Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)


Robocop

This is one that had passed me by but, with the remake out this year (which I’ve also, so far, missed), it made it on to my “fun easy trash to watch’ list but pleasantly surprised me; yes, it was trashy but it wasn’t just good fun being a little more complex than I at first thought.

I grew up reading 2000AD comic, so was well acquainted with Judge Dredd, and this film clearly takes that template of a robotic uber-cop, pitiless and indestructible, and gives it both an origin story and a pathos. It also lays down plenty of templates of its own, for other sci-fi to draw on later, District 13 being an obvious one to me, taking its basic plot of corrupt developers in league with crooks in a future dystopia. The Robocop’s view of the world is also something that you see in numerous other films and tv shows (though this also borrowed from Terminator, and there is also a repeating section where news and adverts are shown, to give us a vision of this future world, in all its shallowness.

In a future Detroit, the police force is largely being run by OCP, a private company that also has plans for a major development project, yet also seems happy for the criminals to have the upper hand over the police, though there are plans to introduce robot police. One of these, an extremely sinister and martial form of policing, is demonstrated spectacularly unsuccessfully at an OCP board meeting. This failure severely embarrasses the OCP vice president, Dick Jones (Ronny cox) and gives a younger executive, Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) the opportunity to advance his own project and, maybe, to unseat Jones.

Meanwhile, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is a good cop entering a really bad precinct, where he is partnered with Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen, looking particularly 1980s), pretty much a super-cop herself. On their first patrol, they encounter a group of thieves making their getaway and chase them to a warehouse where Murphy is brutally murdered, Lewis unable to help. The criminals get away and, shortly afterwards, the first Robocop appears, his face looking rather familiar.

Over the course of the film, we see the corruption of OCP go far deeper than was immediately apparent (even if we could guess) and the immorality of the very concept of the Robocop, as well as sadness of this particular one, as memories start to return (despite his programming). Weller’s unusual face makes him easy to recognise, rarely having to remove his helmet for us to do so. Some of the effects are pretty ropey, and the end of the movie does descend into standard, maybe sub-par, shoot-em-up fare, actually laughable at times. Still, with its subversive touches and moments of subtlety, this was far better than I’d expected.

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Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata, 1991)


Only Yesterday
Well, this was a novelty. A Ghibli film I didn’t like. Ok, there were parts I liked and parts I hated and, overall, I’m quite ambivalent about it but it’s far and away the weakest one I’ve seen so far, and that’s despite a conceit, and also some scenes, I loved.

The story is set as a schoolteacher, Taeko, in her late twenties travels to her annual summer holiday in the countryside where she works on a farm. As she travels, and then as she works on the farm, memories of her ten-year old self haunt her imagination, manifesting almost as a real presence in her modern life. Some of these are very clear echoes, with thematic links between then and now, but others are more idiosyncratic and cryptic in meaning. The memories of her childhood were the most charming thing about the film, often funny but also insightful, charming and moving. It’s her adult self that’s problematic. As a child, Taeko is feisty, individualistic and bright (though with believable gaps and flaws in her understanding); as an adult, she is a bit ‘thin’, and all too placid. Her friendship, and hesitant romance, with a local farmer is the only drama we see, and that’s all too often side-tracked by some overt preaching about organic farming.

It’s that preachy tone to the film that really grated. There was constant repetition of the mantra of the countryside being better than the city, and of organic being the ‘way forward’ and ‘old ways’ being the answer to all Japan’s problems. Because harking back to a mythical golden age, with simplistic and unworkable solutions is always the answer to the world’s problems! As always with Ghibli films, much of the animation was gorgeous, in this case mostly the landscapes, but the people! There was a repeated attempt to show the unalloyed, simple happiness of the farming community but their smiles were so uniformly and simplistically portrayed as to make them look like gormless automatons.

Most of Ghibli’s films have an environmental consciousness about them, and frequently a message to impart, but no others I’ve seen are so blunt or wrong-headed in delivering it, or willing to screw up the telling of a story as sacrifice to it

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson, 2014)


A terrible mess of a movie. Confused, frenetic, but most of all, dull. How Jackson managed to make a film this bad from the source material he had, and allegedly loves, bewilders me.

I know some of my friends think I can be over-harsh when disappointed, and I’m also open to charges of being a purist, but I really don’t think this is the case here. After the first part of this trilogy, I really wasn’t sure I’d watch any more at all, and I certainly wasn’t going to pay good money to see it, but we have the streaming service and there it sat, waiting…

The first part of Lord of the Rings was a delight, setting up the world of middle-earth with a care that astonished and made me see it through new eyes. From there on, Jackson started changing things, messing the plot around, understandable and absolutely crucial in theory but, in practice, totally (in my opinion) misjudged as the effect was to remove any character from the films, and all subtlety (and, god knows, Tolkein didn’t have that much!) from characters. This was especially difficult in The Two Towers but this movie is much, much worse than that one.

If ever there’s an episode in the book where we might like to linger and look around, Jackson inserts some bogus reason to get the characters running around or fighting in the manner of a really bad video game. If there’s a character’s motive that is at all unclear, Jackson will insert a stilted speech or conversation which gives an unconvincing ‘explanation’ for it. And he deviates far from the book in order to make this drivel ‘work’. It’s as if he is terrified that if the screen stops spinning round for more then ten seconds, or if anything at all is unexplained, the audience will wander off. The perverse result of this hyperactive stupidity was to make the moments when the film did catch my attention rare, my mind wandering to more interesting places, like whether I’d received any emails, for most of the ridiculously long run-time.

I’ve not given the plot; what’s the point? Read the book (it’ll take an hour) and overdose on energy drinks. You’ll get the idea.

Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014)


Godzilla
A couple of notes. I only half-watched the various child-friendly Godzilla films as a child, and only properly watched the original 1954 movie recently. I also have not watched Edwards’ previous film, Monsters, so had no idea of his style but, buoyed by the reviews that referred to the film having a human interest, and yet still wary that some have said there’s “not enough monster” and that it tends towards the boring, I watched this version with guarded optimism. But, to that second group, I say PIGSWILL!. There is exactly the right amount of monster. Just like Jaws (referenced by the surname of the father and son monster hunters, Brody) or Alien, Edwards lets us get to know the human protagonists properly, while regularly giving us enough signs of the monsters to build up a sense of menace.

Then, when the monsters are finally revealed, we have both a sense of peril for our human characters and a sense of scale of the monsters, which is kept up by constantly showing the monsters’ fighting from the perspective of bystanders, usually named characters. Without this perspective, we’d just have a big-budget recreation of the Beastie Boys’ video for Intergalactic.

The film does take a while to establish the threat, starting with Brody Snr (Bryan Cranston) present but unable to prevent a nuclear disaster in Japan in which his wife dies, and scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) investigating a mysterious cave in the Philippines, where uranium miners have just experienced a cave-in and discovered some strange remains. This latter scene has all the menace that the discovery of alien remains in Alien had, and that Prometheus should have had, but didn’t. The action then switches to fifteen years later, with Brody Jnr returning to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) from bomb-disposal military service in the middle-east, only to find that his father has been arrested for trespass in Japan, trying to investigate the mysterious circumstances of that previous disaster. Gradually, we see the conspiracy of silence unravel as monsters from the deep awaken and all of humanity is threatened with extinction.

From the opening credits onwards, there is a great attention to detail and obvious love of the Godzilla film inheritance that gives it a really warm feeling, even as cities are crushed and people flee in terror. The film is by no means flawless, some tremendous actors not really having a great deal to do (though doing it well!) and the plot over-dependent on coincidence and characters’ lucky guessing, but I still enjoyed it tremendously. Not only does this wipe the floor with the 1998 effort, but it reboots the franchise, reestablishing the idea of Godzilla as humanity’s, somewhat heavy handed, friend.

Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)


grand budapest hotel

Ok, I like Wes Anderson films. You have to have a certain tolerance for whimsy, and bring a bit of goodwill so that his flights of fancy don’t infuriate, but his films have a certain quality of – and I can’t think of a better term – likeability to them. He creates a world that is like a luridly coloured, eccentric and slightly off-kilter reflection of our own in which it is enjoyable to spend a little time.

I can see, however, that if you don’t make that initial decision to go with them, his films could utterly alienate and repel.

So, to this one. Set in a hotel in a generic central/Eastern European country, the action takes place over three time periods. Opening in modern times, a writer (Tom Wilkinson) starts to recount how the story came to him. Then, in a communist-ruled 1960s period, his younger self (Jude Law) is staying in the now run-down hotel and encounters the proprietor, Zero Moustafa (F Murray Abraham), who now begins to recount his story*. This last period (in which the young Zero is now played by Tony Revolori) is where the bulk of the action takes place, as Zero recounts his 1930s education as a bell-boy at the Grand in its heyday, under the instruction of its concierge, Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), and their adventures and friendship as Gustave inherits a valuable painting from one of the elderly dowagers he beds (they visit the hotel specifically for his attentions). Trying to navigate both the enmity of her sinister family and the onset of war, the film has a few intimations of a darker sensibility than is usually evident in Anderson films, even amidst the whimsy.

Packed full of stars, many of whom are Anderson stalwarts (Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson and, of course, Bill Murray), and many of whom make only fleeting appearances, there is much fun to be had, though the inevitable ‘cartoon-style’ high speed chase sequence left me cold, as they always tend to do.

(*edit – I actually missed a level – the film opens with a girl putting a memento on the memorial to Tom Wilkinson’s author, now dead, while carrying a copy of one of his books and then cuts to his starting to tell his tale. This is a story within a story within a story withing a story!)

Anna M (Michel Spinosa, 2007)


Anna M
This opens with a young, pretty archivist, Anna (Isabelle Carré) taking her dog for a walk, tying the dog to a tree and stepping out in front of a car.

Waking in hospital, she has been treated for her leg injuries but it seems that no one has realised this was a suicide attempt. Very quickly, she becomes obsessed with her kindly surgeon, André Zanevsky (Gilbert Melki) and begins to stalk him.

There is a wonderfully creepy atmosphere built as I didn’t know who to feel more scared for, the clearly unwell and delusional Anna or the well meaning but out of his depth Dr Zanevsky, and this felt like it was a realistic depiction of obsessional behaviour (whether it was or not, I really don’t know). About halfway through the film, Anna’s behaviour became more overtly sinister but this, oddly, made the film less scary as it started to look more like a more traditional ‘Hollywood-ised’ stalker film. Thinking I knew where it was going, I disengaged with the film and prepared for the routine build up to a violent and bloody confrontation.

It didn’t go there. It completely surprised me and went somewhere much more interesting instead, and ended with one of the most intriguing ambiguous endings I’ve seen for a while. It also played out the final scene with a beautiful musical track I had to immediately look up and buy (Stay Golden, by Au Revoir Simone.

Star Trek Into Darkness (JJ Abrams, 2013)


Star Trek Into Darkness

Ok, to start with an admission: I’m a bit of a Trekkie. Not hardcore, not obsessive, but I like and watched the original series and The Next Generation all the way through, even the crappy episodes, and can happily rewatch the good ones repeatedly. I watched most of Deep Space Nine and Voyager, though gave up as they trashed the legacy with Enterprise.

Kirk (Chris Pine) breaks the prime directive and loses his captaincy but regains it after an attack by a mysterious figure from Starfleet called John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Investigating further, Kirk uncovers a plot to undermine Starfleet from within… Sorry, I can’t really be bothered with a precis of the plot. Suffice to say: crash, bang, bang, bigger bang, more bangs, etc… The cast do their best (Cumberbatch, unsurprisingly, is excellent) but this is only really of interest to people who like their films loud and fast.

The films have been pretty disappointing, by and large, only Wrath of Khan and First Contact really standing out for me. Abrams’ reboot of 2009 was a film of two halves; the first being an imaginative and engaging new start to an old story, the second being an unimaginative and brainless actioner unworthy of the franchise. I understand that Lost had a repution for an outstandingly bad finish so wonder if Abrams is simply incapable of completing anything well. This second Star Trek film had a repution for being ‘for the fans’ and being a bit more intelligent, if still at 100mph, so I went in cautiously optimistic.

Hmmm.

The experience was pleasurable enough at the time but I find myself disliking it the longer time has passed. Like Prometheus, this film is let down by rampaging stupidity; stupidity that undercuts the raison d’etre for the film and all the claims it makes.

There are dozens of minor quibbles – why does the Enterprise have to start the film underwater? why does Spock need to go into the volcano to set off a bomb? Do the filmmakers really think cold fusion freezes things? But there are bigger problems, too. One of the weakest films prior to this one, Insurrection, couldn’t decide on its ending, adding one crisis after another, seemingly lacking conviction in the sufficiency of the previous one. If anything, Into Darkness, is at least as bad for this, having an extended sequence that should be the climax superseded by another one that is even more long-drawn-out and then that’s not the end either. I simply lost interest.

There is also a suggestion that this film is “for the fans” but clumsy references to other films, often embarrassingly obvious, are only going to satisfy the most easily pleased of fans. Where Star Trek got its reputation, and its large and devoted fan-base, was in intelligent and unashamedly discursive and intellectual storytelling. All of the films, to a lesser or greater extent, have suffered from having to appeal to a mass cinema audience, people who know very little of the backstory or mythos of the Star Trek Universe, while keeping on board the diehard fans whose opinion, if mobilised, could create such a bad buzz as to kill the film. This current film, made by someone who has admitted to having no interest in the TV series or previous films, is not made to please the fans; it’s a film made in fear of them, but made to appeal to an entirely different audience.

Now Abrams has the Star Wars gig, one that he genuinely cares about, perhaps he can make a film that is genuinely for the fans; this isn’t it.

District 13: Ultimatum (Patrick Alessandrin, 2009)


District 13 Ultimatum
Or, since it’s a French film, Banlieu 13: Ultimatum, if you prefer.  This is a follow-up to 2004’s District 13, in which the two leads, a cop, Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli) and a small-time crook, Leito (David Belle), put aside their differences and work together to prevent a dirty bomb from being launched in the eponymous district, which is a dystopian ghetto, walled-off from ‘civilized’ Paris and left to become a mire of crime-controlled poverty.  At the end of the film, promises are made that the wall will come down and the district will be re-integrated into wider society.

So (surprise, surprise), at the beginning of this film, nothing much has changed.  If anything, the crime is worse, with the gangs fractured along ethnic lines into armed camps led by ‘warlords’.  The Defence chief and head of a special crime unit corruptly conspire with a building firm (rather obviously named “Harriburton”) to manufacture a crisis in District 13 so that they can justify utterly destroying it and offering the real estate for luxury development.  It is up to Damien and Leito, now friends, to come together again and save the day.

The first film was good, brainless fun, a thrill-ride of magnificent chase scenes, loosely held together by a pretty silly premise and plot.  The leads players in this film are acclaimed stunt-men, leading lights in the world of ‘parkour’ and, if you see a film in which a chase scene involves incredible and adrenaline-boosting bouncing up, down and over buildings, chances are that one or both of them are involved, since there are not many people who can do this.  Luc Besson wrote or co-wrote both films, which is not a recommendation for depth, since Besson is really only good for flashy fun films.  Unfortunately, this follow-up film seems to be trying to make a more ‘political’ point and it is pretty damn clunky when it does so.

There are still some fantastic chase scenes and some wonderfully choreographed fight scenes, even if they’re no more realistic than the fight scenes from The Matrix.  The problem is that everything between the fighting and chasing is boring, lucicrous or both – and there isn’t enough fighting and chasing to keep your mind off the dull absurdities of the plot.

I’d recommend watching the first but skip this one – it adds nothing.

Lloyd Cole, Harrogate Theatre 10th July 2012


Lloyd Cole
To the rather lovely (and surprisingly spacious, given its frontage) Harrogate Theatre to see 1980s indie-darling, Lloyd Cole. Sporting a rather unfortunate moustache, greying hair and carrying a little more weight these days, he was supported by his son William, looking more like the young Lloyd than Lloyd himself now does. Cole’s first three albums, as Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, were pretty big on the indie scene but, once Cole relocated to the US and released albums as a solo artist, he pretty much disappeared from UK airplay. He’s understandably a little sensitive about this, as his comment “those of you who’ve followed me since 1985…” shows. His post-Commotions work, with the exception of 2006’s Antidepressant, probably isn’t quite up to the standard he’d set in those first three albums, but each of the remaining albums has moments and all of the albums are at least pretty good – just not quite so memorably catchy overall.

Here tonight, Lloyd (and William) provided acoustic versions of songs from throughout his career, and included a song to be included on his next album due next year. The songs from his Commotions days get a little reworking, so that they work with just two guitars, and William takes the lead guitar role throughout, also joining in on occasional vocals, and they alternate vocals on a cover of the Velvet Underground’s Pale Blue Eyes. The mood of the gig is indulgent and warm (too indulgent in the case of one pisshead who was overly enthusiastic each time he recognised a song, sang along loudly to one song and had to crawl up the steps midway through the first half to get out of the theatre, either to replenish his lager or to empty the previous ones).

There is no warm up act, with Cole taking an interval midway through. This catches out many of the audience who have timed their arrival to see only the second, “main”, half. Consequently, the first half is not performed in front of a very full auditorium, and is disturbed frequently by people finding their seats. This isn’t too much of a problem as Lloyd doesn’t seem phased or insulted by the (fairly low-key) disturbances in the audience. There are frequent changes of guitar, and tunings, between songs but this doesn’t take too long, Lloyd chats to the audience and explains that, with only two guitars providing instrumental support, they have to take more than normal pains to ensure they remain in tune, so the gaps aren’t irritating. Lloyd is not the most chatty of frontmen, but he appeared affable and relaxed and there was a real charm in the evening.

It’s the earlier work, as is to be expected, that usually gets the best response but the fairly heavy representation from 2010’s Broken Record, the last record to have been released, drives me back to play the CD again and it impresses me more on each listen.

Wild Bill (Dexter Fletcher, 2010)


Wild Bill

Is it just me, or is the UK releasing a good number of decent, small and (most of all) interesting films at the moment? This debut film features Charlie Creed-Miles as the eponymous Bill, a small-time drug dealer and thug who has just finished a prison sentence and returns to his grotty London flat to find that his partner has run off to Spain leaving their two children to fend for themselves. They’re not pleased to see him, particularly the elder, Dean (Will Poulter), a fifteen year old who has been working in the black economy as a builder to keep him and his younger brother Jimmy (Sammy Williams) out of care, but who is now on the social services map due to Bill’s appearance.

Bill, who was previously known as “Wild Bill” for his extreme violence, has been changed by his prison experience and is determined to go straight and keep out of trouble. Whilst his erstwhile companions want him to rejoin their crew and give him some drugs and ply him with drink, depositing him unconscious with Dean and Jimmy, the police are going to put him back inside if he associates with them. Bill is caught in a dilemma, which he intends resolving by going to Scotland to work the oil rigs – but is blackmailed into staying and playing “happy families” until the social services are diverted away from Dean and Jimmy.

Bill’s old friend Terry, who now leads the local dealers, is not happy that Bill is going straight and takes the opportunity of recruiting young Jimmy into dealing. A “Clint Eastwood” style showdown is obviously coming but, since even Clint doesn’t always make it to the end of his films these days, it’s far from clear that Bill will win.

There is a lovely transformation throughout the film, as reluctant father and sons come to care for one another, not in a saccharine way, but in a manner fairly believable and I was entertained and engaged throughout. Nice little film.