Friday, March 29, 2013

TV REVIEW: BATES MOTEL - SEASON 1 EPISODE 2 - "Nice Town You Picked, Norma..."

I've resigned myself to the fact that Bates Motel is not going to be the show I expected it to be. Instead of a serious examination of what turns an innocent child into a monster, this is a soap opera through and through. That's not necessarily a bad thing (we'll get to some of the glee-inducing trashiness later), but it would be easier to swallow if there weren't tiny hints of something really smart and seductive popping up here and there. All of that has to do with Norma and Norman's relationship (the reason any Psycho fan has tuned in), and it's a shame the show's creators seem more interested in every other possible plotline they've come up with. With this episode, Bates Motel has said that the titular location isn't going to be what drives the stories, but rather the town Norma and her son have moved to. While that can provide plenty of wacky and nasty diversions, it doesn't feel very original. A town with a secret (or in this case what seems to be HUNDREDS of secrets) is an old plot device, while the concept of using the motel to wheel in various mysteries and characters seemed fresh. I'm sure that will still end up happening, but with the current setup in place, it'll only over-complicate a show that's already weighing itself down with too much.

I don't want to sound like I'm completely down on the show, so let's look at what's really good about this episode. Like I said before, anything where just Norma and Norman are together is great. The highlight is easily the comfortably disturbing scene where Norma changes in front of her son and assures him that her "date" with the local deputy is nothing more than a strategic maneuver, helping to keep the cops from discovering the body they recently disposed of. The little looks they give each other, the casual demeanor about familial sexuality, and the devotion bordering on control are all perfectly executed in this one little scene. I also love seeing the two of them scrubbing the kitchen clean, looking completely innocent while covering up a dastardly deed. If the show focused on more moments like these, it'd be more like the show I signed up for.

The other fun bit comes at the end, when we get to see what "justice" looks like in the town of White Pine Bay. I'll never bemoan seeing a flaming corpse on television, and this one is a nice bit of spectacle. Crazy little things like this are what the show is going to need to keep it afloat amidst its sea of subplots.

Now, let's get into some of these subplots. Obviously, the biggest one is the addition of big brother (well, stepbrother) Dylan. While I really dig the idea of Norma having a son that she feels practically nothing for (and him feeling the same way), I wish I could feel anything at all for Dylan. Max Theiriot is trying way too hard when it comes to Dylan's "don't give a shit" rebel attitude. Not helping the matter is that Dylan is nothing but a dickbag who only cares about money, but then the writers want us to feel bad for him simply because "he has nowhere else to go." His adventures into the criminal underworld of White Pine Bay are something I'm dreading, since it will require me to give a shit about a guy who... doesn't give a shit. When he pretty much blackmails Norma into letting him stay, it's fairly obvious that the show is trying to craft a more intimate foil for Norma, and that just doesn't work. Maybe it would if the foil was interesting.

However, Dylan does provide Norman with one of his best scenes yet. When Norman find out that Dylan has Norma listed in his phone as "The Whore", Norman attacks his older stepbrother and gets promptly shut down. Then comes the real gem of the scene: Norman spots a meat tenderizer near the sink. Any other show would just leave it at that, implying the murderous urge and setting it up for later. Not Bates Motel! Norman immediately grabs the hammer and lunges at Dylan again! He doesn't connect and ends up down on the floor, venomously stating, "She's not a whore." It's in these darker, more vicious moments that Freddie Highmore is selling me on his version of Norman Bates.

What I'm not buying into is the sweet Norman and his high school hijinks. Now that he's been partnered Hardy Boys-style with classmate Emma (whose cystic fibrosis will certainly be used for a ticking clock scenario once she gets abducted by Injection Man), I'm officially checked out of that storyline. It feels like it belongs on a whole other show, and to help complicate matters even more is when the mystery they are investigating gets interrupted by another town secret: someone's making money off of a seriously huge marijuana farm. Geez, Bates Motel. Should I be expecting aliens and the Devil to pop up eventually? You need to tighten the stories you've got before piling up more and more eventual mysteries. Could Carlton Cuse's Lost influence already be at play?

There's a couple little tidbits to like as well. Norman's first interaction with taxidermy is a plus, and since Emma's dad is the local animal corpse stuffer, expect Norman to take up some kind of apprenticeship with him, leading into more knowledge about the town and its dirty dealings. Vera Farmiga proves she's still the show's main draw, playing the doe-eyed deputy like a harp from hell. I could watch a whole episode of just her being salaciously conniving.

If the show remains as all over the place as this episode, fatigue could set in pretty quick. A little bit of focus goes a long way, and if this upcoming episode seems to be as Norman-centric as its title would imply, maybe things will get a bit tighter. The wackiness is keeping me intrigued, it just needs to be channeled more efficiently. Also, don't be afraid to let Freddie Highmore let loose. There's gold to be mined in those moments.

Monday, March 25, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: SPRING BREAKERS - Come for the James Franco, Stay for the Social Commentary

Some movies work better as essays more than pieces of entertainment, focusing more about what they are trying to "say" rather than attempting to be narratively engaging. Spring Breakers is such a picture. While not at all boring or extraneous, you leave the film thinking about the ideas behind everything onscreen instead of caring about what happened to the characters.

The story is deceptively simple: Four college girls (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine) want nothing more than to go to Florida for spring break. In order to raise the money, three of the girls rob a diner and then they are all off to St. Pete for bikinis, booze, booties and blow. After getting busted at a party, they are bailed out by a whiteboy rapper/gangsta named Alien (James Franco) who proceeds to indulge their lust for danger and excitement.

That's really the entire plot in a nutshell. There isn't much else that actually "happens" throughout the picture. There's a feud between Alien and his former friend/associate (played with a convincing mumble by rapper Gucci Mane) that drives the movie towards its ending, but the rest of the film is more a meditation on the idea of Spring Break (capitalized to emphasize its importance) and what it means to each of the characters. And while that might not be the most enthralling of plots to watch unravel, it does provide plenty to chew over.

It should be noted that James Franco is truly transformative as Alien, disappearing into a mess of cornrows, teeth grills and giant sunglasses. Everything you have heard about his performance is spot on: he's amazing. It's definitely a showcase of his diverse talent, and that there is no way you can pigeonhole him into one specific role or archetype. Every time he's on screen, he is bizarrely captivating. His accent, mannerisms, and posture fuse together into a totally realized character that will certainly be one of the highlights of his career.

The other girls have little snippets of individuality, primarily Selena Gomez as Faith. It's unfortunate when she exits the film (fairly early, too), since her religious beliefs and reasons for coming to Spring Break seem like the most interesting and multi-faceted. The other three girls all seem to have the same motivation: they want to completely let loose, so much so that they are willing to let their animalistic dark sides take full control.

And while the movie may not be exciting in terms of pacing or storytelling, where it does excel is exploring those wild urges and presenting them as a strangely enlightening experience. Director Harmony Korine always has this hazy, dreamlike feel in his movies and Spring Breakers benefits heavily from this. The movie really does feel like a deep and probing look into the subconscious of the beast known as Spring Break, all told through a neon-colored nightmare.

Probably the biggest concept on the table is the idea of shallowness as substance. These are characters who honestly feel moved and inspired by Britney Spears songs (the movie makes the best use of a Britney Spears song ever, actually justifying her music's existence), and whose idea of self-discovery and spiritual awakening involves getting stupidly wasted and half-naked on a beach. But, this really does mean something to these girls, so what does that say? Is it an expose on the slutty anarchy hiding beneath the surface of every pretty young college student? Spring Break is treated like the only escape these girls have from their humdrum existence, and they never want the feeling of it to end. It's soul-crushingly sad when you stop to digest it, and maybe that's what the filmmakers are trying to tell us.

There will be a lot of viewers who take the antics and viewpoints of the main characters as meaningful, relatable, and worth endorsing. This is a sentiment that has been misinterpreted before with movies like Brian DePalma's Scarface (a point that is directly referenced in Spring Breakers), but the way the film ends doesn't do much to dispose of that idea. Did what these characters do really matter? Did it change them in a positive way, even though that experience involved violence and self-induced stupidity? The movie gives you a lot to mull over, even if the actual plot is lacking in substance (apropos for this subject matter, I guess).

Spring Breakers certainly isn't a bad film (it'd actually make a great kind of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City double feature next to Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive), it's just not a very entertaining one. But, not all movies necessarily need to entertain to provoke interest and discussion. The movie definitely succeeds on that front, which is more than can be said of most mainstream Hollywood releases. With the exception of James Franco's astounding acting (I can't stress how phenomenal he really is), the movie doesn't warrant a theatrical viewing. Save it for home, when you can lie back and let the smoky mysticism of whatever the hell Spring Break means to you really ferment in the back of your mind.

MOVIE REVIEW: STOKER Would Make Sir Alfred Hitchcock Proud (And Maybe Even Blush)

The best thrillers (or horror movies. Debate semantics in the comments) often explore the corners of human life we'd rather leave alone. That's usually why they are so important for artists to delve into: we need to swim in sin and ugliness for a while so we are reminded that such a world isn't too far removed from our own. Stoker plumbs these depths with masterful finesse and ends up being one of the best of its ilk. Taut, tawdry and handled with classical expertise, this is a film that demands discussion and appreciation.

After the sudden death of her father, young India (wraith-like beauty Mia Wasikowska) and her mother (Nicole Kidman in subdued vamp mode) welcome India's uncle Charlie (a devilishly cherubic Matthew Goode) into their home. Very soon, India begins to suspect that her father's brother may have some very disturbing secrets lying underneath his sweet demeanor, and as the movie unfolds, their relationship dives into a darkness that might be inescapable.

Director Chan-wook Park (making his American debut) is not slacking off in any arena. He crafts a sense of beautiful menace that is strung throughout the entire running time, building slowly and purposefully without sacrificing character or pacing. It's a feat that all suspenseful stories strive for, but most cannot fully attain. Stoker is in no danger of that, proving that well-constructed and slow-burning pictures don't need to let up on the tension and unease in order to put its players into place. I sincerely cannot wait to see what Chan-wook's next English outing will entail. This film has guaranteed my ticket for his following endeavor.

All three principal actors give performances that define the idea of "less is more." Understated acting choices make each facial expression tell more about the characters than pages of dialogue could ever attempt. In particular, Mia Wasikowska plays India with quiet, childlike malice. Both her and Matthew Goode take a measured approach to revealing more and more of the wickedness inside of them as the movie progresses.

And oh is Matthew Goode enticingly wicked. The character of Uncle Charlie (a perfectly on-the-nose reference to the Master of Suspense's Shadow of a Doubt) is disgustingly charming, wooing India's mother while simultaneously stalking after his niece with the grace of a shark. He even adapts the always welcome foreboding whistle (a la Fritz Lang's M) into his own brand of warm malevolence. The more the movie lets us know about Charlie, the more complex and interesting a villain he becomes, all the way up to his very last scene. It's a stunning achievement for Goode, and for screenwriter Wentworth Miller for piecing together a monster we can't turn away from.

But, at its core, Stoker is a dark and dirty coming-of-age story told from the viewpoint of India, and Mia Wasikowska anchors the movie with a role that is a blend of Wednesday Addams and Nabakov's titular Lolita. The journey of her becoming sexually aware is nowhere near typical or pleasant, but it feels skin-crawlingly easy to relate to. The discovery that forbidden and often appalling things can arouse you is one of the most invasive undertakings we experience as sexual creatures, and Stoker is talking about that very, very loudly. India experiences what has to be one of the most astoundingly horrific orgasms ever put in a widely released movie, and it's easily one of the best moments of the film. It's a moment that clearly blends together the shockingly similar concepts of sex and death, something Western audiences try to avoid at all costs.

In fact, the majority of the concepts in this picture are taboo areas that most major American filmmakers don't really want to examine: incest, the joy of murder, perverse sexual urges and how tragedy and evil can be what truly bonds a family together. Sometimes, this movie will be analyzing all of those concepts in a single scene! It's the best kind of transgressive filmmaking: thought-provoking but not simply there for shock value.

We're at a point in film where visual excellence is hard not to get right. Even some of the worst movies look good, so it becomes less about how a film "looks" and more about how it's composed. It should be noted that while Stoker does "look" gorgeous, it's the composition and staging of the frame that show the kind of professionalism at work. Chan-wook's frequent director of photography Chung-hoon Chung shapes each shot with impeccable precision, and editor Nicholas de Toth deserves any award you can bestow upon him. This is Oscar worthy work here.

Clint Mansell delivers another stellar score, proving that he's the go-to guy for this kind of intimate musical work (his score for The Fountain shatters any shred of manliness I pretend to have). It should also be mentioned that music plays an integral role within the movie's plot, as India and her mother both play piano. Mansell takes full advantage of this, and composes themes and feelings that permeate the entire mood of the picture. The scene where India and Charlie both play a piece together is another chillingly effective highlight of the film, and it shames me to say, is immensely erotic and sensual. Yeesh, I feel like I need to shower after that.

If there is one piece of the puzzle that is just a tiny bit crooked, it would be the mother played by Nicole Kidman. She's certainly not giving a bad performance (her silent contempt throughout the movie builds to a great monologue near the end that is drenched in bitter animosity), but it feels like we're one scene away from completely knowing her and relating to her. We learn that she's been cooped up in her home since marrying India's father (she does get a melancholy line about being able to speak fluent French in a house all by herself) and that would seem like enough to feel bad for her, but it just didn't sell me 100%. It's probably more to do with the relationship between India and Charlie being far more intriguing (and the real crux of the story), so it's certainly not that big or distracting of an issue.

Stoker is certainly not a movie for everyone. It'll probably turn away half of the people who see it. It goes to some of the ghastliest places you can think of, but if you relish a chance to stare into the abyss, this is a film that stares back at you and never averts its gaze.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


Propaganda action films reached their peak in the eighties, and never seemed to find their way back to the lofty heights set by the likes of Red Dawn. Funny enough that the recent remake of that movie was a diluted helping of weaksauce, hampered by studio tampering and the lack of a believable onscreen threat. So, it seems that director Sam Strange (under his pseudonym Antoine Fuqua) decided to rectify things by churning out the best "America, fuck yeah!" picture since Team America: World Police.

Olympus Has Fallen isn't going to win anyone the Oscar, or probably even be notably chronicled in the annals of cinematic history. That's too bad, since it's one of the most hedonistic bits of fun to come out in 2013. It's a very by-the-numbers kind of flick (all of your cliche expectations will be gloriously met), but what makes it work is the seriousness of everyone involved. No one is winking into the camera or phoning it in, which is surprising considering the talent that has been amassed. You'd figure that someone would be counting the hours until their paycheck, but if that attitude was present, it's nowhere to be found. Gerald Butler is one hell of a leading man, giving his most enjoyable performance since Reign of Fire (thought I was going to say 300, didn't you? I could have gone with Gamer as well) and I really hope this movie catapults him into the action man leading status he so rightly deserves. Once all of The Expendables crew have kicked the bucket, we'll be hard up for some kickass stars, and Butler proves with this film that he is more than up to the task. He can be both charming and funny for the ladies, and brutal enough for all of us testosterone junkies.

Everyone else does serviceable justice to their parts. You get some pretty standard (but nonetheless effective) turns from Angela Bassett, Morgan Freeman, and Robert Forster playing the officials in the "crisis room" scenes. They deliver exposition with just enough character that it never manages to slow the pace down. Rick Yune gives head baddie Kang the proper heft needed for this kind of role. It's almost good enough to forget he had anything to do with Die Another Day. ...Almost. Aaron Eckhart is reduced to mostly grunting throughout the picture, but the few scenes we get with him early on establish a very warm and likable character. He's not just another lame duck president character. I'd vote for him. Probably the only actor who gets shafted due to the constraints of the screenplay is Dylan McDermott. His ex-Secret Service agent feels like he's a rewrite away from being the real foil of the piece, and it's a shame because McDermott is doing some really entertaining work with the time he's given. Between this and his recent turn on American Horror Story: Asylum, McDermott should land a really juicy antagonist role. He's definitely got the chops.

But, most importantly for a movie like this, the action is what is mainly on trial. And Olympus Has Fallen has breakneck pacing in that department. People get cut down in swaths left and right, fight scenes are choreographed well, and explosions happen just frequently enough to keep you on your toes. There is some less-than-stellar VFX work early on (apparently due to the digital artists being rushed to completion), but it passes quickly enough that it doesn't bog the movie down, and there are enough old fashioned gunfight scenes to make up for the more bombastic bits. And if you like your action movies red and goopy, this one will satisfy your cinematic bloodlust. I was actually quite shocked at how much red stuff (digital and...analog?) was spilled throughout the running time. It's nice to see an action movie that isn't worried about getting gory, since most action affairs these days are fluffy PG-13 hero flicks.

When we look back at 2013, I think Olympus Has Fallen will be viewed as an incredibly early kickstarter to the summer action extravaganzas. And that's a good thing. It's certainly not a perfect film (there's some cheesy emotional beats and a bit of an anti-climactic climax after the final fight between the hero and villain), but it bypasses that kind of criticism by being pure uncut American fun. If we could churn out such patriotic popcorn diversions like this once a year, it would be a stronger loving 'Merica.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

TV REVIEW: BATES MOTEL - SEASON 1 EPISODE 1 - "First You Dream, Then You Die"

You would think that going into a TV series about a young Norman Bates would mean that he would be the character you'd be most interested in. However, Bates Motel manages to both surprise and disappoint in the same breath by making his mother, Norma, the real star of the show. And when you think about it, that may actually be a much smarter move. Norma Bates is one of cinema's greatest unseen forces, only ever existing through her son's severely damaged psyche and his portrayal of her personality. This is the first real chance (not counting the coma-inducing TV movie Psycho IV: The Beginning) to get a look at the monster that turned a sweet boy into a...psycho. Ugh.

And Vera Farmiga is more than up to the task. The first half of the episode makes her out to be a manipulative and devilish matriarch (the sly and knowing smile she cracks coming out of the shower during the opening scene made me immediately love her as a villain), going so far as to become jealous of her son spending time after school. I really hope the show has the guts to go to some truly demented places with Norma Bates, because if this pilot episode is any indication, she may be the sole reason to watch the show.

I was extremely excited when I learned Freddie Highmore would be stepping into the role made famous by Anthony Perkins over half a century ago. He had the right physicality, and his sweet demeanor seemed like a perfect fit for the quiet man-child who eventually gets really into cross-dressing and stabbing naked ladies. Sadly, Highmore may be underplaying things a bit too much, especially when standing next to the serpentine Farmiga. This doesn't seem like a show that's going to be reaching for subtlety, so while I respect Highmore's devotion to the mannerisms and attitude Perkins cultivated, he's going to have to bring more of himself to the role if he wants to stay interesting. The few seconds we see Norman enraged (again, the opening may have the best tiny moment where he starts kicking the bathroom door. Just a small indicator of how intense Norman can get) are easily the best parts of Highmore's performance.

My biggest complaint is the reboot aspect of the show. While the Bates family and their immediate surroundings seem perfectly ripped from an America of yesteryear, the show takes place in a timeless present day. Norman has an iPhone and goes to an almost cheesy version of a "high school party." Oooooooo, blacklights! I think the show's creators missed a great opportunity to go fully period with this, and they almost seem to know it. They want to have all the visual trappings of a 40's and 50's aesthetic, but also want to have dopey high school drama to reel in the younger demographic. It does make them less beholden to any sort of continuity, but it also creates this disconnect between Norman's homelife and the outside world. Maybe that's what the creators were going for, but if so, it doesn't work.

There's also a lot of really, really bad dialogue in this first episode. The actors do what they can with it, but most of the lines sound so clunky and forced that it took me completely out of the moment. I hope they have a few writers on board who are proficient just in dialogue, because the show will becoming grating very quickly if I can't even listen to what the characters are saying.

Speaking of characters, it's also a shame that absolutely no one in this episode besides the two leads is remotely interesting. None of Norman's eventual schoolmates (random oxygen-machine girl at the end wins the, "Ha! Okay, then..." award of the show) are anything but two-dimensional, and the one possible foil we're introduced to (the original owner of the motel and house the Bates have bought from the bank) is dispatched almost immediately.

And let's talk about that dispatching for just a moment. If you're this far in, you should be smart enough to realize that there will be spoliers. Consider yourself warned.

The rape of Norma Bates made me hang my head with disappointment. The only reason it even exists is to try and engender the audience with some sort of sympathy towards Norma, who up to this point has been nothing but a controlling and suspiciously malevolent character. We know she had something to do with her husband's death (see: sly and knowing smile) and there have been enough undertones presented to key us in on her likely incestuous feelings toward her son. Up until her rape, there is absolutely no reason to like Norma Bates as a human being. But, she was being enjoyable as a villain. Having to manufacture this kind of base sentiment is lazy writing, and comes off as an attempt to have a "shocker" moment in the pilot. It doesn't help that her rapist is stereotyped as an oily, hairy man-pig, going so far as to tell Norma, "You liked it," right after he's been incapacitated. Her murder of him (while nicely staged and appropriately gooey) doesn't make me sympathize with her. It just makes me wary of what other bad tricks the writers have in store to make us feel something nice towards Norma. I don't want to feel nice about her! I want her to be exactly what she was before the rape: Lady MacBeth in yellow dish-washing gloves.

The other big part of the show (that I purposefully saved for last, since it's the thing I'm least interested in) seems like it's going to be setting up some other serial killer who is tying up women and injecting them with...something. Norman finds a sketchbook underneath the carpet in one of the motel rooms with drawings of girls tied up and being injected with...something. If this is going to be some over-arching mystery for the whole season, my fast-forward button could be getting worn down over the next few weeks. The only interesting place this could go would be Norman finding out who the killer is and somehow bonding with him, sewing the seeds of more sinister behavior to come. If Norman ends up playing the shining knight, I don't know if I can stick around.

Even though there's a lot of misfiring going on in this pilot, there's still enough to stay with the ship. Vera Farmiga alone is honestly worth the price of admission. If Highmore can reach an equally enjoyable performance, then all the silliness surrounding them will be tolerable. I hope Bates Motel has nowhere to go but up. The premise alone is a great one (a motel allows for a plethora of disposable plotlines and interesting guest stars) and the principal characters can be mined for a lot of really fun, dark drama. The show needs to prove it has some teeth, or things will get stale before we see our first shower drain.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The "Terrible" Twos: RoboCop 2

Sequels often get a bad rap. Sometimes, they deserve it. Other times, they may be worth the watch. Having to follow up after a successful film is no easy task. And so, we're here to take a look at movies that were made to do exactly that. Which ones will prove worthy successors, and which will earn the not-so-coveted title of "terrible"?

The Film: RoboCop 2 (1990)

The "Guilty" Parties: Irvin Kershner (director), Frank Miller & Walon Green (screenplay), Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Belinda Bauer, Tom Noonan, Gabriel Damon, Dan O'Herlihy (actors)

The Original's Overview: In the crime-ridden Detroit of the near future, police officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is brutally murdered by a group of thugs, only to be revived by the insidious mega-corporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP) as RoboCop: a cyborg law enforcer. His memories of his past life wiped away, RoboCop helps to stave off the city's criminal element, but soon begins to remember the man he once was and sets out to reclaim his humanity while also seeking revenge on his murderers.

The Sequel's Synopsis: RoboCop is back on duty, now on the warpath against a dangerous designer drug called "Nuke", which is being pushed by a messianic cult figure known as Cain (Tom Noonan). Meanwhile, OCP is trying to replicate their success with the RoboCop program with no luck. Enter the brash and unconventional Dr. Juliette Faxx (Belinda Bauer) who wants to use criminals instead of police officers as the test subjects. And after Cain is heavily wounded by RoboCop, she may have found her perfect candidate...

The Lowdown: It's very hard to argue that RoboCop isn't one of the best efforts to come out of 1980's American cinema (a decade drenched in genre goodness). It's a perfect balance of surface enjoyment (explosions! robots! Kurtwood Smith!), smart social commentary and a truly moving story about what it means to be human. Unfortunately, Paul Verhoeven's American film debut was a property that seemed tailor-made to be sequelized. The toy potentials alone made that clear. It also didn't hurt that the film was well-received both critically and financially. A sequel was set in stone.

And so was spawned RoboCop 2. If you knew nothing about the film other than the major names attached to it, you would be filled with the possibility of seeing something truly great. You have Irvin Kershner in the director's chair (RoboCop 2 would be the final feature he directed), the man who directed The Empire Strikes Back, which is unarguably one of the greatest sequels of all time. On the script side of things, you have radical comic book writer/artist Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns and eventually Sin City) making his screen debut along with a co-writing credit by Walon Green (author of classic films like Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and William Friedkin's Sorcerer). Add together the fact that all the surviving principal actors from the first film were returning and it would seem like the stars would align for a near-perfect sequel.

How can you possibly mess THIS up?

The film starts with a brief news report that sets up two of our storylines right away: cult leader Cain is taking over the streets with a new drug called Nuke, while OCP is forcing the police into a strike by cutting their wages, which in turn is leaving the city in chaos. Considering that this tactic was being employed near the end of the first film, this is a good place for the story to go. However, all the Nuke stuff feels like intense fallout from the Nancy Reagan "Say No to Drugs" era. Coming from Frank Miller, you'd expect this to be parody in the extreme, but it all comes off as woefully earnest throughout the course of the film. Peter Weller even did a PSA as RoboCop for the Boys and Girls Club that reworks a line from the movie into being anti-drugs:

After showing an assault on a weapons vendor, the movie reintroduces us to RoboCop (looking repaired and re-masked since last we saw him) as he foils the bad guys and demands to know where Nuke is being processed. Once he finds the place, we get a good little shoot-out with plenty of squib action to satisfy those film fans who still love old school practical effects. There's even a fun gag where Robo uses his targeting computer to ricochet a bullet off a wall and into the unlucky brain of some goon holding a baby hostage. But, the first mistake of the movie is also introduced in this sequence: A fruity little gangster kid named Hob (who we will rip into later. ...That sounds very, very wrong). When Robo goes to target him, he's unable to fire, leading to Hob's hilariously delivered line, "Can't shoot a kid, can you, fucker?" He then shoots Robo in the head (with a gun ten times too big for a youngling to ever fire), which causes Robo to have flashbacks of his son.

While Hob's character will prove to be the movie's first mistake, this moment and the sequence following it will showcase how the story of RoboCop 2 begins to dismantle itself. The ending of the original film is perfect: RoboCop kills the main villain, and responds to the question, "What's your name?" by simply replying, "Murphy," and cracking a small smile. Roll credits. It solidifies his journey back to becoming human again in such a profound yet understated way. RoboCop 2 seems to suggest that this affirmation of humanity never occurred. Robo has apparently been stalking his former wife in between films, and this is making the OCP brass mighty pissed. They make him state (on film, for legal purposes I guess) that he is not a human, but just a machine. Then, they parade in his wife just so he can blow her off and tell her that her husband is dead. This scene not only undercuts the arc of the first film, but also feels wholly unnecessary since we had just the right amount of narrative closure with Murphy's wife previously. The film never needed to mention her or his past life. He could have just gone on being what he always was: a good police officer. It doesn't help that the movie never returns to her character after this scene. A strange wrap-up to something we didn't need wrapped up.

Now we move on to OCP headquarters, where the mayor of Detroit is meeting with the Old Man (Dan O'Herlihy reprising his role from the original, and still proving as charmingly wicked as ever). It turns out OCP has deliberately undermined the city's credit so that they can purchase Detroit wholesale in order to implement the Delta City idea from the original film. If this had been OCP's only motivation throughout the film, this storyline may have had some meat to it, but it serves only to move other characters (the mayor and the gang villains) into position for some set-pieces down the road. Instead, OCP is also trying to develop another RoboCop (given the acceptably silly moniker of... you guessed it, RoboCop 2) for reasons that are never really made clear within the context of the movie's world. The real reason is so that our hero will have a big baddie to fight when the picture's climax comes around. We do get a darkly comic segment showcasing the failed experiments killing themselves, which are stop-motion animated by one of the great effects wizards, Phil Tippett, who provided the stop-motion effects for ED-209 in RoboCop. All of his effects in RoboCop 2 (especially the final battle) are top-notch and have gloriously withstood the test of time.

"Do you wanna ROBO-PARTY?!?!?"
Now we meet a new character, corrupt cop Duffy, who is supplying Hob with information in exchange for cash and (surprise!) feeding his Nuke addiction. Robo and partner Lewis (Nancy Allen) track them both down to a video arcade, which gives us one of our first groan-inducing lines (Robo asks the kids, "Isn't this a school night?" and is immediately pelted with food and garbage). This is the first inkling that the kid demographic was actually being factored into the making of this movie, and it's a poor decision. Of course kids loved RoboCop, but that doesn't mean they should be weaved into the sequel. And the way they are represented is in this video arcade scene, a bit where a little league baseball team robs a store, and Hob. Hob is played by Gabriel Damon (also known for being in one of the worst Star Trek: TNG episodes) and it always feels bad to dig into child actors, but he is just silly. They try to sell him as a bad guy (even becoming the leader of the gang once Cain is killed) with no redeeming qualities other than being a kid who is in way over his head. Then, when he is actually shot to death near the film's end, he has a "touching" death scene where RoboCop holds his hand as he enters the void. ...What? Why am I supposed to care about this character who has been nothing but shitty the entire movie? He uses peoples' Nuke addiction to get what he wants out of them, and we never learn anything about who he was before he got into the crime business. For a movie that seems to want to get the kids involved in the actual plot, RoboCop 2 does so in the worst ways possible.

After Robo squeezes Duffy for some info (he does actually squeeze Duffy's nose at one point, after knocking him into a few arcade cabinets), he goes to Cain's factory hideout. There are a couple of weird bits of set dressing (a picture of Mother Teresa and... is that the corpse of Elvis?), but it looks like a generic warehouse from any other movie. After a brief exchange between Robo and Cain, the bad guys get the drop on our hero and end up completely dismantling him. This is where the movie goes into nosedive. Not only is our titular character side-lined for a big chunk of the second act, but this is when we realize that RoboCop 2 has no real main character. There are bits with Cain and his gang and Dr. Juliette Faxx (Belinda Bauer), the woman heading up the RoboCop 2 project, but nothing that gives Murphy (or anyone else for that matter) a real arc for us to focus on. Things seem to get back on track when Robo is repaired, but it turns out that Dr. Faxx has sabotaged him by uploading hundreds of new directives written by a focus group including parents, environmentalists and other bleeding hearts. This would seem to be a comment on the detractors of the previous film ("Why can't he do something nice? Why does he have to solve everything with violence?" are two lines spoken by the committee that seem to echo the writers' feelings towards the negative image cultivated by the first movie) and while it's good for a quick jab at the real world, it makes Robo into a happy-go-lucky nice guy that keeps him side-lined for even longer. It doesn't end up being funny like the filmmakers probably intended. It just helps to drag the movie out.

High concept humor at its finest.
Then, Robo just randomly decides to go electrocute himself after one of his scientists buddies says that might help clear out all the new directives. It does, and now, he has nothing holding him back. He has regained his free will. Maybe he'll go after that wife we saw earlier? NOPE! Time to go find Cain and get another action scene in! Cain is meeting with Frank the scientist (Frank Miller in a thankless cameo) and going over some new types of Nuke, when Robo and the cops show up and bust things all to hell. It's worth noting that Tom Noonan does an amiable job as Cain, with what little time he's given on screen. The scene where he tries out a new type of Nuke and comments on how to improve the mixture while feeling the drug's effects is probably the best few seconds he gets in the whole movie. We never get to really know anything about Cain, except that he is a bad guy leader and has a slight messiah complex. There needed to be one scene with just him, establishing who he is and why he is so invested in Nuke on not just a financial level, but a spiritual one as well. He's described as a cultl leader, but you never get that sense. He seems like just another drug dealer who is getting high on his own supply.

Anyway, Robo (I hesitate to call him Murphy since he doesn't seem to care too much about being human in this film) ends up heavily wounding Cain in a bit of vehicular stunt work that is pretty cool. Robo is on a motorcycle and Cain is in a truck and they play chicken, causing Robo to fling himself through the windshield, which makes Cain unable to see and ends up flipping over the truck. This leaves Cain at the mercy of Dr. Juliette Faxx, who volunteers him for the RoboCop 2 project, against his will. The pieces are now in place for our climactic showdown, but the movie still has to slog through a few more setups. Hob now has tons of cash and is blackmailing the mayor into going into business with him so that they can buy Detroit back from OCP. The Old Man catches wind of this and tells Faxx to get rid of the mayor and his criminal cohorts. Now, we get to see Cain as RoboCop 2, and even though the scenes with him aren't narratively satisfying, on a purely visual level, they are the best parts of the film. Phil Tippett's work is the standout performance of the film, and it makes me wish that RoboCop 2 would've popped up much earlier in... RoboCop 2. Ugh.

It's nice to see the brain from Blood Diner still getting work.
Well, after disposing of Hob and the rest of the gang, RoboCop 2 is showcased at an event for the press highlighting the upcoming Delta City project. And wouldn't you know it, the Old Man happens to wave around a big canister of Nuke right in front of everybody. Too bad that Cain/RoboCop 2 still craves the stuff and this sends him off the deep end. Luckily, Robo shows up and the two duke it out. There a few cartoony sound effects and some ridiculous physics at play, but the final fight is still fun to watch, if just from a technical standpoint. The shot of Cain/RoboCop 2 running up an elevator shaft like a cheetah is undeniably cool, and the way Robo dispatches him (jumping on his back and ripping out the brain-stem inside) is goopy enough to enjoy. After Cain's destruction, the denouement of the film is weak and lazy. All the blame is shifted onto Faxx and the Old Man drives away scot-free. Lewis laments this lack of justice, to which Robo replies, "Patience, Lewis. We're only human." Roll credits. There's no real impact from this final line and it only makes us realize that practically no one in the film had any kind of arc whatsoever. Robo is still the same as before and will probably be in the same place we found him at the beginning of this movie when the next one starts up.

There are other things working against the movie. Composer Basil Poledouris doesn't do the score, and the acting composer, Leonard Rosenman, just can't compare. He seems to riff a bit on Poledouris theme, but it never quite gels together. Plus, during the end credits, there is actually a chorus singing the words, "RoboCop!" It's kind of cheesily amusing. It also doesn't help that no one gives any kind of performance worth noting. The first film had everyone giving their A-game, turning in career best performances (I'm sorry, fans of That 70's Show, but Red Forman ain't got shit on Clarence Boddicker), but this film feels very by-the-numbers when it comes to acting. If there had been one truly outstanding part, maybe it would help the film float a little higher towards the surface.

One thing that is nice are the few commercial bits we get interspersed throughout the film. They capture the witty snark from the first film quite well, but that attitude and demeanor just doesn't spread throughout the whole picture.

I'd love to know as much about the behind-the-scenes story of RoboCop 2 as I could, because the end product on the screen feels like a compromised vision (I know Frank Miller's original screenplay was heavily re-written, much to his dismay). While there are small, shining moments of excitement and fun (the bit that opens the film is easily one of the best parts of the whole movie, boosted by a giddy appearance from seasoned character actor John Glover), they can't help elevate the aimlessness of the film's second act or the lack of a real main character. Even though RoboCop is one of my top five favorite films of all time, its sequel is a steep step down from its predecessor.

Worthy Successor, Valiant Misfire or Terrible Two?: While it does manage a spark or two of interest here and there, RoboCop 2 is a big disappointment. Even though there are tiny elements that I enjoy, the big picture just doesn't add up. Sorry, Murphy. Terrible Two

Did Things Get Better?: If you think this is bad, don't even go near the homogenized third film, also made by an awesome director, genre darling Fred Dekker of Monster Squad and Night of the Creeps fame. There were some live action TV shows and cartoons (can't comment on their narrative merits, but the production values look pretty meh) and an upcoming remake that can't possibly live up to the original. Just stick with the first one.

Coming Up Next: Jaws 2, or something you would like! Leave your comments below, or send me a Tweet @drewdietsch88 and I'll take it under consideration. I've got a big list of sequels I want to do, but I'm always looking for more!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Thanks for tunneling through the bowels of the Internet and finding my little blog. As the horrible rhyming title suggests, my name is Drew and I will be using this digital soapbox to...well, review. Primarily, I'll be spouting my thoughts about films (since cinema is my one true love. That and Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink) but I'll take this opportunity to rant, rave and sometimes actually review any media that passes my way. I also plan on having recurring articles, showcasing films I like (or hate, depending on my mood that day) and doing in-depth analyses on certain film franchises and such. For example, the big recurring article I plan on doing will be "The Terrible Twos", which will be a critical look at direct sequels to movies. Expect to see one of those shortly, so I won't have to explain exactly what it is. Otherwise, I hope you find my ridiculous opining a nice diversion from all the depressing wackiness of the real world.