been lost if not for the real men and women of the MFAA. The statues, the paintings, the lives displayed and lost. For all its flaws, of which there are many, the movie does remind us of a dark time in history that is quickly losing its weight in our modern world.

TL;DR?

The Monuments Men is an ok film that tells a story that needed to be told; but as a film it nearly fails. It wants to tell a story bigger than its capable and in that the weaknesses become apparent.

If you were interested in seeing it, its worth a matinee pass at best. The art alone and the history is worth it.

Otherwise, give this one a pass this weekend and save your money for Valentines day, or some other day where you might need money.

This should be a busy week for reviews, so sit tight folks!!