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Out in Theaters: ‘SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING’

Tom Holland may be the third Spider-Man to crawl across our cineplexes in the last decade but, as a much younger version of Peter Parker than his predecessors, he and director Jon Watts have presented a new enough spin on an old classic. That’s not to say that everything that Watts and company do to give Spiderman: Homecoming a fresh coat of paint works but, for the most part, the freshly minted union between Marvel and Sony have produced an acceptable enough product, incorporating yet another super-powered hero into their increasingly unwieldy lineup and laying the groundwork for a solo series involving the fresh-faced webslinger. That being said, the sting of superhero fatigue is real and even when Watts and his spray of screenwriters (there’s a sinister six of them) avoid familiar Spider-Man tropes (the fated spider bite, the iconic “with great power comes great responsibly” lesson, Uncle Ben’s untimely demise), this is still a character we’ve seen onscreen a whopping 7 times in the last 15 years. That’s not to say that Spider-Man: Homecoming isn’t a fun, splashy, perfectly acceptable mid-July popcorn spectacle, because it is just that. But is it really anything more than that? Not exactly.

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Out in Theaters: ‘SPOTLIGHT’

That Spotlight feels like the epitome of a Law and Order episode genetically crossbred with a 70s-style political thriller is both its salvation and its glass ceiling. A real Indominus Rex of drama, Spotlight is a fleet-footed arcane beast attacking with  precision and blunt deadly force. Its movements however are about as predictable as a 40-foot dinosaur. With its classical movie trappings, there’s other reasons it may be likened to a dinosaur. On the one hand, the formula is soothing in its familiarity – anyone who’s seen an episode of network television over the last half-century can immediately tap into the procedural structure at play – but in dealing up this very specific, very familiar hand, Spotlight also affixes a rev limiter to its emotional combustion engine. That it is then able to color in more shades than the finite Crayola 8 without devolving to sentimentality or cheap heroics is what allows Spotlight to stand tall. To peer out from the brush and declare its potency. To be the king of the jungle. Read More

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Out in Theaters: BIRDMAN

Unlike quite anything else, Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s Birdman is a surrealist commentary on 21st century franchise culture, absolutely pumped full of energy, wit and scintillating satire. A massively relevant take on modernity, Iñárritu’s restless film comes dressed up as black comedy but resonates wholeheartedly with the slobbish zeitgeist du jour. Truth, it seems, can come masked in all sorts of outfits. Read More

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Out in Theaters: NEED FOR SPEED

“Need for Speed”
Directed by Scott Waugh
Starring Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson, Ramon Rodriquez, Michael Keaton
Action, Crime, Drama
121 Mins
PG-13

need-for-speed-movie-5.jpg
Need For Speed
is the kind of movie that the descriptor “high octane” was conceived for. It’s dumb but technically competent enough to pander to the NASCAR hillbilly types and Formula One engine snobs at once. But with neck-breaking car stunts and tightrope tension, it’ll keep your posterior numb and your adrenaline glands humming. Promising that if you get up for a bathroom break, you’re sure to miss something, Need for Speed rockets forth at breakneck speeds, blasting past the roadblocks of story beats and into head-on collisions with nonsense. In the very least, Scott Waugh has seemed to eek past the first set of crash dummy drafts as the undeniably cinematic experience he presents seems more finely tuned than one might first expect. It’s no Chauser but, at the very least, it won’t require you to strap in for a crash course on idiocracy.  

Setting the events to a ticking clock is a bit of a stroke of genius on screenwriter George Gatin‘s behalf as this provides the perfect framework for a movie about fast cars driving fast that has little to offer outside of the temptation of increasingly sleeker, and more European, cars set against an Imogen Poots stripping down layers by the ten minute marker. It’s seduction 101 and it works wonders.

As a movie based on a video game, Speed hits all the marks of mainstream adaptation one would expect, complete with shameless product placement and leggy blondes to ogle at. But beneath the veneer of corporate construction, this is a movie that reaches slightly above the plastic wrappings of strict VG adaptations. There’s obvious fun taking place beyond the lens and, thankfully, it’s the kind of fun we can actually revel in.

Michael Keaton, for one, is having the time of his life and his hammy performance as the illusive Monarch is representative of Need for Speed at large. As he goofs into the mic, accessorized with gaudy, almost Elvis-esque, shades and a flashy wardrobe, he’s the ridiculous meta commentary this kind of movie needs. He’s the outlet for the film’s sarcastic self-mockery and only with his kind of wink-wink-nudge-nudge attitude is Need for Speed able to get away with all its gravity-defying shenanigans.

Piping hot off the untouchable success of Breaking Bad, Aaron Paul is given a chance to reinvent his image in this more mainstream, but still mostly antihero, personality. Moving away from his persona of forlorn but corruptible Jesse Pinkman and into a guy that we can feasibly buy as a studio action figure, Paul, like Jesse in his fleeting moments, has started down a long and windy road. Even though he’s been (mostly) shaved clean and (as far as we know) isn’t at any point addicted to meth, he shares the chiseled brand of intensity – raging yet dopey – that we’ve come to know spending time with Jesse. For his part though, Paul’s still immensely watchable. We see the gears work as Paul faces the canals of yet another moral trauma; the ticktock of a man on the edge of his rope. No one does wounded like Paul. He’s got haunted down pat.

But regardless of how many times Paul and Waugn try to push the idea that Need for Speed is nothing like Fast and the Furious, don’t believe a word of it. What we’ve got here is very much in the same wheelhouse and a good hair below in quality. Beyond the cars, crimes and carnage, the biggest similarity is the ensemble-driven cast. Speed, whether intentionally or not, seeks to recreate a familiar team of interracial, eclectic banditos. We’ve got the wisecracking black man, the reliable Latino, the standard cut white dude and a vaguely Middle Eastern mechanical genius. It is a surprise however that Scott Mescudi (or Kid Cudi as he’s known in hip hop circles) stands out most amongst a dudery that includes Dominic Cooper, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson and Ramon Rodriquez. I guess there’s something behind the unadulterated charisma of rappers that translates well into onscreen supporting characters. Who knew?

C

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Out in Theaters: ROBOCOP

“Robocop”
Directed by José Padilha
Starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Samuel L. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Zach Grenier
Action, Crime, Sci-Fi
108 Mins
PG-13

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RoboCop
tries to make communion between global politicking black satire and “ohhhh shiny” skirmishes but winds up not quite able to answer the many questions it raises. Regardless, the fact that this supposed actioner wants to stick its nose into moral territory and sniff around makes for a far more interesting experience than any paint-by-numbers shoot-em-up that I was expecting.

 In the oeuvre of action movies, the RoboCop of yore was known for its balls-to-the-walls, blood ‘n’ guts characteristics so you’ll be surprised to hear that this 2014 remake is so light on action sequences that it makes The Lion King look violent (but let’s be honest, The Lion King is pretty violent). There are maybe two instances of what one would consider violence, both blaring shootouts sans a spot of blood, and an exposition-driven explosion of note. Other than that, most of the distressing PG-13 rated stuff takes place in a Clorox-blasted laboratory.

Beckon forth the stuff of Ethics 101. Global tech-giant OmniCorp is hellbent on getting their militant robots into the domestic market but have been blocked on all sides by liberal Senator Hubert Dreyfuss (Zach Grenier) and his long-standing bill that outlaws the use of mechs in the land of the stars and stripes. They would feel nothing if they shot a child, Dreyfuss argues. How can we give unadulterated command to something that wouldn’t even feel an ounce of remorse if they blasted a baby in the face? It’s a half decent point you’re onto there Dreyfuss but one that is shied further and further away from as the revenge narrative is ratcheted up.

With the help of marketing fisher Tom Pope (a bearded but still baby-faced Jay Baruchel), Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) employs Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) to help push Dreyfuss’s bill into fisticuffs with the introduction of a half-man, half-machine hybrid. Business barons as they are, they’ve found the wishy-washy nooks of the law and let exploitation take birth. But after breezing through a list of candidates, Norton doesn’t believe they have anyone fulfilling the mental balance needed for the job. I wonder who it could be? Let fly, the red herring in all its foreshadowing glory.

Enter incorruptible cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) who has just caught the scent of a near untraceable top-tier gunrunner, Anton Vallon (Patrick Garrow). Following up on a lead, Murphy and partner Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams) land themselves in the cacophonous din of a gunfight (and either it was the IMAX screening I attended or the gunfire sound editing has been cranked up to 11 but the blasts were near deafening). With Lewis left hospitalized with a handful of slugs lodged in him, good cop Murphy is all revved up for revenge. But, unbeknownst to him, he’s earned a hefty target on his backs from the watchful eye of the criminal underworld and before he can say “boo”, he’s blown into a limbless coma, becoming a prime candidate for what becomes the RoboCop experiment.
 
For all the character names scattered through the movie (and this review), screenwriter Joshua Zetumer deserves a hand for actually carving out a foothold for nearly all of them. Abbie Cornish as Murphy/Robocop’s wife is a little uncut but Keaton, Oldman, Williams and the rest of the supporting cast really get some actual characters to dig into. Even the villains of the piece are much more modern baddies, blinded by financial gain but not bogged down with diabolical cackles or announced plans of world domination. They hardly acknowledgement their own villainy, they’re just in it to win it. Unfortunately for them, so is RoboCop.

Each character is firmly engrained in the story and hard to leave out when talking about the piece. It’s a surprisingly ensemble piece for an action film and one that relies just as much on the characterization of the Dr. Frankenstein who created him as it does on the eponymous RoboCop. In such, everyone has their place. Making a world that’s so fleshed out and yet intimate is one of Zetumer’s many skills. Loose ends, on the other hand, are not.

In an age of drone warfare, secretive criminal tribunals and the National Defense Authorization Act (which affords Obama authority to kill a US citizen without due process), Robocop does seem ripe for the reboot. It’s a shame then that we don’t really see him (and by extension filmmaker José Padilha) grapple with the difficulties of dealing with morally gray areas. Rather, we’re given an ethical guide we’re meant to mock in Samuel L. Jackson‘s Pat Novak and a dubious puff of disapprobation in Padilha’s incisive glare.
 
As far as Robocop the machine-man, more than anything, his existence becomes a pitiable state of affairs; one stripped of choice, mellowed of free will and fine-tuned to acts of force appropriation. Seeing what’s left of the actual Alex Murphy is macabre and visceral (and may turn your popcorn bucket into a barf bag) but watching him drained of his remaining humanity is arguably more lurid.

Gone are the lampooning moments of levity that flowed from the originals, replaced with the likes of Batman-mimicking “Does it come in black?” For those seeking action-packed escapism, look elsewhere as RoboCop is more Frankenstein than Die Hard. Soaked and dripping with questions of determinism, spirituality, executive power, agency and identity that each find a pitfall or reaches the end of a rope, Robocop is a mash of hi-fi philosophy conveniently light on resolution.

C

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