Film of the Week: Robocop (1987)

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Paul Verhoeven directs Peter Weller, Nancy Allen and Kurtwood Smith in this dystopian action satire about a corporation who use a dead cop’s remains to be the software in their superhuman cybernetic replacement for the police force they own. 

I was way too young to know what hard candy I was tasting when I first watched Robocop. All I know is I loved every shot of it. Still do. Verehoeven has baked it so packed with hot and spicy ingredients, there ain’t nothing sweet about this renegade Hollywood confection. When people make big whoop about Deadpool and Logan being R-Rated, they forget how tame they are next to this full on sensibility shaker. The free flowing satire dominates as accurate spoof news updates, blasé commercials for apocalyptic products and the very nadir of sitcoms interject themselves into the main thrust of the near pornographic comic book sci-fi hair-raiser you’ve bought a ticket for. The corporate machinations (the most chilling throwaway line comes from charming Miguel Ferrer’s suit when he casually pitches they are putting top cops out in the streets to die to get an appropriate guinea pig; “we restructured the police force to place prime candidates according to risk factor…” That’s some cold shit!) sit comfortably next a rapist having his crotch blown off or a stooge being turned mutant after they crash into toxic waste. The action is sophisticated and nasty, so are the brute capitalist politics of this near future. Check out those practical effects work; the terrifying ED-209s (except when they fall down stairs and have a mecha-tantrum), the Frankenstein’s monster that is Murphy himself. Check out those villians; Kurtwood Smith out Nicholson’s Jack himself as Clarence Boddicker, Ronny Cox is the embodiment of old white male privilege as oily corrupt Vice President Dick Jones. Check out that loco dialogue; “Can you fly, Bobby?” “Oooh. Guns, guns, guns! C’mon, Sal! The Tigers are playing…” OK so it pretty much all is ripped off from 2000AD in general and Judge Dredd in particular but no straight adaptation of Dredd ever got a score quite as perfectly hummable as Basil Poledouris propulsive classic. And there’s a haunting melancholy to it all. Not just when Murphy starts to regain his memories but that defeatist moment when he looks at the full horror of what he has been converted into in a broken shard of mirror and just sits on an abandoned sofa like a middle aged man reading his divorce papers, choking on his lot and staring blankly off into the middle distance. Heartbreaking stuff from Weller… if you fancy a bit of heartbreaking between your bullet heavy, coke factory raids and your neck gougings. I’D BUY THAT FOR A DOLLAR!

10

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Black Book (2006)

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Paul Verhoeven directs Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch and Thom Hoffman in this wartime thriller about Jewish refugee who joins the Dutch resistance to find who sold her family out to the Nazis for profit. 

Verehoven Week continues (And what a week it has been!) with his late in the day comeback from Hollywood ennui. An utterly gripping period espionage thriller where no one can be trusted. Verehoven uses his morally bankrupt eye to keep it all incredibly taut (if anything the movie surpringly moves up another gripping notch once all scores seem settled and peacetime comes. Suddenly everyone; Nazi, spy, profiteer – is scrabbling for the final upper hand in some brilliantly grim set pieces) and marries the period detail with his usual love of blood, fucking and profanity convincingly. Carice van Houten is incendiary as the innocent who uses her burgeoning wile and sexual guile to bring all her betrayers to justice. Every scene from bedsheets to train journey to toilet break, she conveys heady risk and keen strategy to survive, while always keeping her humanity and internalised disgust at who she has to rub shoulders with bottled up. Based on her trailblazing breakout role here, she’s been really wasted as the pagan T&A in Game of Thrones. Koch is also impressive as the good German she falls for. This stands out as the first Verehoeven film since Robocop where you get the feeling he sees his characters as humans rather than avatars, constructs he has some affection for, rather than pieces to throw into chaos for satirical and bellicose ends. It makes for a more rewardingly mature cinematic experience.

9

Total Recall (1990)

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Paul Verhoeven directs Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside in this hyper violent science fiction actioner about a construction worker who discovers his mind has been wiped and he is really a secret agent who is the only person who can liberate the planet Mars. Or is he?

Well… It is not Blade Runner, is it? Where as that sci fi classic was densely philosophical, crafted with care and adventurously expanded on its sophisticated Philip K Dick source material, Verehoven is quite happy here to just plunder the basic paranoid concept and build a rollercoaster ride of tits, gore and snappy one liners around it. The central mystery of whether Arnie is experiencing reality or that his lurid adventures are all in his lobotomised head is left credibly open, but that is merely smartly done rather than intelligently handled. A rorschach test for the viewer once they have calmed a little down off of the bloody squib high that the movie mainlines right into you. Let’s not pretend this any deeper than a film where a little person whore picks up a machine gun in a mining brothel and unleashes hell. Arnie conveys confused and angry really well. He’s truly mastered the snappy comeback at this point too (“Consider that a divorce!” “See you at the party, Richter!” WOO HOO, BABY!). Perfect big name cannon fodder meets top notch SFX. Slight criticisms: the action is a bit haphazard, the set design of Mars seems noticeably cheap compared to all the other quality satirical future world building in the first and last act. Who cares? By the time the trip is over, you get the girl, kill the bad guys, and save the entire planet. And a just before stardom Stone as Arnie’s untrustworthy wife absolutely rocks.

9

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

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Jacques Demy directs Catherine Deneuve, Anne Vernon and Nino Castelnuovo in this bittersweet musical about a young French couple who compromise their puppy love when financial worries, pregnancy and the draft for the Algerian war intrude on their happiness.  

This DVD has sat in its cellophane wrapper from roughly since when I first bought a multi region player back in the early 00s. Thanks to Damien Chazelle citing it as an influence on the wondrous LaLa Land I finally tore that packaging off and gave it a chance. You can see the shared DNA between both musicals but Umbrellas is the more ambitious, if less emotionally gratifying movie. Essentially a kitchen sink drama with every line of dialogue sung to cover up or amplify the emotions being played with (sometimes even mocking them). Like LaLa Land, if you are young girl who likes happy endings, then this can eventually feel like a cruel trick by “FIN”. To make such an initially jaunty, poppy experience reach such a real destination will grate with many. Adults know sadness and regrets frame the good things in life though, holds our nicer emotions in place and gives them a point of reference. In fact what starts out as an achingly colourful movie (every frame in the first act could be from Golden Era MGM), slowly fades to white as the characters mature. The burning pinks and pastel blues of the central location, an umbrella shop, become a white walled laundrette by close. The final chance encounter by the leads takes place at a snow covered Esso station – so bleak and so blank compared to the kaleidoscope opening. We watch the brightness fade from their lives as they settle for a modicum of happiness apart. The normally brilliant Deneuve isn’t particularly stretched by her naïf though she looks stunning as always, but the more complex work by Anne Vernon, as the forthright but equally caring mother, stays in the memory the most once the DVD is popped back in its pile. Lovely stuff.

8

 

Bronco Billy (1980)

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Clint Eastwood directs himself, Sondra Locke and Geoffrey Lewis in this gentle comedy about an ailing Wild West show that unwittingly picks up a rich heiress to be their sharp shooting leader’s stage assistant. 

Undemanding fun. Clint shares a few platitudes about identity being what you want it to be and the shifting sands of the ticket buying public’s tastes but in the main this is quite happy being an purely episodic and laconic screwball romantic comedy. It is more in love with the rootin’ and tootin’ than the female lead and the wry comedy never really does more than raise a smile but that’s all by the by. A consistent  joie de vivre between the bunch of Clint stalwarts who pad out the cast make it all very, very watchable.

6

Arabian Nights (1942)

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John Rawlings directs Maria Montez, Sabu and Jon Hall in this golden age Hollywood adventure where Scheherazade, Sinbad, Aladdin and an acrobat help Baghdad’s real caliph dethrone his bad brother.

If you can’t handle half the cast in brown face, the other half not even bothering then this really, really isn’t the flick for you. If on the other hand you can stomach a bunch of old Jewish entertainers doing music hall knockabout schtick while praising Allah every other sentence then there’s tons to enjoy. Sabu handles the action and the smarts, the honkies the romance. It all moves along with magisterial epic sweep and looks appropriately fantastic and to scale. As Sunday afternoon, boldly technicolor adventures go, this has charm and romp in spades. Dated bad taste aside, I loved it.

9

Running Scared (1986)

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Peter Hyams directs Gregory Hines, Billy Crystal and Jimmy Smits in this buddy cop comedy about two wise cracking cops working out their last 30 days before early retirement and losing their edge now they can see the finish line, despite some very dangerous enemies made over their careers. 

Clearly written for two far older movie stars, it is lottery win lucky whomever the first choices who turned this script down were turned it down. Crystal and Hines’ chemistry is magical… so much so that the highlight of the movie is when we literally go on a five montage sequence of their holiday to Florida in the middle. That’s right, five minutes of them on roller skates and scooters chasing girls in bikinis is the highlight of a cop movie. Aside from this, Running Scared is a very average movie – the plot scattershot, the romances begrudgingly bolted on with Pritt Stick and the set pieces way, way too sitcommy to thrill. Every time I watch it, I realise how waferthin it all is. A week later the good vibes created by its leads are all that linger and I want to do it all again. It doesn’t really deserve a 7 score, but I’ve worked along the lines that I score Beverly Hills Cop a 10 so have counted down from that accordingly. If you think Axel Foley’s first adventure with its kickass soundtrack and amazing bantz is merely average than by any equation Running Scared is not the movie for you.

7

Ip Man (2008)

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Wilson Yip directs Donnie Yen, Simon Yam and Lynn Hung in this Kung fu biopic of WWII years of the man who later  trained Bruce Lee in the art of Wing Chun. 

As a lesson in historical accuracy you wouldn’t want to wander into an exam after watching this but as a martial arts movie it is classy and engaging. Strongly choreographed fights and the wickedly likeable Donnie Yen front and centre. What more could you want really?

7

Personal Shopper (2016)

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Olivier Assayas directs Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger and Sigrid Bouaziz in this art house thriller about a young woman in Paris waiting for a message from the beyond from her deceased twin brother, funding her time in limbo by choosing fashion wear for a spoilt star. 

A movie seemingly made in freefall. It grabs onto anything it can catch a hold of without properly grasping onto anything tangible. The supernatural subplot is more fruitful than the mysterious stalker noir narrative crowbarred into the middle. If you ever wondered what a Hitchcock movie might look like if his cattle had access to text, Skype, YouTube and Wikipedia then you get a glimpse here. It all adds up to nothing in the end, but a very decorative, hauntingly beautiful nothing. And Stewart really carries the whole thing, no matter how daft or convoluted it unravels. She’s always been the prettiest of the current batch of movie stars; grungy yet willowy, coy yet openly sexual, but she admirably appears to be committed to only working with challenging directors these days. Woody Allen got the best out of her so far in Cafe Society last year, but on the strength of her making this pretentious piece of fannying about quite watchable I’d wager she may turn out to be her generations Johnny Depp. More than an angelic face, as long as she dodges descending into self parody when she hits middle age / accidental franchise, I’d happily buy a ticket to just about whatever she makes from now on.

6

Get Out (2017)

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Jordan Peele directs Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams and Bradley Whitford in this horror about a black man who suspects something sinister when he visits his white girlfriend’s family home, which also doubles up as a razor sharp satire.

An intriguing corker this. As an exercise in paranoid thrills it tightens its noose with a Polanski level of perfection. And given its confident genre trappings it still marries its entertainment concerns with some very truthfully awkward interaction between its black and white characters, making sophisticated assessments on the current racial climate in America. Kaluuya shines (British audiences will remember him as tubby Tealeaf in BBC’s Psychoville though he has matured almost unrecognisably since), striking the right balance of intelligence and social discomfort. It stumbles just a little at the end, the ensuing violence once the trap is sprung is a little tame for horror aficionados. But it has the added palpable frisson as our hero fights for his very survival, that as a young black man covered in white folks blood, if the police do turn up, it certainly won’t be to rescue him. Smartly played, possibly the most important and engaging piece of African American cinema since Spike Lee’s heyday.

8