Review: RoboCop (1987)

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RoboCop was one of my first forbidden movie fruits. The initial tantalising peep was during a late night showing on television when the recently deceased police officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) was being brought back to life as the title character. The scene played like a harrowing and realistic depiction of surgery, and the implications were terrifying to me at such at a young age. At the same time, the vivid moments were an all too real shattering of the schoolboy fantasy of wanting to be a robotic police man.

In returning to the picture and reflecting on its thirty-year legacy, it impresses as an important text in illustrating the excesses of America in the 1980s. As an outsider to the culture, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven feels like he is commenting on Americana.

It has been well documented that Verhoeven was satirising over the top violence in American movies with scenes dedicated to people not only being killed but decimated to the point of looking like squashed watermelons. One notable scene has a boardroom executive being repeatedly shot at by a malfunctioning peace keeping machine called Ed-209. The horrifying act eventually becomes comical in its prolonged absurdity as the employee loses all semblance of identity and humanity with the sheer amount of gunfire.

The film is also filled to the brim with amusing commercials. In particular, a recurring one has a man with glasses and bushy brown moustache fooling around with a pair of bimbos and ending each instance with the uproariously delivered catchphrase- “I’d buy that for a dollar.” The adverts represent a wry commentary on the excesses of the Reagan era, whereby overspending was resulting in debt because of people acquiring presumably life changing products.

Verhoeven also sets his sights on the dehumanising effect of corporate culture. Bob Morton’s (Miguel Farrier at his smarmy best) rise to the top in the aftermath of a superior’s failed pitch shows an utter lack of consideration and empathy. When remarking on the bloody death of a colleague, he simply says- “That’s life in the big city.” His creation of the RoboCop program is an attempt to climb the ladder of his company even if it means thinking of his subject in less than human terms. There are many instances where he refers to Murphy as a product and crucially requests for the former cop’s left arm to be surgically removed.

Concurrently, the central corporation OCP (Omni Consumer Products) represents the vicious cycle of business at its worst. They promise and feign noble intentions but in reality their contributions not only create crime, but fan the flames of its continued existence for justification of product. In particular, the second in command Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) backs and funds a ruthless crime leader to justify his Ed-209 machines for urban and eventually military use.

In between the social satire, RoboCop is firmly a grisly resurrection story that in its Philosophical implications posit the soul as a real source of humanity that comes to the fore even in the bleakest of circumstances. In some of the picture’s most powerful moments, Murphy bypasses his programming due to past memories of his family and death that hit the character like an emotional maelstrom.

But in my recent big screen viewing of the picture, the most striking aspect of the film is its small moments that are brimming with irony and humour. Weller’s somewhat robotic line deliveries as Murphy foreshadow his eventual fate, and his twirling gun gesture carries weight when later memories show his son wanting him to copy the gesture from a robotic cop on television.

The sleazy moments also remarkably lend the film with a midnight movie quality that the actors adhere to in their performances. In particular, Kurt Woodsmith injects his atypical character Clarence Boddicker with a disgusting sense of ego, which he illustrates through various vulgar acts. One scene has the character flirting with a receptionist and taking out a piece of chewed gum and attaching it to her name plate and then proceeding to use it as a punchline- “You can keep the gum.”

Finally, the direction is commendable in punctuating the intricacies of its subject matters. Master shots reveal details of the urban decay of the Detroit setting and close-ups make the characters seem like mythical characters out of a Sergio Leone Western. In many ways, the framing reminds the viewer of the way in which movies stir the imagination and portray heightened truth. The Detroit in the picture is a hellish landscape of comic book proportions, but Verhoeven in his satire reaches for the universal conditions of such severe impoverishment, decadence and inhumanity.

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Personal Tribute: George Romero

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Upon reflecting on the recent passing of the revered horror director George Romero, the first thing that comes to mind is the long-standing filmmaker had a social conscience. His creation of the Zombie sub-genre unleashed a Rorschach test of a monster. The lumbering and moaning undead creatures could represent social anxieties, famine, disease and even an extreme illustration of xenophobia. Their persistent relevance meant that they are as timely in our contemporary age as they were in 1968.

At the same time, Romero’s evolution of the creatures was equally fascinating. Starting out as beings with marginal instinct, they soon became entities with vague recollections of their former lives and eventually gained a semblance of empathy and social discernment.

In stark contrast to other movie monsters, Romero’s zombies were akin to docile infants who were slowly rediscovering the harsh realities of the world. Indeed, Romero once quipped “My zombies will never take over the world. The humans are the ones I dislike the most, and they’re where the trouble really lies.”

On a personal level, Romero was a formative director in cementing my love affair with horror cinema. His films illustrated that the genre could hold up a mirror to society and reveal its absurd and malevolent intentions. Moreover, the way in which his satire took various forms and moulded with their ascetics still lingers in my mind. In particular, Dawn of the Dead’s splashy comic book colours of red and green punctuated the inherently goofy and saddening commentary on consumerism.

But his first movie Night of the Living Dead remains a touchstone picture in my mind. While still being an undoubtedly brazen call to arms for independent cinema and perennial favourite of the genre: the movie’s transcendent power derives from the simple idea that the atrocious we commit against our fellow men are far scarier than the flesh hungry monsters who lurk outside our door.

RIP George Romero

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Personal Tribute: Martin Landau

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In all of his performances, Martin Landau effortlessly conveyed the interior life of his characters.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, he plays Leonard, a heavy who assists Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) in his nefarious acts against Roger Thornhill. (Carey Grant) Despite having a limited amount of screen time, Landau imbues his character with a constant sense of fabricated toughness. He sees himself as an extension of Vandamm’s will, so he attempts to look imposing but instead often ends up looking disarming and subtlely feminine. Landau’s choices make Hitchcock’s adventurous yarn of spies and mistaken identity even richer in its thematic depth.

During a pivotal scene from Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours, his character Judah Rosenthal, tells a story to Cliff Stern (Woody Allen) of a murderer who has not been punished in the aftermath of the deed. In reality, Rosenthal committed the crime and is weaving the yarn as a form of cathartic confession. The moment has an intimacy of a spellbinding soliloquy as Landau shifts from genuine astonishment at his predicament to hardened rationality about people living with themselves despite the sins they have committed. Landau’s performance of compelling internal strife earned him an Oscar Nomination.

And in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Landau delivered his finest work as the ageing horror actor Bela Lugosi. Landu’s performance was bold because it showcased the coarse and unsavoury aspects of the character as well as the qualities that made him appealing as a screen presence. Moreover, it adhered to Orson Welles’ conception of acting. Welles contended that great performances depend on the act of revealing: namely the ability of the actor to display parts of themselves that align with the character they are playing.

There is a strong sense that Landau understood Lugosi and his personal frustration with the movie business came through the character in a compelling manner. As he once said, “I felt I knew Lugosi. Like him, I had worked for good directors and terrible directors.” The performance was more than mere imitation but instead a deep-seated exercise in empathy and conjoined emotional states.

RIP Martin Landau

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Review: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

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War for the Planet of the Apes is a bludgeoning film of empty, and meaningless metaphors wrapped up in the clothing of presumed depth. It’s the sort of picture that feigns profundity, but instead, collapses under the weight of its misguided imagery.

Set fifteen years after the outbreak of the plague that wiped out a significant amount of the human population: the narrative depicts Caesar (Andy Serkis) seeking vengeance for the brutal slaughter of his wife and child at the hands of a mythical figure known as The Colonel. (Woody Harrelson) The choice comes at the cost of his tribe who are making a long journey beyond the desert for a new promised land.

Predominantly, the story could be read as a loose adaptation of the Exodus tale. However, the interpretation has little validity because Caesar never feels like a Moses figure and the other facets of the story lack shading. The Ape leader eventually tracks the lionised military figure to a far distant base and finds out that his tribe have been placed under bondage in a labour camp. The Colonel requests the collected group to build a wall.

However, there is never any reason for this demand, and instead, the plot point comes across as an overt post-Trumpian reference without story driven significance, let alone evoking the Exodus. The general problem with War is that its metaphors are empty and do not say anything about the characters in the picture.

There is some Christ imagery in the picture as Caesar is strung to a cross. But it begs the question: what does the character have to atone for? He is just one Ape; his tribe could have easily have been captured with or without him.

Likewise, the American national anthem being played while soldiers beat up and whip a number of the Apes is indicative in suggesting that Slavery has pervaded America’s past. But equating an entire race to the Apes’ plight is too edgy that it ceases to become subversive and instead is objectionable.

Despite all this, there are some undeniably powerful moments in the picture. A confrontation between the Colonial and Caesar in the middle of the film is potent in illustrating the struggle between both figures.

Serkis is particularly striking in his withered stillness that evokes the weight of his revenge filled heart and the burden of the countless years as the leader of his people. Debate rages on about whether or not CGI motion capture work can be considered a performance. As ever, Serkis makes the discussion moot with his impressive acting in this third instalment.

Director Matt Reeves injects the proceedings with a sumptuous grandiosity. With the use of widescreen framing, Reeves portrays sprawling desolation that carries beauty and weight. Though no shot in War compares to the memorable and stirring imagery of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, i.e., the extreme close up of Caesar’s eyes and the 360 degrees shot in the tank.

Crucially, the film is at odds with itself. The title implies a finale soaked in bloody battle, but instead, the picture delivers a belaboured and pretentious skirmish that ultimately feels inconsequential.

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Review: Dunkirk (2017)

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Dunkirk is an audacious and brutalising war picture that shell shocks with a furious invention and skilled cinematic craftsmanship. Told in a triptych structure: the film depicts the Dunkirk evacuation from the perspective of three Spitfire pilots who patrol the skies near the beach clearance area, two young soldiers’ harrowing struggle to survive and a veteran seaman who decides to take his leisure boat to help with the war effort.

Christopher Nolan’s films are like the carefully constructed internal parts of a pocket watch: each piece is meticulously considered for its function and how it fits together to create the edifice of a movie. At the same time, his non-linear narratives impress with their presentations of time and its relationship with cinematic form. With Dunkirk, it feels as though Nolan has taken a hammer to the pocket watch and it has shattered into a thousand pieces. The ensuing effort is fascinating.

Dunkirk’s anarchic and disjointed structure illustrates the chaotic nature of war and its moment to moment uncertainty. Throughout the film, many of the principal characters have a peripheral awareness of the greater machinations that underpin the rescue effort. Consequently, there is a striking immediacy to many of the sequences. Plane engines become sweeping hurricanes of tensions as they swoop over the heads of waiting soldiers and bullet fire is a startling reminder of the foggy and undiscerning nature of the struggle.

Surprisingly, Dunkirk owes a debt to Nolan’s excellent 2008 film, The Dark Knight. In particular, the British director repurposes the moral quandaries of a set piece that was in the third act of that picture. The scene in question involved two ferries: the first has hardened criminals and the second contains a large assortment of civilians. Under a time limit, one of the groups has to trigger the bomb to blow up the other boat otherwise both sets of people die at midnight. In Knight, the situation is a battle for Gotham City’s soul as it decides whether it gives into its worst tendencies to survive.

In Dunkirk, Nolan shows that war brings out the worst aspects of the human condition and the picture has many sequences where our resolve is tested. An especially harrowing scene depicts ugly infighting among a group of soldiers as they are slowly sinking in a ship that has repeatedly been shot at by the German forces. Nolan purposefully makes the soldiers seem similar looking so that most of them give in to the fear of the other as one quiet infinity man is viciously accused of being part of the enemy’s army. The confined paranoia and tension makes the scene an exercise in experiential film-making.

In fact, to call Dunkirk a tour de force of spectacle cinema is to undervalue its real power. The film succeeds more in showing the audience the soul crushing realities of war and in so doing asks us to consider our reactions in such situations. One scene near the end of the film shows an air pilot warning a ship’s captain of incoming danger that could result in the death of his entire crew.

However, the pilot realises that his warning cannot save the lives of an entire battalion who are going to be burnt to death. Nolan portrays this scene with terrifying clarity as a point of view shot from underwater is accentuated with flickers of fire and bullets as many of the British troops look up and discover there is no salvation.

Nolan’s most potent point is that heroism does not necessarily come from survival, but compassion and understanding even in the midst of tragedy. His characters always indulge in a comforting lie that soothes their psyche and soul. In one of the storylines of the picture, this motif is subverted by a man who distorts the truth about a devastating occurrence that has befallen him to alleviate the fears of a broken man who has been permanently scarred by his experiences in the war. The altruistic action speaks to the strength of the picture in understanding its characters’ shaken plights.

Fundamentally, Dunkirk has a genuine emotional truth that both horrifies and enlightens in the same breath.

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Brief Consideration: Dune (1984)

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At a recent 70mm screening of David Lynch’s Dune, the film’s strange power captivated me, in the same manner, as witnessing an exotic dancer who rhythmically struts with utterly reckless abandon. The larger canvas was a fever dream of superimposed imagery, varying from sublime pictorial representations of thoughts to corny and clumsy juxtapositions that belong in a bad eighties music video. More notably, the picture did not seem like the shameful pariah of Lynch’s filmography that it once did in the past.

In between his depiction of warring families for control of a planet and its central resource, (Spice Melange) Lynch’s adaptation has the spirit of Transcendental Mediation coursing through its veins. The main character Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) has many internal thoughts about his mindset and overcoming anxiety and fear to realise self-actualisation and his destiny. In one early scene, he says in the midst of being tested, “I must stop fear. Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that pricks total obliteration.”

Throughout the picture, there is a lot of lip-service given to the effects of Spice Melange, with a particular emphasis on its power to expand consciousness, which helps to fuel Paul’s transformation from man to Messiah. Lynch would never work on this large of a scale ever again, and yet there is a delightful irony to Dune being his most spiritual film. Paul Atreides is a conduit for Lynch to espouse why Transcendental Mediation is an essential tool for the creative process and this aspect being apparent in a work of such compromised vision is nothing short of remarkable.

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Initial Impression: Logan (2017)

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Logan is a Film Noir in Western clothing. The sombre and significant final outing for Hugh Jackman’s interpretation of Wolverine is striking in its evocation of the classical American genre. Rather than existing in a heightened expressionistic world of shadowy silhouettes, morally ambiguous detectives and sexually provocative Femme Fatales: Logan embraces the inherent fatalistic and pessimistic qualities of the genre and transposes them to a radiant and rural West Texas setting. At the same time, the bleak proceedings are injected with a poignant mythical grandeur.

Set in the near future of 2029 where mutant kind is on the precipice of oblivion: the picture depicts an ageing Logan, who escorts a young mutant girl called Laura (played with terrifying savagery by Dafne Keen in her first on-screen performance) to a mythical haven known as Eden. The character of Wolverine has always had a striking versatility. Since his inception, the character has been portrayed as a Rōnin, an archetypical Western gunslinger and contemporary fabled Werewolf.

In Logan, director James Mangold takes the reluctant father representation of the character and fuses it with the Western gunslinger figure. The result is a fascinating, if not flawed interplay that benefits from X-Men comics being a real source of fiction in the movie universe. Throughout, there is a prickly acknowledgement of their fantastical and rosy embellishments of sobering real world truths. In one scene, Logan sternly lectures Laura on the medium’s worth by saying “Maybe a quarter of it happened but not like this. In the real world, people die.”

Logan’s Achilles’ heel comes in its portrayal of violence. While the advent of an R rating means the character can be definitively showcased in all his wild and savage glory; the raw and virtually exhilarating brutality are at odds with the anguished soul of the film. In its more introspective moments, the film wants to be like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. However, it does not understand that picture’s harrowing recitations on violence and myth. In this regard, the picture is not quite a transcendent piece of pop mythology. Instead, it’s an admirably well-crafted film with ambition and touching intimacy.

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