RoboCop: Fun’s Over, Boys

by Ethan Alter February 12, 2014 6:00 am
<i>RoboCop</i>: Fun’s Over, Boys

Looking back, Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop ranks as one of the most unlikely franchise-starters in Hollywood history. Operating without much studio oversight, the Dutch filmmaker produced a scabrous satire of the corporatization of Reagan-era America wrapped inside of an ultraviolent, hard-R rated action film. It's the sort of stunt that's really only designed to work once, but -- thanks to Peter Weller's square-jawed performance and that gleaming, instantly iconic Rob Bottin-designed metal suit -- RoboCop the character quickly became bigger than the film that birthed him. A pair of big-screen sequels followed, as well as four different TV shows (two live action and two animated), comic books, video games (including one where he battles the Terminator for some reason) and even a theme park ride. And once a character created to spoof big business became big business, you could kiss any lingering satiric impulses goodbye. The latter-day RoboCop vehicles mostly eschewed humor for mindless action and a forced solemnity that, frankly, was often plenty funny (unintentionally so) in its own right.

The Monuments Men: It’s History, Man

by Ethan Alter February 7, 2014 6:05 am
<i>The Monuments Men</i>: It’s History, Man

The obit for George Clooney's latest directorial effort was written when this World War II period piece unceremoniously bumped from its original awards season berth and slotted into an early February release alongside other postponed 2013 rejects like Labor Day and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. So let's not spend too much time piling more dirt on its coffin. The Monuments Men is a dud: a nobly-intentioned feature that lacks the discipline and focus to unite its disparate elements -- among them a heavy-hitting cast, picturesque European settings and a great subject -- into an effective whole.

The Lego Movie: A Whole Lotta Awesome

by Ethan Alter February 7, 2014 6:05 am
<i>The Lego Movie:</i> A Whole Lotta Awesome

I adore The Lego Movie for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that directors Chris Lord and Phil Miller -- the team that proved there was a great movie that could be made out of 21 Jump Street -- are obvious fans of The Matrix. And I'm not just talking about the first film in that franchise, which provides this one with its central narrative spine, i.e. an ordinary guy learning that there are worlds beyond his own and that he may be the chosen one with the power necessary to defend them from extinction. I'm also referring to the lesser-loved (undeservedly so) sequels, which venture to narrative realms and traverse thematic ground uncommon for a spectacle of its type. Not to spoil anything specific here, but The Lego Movie has more than a few strands of Reloaded and Revolutions woven into its DNA, particularly as our tiny, yellow Neo stand-in Emmett (exuberantly voiced by Chris Pratt) grasps his way towards a rousing victory as well as a state of higher consciousness about his place in a carefully constructed multi-verse.

Labor Day: Trapped In Utero

by Ethan Alter January 31, 2014 6:00 am
<i>Labor Day</i>: Trapped In Utero

I'm all for directors attempting to break out of their comfort zone, even when those initial steps end in a stumble. After all, had Woody Allen not taken a hard left turn into Bergman territory with the dry, dour Interiors, we might never have gotten superior dramatic efforts like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives. Similarly, Steven Spielberg's first brush with comedy, 1941, was an abject disaster that almost ended his career, but the lessons he took away from that film paid off with Catch Me If You Can, one of the fleetest, funniest pictures in his filmography. (On the other hand, The Terminal is still a chore to sit through.) So in the potentially not-to-distant future, when he makes a wrenching, beautiful film that wins every Oscar in sight, I hope to look back on Jason Reitman's Labor Day as the bad drama he had to make before he could produce a good one.

The Most Awkward Things about That Awkward Moment

by Ethan Alter January 31, 2014 6:00 am
The Most Awkward Things about <i>That Awkward Moment</i>

As the film goes out of its way to explain to us, the title of the new guy-centric relationship dramedy That Awkward Moment refers to that strange halfway point between a casual hook-up and a real romance. But it's also an accurate description of the movie's content: this tedious, originality-starved run through familiar rom-com tropes is basically one long awkward moment. It's a film that for everyone involved -- including stars Zac Efron, Michael B. Jordan and Miles Teller along with writer/directror Tom Gormican -- would be wise to quietly put behind them… like puberty or admitting that you cried at the end of Marley & Me. Here are the most awkward things about this entirely awkward movie.

Indie Snapshot: Tim’s Vermeer

by Ethan Alter January 31, 2014 5:50 am
Indie Snapshot: <i>Tim’s Vermeer</i>

Art history comes alive in Tim's Vermeer, a wildly entertaining, appropriately thoughtful and genuinely inspiring non-fiction account of one man's attempt to do the (apparent) impossible: recreate one of the many masterworks to emerge from the brushstrokes of renowned Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer -- he of "Girl with the Pearl Earring" and "The Milkmaid" fame. Vermeer's particular genius was recreating life so vividly on his canvas that his paintings almost resemble photographs, with a clarity and level of detail that pull you into the frame. For centuries, art scholars and appreciators have contemplated how he achieved that remarkable effect. And now, one such amateur armchair enthusiast -- a computer engineer named Tim Jenison, who had no formal artistic training -- has not only come up with a compelling theory… he actually puts it into practice.

Gimme Shelter: There’s No Place Like Someone Else’s Home

by Angel Cohn January 24, 2014 6:00 am
<I>Gimme Shelter</i>: There’s No Place Like Someone Else’s Home

The commercials for this movie may lead you to believe that erstwhile High School Musical starlet Vanessa Hudgens has taken the bold step to becoming an adult actress, and she's admittedly trying, but her idea of a transformative performance is heavily reliant on her choppy haircut, makeup job and facial piercings. Otherwise, she seems to think that acting involves some sort of New York accent that fluctuates in frequency throughout the movie and screaming most of her lines. Perhaps that's what happens when you are used to belting your lines to get attention when Zac Efron is around. Instead of a major theatrical release, this mediocre flick with poor structure would have fit in far better as a Lifetime or Hallmark Channel movie of the week.

The Five Funniest Things About Ride Along

by Ethan Alter January 17, 2014 6:00 am
The Five Funniest Things About <i>Ride Along</i>

Though it's claiming to be a comedy, the Ice Cube/Kevin Hart team-up Ride Along isn't actually funny. At all. Or, at least, not intentionally. The only laughs to be had from this umpteenth variation on the odd couple buddy cop formula -- which partners Cube's veteran Atlanta detective with Hart's aspiring officer, who happens to be dating the older guy's sister -- lie in areas that are incidental to what's actually happening onscreen. That's because what's happening onscreen is pretty dire: the standard-issue tale of two guys that hate each other, but grudgingly become pals through a series of unlikely situations and lots of property damage that's directed with a distinct lack of panache by director Tim Story (who has made some legitimately funny movies in the past, including Barbershop) and lazily phoned in by the entire cast, which also includes John Leguizamo as one of Cube's cop buddies and Laurence Fishburne as the crime boss they get around to fighting in the third act. Look, sometimes you've gotta entertain yourself when the movie you're watching refuses to do so. With that in mind, here are the five funniest things about Ride Along.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – The Sum of All Ryans

by Ethan Alter January 17, 2014 6:00 am
<i>Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit</i> – The Sum of All Ryans

When we last saw Jack Ryan -- CIA analyst and reluctant action hero -- on the big screen, he was racing against the clock to prevent an all-out nuclear war between American and Russia, the favorite antagonist of his creator, Tom Clancy. He also looked a lot like Ben Affleck, who had inherited the role from Harrison Ford, who in turn had inherited it from Alec Baldwin in a string of regenerations of Doctor Who-vian proportions. The casting switch was intended to give a fresh start to the then-three movie franchise, but following a respectable (though far from stellar) box-office performance, Affleck's Ryan was prematurely retired instead. (Just as well; there are a number of reasons why The Sum of All Fears didn't work and Affleck's callow performance tops the list. Funnily enough, though, he'd probably make a great fortysomething Ryan if he were to attack the part today.) A decade later, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit offers up another Ryan regeneration from which the character emerges with the face and form of Chris Pine. More notably, though, this is the first Ryan adventure that isn't directly based on a Clancy novel and perhaps that explains why it works as well as it does… at least until it doesn't.

August: Osage County: Family Ties

by Ethan Alter December 26, 2013 5:01 pm
<i>August: Osage County</i>: Family Ties

Since I never caught the theatrical run of August: Osage County, I'm just going to have to assume that Tracy Letts's dark comedy chronicling the most dysfunctional family reunion ever deserved its many stage awards -- which ranged from Pulitzer Prizes to Tonys. Lord knows that the movie version isn't at all a good advertisement for whatever the virtues of the play might have been. Gracelessly directed by John Wells and wildly overacted by its all-star ensemble cast, this is one of those creative misfires that makes you feel terrible for everyone involved, as well as yourself for having to sit through it.

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